Love letters from Ancient Greece

Oftentimes success is linked to mere unexpected factors, sometimes these happen to be quite trivial circumstances far away from your remotest aims and plans. This is most certainly the case of “Love Letters of Great Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day”, a volume edited by C. H. Charles Ph. D. and published in London in 1924, which features love epistles by Madame Recamier, Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin (a.k.a. George Sand), Marie Bashkirtseff, Benjamin Constant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alfred de Musset, William Congreve, Horace Walpole, Multatuli, Lord Nelson’s Lady Hamilton, dandy Beau Brummell, Guy de Maupassant, Stendhal, Camille Desmoulins, Madame de Stael, Esther Vanhomrigh, Duke of Choiseul. This rather vast and various harvest has been just recently exhumed and presented to the attention of the greater – and rather consumerism-oriented – public who is literally devouring this new paperback edition. I leave to my readers’ personal judgment as whether it really matters or not that it was “Carrie Bradshaw” (and her “Mr. Big”) to arouse this unforeseen interest: I do favour any endeavour, whichever is its source, intended to awake attention towards good writings.

On the other hand I presume that what the greater public is most likely not entirely aware of is that the writing and publication for entertainment purposes of real/fictitious letters of famed characters was already highly popular – almost a fashionable genre – in I and II century A.D.; and consequently involving brilliant authors like Lucian (Lucianus) of Samosata (Λουκιανός ο Σαμοσατεύς) a renowned orator, one of the earliest novelist ever and a true master in fictional narrative, Aristaenetus a very famous epistolographer and Alciphron (Αλκίφρων), a sophist and unparalleled fiction letter writer. Of this latter in particular we have circa 120 letters clustered by senders/addressees and namely gathering imaginary correspondence between fishermen, peasants, courtesans and parasites. All the letters have the IV century b.C. Athens (and its outskirts and countryside) as scenario, are written in pure Attic dialect, and portray various situations with sometimes ironic, mocking or funny tones, as well as a few times also shade some sorrowful, moving and passionate tenor – often the fiction involves real characters of that age.

When it comes to the theme of love, Alciphron presents us with marvellous examples of Attic prose and expression of feelings, which nowadays we may without much hesitation call romantic, in particular the fictitious correspondence between Menander (Μένανδρος), the most famous playwright of 4th century B.C. (originator of the New Comedy) and his lover Glycera. The preamble is that Menander was invited by Ptolemy Soter (or Lagus) King of Egypt, founder of the library and school of Alexandria – together with his rival play writer Philemon – where endless success and great riches were promised to both of them, but:


“By the Eleusinian goddesses and their mysteries, by which I have often sworn with you only, dear Glycera, I swear that, in making this avowal in writing, I have neither desire to praise myself nor to divide from you.

What happiness could I benefit from staying apart from you? In what could I take more contentment than in your love? Thanks to your tenderness and good character, even true old age shall seem youth to me. Let us be both young and then old together, and, by the gods, when time comes let us be together in death, without even realising that we are leaving this world; may jealousy never be buried with either of us into the grave, may never one survivor enjoy any other’s love. May it never be my misfortune to see you die before me; for then, what delight would be left for me?

I am presently staying in Piraeus due to my ill-health… and the reasons which have persuaded me to write to you, while you are staying in the city for the sacred festival of Demeter, the Haloa, are the following: I have received a letter from Ptolemy, King of Egypt, in which he beseeches me, promising me right regally all the good things of the world, and invites me to visit him, together with Philemon, to whom also, they say, a letter has been sent. In fact, Philemon has sent it on to me: it is to the same effect as mine, but not so ceremonious or splendid in the promises it holds out, since it is not written to Menander. Let him think about and contemplate what he wishes to do; but I will not wait for his opinion, for you, my Glycera, are my guidance, my Areopagus, my Heliaea, by Athena, you have ever been, and shall ever be my all.

So I am sending you the King’s letter; but, in order to prevent you from going through the reading of both my letter and his, I wish you also to know what reply I have determined to formulate to it. By the twelve great gods, I could not even consider sailing to Egypt, a realm so far remote from us; but, not even if Egypt was as close as Aegina. I could not even then dream of leaving my kingdom of your love, and the wandering alone in the middle of the busy inhabitants of Egypt, in a crowded desert, as it would seem to me without my Glycera. I prefer your hugs, which are sweeter and less dangerous than the special treatment of all the kings and satraps. Loss of freedom is loss of safety; flattery is shameful: the favours of Fortune are not to be trusted.

I swear it by Dionysus and his ivy-wreaths, with which I would rather be crowned, in the presence of my Glycera seated in the theatre, than with all the diadems of Ptolemy.

Shall I leave Glycera and move to Egypt? And to what purpose? To obtain gold and silver and other riches? And with whom am I to share my pleasure in it? With Glycera away from me separated by such a wide and dangerous sea? Won’t all this be plain poverty to me without her? And should I hear that she has entrusted her love to someone else, will not all these possessions be to me no more than dust and ashes? And, when I die, shall I not carry away with me my grief to the grave, and leave all my treasures a prey to those who are ever waiting to grab hold of them?

Is it so great an honour to live with Ptolemy and his satraps and others with like idle names, whose familiarity is not to be trusted, and whose enmity is perilous? If Glycera is irritated with me, I embrace her in my arms and snatch a kiss; if she is still angry, I press her further, and, if she is still resentful or rancorous, I shed tears; then she can no longer resist my grief, but beseeches me in her turn; because she has neither soldiers, nor lancer, nor guards, but I am all in all to her.

So let Philemon go to Egypt and have the benefit of the joy that is promised to me, because Philemon has no Glycera; perhaps he is not even worthy of such a blessing. And do you, my dear Glycera, I implore you, without delay after the Haloan celebrations, get on your mule and run to me, because I have never known a festival that seemed to last longer, or one more inopportune. Demeter: I beseech your favours!”

Thus starting from the real plead of the Egyptian King and Mecenate Ptolemy, confirmed by (Caius Plinius Secundus) Pliny the Elder, who reported it in his Naturalis Historia:

magnum et Menandro in comico socco testimonium regum Aegypti et Macedoniae contigit classe et per legatos petito, maius ex ipso, regiae fortunae praelata litterarum conscientia”.

[A strong testimony, too, was given to the merit of Menander, the famous comic poet, by the kings of Egypt and Macedonia, in sending to him a fleet and an embassy; though, what was still more honourable to him, he preferred enjoying the converse of his literary pursuits to the favour of kings].

and just like any modern fiction writer – by the way it is worth to reveal that Pliny does not mention anything about the invitation to Egypt extended also to Philemon, which is probably a fiction escamotage smartly used by the author to have him as an anti-hero… – Alciphron imagines and composes this correspondence between the two lovers that, apparently, no distance, prospect success or promised riches can tear apart because they decide together about their nest and consequent future.

Such an interesting key to read the correlation between love and distances as well as the changing of perspectives under different moods, very much resembling the love letters exchanged between Lord Byron and Teresa Guiccioli, namely soon after they fell in love:

“This Venice, without flowers, without trees, without perfumes, without birds, that I never liked before, with her depressing gondolas instead of my horse-carriage now seems to me the dwelling of life and lights, like heaven on earth”. Teresa

and before him departing for Greece:

“In that word, marvellous in every language, but above them all in yours – Amor mio – there lies my entire existence, now and from now onward. I feel I exist here and I am afraid here I shall exist in the future – to which purpose you will decide: my destiny depends upon you… think about me sometimes when the mountains and the Ocean will try to separate us, but I know they will never succeed, unless you want them to.” Byron

Dignified slaves, venerable masters

Slavery in ancient Greece was a significant social and economical feature; this was – likewise anywhere else in the ancient world – undeniably a widespread custom that characterised Hellenic poleis, and further political institutions, during their entire development and history. There were a few actual forms of slavery: mainly chattel slavery, but also there were state-owned-slaves (as the Athens’ Scythians guards) as well as serfdom (the helots in Sparta or the penestaeΠενέσται of Thessaly). Any of all of these forms were generally accepted, deemed ordinary and quite indispensable to the normal course of economy, war and general living as it was deeply analysed by Aristotle in his Politics and by Plato in his Laws as well.

Ancient Greek comedy (and its largely transposed Latin versions as well) has plenty examples of various slave characters: helpful and devote, astute and pitiless and ignorant and stupid, yet always within the unquestioned social framework where they maintained their status of mere personal properties. Nevertheless, in spite of this generalised reduction to very objects – just belongings to fully dispose of – during the end of the classic age, perhaps further to the evolution of the civil thought and maybe under the wave of the spreading Sophistic phenomenon, it is possible to gather examples of a rather modern reappraisal of the slave as human being, albeit to some extent quite lamely and without any legal influence on his/her destiny.

In literature a remarkable example of the consideration that slaves were slightly gaining is for instance palpable during this moving dialogue by Euripides in his tragedy Helen:

MESSENGER: Whoever pays no reverence to his master’s affairs, rejoicing with him and grieving with his troubles, is worthless. Although I was born a servant, let me still be numbered among honest slaves; my mind is free, if not my name. For this is better than to suffer double misery as one man: to have a worthless heart and, being a slave, to owe obedience to any other.

MENELAUS: Come, old man – often by my shield you have had your full share of trouble and hard work now also have a share in my success.

Once again, the same Euripides, in another work – namely Ion – focuses on loyalty and dignity of this servant and solicits a greatly important distinction between social/legal status and actual decorum and humanity:

TUTOR: I wish to help you in this work, and kill the boy, entering the house where he is preparing the feast, and when I have paid back my living to my masters, either to die, or live and see the light.

There is one thing in slavery that brings shame, the name; in all other respects a good slave is no worse than the free-born.

It is striking remarkable though, that these promising examples from the ancient Greek literature do not come only from tragedy. Actually the most significant contributions in terms of what nowadays we would probably call defence of the human rights came from speeches written by logographers (i.e. speechwriters who used to be hired to arrange and write speeches that were meant to be delivered by another person) or rhetors with political and/or legal professional background and skills.

One interesting example is found in a scholiast to Aristotle’s Rhetoric: in the very paragraph where he is trying to define justice and law:

“Let us now classify just and unjust actions generally, starting from what follows. Justice and injustice have been defined in reference to laws and persons in two ways. Now there are two kinds of laws, particular and general. By particular laws I mean those established by each people in reference to themselves, which again are divided into written and unwritten; by general laws I mean those based upon nature. In fact, there is a general idea of just and unjust in accordance with nature, as all men in a manner divine, even if there is neither communication nor agreement between them

where is quoted a fragment of a speech – the Messeniakos – delivered by Alcidamas of Elaea (a scholar of Gorgias the sophist) a renowned orator, in favour of the insurgency of the Messenians against Sparta:

God has left all men free; nature has made none a slave”.

Another famous Athenian rethor, Antiphon, had particularly modern ideas in so far as equality and human dignity are concerned:

“By nature we all equally possess with all respect the same origin, both Greeks and Barbarians”

Nonetheless they all seem quite weak and rather isolated voices, within a strongly consolidated practice and social framework, as Xenophon in his Memorabilia reports within this insightful dialogue:

EUTHERUS “I came home when the war ended, Socrates, and am now living here,” he replied. “Since we have lost our foreign property, and my father left me nothing in Attica, I am forced to settle down here now and work for my living with my hands. I think it’s better than begging, especially as I have no security to offer for a loan.”

SOCRATES “And how long will you have the strength, do you think, to earn your living by your work?”

EUTHERUS “Oh, not long, of course.”

SOCRATES “But remember, when you get old you will have to spend money, and nobody will be willing to pay you for your labour.”


SOCRATES “Then it would be better to take up some kind of work at once that will assure you a competence when you get old, and to go to somebody who is better off and wants an assistant, and get a return for your services by acting as his bailiff, helping to get in his crops and looking after his property.”

EUTHERUS “I shouldn’t like to make myself a slave, Socrates.”

SOCRATES “But surely those who control their cities and take charge of public affairs are thought more respectable, not more slavish on that account.”

EUTHERUS “Briefly, Socrates, I have no inclination to expose myself to any man’s censure.”

SOCRATES – “But, you see, Eutherus, it is by no means easy to find a post in which one is not liable to censure. Whatever one does, it is difficult to avoid mistakes, and it is difficult to escape unfair criticism even if one makes no mistakes. I wonder if you find it easy to avoid complaints entirely even from your peasant employers. You should try, therefore, to have no truck with grumblers and to attach yourself to considerate masters; to undertake such duties as you can perform and beware of any that are too much for you, and, whatever you do, to give of your best and put your heart into the business. In this way, I think, you are most likely to escape censure, find relief from your difficulties, live in ease and security, and obtain an ample competence for old age.”

However, although the question was merely slightly raised in maybe some of the more progressist Athenian intellectual circles, apparently there is no trace of a motion submitted to the attention, discussion or vote of the ecclesia on this matter, hence there is no evidence that an actual political or institutional change took place with reference to slavery whatsoever – well small wonder considering it as such a huge industry, profitable business and strong economic infrastructural backbone.

It is albeit quite impressive that this debate developed concurrently with the descending glory of post-Pericles’ age; a circumstance perhaps more than purely coincidental with Hermann Broch’s epoch: a period (1920/1940) he considered as the sunset of spiritual certainties and the eclipse of what was deemed sacred in Mitteleuropa, entirely swept by the fury of the mass propelled by creed discrepancies and inhuman ethnic pseudo-ideologies. He portrayed, in an extremely thorny style, Virgil on his deathbed dialoguing with his Emperor Caesar Octavian Augustus, and the divine poet – the very same who wrote of Turnus begging for mercy and yet hard-heartedly slain by Aeneas – solicits two acts of kindness of the Emperor, namely to set free his slave and to prove compassion to the subjugated:

be lenient to the conquered and temper your arrogance to that end.

Alexander the Great in India

Alexander the Great, the Macedonian, grand general and irresistible conqueror, shrewd and charismatic, dissolute and merciless: altogether one of the most contradictorily impressive characters of the entire ancient world and founder of one of the largest empires of history whose expansion ranged from the Balkans to Punjab! Further to the kind enquiry of two of my most affectionate readers, here are some abstracts of my findings on Alexander’s two years in India – throughout the reports of the ancient texts.

In the summer of 327 B.C. Alexander organised a new army which counted almost 120,000 soldiers: mainly Macedonians plus Egyptians and Phoenicians sailors (these latter were indispensable to sail along the river Indus); besides the Macedonians were barely sufficient for his war-campaign as he – moving on with his victories – needed also to establish political structures and organise military-bureaucratic infrastructures on the newly conquered territories. Thus, according to Lucius Flavius Arrianus (Arrian), Alexander crossed the river Indus from Hund and reached Taxila, just across the Hindu Kush – Καύκασος Ινδικός, where the king Omphis (also known as Taxiles) yielded himself:

“Alexander laid a bridge over the river Indus… when Alexander had crossed to the other side of the river Indus, he again offered sacrifice there, according to his custom. Then starting from the Indus, he arrived at Taxila, a large and prosperous city, in fact the largest of those situated between the rivers Indus and Hydaspes. He was received in a friendly manner by Taxiles, the governor of the city, and by the Indians of that place; and he added to their territory as much of the adjacent Country as they asked for.”

Taxiles also asked him for help against King Porus (or Raja Puru) of Pauravaa, between the rivers Hydaspes and the Acesines (Jhelum and the Chenab) in the Punjab and his ally the King of Kashmir Abisares-Αβισαρης (or Abhisara or Embisarus) whose reign was behind the river Hydaspes and his dominions extending to Hyphasis (nearby the present Lahore), who were together trying to conquer the whole of Punjab. Thus Alexander had made his first Indian ally, as Plutarch reports:

“Taxiles, we are told, had a realm in India as large as Egypt, with good pasturage, too, and in the highest degree productive of beautiful fruits. He was also a wise man in his way, and after he had greeted Alexander, said: “Why must we war and fight with one another, Alexander, if thou art not come to rob us of water or of necessary sustenance, the only things for which men of sense are obliged to fight obstinately? As for other wealth and possessions, so-called, if I am thy superior therein, I am ready to confer favours; but if thine inferior, I will not object to thanking you for favours conferred.” At this Alexander was delighted, and clasping the king’s hand, said: “Canst thou think, pray, that after such words of kindness our interview is to end without a battle? Nay, thou shalt not get the better of me; for I will contend against thee and fight to the last with my favours, that thou mayest not surpass me in generosity.” So, after receiving many gifts and giving many more, at last he lavished upon him a thousand talents in coined money. This conduct greatly vexed Alexander’s friends, but it made many of the Barbarians look upon him more kindly”.

During his stay in Taxila Alexander also was able to meet for the first time the famous Indian philosophers: the Gymnosophists, (Darshanas) and the Brahmins priests which seriously tried to endanger his plans and strategies as they both pushed cities and citizens against the foreign conqueror. He brutally reacted to this entanglement…:

“The philosophers, too, no less than the [Indian] mercenaries, gave him trouble, by abusing those of the native princes who attached themselves to his cause, and by inciting the free peoples to revolt. He therefore took many of these also and hanged them.”

Some other philosophers were more fortunate as Plutarchus reports:

“He captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer.”

Alexander then showed even more curiosity for these ascetics and eagerly wanted to meet them, something he tried with alternate success…:

“These philosophers, then, he dismissed with gifts; but to those who were in the highest repute and lived quietly by themselves he sent Onesicritus, asking them to pay him a visit. Now, Onesicritus was a philosopher of the school of Diogenes the Cynic. And he tells us that Calanus very harshly and insolently bade him strip off his tunic and listen naked to what he had to say, otherwise he would not converse with him, not even if he came from Zeus; but he says that Dandamis was gentler, and that after hearing fully about Socrates, Pythagoras, and Diogenes, he remarked that the men appeared to him to have been of good natural parts but to have passed their lives in too much awe of the laws. Others, however, say that the only words uttered by Dandamis were these: “Why did Alexander make such a long journey hither?”

Plutarch says that Calanus eventually came to better terms and met Alexander, although his meeting ended with a wise suggestion that nonetheless incorporated a sinister presage…:

“Calanus, nevertheless, was persuaded by Taxiles to pay a visit to Alexander. His real name was Sphines, but because he greeted those whom he met with “Cale,” the Indian word of salutation, the Greeks called him Calanus. It was Calanus, as we are told, who laid before Alexander the famous illustration of government. It was this. He threw down upon the ground a dry and shrivelled hide, and set his foot upon the outer edge of it; the hide was pressed down in one place, but rose up in others. He went all round the hide and showed that this was the result wherever he pressed the edge down, and then at last he stood in the middle of it, and lo! it was all held down firm and still. The similitude was designed to show that Alexander ought to put most constraint upon the middle of his empire and not wander far away from it.”

Thus according to Arrian in April-May 326 B.C. while king Abisares had sent his emissary to surrender without fighting, king Porus intended to contrast Alexander and was waiting to fight him with his army and 120 elephants across the river Hydaspes. A violent and sanguinary battle took place, with minor loss on Alexander’s army, while the Indians were severely defeated and both soldiers and elephants dispersed on the battlefield:

“Porus, with the whole of his army, was on the other side of that river, having determined either to prevent him from making the passage, or to attack him while crossing…. Alexander took the forces which he had when he arrived at Taxila, and the 5,000 Indians under the command of Taxiles and the chiefs of that district, and marched towards the same river… of the Indians little short of 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry were killed in this battle. All their chariots were broken to pieces; and two sons of Porus were slain”.

Even King Porus fought bravely and was wounded:

“Porus, who exhibited great talent in the battle, performing the deeds not only of a general but also of a valiant soldier… but at last, having received a wound on the right shoulder, which part of his body alone was unprotected during the battle, he wheeled round”

When Alexander met his imprisoned enemy: Porus, he was impressed by the courage and the charisma of his enemy. According to the dialogue Arrian has reported he treated him in a knightly manner and made him his new ally:

“Alexander… admired his [Porus] handsome figure and his stature, which reached somewhat above five cubits. He was also surprised that he did not seem to be cowed in spirit, but advanced to meet him as one brave man would meet another brave man, after having gallantly struggled in defence of his own kingdom against another king. Then indeed Alexander was the first to speak, bidding him say what treatment he would like to receive. The story goes that Porus replied: “Treat me, O Alexander, in a kingly way !“ Alexander being pleased at the expression, said : “For my own sake, O Porus, thou shalt be thus treated; but for thy own sake do thou demand what is pleasing to thee!” But Porus said that everything was included in that. Alexander, being still more pleased at this remark, not only granted him the rule over his own Indians, but also added another country to that which he had before, of larger extent than the former.’ Thus he treated the brave man in a kingly way, and from that time found him faithful in all things.”

Porus proposed Alexander to fight on his Eastern borders against the Nanda dynasty who ruled the kingdom of Magadha nearby Patliputra (nowadays Patna); the Macedonian soldiers started the march, nonetheless once they reached the river Hyphasis they refused to go any further as they wanted to go back home. Alexander, although reluctantly, adhered to their request and, as Diodorus Siculus reports, after having built 12 enormous altars to the Greek Pantheon put the expedition to an end.

“He decided thus to interrupt his campaign at this point, and in order to mark his limits he first of all erected altars of the twelve gods each fifty cubits high…”.

Actually the return would have revealed not as easy as he could have foreseen, as he had to split the army: some garrisons followed the banks of the Indus, others sailed along the river itself, others were exploring the ocean coasts of Belucistan (or Balochistan) and the Persian Gulf.

However the great triumph of Alexander’s warfare skills as well as the magnitude of his empire, though ephemeral, have been vastly celebrated along the centuries, and perhaps this passage from Quintus Curtius Rufus best synthesises the enthusiasm and spirit of victory and winners on their way back home:

“Iam nihil gloriae deesse; nihil obstare virtuti, sine ullo Martis discrimine, sine sanguine orbem terrae ab illis capi.”

[Now nothing was amiss to their glory; nothing could stop their courage: without fighting, without bloodshed they were the masters of the whole world.]

not quite as moving as – so antithetically, though – Joseph Roth’s description of the deep sadness and exhaustion  accompanying the return to Vienna (on a sad 1918 Christmas Eve) of one of the victi, discomfited of the Great War:

“The armed bayonets seemed not at all real, the rifles where loosely hanging askew on the soldiers’ shoulders. It was like they wanted to sleep, the guns, tired of four years of shootings. I was not the least surprised if none of the soldiers saluted me, my stripped cap, my stripped jacket’s collar did not impose any obligation on anyone. Yet I did not rebel. It was only painful. It was the end.”

The Pelasgians in the ancient historians’ texts

Profuse – at least in number.. – but rather confusing references we have received from the ancient historians regarding the Pelasgians – Πελασγοί so much as they still remain quite a mysterious pre-Greek population: little is known about their real origin and end, concrete race, actual idiom and uses. As even Herodotus candidly admits:

“ἥντινα δ γλσσαν εσαν ο Πελασγο, οκ χω τρεκως επεν σαν ο Πελασγο βρβαρον γλσσαν ἱέντες”

[What language however the Pelasgians used to speak I am not able with certainty to say… the Pelasgians used to speak a Barbarian language]

They are said to be of Illyrian or Aetolian origins; or according to Ephorus – and also Hesiod – they seem to have Arcadian roots as he maintains Lycaon being the son of Pelasgus and Meliboea (or the nymph Cyllene), and the mythical first king of Arcadia:

The sons born of the divine Lycaon, whom formerly Pelasgus begot.

Homer in Iliad refers them as originally settled in Epirus: centre of the most ancient oracle and cult of Zeus and Rhea (or Gaia):

“Ζε να Δωδωναε Πελασγικ τηλθι ναων”

[Pelasgians Dodonæan Zeus supreme]

According to a more extensive interpretation they apparently also colonised the northern Adriatic sea and could be seemingly also identified with the Tyrrhenians. More audacious versions even want them to derive from northern Indian populations. However according to the various, and unfortunately only rarely coincidental, traditions they seem to have spread all over the insular and peninsular Greece, and almost certainly also on the coasts of the Hellespont – and according to Homer even in Crete, as Odysseus narrates:

λλη δ λλων γλσσα μεμιγμνη· ν μν χαιο,

ν δ τεκρητες μεγαλτορες, ν δ Κδωνες,

Δωριες τε τριχϊκες δο τε Πελασγο.

[Diverse their language is; Achaians some,
And some indigenous are; Cydonians there,
Crest-shaking Dorians, and Pelasgians dwell.]

and also, according to the Poet of Iliad, in the Ionian coast such as Cilices and Troad:

“Ἱππθοος δ γε φλα Πελασγν γχεσιμρων

τν ο Λρισαν ριβλακα ναιετασκον·”

[Hypothecs from Larissa, for her soil
Far-famed, the spear-expert Pelasgians brought.]

Herodotus reports that the Pelasgians were formerly inhabitants of Πελασγιώτιδες – Pelasgiotides, the Greek region then named Thessaly and spread over the northern Ionian coastline:

“… τοσι νν τι οσι Πελασγν τν πρ Τυρσηνν Κρηστνα πλιν οκεντων, ο μουροι κοτ σαν τοσι νν Δωριεσι καλεομνοισι (οκεον δ τηνικατα γν τν νν Θεσσαλιτιν καλεομνην), κα τν Πλακην τε κα Σκυλκην Πελασγν οκησντων ν λλησπντ, ο σνοικοι γνοντο θηναοισι, κα σα λλα Πελασγικ ἐόντα πολσματα τ ονομα μετβαλε· ε τονυν ν κα πν τοιοτο τ Πελασγικν, τ ττικν θνος ἐὸν Πελασγικν μα τ μεταβολ τ ς λληνας κα τν γλσσαν μετμαθε. κα γρ δ οτε ο Κρηστωνιται οδαμοσι τν νν σφας περιοικεντων εσ μγλωσσοι οτε ο Πλακιηνο, σφσι δ μγλωσσοι· δηλοσ τε τι τν νεκαντο γλσσης χαρακτρα μεταβανοντες ς τατα τ χωρα, τοτον χουσι ν φυλακ.”

[… judging by those that still remain of the Pelasgians who dwelt in the city of Creston above the Tyrsenians, and who were once neighbours of the race now called Dorian, dwelling then in the land which is now called Thessaliotis, and also by those that remain of the Pelasgians who settled at Plakia and Skylake in the region of the Hellespont, who before that had been settlers with the Athenians, and of the natives of the various other towns which are really Pelasgian, though they have lost the name…. If therefore all the Pelasgian race was such as these, then the Attic race, being Pelasgian, at the same time when it changed and became Hellenic, unlearnt also its language. For the people of Creston do not speak the same language with any of those who dwell about them, nor yet do the people of Plakia, but they speak the same language one as the other: and by this it is proved that they still keep unchanged the form of language which they brought with them when they migrated to these places.]

Actually the Tyrsenians Herodotus reports are more likely to be the inhabitants of Lemnos rather than the Tyrrhenian (ancient Central-Italian population) – considering that also both Plakia and Skylake were poleis of Propontides, west of Cyzicus, and that his passage is somewhat corroborated by Anticlides who reports that they early colonised Lemnos and Imbros; additional reference is found in Thucydides when he describes the populations settled in the region of Chalcidian peninsula:

“…Brasidas after the capture of Amphipolis marched with his allies against Acte, a promontory running out from the king’s dike with an inward curve, and ending in Athos, a lofty mountain looking towards the Aegean sea. In it are various towns, Sane, an Andrian colony, close to the canal, and facing the sea in the direction of Euboea; the others being Thyssus, Cleone, Acrothoi, Olophyxus, and Dium, inhabited by mixed barbarian races speaking the two languages. There is also a small Chalcidian element; but the greater number are Tyrrheno-Pelasgians once settled in Lemnos and Athens, and Bisaltians, Crestonians, and Edonians; the towns being all small ones.”

Also Euripides, whose opinion on this subject coincides with Aeschylus’, contributes to complicate the matter as in his “Archelaus“, he states:

“Danaus, who was the father of fifty daughters, having arrived in Argos inhabited the city of Inachus, and made a law that those who had before borne the name of Pelasgiotæ throughout Greece should be called Danai.”

Thus even Argolid now… the mystery gets more enticing as even Herodotus, who tries to be as precise as possible, seems to have difficulties in grasping and systematising the matter: he first makes a distinction between Greeks, Dorians and Athenians who all may have Pelasgian origins and explains that the Greeks split from the Pelasgians and afterwards he states that Pelasgians smoothly mingled in and finally the two civilisations Greek and Pelasgian actually blended:

“Then after this he [Crœsus] gave thought to inquire which people of the Hellenes he should esteem the most powerful and gain over to himself as friends. And inquiring he found that the Lacedemonians and the Athenians had the pre-eminence, the first of the Dorian and the others of the Ionian race. For these were the most eminent races in ancient time, the second being a Pelasgian and the first a Hellenic race: and the one never migrated from its place in any direction, while the other was very exceedingly given to wanderings; for in the reign of Deucalion this race dwelt in Pthiotis, and in the time of Doros the son of Hellen in the land lying below Ossa and Olympos, which is called Histiaiotis; and when it was driven from Histiaiotis by the sons of Cadmos, it dwelt in Pindos and was called Makedonian; and thence it moved afterwards to Dryopis, and from Dryopis it came finally to Peloponnesus, and began to be called Dorian.

As for the Hellenic race, it has used ever the same language, as I clearly perceive, since it first took its rise; but since the time when it parted off feeble at first from the Pelasgian race, setting forth from a small beginning it has increased to that great number of races which we see, and chiefly because many Barbarian races have been added to it besides. Moreover it is true, as I think, of the Pelasgian race also, that so far as it remained Barbarian it never made any great increase.”

Herodotus gives some hints and pieces of evidence of the presence of the Pelasgians in early Attic settlements:

“As for the Athenians, in the time when the Pelasgians occupied that which is now called Hellas, they were Pelasgians, being named Cranaoi, and in the time of king Kecrops they came to be called Kecropidai; then when Erechtheus had succeeded to his power, they had their name changed to Athenians; and after Ion the son of Xuthos became commander of the Athenians, they got the name from him of Ionians.”

Herodotus gives another confirmation of Pelasgians influences on Attic when referring to some religious rituals imported from both the Egyptians and the Pelasgians and then transmitted by the latter to the next generations of Greeks. This could be corroborated by Strabo’s theory according to which Pelasgians may have Egyptian roots. Herodotus also specifies that the Athenians were already Greeks when some Pelasgians settlers reached Attic: seemingly these new colonisers were simply joining the present integrated Greek-Pelasgian population:

“These observances then, and others besides these which I shall mention, the Hellenes have adopted from the Egyptians; but to make, as they do, the images of Hermes with the phallos they have learnt not from the Egyptians but from the Pelasgians, the custom having been received by the Athenians first of all the Hellenes and from these by the rest; for just at the time when the Athenians were beginning to rank among the Hellenes, the Pelasgians became dwellers with them in their land, and from this very cause it was that they began to be counted as Hellenes. Whosoever has been initiated in the mysteries of the Cabeiroi, which the Samothrakians perform having received them from the Pelasgians, that man knows the meaning of my speech; for these very Pelasgians who became dwellers with the Athenians used to dwell before that time in Samothrake, and from them the Samothrakians received their mysteries. So then the Athenians were the first of the Hellenes who made the images of Hermes with the phallos, having learnt from the Pelasgians; and the Pelasgians told a sacred story about it, which is set forth in the mysteries in Samothrake.

Now the Pelasgians formerly were wont to make all their sacrifices calling upon the gods in prayer, as I know from that which I heard at Dodona, but they gave no title or name to any of them, for they had not yet heard any, but they called them gods from some such notion as this, that they had set in order all things and so had the distribution of everything. Afterwards, when much time had elapsed, they learnt from Egypt the names of the gods, all except Dionysos, for his name they learnt long afterwards; and after a time the Pelasgians consulted the Oracle at Dodona about the names, for this prophetic seat is accounted to be the most ancient of the Oracles which are among the Hellenes, and at that time it was the only one. So when the Pelasgians asked the Oracle at Dodona whether they should adopt the names which had come from the Barbarians, the Oracle in reply bade them make use of the names. From this time they sacrificed using the names of the gods, and from the Pelasgians the Hellenes afterwards received them”.

Herodotus also reports the episode when the Pelasgians were chased away form Attic by the Athenians. He inserts this event when explaining the conquest of Lemnos by Miltiades – an invasion that the Athenians justified as a revenge against the Pelasgians. In truth this episode is taken from Hecataeus of Miletus’ Periegesis Ges (or Periodos Ges) and it is quite interesting to note that this passage is also a first example of historiographic disputation between the two ancient historians (well actually Hecataeus was a geographer) as whether the reported episode is ethically “just” or “unjust”:

“Now Miltiades son of Kimon had thus taken possession of the Lemnos:–After the Pelasgians had been cast out of Attica by the Athenians, whether justly or unjustly,–for about this I cannot tell except the things reported, which are these:–Hecataois on the one hand, the son of Hegesander, said in his history that it was done unjustly; for he said that when the Athenians saw the land which extends below Hymettos, which they had themselves given them to dwell in, as payment for the wall built round the Acropolis in former times, when the Athenians, I say, saw that this land was made good by cultivation, which before was bad and worthless, they were seized with jealousy and with longing to possess the land, and so drove them out, not alleging any other pretext: but according to the report of the Athenians themselves they drove them out justly; for the Pelasgians being settled under Hymettos made this a starting-point and committed wrong against them as follows: the daughters and sons of the Athenians were wont ever to go for water to the spring of Enneacrunos; for at that time neither they nor the other Hellenes as yet had household servants; and when these girls came, the Pelasgians in wantonness and contempt of the Athenians would offer them violence; and it was not enough for them even to do this, but at last they were found in the act of plotting an attack upon the city: and the narrators say that they herein proved themselves better men than the Pelasgians, inasmuch as when they might have slain the Pelasgians, who had been caught plotting against them, they did not choose to do so, but ordered them merely to depart out of the land: and thus having departed out of the land, the Pelasgians took possession of several older places and especially of Lemnos. The former story is that which was reported by Hecataios, while the latter is that which is told by the Athenians.”

In truth, once again the reports sound more like rumour-oriented and hearsay-based as:

  • the said wall was a Mycenaean construction and used to surround the Acropolis, and it was called either Pelasgic or Pelargic; the former name is clearly referred to the Pelasgians, as to the latter it seems to refer to storks (in ancient Greek Pelargikòn, which is apparently also a credited ethymological explanation of the actual word Pelasgic i.e. migratory/nomadic people) – however the tradition of the early presence of Pelasgians in Attic must have prevailed - hence Pelasgian Wall;

  • the said spring of Enneacrunos was built under the Peisistratids, therefore this reference is surely anachronistic being their tyranny dated 546–510 b.C.

Ultimately most of the said references (Homer, Hellanicus, Herodotus, Thucydides, Ephorus, Pausanias…) – rather scattered and just oblique, sound more like hints and unconfirmed reports that tend to be more slightly descriptive – quite contradictorily, though – and often just in order to provide justifications of root/myths derived from this pre-Hellenic civilisation rather than seeking for their roots and social/demographic development/collapse, whose findings and results still remain inconclusive. Ultimately it can be said that the “Pelasgians” conservatively were in general referred in classic Greece (and afterwards) to pre-Hellenic populations of dubious Greek mainland origins and who spoke several non-Greek languages, who settled down in the Greek terra firma, peninsulas, the Ionian coasts and most of the islands of the Aegean Sea. Most likely, not without resistance, they eventually blended with the Greeks transmitting to them part of their religious rituals and acquiring their language and uses.