Athenian orators, politicians and demagogues

ancient-athens-rhetors-politicians

Ancient Athens public scene – during and even after its Pentecontaetia – was quite accustomed to display, beside those citizens in charge of specific institutional assignments and public servants who were performing minor duties to maintain the regular functioning of the polis bureaucratic machine, also highly powerful men who, in force of their rhetorical skills and perspicacious inclination were able to steer de facto the assembly in order to pursue their political, and often also personal, needs. These rhetors however, in spite of their undeniable actual influence, could not formally be held liable for their political conduct: as they could not be truly considered as belonging – and consequently acting – within a proper administrative body. Thus their behaviour in other fields than political and under distinct circumstances was continuously under screening as their political opponents were constantly seeking for occasions to take them to court with accusations of corruption and/or high treason to the democratic foundation of the polis.

One interesting instance is given by Demosthenes’ own defence against a bribing accusal, where the orator outlines his own ideas about duties and rights of a rhetor:

But for what is he responsible? For discerning the trend of events at the outset, for forecasting results, for warning others. That I have always done. Further, he ought to reduce to a minimum those delays and hesitations, those fits of ignorance and quarrelsomeness, which are the natural and inevitable failings of all free states, and on the other hand to promote unanimity and friendliness, and whatever impels a man to do his duty. All that also I have made my business: and herein no man can find any delinquency on my part.

Nonetheless it is perfectly clear how even in those days the greatest interests – both measured in terms of power and economics – that amply overcame the administration of the state. It is remarkably modern the widely recognised presence of full-time politicians, whose resources (mental and financial) were put at the service of the cause – although it is/was worth wondering which and whose cause… As Aeschines, his legendary rival, drily deplores Demosthenes’ attitude:

And you blame me if I come before the people, not constantly, but only at intervals. And you imagine that your bearers fail to detect you in thus making a demand which is no outgrowth of democracy, but borrowed from another form of government. For in oligarchies it is not he who wishes, but he who is in authority, that addresses the people; whereas in democracies he speaks who chooses, and whenever it seems to him good. And the fact that a man speaks only at intervals marks him as a man who takes part in politics because of the call of the hour, and for the common good; whereas to leave no day without its speech, is the mark of a man who is making a trade of it, and talking for pay.

Thus it was widely acknowledged – and to a certain extent accepted – that professional politicians, being them elected strategos or authoritative rhetors, benefited of their institutional roles and political prerogatives. Nonetheless what was considered ignominious and therefore harshly persecuted was the favouring of personal pursuits preferred to the welfare of the state, causing any possible impairment of the polis. Something quite bluntly stated by Hypereides when accusing Demosthenes of corruption:

For just I said in the Assembly, you members of the jury willingly give to the generals and speakers great scope for profit-making: it is not the laws which allow it, but your mildness and generosity. There is just one proviso you are worried about: what they take must be in and not against your interests. Now Demosthenes and Demades have each pocketed more than sixty talents from the actual decrees and proxenies – to say nothing of the King’s money and what came from Alexander…

These scandals, accusal and the following trials were particularly intriguing and captivated the attention of laymen and average people who were always looking for news and gossip. The truth is that since after Pericles death, a low profile Athenian political class took over: demagogues without any political background, personal dignity and scruples. A plain-spoken dialogue sets a briskly effective example of how despised in Athens in 424 b.C. were immoral party-leaders. Like Cleon that Aristophanes masks on stage as a Paphlagonian chesty and ruffian slave defeated in winning his master’s consideration by an untalented sausage seller: a mere simpleton strongly supported by all the other servants that unanimously detest Paphlagon.

Servant: Oh! the fool! Your tripe! Do you see these tiers of people? [pointing at the audience]

Sausage-Seller: Yes.

Servant: You shall be master to them all, governor of the market, of the harbours, of the Pnyx; you shall trample the Senate under foot, be able to cashier the generals, load them with fetters, throw them into gaol, and you will fornicate in the Prytaneum.

Sausage-Seller: What! I?

Servant: You, without a doubt. But you do not yet see all the glory awaiting you. Stand on your basket and look at all the islands that surround Athens.

Sausage-Seller: I see them. What then?

Servant: Look at the storehouses and the shipping.

Sausage-Seller: Yes, I am looking.

Servant: Exists there a mortal more blest than you? Furthermore, turn your right eye towards Caria and your left toward Carthage!

Sausage-Seller: Then it’s a blessing to be cock-eyed!

Servant: No, but you are the one who is going to trade away all this. According to the oracle you must become the greatest of men.

Sausage-Seller: Just tell me how a sausage-seller can become a great man.

Servant: That is precisely why you will be great, because you are a sad rascal without shame, no better than a common market rogue.

Sausage-Seller: I do not hold myself worthy of wielding power.

Servant: Oh! by the gods! Why do you not hold yourself worthy? Have you then such a good opinion of yourself? Come, are you of honest parentage?

Sausage-Seller: By the gods! No! of very bad indeed.

Servant: Spoilt child of fortune, everything fits together to ensure your greatness.

Sausage-Seller: But I have not had the least education. I can only read, and that very badly.

Servant: That is what may stand in your way, almost knowing how to read. A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man; he has to be an ignoramus and a rogue. But do not, do not let go this gift, which the oracle promises.

Sausage-Seller: But what does the oracle say?

Servant: Faith, it is put together in very fine enigmatical style, as elegant as it is clear: “When the eagle-tanner with the hooked claws shall seize a stupid dragon, a blood-sucker, it will be an end to the hot Paphlagonian pickled garlic. The god grants great glory to the sausage-sellers unless they prefer to sell their wares.”

Sausage-Seller: In what way does this concern me? Please instruct my ignorance.

Servant: The eagle-tanner is the Paphlagonian.

Sausage-Seller: What do the hooked claws mean?

Servant: It means to say, that he robs and pillages us with his claw-like hands.

Sausage-Seller: And the dragon?

Servant: That is quite clear. The dragon is long and so also is the sausage; the sausage like the dragon is a drinker of blood. Therefore the oracle says, that the dragon will triumph over the eagle-tanner, if he does not let himself be cajoled with words.

Sausage-Seller: The oracles of the gods flatter me! Faith! I do not at all understand how I can be capable of governing the people.

Servant: Nothing simpler. Continue your trade. Mix and knead together all the state business as you do for your sausages. To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them. Besides, you possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, cross-grained nature and the language of the market-place. In you all is united which is needful for governing. The oracles are in your favour, even including that of Delphi. Come, take a chaplet, offer a libation to the god of Stupidity and take care to fight vigorously.

Aristophanes most certainly depicts a harsh and unequivocal characterisation of lowly origins, scarce culture and base merchandiser attitude rabble-rousers. This deep rooted detestation against any demagog unquestionably created an insurmountable barrier between public life and private life. More and more citizens, disgusted by the behaviours, greed and hypocrisy of rich merchants transformed overnight into politicians, meekly left all those decisional occasions go astray and thus letting the polis become an easy prey of those few avid talentless ignorants disguised as political leaders: something that undoubtedly compromised what best was of Western civilisation at the time…. Does any bell ring?

Political absenteeism in ancient Athens

athena-politics

The vastly celebrated Athenian democracy, still nowadays almost unanimously considered as the mother of all the modern forms of government unfortunately had its own flaws, perhaps less grave in terms of its overall design, but most certainly – and modernly manifest – in so far as its actual functioning was concerned. According to the Athenian Constitution every adult male citizen was admitted to the Ecclesia (General Assembly), thus – at least in theory – conservatively over 25,000 nationals could attend its discussion and deliberations. Nevertheless, in truth the actual number of participants was far lower: as 6,000 citizens were considered a sufficient quorum representing and expressing the political will of the polis; besides the venue where the meetings used to take place was on a hill near the Acropolis named Pnyx which, before its enlargement under Lycurgus in late IV century b.C., could hardly host more than 6,000 discussants.

Within this bare statistics it is quite remarkable the number of voices within the ancient texts which report the widely diffused lack of interest showed by the citizens towards the opportunity of personally taking part to the factual administration of the res publica. This social aloofness emerges in several unmistakable behaviours including non attendance to the ekklesia or other political/administrative bodies, non-participation in discussions and voting, retreating from public life and even the studied refusal of contacts with the state and its institutions and/or representatives – and this even when the polis was facing dangers, as Thucydides reports:

They also sent ten commissioners to Samos, who were to pacify the army, and to explain that the oligarchy was not established with any design of injuring Athens or her citizens, but for the preservation of the whole state. The promoters of the change, they said, were five thousand, not four hundred; but never hitherto, owing to the pressure of war and of business abroad, had so many as five thousand assembled to deliberate even on the most important questions.

Additionally drastic measures were taken in order to coerce citizens to attend the assemblies: the stores and workshops must be closed, the only streets open to the public access were those leading to the Pnyx, plus a leash painted with vermilion used to be carried around the agora so that those who were there loitering, together with those who were still lingering outside of the venue could be impressed in red by the rope and consequently pay a penalty. Something that could not prevent Prytanes, Archons and the Epistatae, who shared the care of holding and directing the assemblies of the people from being late, though. Thus some citizens were gathered to participate, even though very much reluctantly – as this Aristophanes’ personage:

Still it is the day of assembly; all should be here at daybreak, and yet the Pnyx is still deserted. They are gossiping in the marketplace, slipping hither and thither to avoid the vermilioned rope. The Prytanes even do not come; they will be late, but when they come they will push and fight each other for a seat in the front row. They will never trouble themselves with the question of peace. Oh! Athens! Athens! As for myself, I do not fail to come here before all the rest, and now, finding myself alone, I groan, yawn, stretch, break wind, and know not what to do; I make sketches in the dust, pull out my loose hairs, muse, think of my fields, long for peace, curse town life and regret my dear country home…

Yet, in spite of all these efforts, seemingly there were still serious difficulties in involving the citizen in the governance of the πολις, and even in reaching the deliberative quorum. So much as that an attendance fee for all the participants had to be introduced, as Aristotle comments:

The proposal to introduce payment for attendance at the Assembly was on the first occasion rejected; but as people were not attending the Assembly but the presidents kept contriving a number of devices to get the multitude to attend for the passing of the resolution by show of hands, first Agyrrhius introduced a fee of an obol, and after him Heracleides of Clazomenae, nicknamed the King, two obols, and Agyrrhius again three obols.

Clearly this remedy generated, although not miraculously, some more audience at the assembly meetings, nonetheless it concomitantly compromised its quality, as somehow Plato remarks:

I say, in common with the rest of the Greeks, that the Athenians are wise. Now I observe, when we are collected for the Assembly, and the city has to deal with an affair of building, we send for builders to advise us on what is proposed to be built; and when it is a case of laying down a ship, we send for shipwrights; and so in all other matters which are considered learnable and teachable: but if anyone else, whom the people do not regard as a craftsman, attempts to advise them, no matter how handsome and wealthy and well-born he may be, not one of these things induces them to accept him; they merely laugh him to scorn and shout him down, until either the speaker retires from his attempt, overborne by the clamor, or the tipstaves pull him from his place or turn him out altogether by order of the chair. Such is their procedure in matters which they consider professional. But when they have to deliberate on something connected with the administration of the State, the man who rises to advise them on this may equally well be a smith, a shoemaker, a merchant, a sea-captain, a rich man, a poor man, of good family or of none, and nobody thinks of casting in his teeth, as one would in the former case, that his attempt to give advice is justified by no instruction obtained in any quarter, no guidance of any master; and obviously it is because they hold that here the thing cannot be taught. Nay further, it is not only so with the service of the State, but in private life our best and wisest citizens are unable to transmit this excellence of theirs to others; for Pericles, the father of these young fellows here, gave them a first-rate training in the subjects for which he found teachers, but in those of which he is himself a master.

Unfortunately, apart from the necessary transition to the “representative democracy” things have not changed that much, considering the current statistics of young people seriously and effectively committed to politics, not to mention the very scarce amount of active voters – whose  paucity is likely second only to the dearth of newly ordered priests…

Basileus, wanax and king in Homer

basileus-assembly

The precise contextualisation of the Homeric poems is still to a certain extent inconclusive: many scholars have pursued this undertaking yet reaching rather hesitant results. The Mycenaean epoch, even though widely recognised as the social framework within which the splendid Homeric narrative masterly develops, seems to correspond only partially to the scenario where the highly celebrated heroes dwell. From the political standpoint, however, it can be almost confidently affirmed that the Homeric heroes’ functions and their institutions appear less sophisticated and bureaucratic than those we can infer from the archaeological findings related to the Mycenaean world. Actually, in spite of the detailed descriptions of warfare tools, strategies and attires which almost comply with civilisation of Mycenae, several social, political and religious beliefs, behaviours and rituals must be considered somewhat modern and definitely more recent.

For instance the Basileus represented into both poems is deemed only partly as the reproduction of the Mycenaean king; for he can also be considered the chief of any of those communities who survived the decay of that evolute pre-Greek culture. His government his principally based on recognised power and strength rather than acclaimed wisdom and proved judgement. As Hector sustains talking about his son to his wife Andromache:

But he kissed his dear son, and fondled him in his arms, and spoke in prayer to Zeus and the other gods: “Zeus and ye other gods, grant that this my child may likewise prove, even as I, pre-eminent amid the Trojans, and as valiant in might, and that he rule mightily over Ilios. And some day may some man say of him as he cometh back from war, ‘He is better far than his father’; and may he bear the blood-stained spoils of the foeman he hath slain, and may his mother’s heart wax glad.

And as hopeless Telemachus laments before the Ithacan assembly enduring the long lasting siege perpetrated by Penelope’s suers:

For there is no man here, such as Odysseus was, to ward off ruin from the house. As for me, I am no-wise such as he to ward it off. Nay verily, even if I try I shall be found a weakling and one knowing naught of valour. Yet truly I would defend myself, if I had but the power

And as proudly Nausicaa claims the praises of her father king Alcinous when she meets Ulysses for the first time:

The Phaeacians possess this city and land, and I am the daughter of great-hearted Alcinous, upon whom depend the might and power of the Phaeacians.

The Homeric Basileus, similarly to the Mycenaean wanax, besides exercising his ruling functions is primarily in charge of the army and derives his powers directly from the Gods, as Odysseus points out to the assembly of the generals:

In no wise shall we Achaeans all be kings here. No good thing is a multitude of lords; let there be one lord, one king, to whom the son of crooked-counselling Cronos hath vouchsafed the sceptre and judgments, that he may take counsel for his people.

The same creed is corroborated by Nestor when he speaks before a restricted counsel held in Agamemnon’s (commander in chief of the Achaean forces) tent:

He with good intent addressed their gathering and spoke among them: “Most glorious son of Atreus, Agamemnon, king of men, with thee will I begin and with thee make an end, for that thou art king over many hosts, and to thee Zeus hath vouchsafed the sceptre and judgements, that thou mayest take counsel for thy people. Therefore it beseemeth thee above all others both to speak and to hearken, and to fulfil also for another whatsoever his heart may bid him speak for our profit; for on thee will depend whatsoever any man may begin.

What particularly strikes is the greatly confounding contrast between the description of Alcinous’ kingdom and residence – which strongly reminds of a typical palatial socio-political structure – and Ulysses’ realm:

Odysseus went to the glorious palace of Alcinous. There he stood, and his heart pondered much before he reached the threshold of bronze; for there was a gleam as of sun or moon over the high-roofed house of great-hearted Alcinous. Of bronze were the walls that stretched this way and that from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and around was a cornice of cyanus. Golden were the doors that shut in the well-built house, and doorposts of silver were set in a threshold of bronze. Of silver was the lintel above, and of gold the handle. On either side of the door there stood gold and silver dogs, which Hephaestus had fashioned with cunning skill to guard the palace of great-hearted Alcinous; immortal were they and ageless all their days. Within, seats were fixed along the wall on either hand, from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and on them were thrown robes of soft fabric, cunningly woven, the handiwork of women. On these the leaders of the Phaeacians were wont to sit drinking and eating, for they had unfailing store. And golden youths stood on well-built pedestals, holding lighted torches in their hands to give light by night to the banqueters in the hall. And fifty slave-women he had in the house, of whom some grind the yellow grain on the millstone, and others weave webs, or, as they sit, twirl the yarn, like unto the leaves of a tall poplar tree; and from the closely-woven linen the soft olive oil drips down. For as the Phaeacian men are skilled above all others in speeding a swift ship upon the sea, so are the women cunning workers at the loom, for Athena has given to them above all others skill in fair handiwork, and an understanding heart. But without the courtyard, hard by the door, is a great orchard of four acres, and a hedge runs about it on either side. Therein grow trees, tall and luxuriant, pears and pomegranates and apple-trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. Of these the fruit perishes not nor fails in winter or in summer, but lasts throughout the year; and ever does the west wind, as it blows, quicken to life some fruits, and ripen others; pear upon pear waxes ripe, apple upon apple, cluster upon cluster, and fig upon fig. There, too, is his fruitful vineyard planted, one part of which, a warm spot on level ground, is being dried in the sun, while other grapes men are gathering, and others, too, they are treading; but in front are unripe grapes that are shedding the blossom, and others that are turning purple. There again, by the last row of the vines, grow trim garden beds of every sort, blooming the year through, and therein are two springs, one of which sends its water throughout all the garden, while the other, over against it, flows beneath the threshold of the court toward the high house; from this the townsfolk drew their water. Such were the glorious gifts of the gods in the palace of Alcinous. There the much-enduring goodly Odysseus stood and gazed. But when he had marvelled in his heart at all things, he passed quickly over the threshold into the house.

Especially when compared Odysseus’ domains and patrimony, which albeit devotedly praised by his servant Eumaeus – who considers his masters’ possessions boundlessly abundant – seem quite distant from requiring and actually having a Minoan and/or Mycenaean palatial organisation and bureaucracy:

Verily his substance was great past telling, so much has no lord either on the dark mainland or in Ithaca itself; nay, not twenty men together have wealth so great. Lord, I will tell thee the tale thereof; twelve herds has he on the mainland; as many flocks of sheep; as many droves of swine; as many packed herds of goats do herdsmen, both foreigners and of his own people, pasture. And here too graze roving herds of goats on the borders of the island, eleven in all, and over them trusty men keep watch.

Ultimately it seems that the Homeric society is rather a melange of different stages of proto-Greek and pre-classic Greek world, starting from the Mycenaean era to the more recent period were the poems are believed to have been composed: thus embracing at least three-four centuries of slow evolution/involution – as this period includes what is commonly defined the Greek Dark Age. These mixed traditions and their scenery concoction, most likely due to the sedimentary oral composition of the poems, narratively blend elements and situations that historically could have never concomitantly existed, perhaps poetically enhanced by Homer’s frequent romantic glances to the good old mythical and Mycenaean days.

The women of Heinrich Schliemann

sophia-schliemann-priams-treasure

On Christmas 1890 in Piazza Carità in Naples, Italy an unknown lonely old gentleman dressed in simple attire – clearly a foreigner – while strolling with an absentminded attitude silently faints and lies down on the sidewalk; succoured by the bystanders he is rapidly transported to the nearest hospital, in vain: he passed away after two days. This elderly tourist was Heinrich Schliemann, without any shade of doubt the most legendary archaeologist of all times, the very first explorer of Troy, Tyrint and Mycenae, the discoverer of the celebrated so called Treasure of Priam and Mask of Agamemnon, the precursor of the excavations of Crete and Orchomenus. The extraordinary successful and energetic pioneer was 68 and still ready for more expeditions and quarrying. Born in North-East Germany to a underprivileged family, thanks to his indomitable tenacity, highly uncommon practical intelligence and – of course, for it is always needed – a fair dose of luck, this incredible merchant had been able before reaching forty to accumulate quite a great fortune, to retire from business and finally devote himself to the pursuit of the very dream of his childhood: to become and archaeologist and, by following the clues traceable within Homer’s masterpieces, to identify, localise and uncover the city of Ilios – which he actually did.

Being a self-made man, with inconsequential curricular studies he was apathetically scorned by the European intelligentsia and aloofly derided by the academics. Furthermore he was continuously and strenuously fighting against home and foreign bureaucracy and political intrusions. Nevertheless, supported by his remarkable determination and – of course, for it always helps – by his fathomless bank account, he finally was rewarded with great discovering achievements and received many honours. Yet, there are good reason to believe that he was in his inner nature a gloomy and murky character, inclined to sadness and altogether convinced of being unappreciated and misunderstood. This more intimate side of his temperament is indeed palpable when examining his relationships, where contradictory feelings and behaviours show the contrast between the greatly resolute successful businessman and his insecure sentimental nature.

His adolescent love Minna Meincke, a neighbour girl of better condition, got married in 1847 with someone else, while he – quite naively indeed – expected to marry her himself on his way back to Germany: as meantime working in the Netherlands and Russia he had acquired a considerable social status and significant finances. He indirectly asked her to marry him, via a friend C.E. Laué who reported him the sad outcome, which prostrated him: “But to my horror I received a month afterward the news she had just got married

Immediately afterwards he proposed to a German young lady living in Saint Petersburg, Sophie Hekker, whose greedy father, in spite of her reluctances, was more than willing to force her to accept. However Heinrich broke the romance for a rush of jealousy and went to the USA. Later, on his way back from California he proposed again to her – and at the same time to an attorney’s daughter, Katherina Lyshin; for, being a shrewd entrepreneur, he had guessed his reiterated proposal to Sophie would have been rejected. By the way it occurred that the two prospect spouses were acquainted with each other… However, shortly after his return from San Francisco on October 7th, 1852 in Saint Isaac Cathedral of Saint Petersburg Heinrich married Katherina Lyshin, who gave him three children Serge, Natalia, Nadeshda. Nonetheless it was soon evident that Katherina did not love him at all, as he writes to a friend of his: “She enjoys to portray me to everyone as a terrible tyrant, a despot, a debauched…”

Basically she deprecated his juvenile scholar dreams and youthful intellectual attempts, despised travelling with him (during their marriage years  he had visited – all by himself – several major European capitals, Egypt, Japan, India, China, Singapore…) and abhorred the idea of leaving Russia to settle down in Paris, in spite of his numerous appeals and letters: “Every night I go to theatre or conferences held by the most famous professors of the world, Touvé, Beulé, the viscount de Rougé and I could tell you stories for ten years without ever boring you…”

Knowing she loved Dresden he offered to settle down there instead of Paris, but also this offered solution was of no avail. Greedy of opulence and social ostentation, it seems she never really understood what was really important to him. Katherina, who never shared any intellectual and spiritual interests with him, slowly pushed him away in a deeper solitude and discomfort. Evidently the transformation of her husband from a highly acclaimed trader and banker to a weird amateur archaeologist, derided by the entire academic world, scantily travelling to dusty remote places and meagrely living away from the jet set and its lust and comforts was something way beyond her comprehension and acceptance. On Christmas 1868 she literally ran away from him, putting him in a deep state of consternation, as he wrote her:

You fled from home just because you knew that your poor husband was about to come back home. I had come to see you and stay with you at least one week and try to restore harmony between us, at any rate; actually I swear to God Almighty I was willing to make any kind of possible concession, I was ready to sacrifice 1 million francs to re-establish domestic peace. But how you behaved towards me! I still shiver for the dismay and the horror of your infernal conduct…. Yet, surely you never heard me utter one single bad word, even when your terrible and execrable behaviour had broken my heart…

He finally realised he could not make happy a woman who detested him and filed for divorce. Nonetheless Heinrich was stubborn in his pursuit for conjugal contentment. He confessed to a friend of his: “I strongly need to have by my side a heart that loves me”. And consequently he was contemplating, this time with the intercession of his cousin Adolph, to marry a cousin of his, Sophie Bürger: a girl he had seen only once, three years before and that apparently fancied him… Thus, to Schliemann’s businesslike line of reasoning she seemed the right one, as he explained to a friend: “human nature leads us to always esteem and love those who are more educated than us in those sciences and disciplines that we most cherish, for this reason I think I would be very happy with her…”

Yet the couple did not tie the knot – seemingly because of the large age difference. So he asked, again in his peculiar modus operandi, to his friend and highly distinguished Greek teacher Theokletos Vimpos (an Orthodox Archbishop) to find him a Greek wife endowed with the same “angelic temperament of his mother and sister”! Actually writing to his brother in law he had made a less idyllic portrayal of his intentions and expectations, bluntly stating that Greece was able to offer girls “as beautiful as the pyramids” and  as poor as rats” chasing any foreigner to escape from poverty. However, consumed merchant as he was, he placed a detailed order to Vimpos: she was supposed to be young enough to have children, amiable, enthusiast of ancient Greece art and literature, ancient history and geography, willing to accompany him in his travels and more… Surprisingly Vimpos, who likewise cousin Adolph had profited of Schliemann’s paranymph assignment to recover from some slight personal financial distress, had found him two possible prospect brides: Polyxena Giusti and Sophia Engastromenos. When Schliemann saw their two pictures Vimpos had sent him for review he commented:

As I am an old traveller I am a good judge of countenances and I can promptly describe you the character of the two girls by just examining their portraits. … Polyxena Giusti is the right age to marry me, but she is bossy, authoritarian, despotic, irritable and vengeful. I think she has developed all these faults while performing her least enviable metier of school teacher. Sophia Engastromenos, is a splendid woman, open, indulgent, gentle and good housewife, full of life and well educated.

And almost immediately showed the utmost willingness and proposed to marry her within three months, although previously asking poor Vimpos all sort of questions!:

What is Mr. Engastromenos trade? What are his possessions? How old is he and how many children he has? How many boys and girls? In particular how old is Sophia? What colour is her hair? Where does the family live in Athens? Does Sophia play the piano? Does she speak any foreign language? Which one? Is she a good housewife? Does she understand Homer and the other ancient authors? Or does she completely ignore the idiom of our ancestors? Would she consent to move to Paris and to accompany her husband through his travels to Italy, Egypt and elsewhere?

Once ascertained that all features of Sophia corresponded to his requirements and quality standards, Heinrich finally decided to propose, although with extreme tact and caution, as he wrote her:

Unfortunately, as it seems, marriages in Greece are always arranged in great haste, even only after the first meeting, and for this reason half of them dissolve within one year. My feelings repel such disastrous practice. Marriage is the most splendid of all human institutions if its sole motives are respect, love and virtue; but marriage is the most ignoble bond and the heaviest yoke if it is based on material interest or sensual pleasure. Wealth contributes to matrimonial happiness, but it does not create it by itself and the woman who would marry me only for my money, or to become a great lady in Paris, would bitterly regret to have left Greece, because she would make me and herself wretched. The woman who marries me, ought to make it because of my worth as a man.

After some more – mainly epistolary – negotiatory courting Sophia eventually responded:

Yes, my dear Heinrich, nothing would make me happier than your resolution to take ma as your spouse. If you decide to take this step, I will be grateful for my entire life and will consider you as my sole benefactor.

On September 23rd, 1869 the wedding took place. They had two children: Andromache and Agamemnon. Sophia was everything he had always wanted, beautiful, intelligent, interested in his job, apparently enjoyed helping him in his expeditions and excavations and was as enthusiastic as him about Iliad and Odyssey. But not all that glitters is gold: Sophia was also psychologically weak and slightly unbalanced, causing Heinrich a miserable family-life mixed with few sweet moments, though.. This circumstance was worsened by Schliemann’s atavic fears of giving himself to someone who did not really care about him. This highly shrewd merchant, smart investor, adventurous globetrotter and archaeologist, who in his loneliness loved to find refuge in a legendary poetical past, was deep inside very frail and vulnerable, and depressively nurtured and kept his suspicions and doubts of not being loved until his death. He wrote:

I do not deceive myself with foolish illusions. I know very well that a young and pretty girl cannot fall in love with a man like me for his looks. Because of the simple passing by of the years a man is no more physically attractive. But I’ve thought that a woman endowed with a character that perfectly harmonises with mine and enlightened by the same enthusiasm and desire for knowledge could respect me… then I dare hoping that with time she would learn to love me…

And later on he wrote her:

I suffer because of the many displeasures you give me everyday… Night and day an idea torments me: you would be happy with a young husband and maybe your compatriot…

Ultimately this unparalleled personage, who was able to achieve what perhaps anybody else would not ever dare dreaming of: success, money, adventure, travels, honours… never really uncovered what he himself considered the real treasure, as he sadly wrote:

Domestic happiness is the greatest of all earthly blessings

Catullus: kiss and poetry

Romanticism and passion, intensity and love are definitely Catullus main characteristics – albeit additionally, of course it cannot be denied he oftentimes used vulgar expressions, straightforward sexual references and offensive tones. Son of a well off Northern Italian family, Catullus not seldom loved playing the role of the disgraced artist, fancying the wearing of bohémienne clothes and striving to pretend being the forerunner of a poète maudit. He firmly despised any social, civil or political involvement and even scorned Julius Caesar (who by the way was also a family friend…).

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His heart and his love were only for poetry and devoted to Lesbia (conventionally identified with the deceitful Clodia, prosecuted by Cicero in Pro Caelio, though this is still to be ascertained) a woman who apparently captured his soul first and afterwards, with her unreliable frame of mind and false behaviour, broke his heart. His verses range therefore from the chanting of the utmost blissful moments of his love-life and devotion:

Nulla potest muli tantum se dicere amatam
uere, quantum a me Lesbia amata mea es.
nulla fides ullo fuit umquam in foedere tanta,
quanta in amore tuo ex parte reperta mea est.

[Never a woman could call herself so fondly beloved
Truly as Lesbia mine has been beloved of myself.
Never were Truth and Faith so firm in any one compact
As on the part of me kept I my love to thyself.]

to the mourning in the deepest despair derived from the abandonment:

Wretched Catullus, stop making a fool of yourself.
And consider lost that which you see has come to an end.
The bright suns once shone for you,
When you were often coming where the girl was leading—
No girl will be loved as much as she had been loved by us.
When those playful things were happening there,
Which you were willing to do and the girl was not unwilling,
Truly the bright suns shone for you.
Now at last that girl is not willing; you also, though lacking self-control, be unwilling,
And do not pursue she who flees nor live as a lovesick man,
But endure with a determined mind; be resolute.
Goodbye, girl. Already Catullus is hardened,
And neither looks nor will ask for you unwilling girl.
But you yourself will be sorry when you are never asked for again.
Wicked one, woe to you! What life awaits you?
Who will come to you now? To whom will you seem cute?
Whom will you love now? Whose will you be said to be?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you nibble?
But you, Catullus, remain hardened.

from the sweetest and cheerful remembrances of his unforgettable love moments:

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum seueriorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit breuis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.

[Let us live, Lesbia, and let us love,
And let’s not give a dime to every
mean whisper of the puritanical old men.
The day’s light comes and sets, and then returns again,
But for us the brief light shines but once,
And night stretches forth in one long sleep.]

to the most furious rage originated by jealousy, deceit and dejection. Consequently his production – the celebrated Liber – can altogether be considered as the Spiegel of his soul, as his personal Journal de bord, through which we can identify, analyse, share and enjoy all the different – and yet so common – stages of love, absolutely unchanged in over 2000 years. Catullus was particularly fond of the kiss, I guess he considered – and I do totally agree with him – the kissing as the highest expression of fondness between two lovers. I actually deem that under different circumstances, moments, locations, situations a kiss can be passionate, but also can be delicate, it can be comforting and soothing, but can also be warm and ardent:

da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum;
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

[Give me a thousand kisses, the a hundred more,
Another thousand, a second hundred or two,
A thousand and still a hundred hundred more.
Then when we have kissed a thousand thousand times
Let the countless number fly away before we pause
Counting, nor let some envious eye devise a plot
Knowing that so many kisses can be kissed]

And again, more passionately:

Quaeris, quot mihi basiationes
tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque?
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis,
oraclum Iouis inter aestuosi
et Batti ueteris sacrum sepulcrum;
aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox
furtiuos hominum uident amores;
tam te basia multa basiare
uesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi

possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

[You ask how many of your kisses do I need,
Lesbia, how many kisses will suffice.
As many as the grains of Libyans sands
That lie upon the perfumed Cyrenian plain
Between the sweltering shrine of fiery Jove
And the sacred sepulchers of ancient kings.
Or as many as the countless stars in quiet night
That stare down on the furtive loves of men.
Only such a number of your kisses, only this
Will be enough and above for your crazy lover,
Which neither curious eyes can number up
Nor evil tongues enchant to bind our play.]

And furthermore with tinges of modern romanticism:

Kiss me softly and speak to me low;
Trust me darling, the time is near,
When we may live with never a fear
Kiss me dear!
Kiss me softly, and speak to me low

No doubt then that Catullus is the precursor of the “poetry of the kiss”. He seems to open a ventana on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sweetest and tender, alabaster skin maiden:

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I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden;
You needest not fear mine;
My spirit is too deeply laden
Ever to burthen thine

I fear thy mien, thy tones, thy motion;
Thou needest not fear mine;
Innocent is the heart’s devotion
With which I worship thine.

and paving a footpath to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s passion and ardour:

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play
With these my lips such consonant interlude
As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed
The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay.
I was a child beneath her touch,–a man
When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,–
A spirit when her spirit looked through me,–
A god when all our life-breath met to fan
Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran,
Fire within fire, desire in deity.

Catullus can be thus considered the most romantic of the classic poets, as I personally adore this masterful portrait of a couple Septimius and Acme caught in their secluded private own world, a wonderful scene of intimacy and sweet words of love that only two lovers can conceive and share while hiding in their timeless nest neglecting time, space and the outer rest:

Septimius holding his love Acme
on his lap said “My Acme,
if I do not love you desperately and am ready to love you further
continuously for all my years,
as much as one who loves most desperately,
alone in Libya and scorched India
let me come face to face with the green-eyed lion.”
As he said this, Love on the left as before
on the right sneezed approval.
Then Acme, gently bending back her head,
and kissing the intoxicated little eyes of her sweet boy
with that rosy mouth
said “Thus, my life, my little Septimius,
let us be slaves to this one master,
as a much more eager fire burns
in my soft marrow.”
As she said this, Love on the let as before
on the right sneezed approval.
Now, having set out from favorable omens
with mutual passions they love and are loved.
Little love-sick Septimius prefers Acme alone
to Syrias and Britains:

faithful Acme makes her delights and pleasures in
Septimius alone.
Who has seen any people more blessed?
Who has seen a more favoured love?


Living upon art, living upon love

Only Lesbos, a dream-like island in the Aegean Sea, endowed with its heights of Leucas, overlooking its splendid Gulf of Kallonis, with its little rivers Kalami and Krioneri, the torrent Xalantra and its large Milopotamos, with enchanting places like Methymna, Thermi, Antissa and the celebrated Mytilene, could give birth in the village of Eresos to the most romantic poetess of all the times; there was born Sappho in early 600 B.C., on this island famous for the beauty of its women, perhaps the prettiest of the whole Ancient Greeek world.

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She was naturally endowed with a particular ability of seeing what many others could not see, she was extremely acute in noticing details and nuances that everyone would have instead overlooked, she was extraordinary gifted in reading situations and people and to transform feelings and emotions into verses, actually often even in a few impressive lines, like very few other artists I can think of, or perhaps just one…

Everything in Sappho’s poetry is most definitely personal, deep, and insightful. Every single word is carefully chosen and weighted in order to convey a clear reflection of her inner soul immersed into an aura of refined art and polished beauty. Altogether a gift for which she herself thanked the Muses:

Theirs is all the merit, if clever
I can claim myself in something,
because their own art they gave me as a gift

Sappho was definitely the expression of the ancient Greek temperament and pragmatism, though influenced by Ionian tones and oriental sensibility:

To die is awful: this is
what the Gods actually think.
Or else they would be mortal too.

I love the way she stated quite firmly and clearly her life’s priorities:

Some say the fairest thing on the black earth

is a host of horsemen,
Some say a host of infantry,
others say a fleet of ships
but for me
It is my beloved one.

And additionally:

Beauty I have served,
could there had been
anything else
greater than that?

Thus undoubtedly her supreme goals in life were love and art. Love with its lust, illusions, bliss and disappointments to be combined with her art in pursuing beauty; and this continuous osmotic process became Sappho’s raison d’etre. Living is feeling and feeling is living. Art and love: a continuous transfusion of her life into her verses and a magic blend of lines and rhymes into her life:

She honoured you like a goddess
And delighted in your choral dance.
Now she is pre-eminent among the ladies of Lydia
As the rose-rayed moon after the sinking of the Sun
Surpasses all the stars and spreads it’s light upon the sea
And the flowers of the fields
To beautify the spreading dew, freshen roses
Soft chervil and the flowering maillots …..

Restless, she remembers gentle Atthis -
Perhaps her subtle judgement is burdened
By your fate …..

And more straightforward and effectively:

Love shook my heart
Like the mountain wind
Falls upon trees of oak ….

Or like in this wonderful statement of devotion; this declaration of love, that certainly needs no comment at all:

Awed by her brightness
Stars near the beautiful moon
Cover their own shining faces
When she lights earth
With her silver brilliance
Of love ….

Furthermore Sappho wrote about love not simply and solely by portraying the idyllic moments of contemplation and rhyming, but also the most ardent and passionate feelings and instincts that only desire can originate:

Once again, desire -
That looser of limbs and bitterly sweet -
Makes me to tremble
You are irresistible ….

And again:

I wish this night would never end
I wish this could become two nights in a row

Only another character outstands for her plainly affirmed choice, and for her firm devotion to love and art: the singer Floria Tosca – protagonist of the celebrated Puccini’s Opera. How desperately, and yet delicately, she sings when, in one of the most touching arias ever, she complains about her sad, terrible destiny after an entire life she had dedicated only to art and love. Nothing else vile and earthy had ever appealed her at all, and this notwithstanding her fate has not been just with her – but alas! We all know that unluckily life is not supposed to be necessarily fair:

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
Non feci mai male ad anima viva!
Con man furtiva
Quante miserie conobbi, aiutai.
Sempre con fe’ sincera
La mia preghiera
Ai santi Tabernacoli salì,
Sempre con fe’ sincera
Diedi fiori agli altar.
Nell’ora del dolore perché Signore,
Perché me ne remuneri così?
Diedi gioielli
Della Madonna al manto,
E diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel,
Che ne ridean più belli.
Nell’ora del dolor
Perché Signore,
Perché me ne remuneri così?

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Even when Sappho got older (in those days a woman in her fifties was already aged) she never regretted or felt any remorse for a life devoted to art and love, if not lamenting the forces that were inevitably abandoning her:

Age seizes my skin and turns my hair
From black to white:
My knees no longer bear me
And I am unable to dance again
Like a fawn.
What could I do? I am not ageless:
My youth is gone.
Red-robed Dawn, immortal goddess,
Carried Tithanus to earth’s end
Yet age seized him
Despite the gift from his immortal lover ….
I love delicate softness:
For me, love has brought the brightness
And the beauty of the sun ….

Finally, I love to believe that Sappho from the heights of her poetry and with the wisdom of all her experience wishes us all what she considers the most important accomplishment on earth:

May you sleep safe on the chest
of your tender life-companion…

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Books: love and hatred

It is very difficult to describe in depth and in detail my great love for books, nevertheless I am sure that those who are true book-lovers can understand and acknowledge the kind of feelings and emotions books can inspire: that fantastic sense of immanence and overpower when entering in a new huge library, the petty curiosity of surfing through the book-shelves in somebody’s apartment, the silly delight of cherishing and peeping at a newly bought volume still in its shop-bag and the happiness when removing its shrink-wrap and then inhaling the fresh scent of ink and paper perusing its untainted pages, the pleasure of feeling lost in time while sitting comfortably and exploring colourful art-book pages in a tiny but familiar bookstore and the bliss of having unexpectedly found an old book browsing through a flea-market. As well as I am sure that real book-lovers will understand me when I say that the only sad consideration about books I can think of is the overwhelming question that I often ask to myself and that, alas! already contains a despondent answer: “will I ever be able to read them all”?

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As a logical consequence I truly understand, love and strongly sympathise with Don Quixote: an extraordinary sensitive personality, a remarkably imaginative soul endowed with an indescribable delicate spirit and a rare generous heart. I am really fond of this intense and emotional man who went “mad” – albeit, can we actually and really call it madness? – because of avidly reading about armoured heroes, sweetest and candid damsels, fierce combats and noble duels and thus losing his sense of reality:

En resolución, él se enfrascó tanto en su letura, que se le pasaban las noches leyendo de claro en claro, y los días de turbio en turbio; y así, del poco dormir y del mucho leer, se le secó el celebro, de manera que vino a perder el juicio. Llenósele la fantasía de todo aquello que leía en los libros, así de encantamentos como de pendencias, batallas, desafíos, heridas, requiebros, amores, tormentas y disparates imposibles; y asentósele de tal modo en la imaginación que era verdad toda aquella máquina de aquellas soñadas invenciones que leía, que para él no había otra historia más cierta en el mundo.

Thus consequently and eventually he, a quiet and inoffensive squire, resolved to start a brand new life as a wandering knight, facing any sort of perils with the noblest of the intents: defending the distressed ones; and concomitantly receive honour and glory:

En efeto, rematado ya su juicio, vino a dar en el más estraño pensamiento que jamás dio loco en el mundo; y fue que le pareció convenible y necesario, así para el aumento de su honra como para el servicio de su república, hacerse caballero andante, y irse por todo el mundo con sus armas y caballo a buscar las aventuras y a ejercitarse en todo aquello que él había leído que los caballeros andantes se ejercitaban, deshaciendo todo género de agravio, y poniéndose en ocasiones y peligros donde, acabándolos, cobrase eterno nombre y fama.

The power of books is boundless, as the power of love, as Don Quixote does not simply find inspiration in his readings, he does not solely feel delight by recalling and quoting by heart his books and he does not merely seek for comfort when immerging himself in those written adventures; he actually finds in his beloved volumes, verses and novels the strength to face the reality, his sad reality – of course in his own extravagant way – and by either imitating or even impersonating their protagonists he is literally able to cope with and overcome the difficulties and pains that his ordinary countryside life brings along:

Viendo, pues, que, en efeto, no podía menearse, acordó de acogerse a su ordinario remedio, que era pensar en algún paso de sus libros; y trújole su locura a la memoria aquel de Valdovinos y del marqués de Mantua, cuando Carloto le dejó herido en la montiña, historia sabida de los niños, no ignorada de los mozos, celebrada y aun creída de los viejos; y, con todo esto, no más verdadera que los milagros de Mahoma. Ésta, pues, le pareció a él que le venía de molde para el paso en que se hallaba; y así, con muestras de grande sentimiento, se comenzó a volcar por la tierra y a decir con debilitado aliento lo mesmo que dicen decía el herido caballero del bosque: -¿Donde estás, señora mía, que no te duele mi mal? O no lo sabes, señora, o eres falsa y desleal.

Y, desta manera, fue prosiguiendo el romance hasta aquellos versos que dicen: ¡Oh noble marqués de Mantua, mi tío y señor carnal! Y quiso la suerte que, cuando llegó a este verso, acertó a pasar por allí un labrador de su mesmo lugar y vecino suyo, que venía de llevar una carga de trigo al molino; el cual, viendo aquel hombre allí tendido, se llegó aél y le preguntó que quién era y qué mal sentía que tan tristemente se quejaba. Don Quijote creyó, sin duda, que aquél era el marqués de Mantua, su tío; y así, no le respondió otra cosa si no fue proseguir en su romance,donde le daba cuenta de su desgracia y de los amores del hijo del Emperante con su esposa, todo de la mesma manera que el romance lo canta.

El labrador estaba admirado oyendo aquellos disparates; y, quitándole la visera, que ya estaba hecha pedazos de los palos, le limpió el rostro, que le tenía cubierto de polvo; y apenas le hubo limpiado, cuando le conoció yle dijo: -Señor Quijana -que así se debía de llamar cuando él tenía juicio y no había pasado de hidalgo sosegado a caballero andante-, ¿quién ha puesto a vuestra merced desta suerte?Pero él seguía con su romance a cuanto le preguntaba.

In truth Don Quixote’s love for books is amply counterbalanced by his household members’ hate against the volumes he covets in his library. This base and wicked hatred masterly portrays the ever existed revulsion of the uneducated and especially of the insensitive ones against literature and figurative arts. They eventually will decide – while Don Quixote is asleep – to burn almost his entire precious book collection once and for all, blaming his mental distress on the books; but in my opinion they perform this unforgivable murder more credibly for both the sake and the shame of their ignorance and absolute lack of sensibility: something to a certain extent also confirmed by observing that the chief inquisitors of this innocent volumes’ death sentence are the barber and the vicar, and their actual executioner is the house-keeper:

…nuestro ingenioso hidalgo el cual aún todavía dormía. Pidió las llaves, a la sobrina, del aposento donde estaban los libros, autores del daño, y ella se las dio de muy buena gana. Entraron dentro todos, y la ama con ellos, y hallaron más de ciencuerpos de libros grandes, muy bien encuadernados, y otros pequeños; y, asícomo el ama los vio, volvióse a salir del aposento con gran priesa, y tornóluego con una escudilla de agua bendita y un hisopo, y dijo:“Tome vuestra merced, señor licenciado: rocíe este aposento, no esté aquí algún encantador de los muchos que tienen estos libros, y nos encanten, en pena de las que les queremos dar echándolos del mundo.”

The “Household Inquisition” in order to complete this shameful expurgation process builds a wall where the library door was previously located; thus I can imagine and share, like any book-lover who lost his/her volumes would, Don Quixote’s panic and desolation for losing his library. When he wakes up – of course his first thought is to go to his library and meet his beloved books – he finds out that the objects of his love are not there any more or probably they never existed, which is even worse:

Uno de los remedios que el cura y el barbero dieron, por entonces, para el mal de su amigo, fue que le murasen y tapiasen el aposento de los libros, porque cuando se levantase no los hallase -quizá quitando la causa, cesaría el efeto-, y que dijesen que un encantador se los había llevado, y el aposento y todo; y así fue hecho con mucha presteza. De allí a dos días se levantó don Quijote, y lo primero que hizo fue ir a ver sus libros; y, como no hallaba el aposento donde le había dejado, andaba de una en otra parte buscándole. Llegaba adonde solía tener la puerta, y tentábala con las manos, y volvía y revolvía los ojos por todo, sin decir palabra; pero, al cabo de una buena pieza, preguntó a su ama que hacia qué parte estaba el aposento de sus libros. El ama, que ya estaba bien advertida de lo que había de responder, le dijo:

“¿Qué aposento, o qué nada, busca vuestra merced? Ya no hay aposento ni libros en esta casa, porque todo se lo llevó el mesmo diablo.”

The grave and sad mourning of the author for the sin that has been committed sounds like a strong denounce tout court against culture enemies of all times:

Aquella noche quemó y abrasó el ama cuantos libros había en el corral y en toda la casa, y tales debieron de arder que merecían guardarse en perpetuos archivos

Fortunately hatred – to which naturally I join also shallow ignorance or ignoble insensitiveness – against books and fine arts in general does not necessarily always bring true talents to death. On the contrary the remarkably unfavourable attitude and harsh adverse treatment of some authors and their productions oftentimes have brought to quite opposite results: making a famous martyr of a truly gifted artist and a long-lasting masterpiece of his memorable compositions:

“libros per aedilis cremandos censuere patres: set manserunt, occultati et editi. quo magis socordiam eorum inridere libet qui praesenti potentia credunt extingui posse etiam sequentis aevi memoriam. nam contra punitis ingeniis gliscit auctoritas, neque aliud externi reges aut qui eadem saevitia usi sunt nisi dedecus sibi atque illis gloriam peperere” [Tacitus]

Besides, ultimately I am firmly convinced that all those who believe that they can extinguish a true passion by simply sending far away its source, and defeat a true love by either moving its protagonist out of sight or out of reach, have never felt real passion or love at all, and for this I truly pity them:

Γιατί τα σπάσαμε τ’ αγάλματά των,
γιατί τους διώξαμε απ’ τους ναούς των,
διόλου δεν πέθαναν γι’ αυτό οι θεοί.
[K.P. Kavafis]
[Even if they smash their statues
or chase them away from their temples
this won’t mean that the Gods are dead.]

Dedicated to…

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