The death of Philip II: a cold case


The death of Philip II of Macedonia is permeated by particularly mystifying circumstances and most likely was only partly influenced by previous events occurred a few years before and more likely due to political and dynastical motives. According to the tradition a Macedon nobleman Pausania (one of Philip’s bodyguards) had profoundly offended a young man who, in consequence to the humiliation had taken his own life. In vengeance one of his friends, Attalus, was behind a serious degrading offence against Pausania. When Pausania demanded justice to Philip II, being the king related to Attalus he did not executed any punishment and limited his intervention by trying to sooth Pausania’s rage with significant gifts. Unfortunately Philip did not realise the vindictive temperament of his safeguard as in 336 b.C. during his daughter’s wedding Pausania murdered his king. Diodorus reports in fact:

“Pausanias, nevertheless, nursed his wrath implacably, and yearned to avenge himself, not only on the one who had done him wrong, but also on the one who failed to avenge him. In this design he was encouraged especially by the sophist Hermocrates. He was his pupil, and when he asked in the course of his instruction how one might become most famous, the sophist replied that it would be by killing the one who had accomplished most, for just as long as he was remembered, so long his slayer would be remembered also.

Pausanias connected this saying with his private resentment, and admitting no delay in his plans because of his grievance he determined to act under cover of the festival in the following manner.

He posted horses at the gates of the city and came to the entrance of the theatre carrying a Celtic dagger under his cloak. When Philip directed his attending friends to precede him into the theatre, while the guards kept their distance, he saw that the king was left alone, rushed at him, pierced him through his ribs, and stretched him out dead; then ran for the gates and the horses which he had prepared for his flight”.

In truth the preliminary accident seems to have happened years before the king’s homicide, thus apparently Pausanias had lingered quite a while before pursuing his reprisal; coincidentally – is it truly a coincidence?  As it seems that the murder occurred in a crucial moment for Alexander to take over and become then The Great. By the by, there is no trace of a sophist named Hermocrates, unless this character coincides with an effective syntactician of that age. Actually, in spite of Diodorus’ reticence, Justin in his Epitome of Pompeius Trogus, makes a specific reference to a conspiracy in murder involving Philip’s first wife Olympias and their son Alexander who shared their worries after Philip’s new marriage with Cleopatra and  thus perpetrated remarkable atrocities:

“It is even believed that he was instigated to the act by Olympias, Alexander’s mother, and that Alexander himself was not ignorant that his father was to be killed; as Olympias had felt no less resentment at her divorce, and the preferment of Cleopatra to herself, than Pausanias had felt at the insults which he had received. As for Alexander, it is said that he feared his brother by his step-mother as a rival for the throne; and hence it happened that he had previously quarrelled at a banquet, first with Attalus, and afterwards with his father himself, insomuch that Philip pursued him even with his drawn sword, and was hardly prevented from killing him by the entreaties of his friends. Alexander had in consequence retired with his mother into Epirus, to take refuge with his uncle, and from thence to the king of the Illyrians, and was with difficulty reconciled to his father when he recalled him, and not easily induced by the prayers of his relations to return. Olympias, too, was instigating her brother, the king of Epirus, to go to war with Philip, and would have prevailed upon him to do so, had not Philip, by giving him his daughter in marriage, disarmed him as a son-in-law. With these provocations to resentment, both of them are thought to have encouraged Pausanias, when complaining of his insults being left unpunished, to so atrocious a deed. Olympias, it is certain, had horses prepared for the escape of the assassin; and, when she heard that the king was dead, hastening to the funeral under the appearance of respect, she put a crown of gold, the same night that she arrived, on the head of Pausanias, as he was hanging on a cross; an act which no one but she would have dared to do, as long as the son of Philip was alive. A few days after, she burnt the body of the assassin, when it had been taken down, upon the remains of her husband, and made him a tomb in the same place; she also provided that yearly sacrifices should be performed to his manes, possessing the people with a superstitious notion for the purpose. Next she forced Cleopatra, for whose sake she had been divorced from Philip, to hang herself, having first killed her daughter in her lap, and enjoyed the sight of her suffering this vengeance, to which she had hastened by procuring the death of her husband. Last of all she consecrated the sword, with which the king had been killed, to Apollo, under the name of Myrtale, which was Olympias’s own name when a child. And all these things were done so publicly, that she seems to have been afraid lest it should not be evident enough that the deed was promoted by her”.

Even Plutarch, albeit in a more telegraphic style, corroborates this theory:

“The assassin was Pausanias, who was angry because Philip had refused to give him justice for some injury done to him by Attalus.  But it was Philip’s wife who was the instigator. Olympias took this enraged young man and made him the instrument of her revenge against her husband. Once Philip was out of the way, Olympias tortured her hated young rival, Cleopatra, to death. So, at the age of only twenty, Alexander became king of Macedonia.”

In addition Alexander, to throw into disarray any potential accuser, distinctly directed towards the Persians the suspicions of having arranged the plot; as can be read in a letter reported by Arrian from Alexander to the Persian king Darius that:

“My father was killed by conspirators whom you instigated as you have yourself boasted to all in your letters”

As narrated by Plutarchus, Philip’s assassination was interpreted by the Athenians as a good omen as they felt freed from the threat hovering over their territories, but, as history has subsequently taught this was the very sad beginning of the irreparable end of classic Greece.

“Demosthenes had secret intelligence of the death of Philip, and laying hold of this opportunity to prepossess the people with courage and better hopes for the future, he came into the assembly with a cheerful countenance, pretending to have had a dream that presaged some great good fortune for Athens; and, not long after, arrived the messengers who brought the news of Philip’s death. No sooner had the people received it, but immediately they offered sacrifice to the gods, and decreed that Pausanias should be presented with a crown”.

Yet not only the suspect murderers seem to deserve attention and hideous comments from the historians, as Plutarch deplores also the conduct of Demosthenes under this specific circumstance:

“Demosthenes appeared publicly in a rich dress, with a chaplet on his head, though it were but the seventh day since the death of his daughter, as is said by Aeschines, who upbraids him upon this account, and rails at him as one void of natural affection towards his children. Whereas, indeed, he rather betrays himself to be of a poor, low spirit, and effeminate mind, if he really means to make wailings and lamentation the only signs of a gentle and affectionate nature, and to condemn those who bear such accidents with more temper and less passion. For my own part, I cannot say that the behaviour of the Athenians on this occasion was wise or honourable, to crown themselves with garlands and to sacrifice to the gods for the death of a prince who, in the midst of his success and victories, when they were a conquered people, had used them with so much clemency and humanity.”

It is hardly conceivable – and even otiose – what would have occurred to the destiny of Greece, Asia and Europe if Philip had not been assassinated. Yet his personality and greatness seemed coupled with more wisdom and moderation than his son Alexander, and perhaps, perhaps the history and geography of Greek poleis would have been quite different. Again Diodorus:

“Such was the end of Philip, who had made himself the greatest of the kings in Europe in his time, and because of the extent of his kingdom had made himself a throned companion of the twelve gods. He had ruled twenty-four years. He is known to fame as one who with but the slenderest resources to support his claim to a throne won for himself the greatest empire in the Greek world, while the growth of his position was not due so much to his prowess in arms as to his adroitness and cordiality in diplomacy.

Philip himself is said to have been prouder of his grasp of strategy and his diplomatic successes than of his valour in actual battle. Every member of his army shared in the successes which were won in the field but he alone got credit for victories won through negotiation”.

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.

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.


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?


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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Delos in Ancient Greek poetry

Delos, located in the very centre of the Aegean Sea, was – according to mythology – the birth-place of Apollo and Artemis and therefore was since around 900 B.C. the most significant Pan-Hellenic holy place. There are archaeological proofs that the island was inhabited before the Bronze Age and several ruins of Mycenaean civilisation have been found. A famous Sanctuary for over 1000 years and even a tax haven under the jurisdiction of Athens by will of the Roman Empire during the II century B.C., Delos has progressively decayed and is now practically uninhabited. It actually strikes the present days’ visitor surely wondering how could this little (less than 3,5 square miles) stony island be called Asteria (the Star) and be such a holy and rich place 2500 years ago. Nevertheless this flat round rock, midway between Athens and Crete, as well as equidistant from continental Greece and the past Ionian Colonies, in spite of its bare, rocky and poor landscape has inspired some of the most famous verses of the ancient Greek poetry. Moreover, many cities and lands are devoted and supposed to belong to Apollo, but he mainly delights in Delos, where the Ionians are gathered together with song and dance in his honour.


In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (probably one of the two earliest hymns, possibly composed around the eighth century B.C.) the birth of Apollo takes place in Delos as Lato (pregnant of Zeus) has been rejected by every other place: for no land wants to guests this tremendous event. Thus She begs the island of Delos to allow he to deliver the baby Apollo on its land.

Delos, if you would be willing to be the abode of my son Phoebus Apollo and make him a rich temple; for no other will touch you, as you will find: and I think you will never be rich in oxen and sheep, nor bear vintage nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and incessant savour of rich sacrifice will always arise, and you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers; for truly your own soil is not rich.

And the island responds:

Leto, daughter most renowned of mighty Coeus, right gladly would I welcome the birth of the Archer Prince, for verily of me there goes an evil report among men, and thus would I wax mightiest of renown. But at this Word, Leto, I tremble, nor will I hide it from thee, for the saying is that Apollo will be mighty of mood, and mightily will lord it over mortals and immortals far and wide over the earth, the grain-giver.

Therefore, I deeply dread in heart and soul lest, when first he looks upon the sunlight, he disdain my island, for rocky of soil am I, and spurn me with his feet and drive me down in the gulfs of the salt sea. Then should a great sea-wave wash mightily above my head for ever, but he will fare to another land, which so pleases him, to fashion him a temple and groves of trees. But in me would many-footed sea-beasts and black seals make their chambers securely, no men dwelling by me. Nay, still, if thou hast the heart, Goddess, to swear a great oath that here first he will build a beautiful temple, to be the shrine oracular of men–thereafter among all men let him raise him shrines, since his renown shall be the widest.

Leto’s delivery was somehow delayed by the jealousy of Hera; however eventually Eilithyia came and the goddess was able to bring forth her son. He immediately breaks open his swaddling-bands and alleges his characteristics: the bow, the lyre and naturally the endowment of divination.

The island’s fascination is magisterially chanted by Pindar, in a superb homage to Delos in his Hymn to Zeus – of which we unfortunately have only fragments – this was its overture:

Shall we sing of Ismenus or of Melia of the golden distaff,
Or of Cadmus, or the strong spirit of the Spartoi,
Or Thebe with the dark blue headband,
Or of the daring strength of Heracles,
Or the joyful majesty of Dionysus
Or the wedding of white armed Harmonia?

Pindar names the island Asteria, star, as the island shines surrounded by the blue ocean. Somehow the poet tries to invert the perspective: as we humans behold the stars from the earth, the Gods from heavens perceive the islands in the blue ocean as shining stars – and Delos is the shiniest of them all. Pindar – as almost every V century B.C. Greek poet – seldom lingers on scenarios and natural descriptions, and yet this unusual parallelism is widely recognised as one of the finest pages of ancient literature. Pindar uses this poem also as a philosophical interpretation of complementarities between human and heavenly environments and lives. In a sort of Heraclites approach focused on vital tensions, interrelations that unite, divide and eventually compose every living being and thing. Additionally Pindar underlines these concepts as Zeus decides to change chaos into kosmos i.e. progressively, uncertainty and irregularity are transformed into harmony and beauty, thus the earth and the world achieve their perfection. Well almost: men are all insensitive, ungrateful and easily forget the greatness of Gods, therefore the Muses (daughters of Mnemosyne) were given by the gods to men as reminder companions.

In the Alexandrine period Delos is also protagonist of Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos, a long and Homeric style hymn composed together with the Hymn to Artemis. The Island is praised as birthplace of the two Gods (Apollo and Artemis). Callimachus encomiastically compares Delos to Kos, which is Philadelpho’s birthplace. Again Leto’s wanderings are the commencement for the accomplishment of Apollo’s birth prophecy focuses on the great interest of the audience in sacred rites, sexual purity and locations and celebrates the island’s holiness:

Golden then, Delos, were all your foundations, with gold the circular lake flowed all day, golden the leaves of your birthday olive, and with gold flowed the twisting Inopos in full flood.

The Hymn to Delos strictly parallels the first part of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, and can be considered a sort of revival of this classic poem, although enriched by ironical tone and erudite allusions and refined annotations, perfectly typical of the Hellenistic poetry. As for instance when Apollo explains to his mother why Kos is not suitable to become his birthplace, as someone else (who is supposed to patronise Callimachus…) is meant to be born there:

But for her the fates have due another god,
Most high lineage of the Saviours, beneath the crown
Shall come, quite willing to be subject to Macedonian,
Both continents and lands in the sea
So far as the end of the West and whence swift horses
Carry the sun. And shall know his father ways

Thus, surprisingly, for several centuries the rather hostile and unattractive island of Delos has inspired sublime poetry and religious commitment and hopes. In my opinion the truth is that the ancient Greeks – very resourceful brilliant minds – were able to build point of reference out of anything, they were capable to envisage a “vanishing point” that would allow them to regain their firmness and then rule their own life and spirituality – even in spite of the whimsical Gods’ overwhelming power; and to set one of these vanishing points in Delos was not probably casual: where men can feel more at loss than on a little rock in the middle of nowhere surrounded by the wine dark sea?

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