Merciful Odysseus absolves his loyal servants

In book 22nd of Odyssey Ulysses massacres one hundred and eight of his wife’s suitors, dreadfully hangs to death twelve of his unfaithful maid-servants and sentences to an horrible death his goatherd who had been a traitor. Unquestionably a carnage and an unmerciful sequence of actions where revenge and justice, though barbaric to our modern view and custom, duly follow – as I have tried to clarify in my latest articles – a code of honour deep-rooted in those societies and in those days. However, as it has brightly noted and pointed out by one of my readers, Odysseus spares Medon and Phemius’ lives even though both of them, regardless being members of his oikos, had proved to be disloyal to their king and master during the interminable suers’ siege.

The former, Phemius, is one of those minstrels who used to sing in order to entertain with their stories. It is worth mentioning that normally those bards were nomadic artists who used to perform anywhere there was any audience available, thus typically squares, marketplaces, harbours and inns. Some of them were highly successful and some were also punished when fame, as well as it most commonly happens also nowadays to stars, overtook their wits..

“the Muses met Thamyris the Thracian [a very famous bard] and made an end of his singing, even as he was journeying from Oechalia, from the house of Eurytus the Oechalian: for he vaunted with boasting that he would conquer, were the Muses themselves to sing against him, the daughters of Zeus that beareth the aegis; but they in their wrath maimed him, and took from him his wondrous song, and made him forget his minstrelsy”

Sometimes, if lucky enough and truly deserving, minstrels stopped and were almost permanently hosted in royal palaces – which is our case. In fact what makes Phemius guilty is the circumstance that he is one of those few non-itinerant minstrels who permanently resided and lived within a king’s court, thus becoming an active part of his oikos and subject to its rules like any other member. As member of the oikos Phemius benefited of several advantages; first of all in terms of protection, which was quite a priceless commodity in those days of brigands, unwritten laws and brutally – and rather inconsistently – administered justice; moreover Phemius had a granted roof and enough food to support himself. Clearly this safe and unwavering status corresponded to a total acquiescence to his patron

Regrettably during his king’s long absence Phemius chanted and told stories to entertain the suers throughout their banquets within his master’s very palace. Sometimes he also sang tales about the war of Troy and the nostoi of its heroes (the adventures of their way back) to amuse the bold usurpers and yet, just because of the sadness of the subject, of course unbearably unpleasant to his Queen Penelope.

For them the famous minstrel was singing, and they sat in silence listening; and he sang of the return of the Achaeans—the woeful return from Troy which Pallas Athena laid upon them. And from her upper chamber the daughter of Icarius, wise Penelope, heard his wondrous song, and she went down the high stairway from her chamber, not alone, for two handmaids attended her. Now when the fair lady had come to the wooers, she stood by the door-post of the well-built hall, holding before her face her shining veil; and a faithful handmaid stood on either side of her. Then she burst into tears, and spoke to the divine minstrel: “Phemius, many other things thou knowest to charm mortals, deeds of men and gods which minstrels make famous. Sing them one of these, as thou sittest here, and let them drink their wine in silence. But cease from this woeful song which ever harrows the heart in my breast, for upon me above all women has come a sorrow not to be forgotten. So dear a head do I ever remember with longing, even my husband, whose fame is wide through Hellas and mid-Argos.”

Certainly Phemius never took part to any of the outrageous actions of the suitors, albeit he passively kept performing his duties at request and to the delight of illegitimately arrogating people different from his master. Thus, having seen the unfortunate punishment of his fellows the poor bard tries to beg for mercy representing that somehow he was restrained by the circumstances, and unwillingly he could not but comply:

“the minstrel, was still seeking to escape black fate, even Phemius, who sang perforce among the wooers. He stood with the clear-toned lyre in his hands near the postern door, and he was divided in mind whether he should slip out from the hall and sit down by the well-built altar of great Zeus, the God of the court, whereon Laertes and Odysseus had burned many things of oxen, or whether he should rush forward and clasp the knees of Odysseus in prayer. And as he pondered this seemed to him the better course, to clasp the knees of Odysseus, son of Laertes. So he laid the hollow lyre on the ground between the mixing-bowl and the silver-studded chair, and himself rushed forward and clasped Odysseus by the knees, and made entreaty to him, and spoke winged words: “By thy knees I beseech thee, Odysseus, and do thou respect me and have pity; on thine own self shall sorrow come hereafter, if thou slayest the minstrel, even me, who sing to gods and men. Self-taught am I, and the god has planted in my heart all manner of lays, and worthy am I to sing to thee as to a god; wherefore be not eager to cut my throat. Aye, and Telemachus too will bear witness to this, thy dear son, how that through no will or desire of mine I was wont to resort to thy house to sing to the wooers at their feasts, but they, being far more and stronger, led me hither perforce.”

Telemachus, who had witnessed the minstrel’s conduct takes the stand and intercedes in his favour, joining his plead; furthermore he includes in the begging for mercy also for the poor Medon, the herald:

“Stay thy hand, and do not wound this guiltless man with the sword. Aye, and let us save also the herald, Medon, who ever cared for me in our house, when I was a child, unless perchance Philoetius has already slain him, or the swineherd, or he met thee as thou didst rage through the house.”

In fact Medon, although not really guilty of any disloyal behaviour, was in any case hiding from his master’s rage and castigation; can finally come out from his hiding place:

“Medon, wise of heart, heard him, for he lay crouching beneath a chair, and had clothed himself in the skin of an ox, newly flayed, seeking to avoid black fate. Straightway he rose from beneath the chair and stripped off the ox-hide, and then rushed forward and clasped Telemachus by the knees, and made entreaty to him, and spoke winged words: “Friend, here I am; stay thou thy hand and bid thy father stay his, lest in the greatness of his might he harm me with the sharp bronze in his wrath against the wooers, who wasted his possessions in the halls, and in their folly honoured thee not at all”.

To this appeals Ulysses, benevolently, surrenders and spares both servants’ lives:

“Odysseus of many wiles smiled, and said to him: “Be of good cheer, for he has delivered thee and saved thee, that thou mayest know in thy heart and tell also to another, how far better is the doing of good deeds than of evil. But go forth from the halls and sit down outside in the court away from the slaughter, thou and the minstrel of many songs, till I shall have finished all that I must needs do in the house.”

It is significant that both servants plead their innocence and blame any of their ambiguous actions on the conflicting conditions within the under siege oikos and their obvious fear for the suers’ reactions. Thus their reluctant involvement to any possible wrongdoing was induced only by the psychological  and physical pressure exerted by the suitors. Consequently it may be argued that Odysseus had a different behaviour towards Phemius and Medon compared to his unmerciful decision after Leiodes’ (the suitors’ soothsayer) practically identical appeal:

“Leiodes rushed forward and clasped the knees of Odysseus, and made entreaty to him, and spoke winged words: “By thy knees I beseech thee, Odysseus, and do thou respect me and have pity. For I declare to thee that never yet have I wronged one of the women in thy halls by wanton word or deed; nay, I sought to check the other wooers, when any would do such deeds. But they would not hearken to me to withhold their hands from evil, wherefore through their wanton folly they have met a cruel doom. Yet I, the soothsayer among them, that have done no wrong, shall be laid low even as they; so true is it that there is no gratitude in aftertime for good deeds done.”

Yet, to a more attentive analysis, the two decisions are only apparently contradictory. The circumstances, the scenario and the personal position of each single pleader (and under which his actions were performed) play a significant role solely within the framework of the administration of justice within Odysseus’ oikos – but are irrelevant to Odysseus’ vendetta. Ulysses administers his domestic justice to restore the order within his oikos. He analyses different levels of guilt and consequent nuances of punishments and forgiveness, by this setting also precedents:

“and that thou mayest know in thy heart and tell also to another, how far better is the doing of good deeds than of evil.”

When instead it comes to revenge, as I have already described, it’s the act itself that essentially wounds the honour – regardless the circumstances and the willingness of the wrongdoer. Intentions and motives pertain to the sphere of justice, which by definition cannot be applied to Leiodes who is not a member of the oikos, and unfortunately for him the vengeance paradigm admits no gradations between slaughter and financial compensation

Odysseus judge and executioner

In my last post I have been analysing the revenge perpetrated by Odysseus against Penelope’s suers at his return to Ithaca. He showed no mercy to anyone and savagely slain 108 individuals:

“These men here has the fate of the gods destroyed and their own reckless deeds, for they honoured no one of men upon the earth, were he evil or good, whosoever came among them; wherefore by their wanton folly they brought on themselves a shameful death”.

Yet our hero has not fully performed his offended king’s “duties” as loyalty within the oikos needs now to be assessed and punishment to the unfaithful must be performed; thus more blood and pitiless actions will take place under his orders. Nevertheless a totally different approach will lead him in administering justice within the saddened walls of his own palace.

Twelve of his fifty servants, have shown  disrespect to Penelope and Telemachus, and worse of all they have become concubines of the suers, thus violating their oikos duty of sexual fidelity towards their king:

“But come, name thou over to me the women in the halls, which ones dishonour me and which are guiltless.” Then the dear nurse Eurycleia answered him: “Then verily, my child, will I tell thee all the truth. Fifty women servants hast thou in the halls, women that we have taught to do their work, to card the wool and bear the lot of slaves. Of these twelve in all have set their feet in the way of shamelessness, and regard not me nor Penelope herself. And Telemachus is but newly grown to manhood, and his mother would not suffer him to rule over the women servants.”

Odysseus summons the twelve unfaithful women and orders them to move away the slain bodies and clean up the still bleeding hall, floor and furniture; regrettably this is not at all their punishment:

“But when they had set in order all the hall, they led the women forth from the well-built hall to a place between the dome and the goodly fence of the court, and shut them up in a narrow space, whence it was in no wise possible to escape. Then wise Telemachus was the first to speak to the others, saying: “Let it be by no clean death that I take the lives of these women, who on my own head have poured reproaches and on my mother, and were wont to lie with the wooers.”

The disloyal concubines were all hanged to death:

“…tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship to a great pillar and flung it round the dome, stretching it on high that none might reach the ground with her feet. And as when long-winged thrushes or doves fall into a snare that is set in a thicket, as they seek to reach their resting-place, and hateful is the bed that gives them welcome, even so the women held their heads in a row, and round the necks of all nooses were laid, that they might die most piteously. And they writhed a little while with their feet, but not long.”

The maid-servants were not the only people of the oikos who had betrayed and been punished. Melanthius, his goatherd, had been repeatedly helping the suitors, even supplying them with weapons during the feral revenge of Ulysses:

“Then Melanthius, the goatherd, answered him: “It may not be, Agelaus, fostered of Zeus, for terribly near is the fair door of the court, and the mouth of the passage is hard. One man could bar the way for all, so he were valiant. But come, let me bring you from the store-room arms to don, for it is within, methinks, and nowhere else that Odysseus and his glorious son have laid the arms.” So saying, Melanthius, the goatherd, mounted up by the steps of the hall to the store-rooms of Odysseus. Thence he took twelve shields, as many spears, and as many helmets of bronze with thick plumes of horsehair, and went his way, and quickly brought and gave them to the wooers.”

And he was stopped by Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd, who offers to Ulysses to kill him:

“But Melanthius, the goatherd, went again to the store-room to bring beautiful armour; howbeit the goodly swineherd marked him, and straightway said to Odysseus who was near: “Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, yonder again is the pestilent fellow, whom we ourselves suspect, going to the store-room. But do thou tell me truly, shall I slay him, if I prove the better man, or shall I bring him hither to thee, that the fellow may pay for the many crimes that he has planned in thy house?”

Ulysses was still fighting against the suers, therefore it is Eumaeus who is appointed to chase, capture and execute the traitor:

“I and Telemachus will keep the lordly wooers within the hall, how fierce soever they be, but do you two bend behind him his feet and his arms above, and cast him into the store-room, and tie boards behind his back; then make fast to his body a twisted rope, and hoist him up the tall pillar, till you bring him near the roof-beams, that he may keep alive long, and suffer grievous torment.”

Eumaeus, helped by another swineherd, did then perform his duty in full accordance with his master’s instructions and did leave the traitor tied up with a mortal rope:

“then the two sprang upon him and seized him. They dragged him in by the hair, and flung him down on the ground in sore terror, and bound his feet and hands with galling bonds, binding them firmly behind his back, as the son of Laertes bade them, the much enduring, goodly Odysseus; and they made fast to his body a twisted rope, and hoisted him up the tall pillar, till they brought him near the roof-beams.”

It is quite remarkable that the chastisement is in both cases decided by Odysseus, but performed by others. Unlike his “vendetta” – which is carried out personally by Odysseus, when it come to administering justice in his own reign our hero issues his “sentence” and then dispatches servants to summon the culprits and perform the unfaltering punishment.

Furthermore, it is worth noticing that in both cases the tool used for the execution is a “rope” – albeit different kind of chords (a slipknot or tie rope) and used with different method (hanging or fastening). The maid-servants were hanged with a brochos – a noose – which in the Greek world was typical. Women normally chose it (in case of suicide), or were sentenced to death always by hanging. There are numerous examples within the ancient Greek mythology, literature and tragedy that confirm this custom: in a old Rhodian legend reported by Pausania Helen of Troy was hanged as a refugee in Rhodes after Menelaus death in Sparta; Antigone the daughter of the unintentionally incestuous matrimony between King Oedipus of Thebes and his mother Jocasta, took her life by hanging herself in order to prevent her from being buried alive by Creon; and her mother as well, Jocasta who committed suicide once she realised being an incestuous wife:

“And I saw the mother of Oedipodes, fair Epicaste,[Homer version of Jocasta] who wrought a monstrous deed in ignorance of mind, in that she wedded her own son, and he, when he had slain his own father, wedded her, and straightway the gods made these things known among men. Howbeit he abode as lord of the Cadmeans in lovely Thebe, suffering woes through the baneful counsels of the gods, but she went down to the house of Hades, the strong warder. She made fast a noose on high from a lofty beam, overpowered by her sorrow, but for him she left behind woes full many, even all that the Avengers of a mother bring to pass”.

Actually the hanging of a woman was then also considered an aition, a ritual: in Delphi, as Plutarch wrote, every eight years a religious ceremony was performed to commemorate the death of a young girl Charila, who according to the legend had been sacrificed to put an end to a famine in the region; the procession carried a hanged-doll to Charila’s grave; and again Statius in his Thebaid reports of a choir of maidens that, feeling in some kind of danger, decided to escape by hanging themselves:

“cum luderent virgines meditatus ruinam omnis chorus in arborem nucis fugit et in ramo eius pependit”

Another Thessaly ritual, performed on a yearly basis, consisted in several virgins that performed the hanging of a goat. This ritual was linked to the legend of Tartar, a ruthless tyrant of Melitea (a polis of Thessaly) who repeatedly kidnapped and raped young girls from the region, until one of them Aspalis hanged herself to escape his assaults and tortures. Later on her brother, disguised as a maiden, sneaked into the tyrant’s palace and murdered him, thus avenging his sister.

Another rope: this time is the desmos – a strong fastening rope and another punishment is instead arranged for the male-traitor. Unlike the twelve servants, the disloyal goatherd will face a slow and painful death, tied up to a wooden column – the kion. This punishment, which clearly refers to the myths of Sisyphus, Prometheus, Tantalus, and known as apotympanismos, was normally administered to awful criminals being meant to leave them die gradually; and it was widely diffused even in the Pentecontaetian Athens, with the only difference in later days of exposing the sentenced unlawful villains for the public to see and be intimidated. The punishment of women, instead, was and remained along the centuries after Homer a more homely affair, strictly performed and retained within the walls of the oikos – coherently likewise everything referred to Athenian women…

Thus Ulysses, considering his mythological and traditional background, in addition to his well known skills and endowments, within his kingdom seems also a brainy judge, who – although quite briskly – following the unwritten nomoi and his own popular sense of themis – rather not unwisely – administers the justice in Ithaca and dispenses the consequent canonical punishments to the rogues.

Timeless heartless women

As some of my readers have correctly pointed out, not all the courtesans were as kind-hearted and noble souls as Glycera – and this is obviously common sense corroborated by facts… In truth very many are the examples of  such greedy and unscrupulous women which can be found in ancient literature, actually – for the records… – they unquestionably exceed in number the loving and tender-hearted ones. Both ancient Greek and Latin literature profusely portray all different kind of concubines and prostitutes, often by stressing particularly in sarcastic and condemning tones their insatiability for richness, their absolute lack of scruples and their moody disposition and whimsical attitude.

Admittedly though, to their excuse, it must be said they were normally initiated to their art from a very young age often because of financial restraints, as Lucian of Samosata depicts in this following mime between mother Crobyle and daughter Corinna:

CROBYLE: … I want to instruct you how you should behave with men. Take my oath daughter, we have only your favour with men to depend upon for our living. You can’t figure how tough it has been for us to survive since your good father’s death. We lacked nothing when he was alive. He had quite a standing as a blacksmith in the Piræus. Everyone says there will never be another blacksmith like Philipinos. After his death I traded his pincers, forge and hammer for two hundred drachmas. We have lived on that for quite a while. I’ve found a job knitting and turning thread, earning just enough to buy us some bread. I have raised you, however, my beloved little daughter. You are the only hope that is left to me… you will earn a lot of money by being caring to nice young men, drinking in their company and sleep with them – this for money, obviously.

CORINNA: (Scandalized): You imply like Lyra, the daughter of Daphnis?


CORINNA: But she is a courtesan!

CROBYLE: So what? There is no mischief in that. You will become wealthy. You are sure going to have many lovers.

CORINNA: (sobs and cries)

And often in their adolescence, as Alciphron reports in this letter below, they had to fight against their own feelings in so much as the reasons of the heart were eventually defeated by plain financial calculations and crude survival necessities:

“Oh Mother, I am at my wit’s end! It is impracticable for me to marry the young Methymnaean, the pilot’s son, to whom my father recently engaged me, since I have seen this young man from the city, who carried the holy palm branch, when you gave me authorization to go to Athens for the celebrations of the Oschophoria. Ah, mother, how gorgeous he is! how attractive! His locks are curlier than moss; he laughs more agreeably than the sea in a calm; his eyes are cerulean, like the ocean, when the first beams of the rising sun shine upon it. And his whole countenance? You would say that the Graces, having abandoned Orchomenus [city in Beotia], after bathing in the fountain of Gargaphia, had come to frolic around his cheeks. On his lips blossom roses, which he seems to have plucked from Cytherea’s bosom to decorate them. He must either be mine, or, following the example of the Lesbian Sappho, I will throw myself, not from the Leucadian rocks, but from the crags of Piraeus, into the waves.”

And again on the same theme of the conflict between convenience and sentiments Lucianus of Samosata portrays in this dialogue a true lecture of scepticism given by this experienced mother to her too candid – alas! Not for too long I am afraid… – daughter:

MOTHER. …You see how much this boy is bringing us? Not one obol, no clothing, not a pair of sandals, not even a vase of cream has he ever given you; it is all oaths and promises and future prospects; always: “should my father die I shall inherit and everything would be yours”. And thus – as you say – he swears you will become his wife.

MUSARIUM. Oh yes, mother, he swore it, by the two Goddesses and Polias.

MOTHER. And you believe him, without doubt!? So much that the other day, when he had a payment to perform and nothing to pay with, you just gave him your ring without even consulting me, and its value just became drink…

MUSARIUM. He is so beautiful with his smooth chin; and he loves me, and weeps telling me that; and he is the son of Laches the Areopagite and Dinomache; and we shall soon become his real wife and mother-in-law, you know; we have great prospects, if only the old man would kick the bucket.

MOTHER. …They [Musarium’s girlfriends] have more common sense; they know their trade better than to link their faith to the worthless words of a boy with a taste for lover oaths. But you go in for faithfulness and true love, and will have nothing to say to anybody but your Chaereas. There was that farmer from Acharnae the other day; his chin was smooth as well; and he brought us the two minae he had just obtained by selling his father’s wine; but you, oh no sir! You sent him away with scorn; nobody but your Adonis for you….Do you expect to be eighteen all your life Musarium? or that Chaereas will keep his promises once has his patrimony, and his mother finds a match that will bring him another one? You don’t believe he will keep in mind his tears and kisses and promises, with five talents of dowry to distract him.

MUSARIUM Mother, you could not expect me to betray Chaereas and let that horrible worker (yak!) approach me. Poor Chaereas! he is my baby and my pet…

MOTHER. I only hope this all will be true. I shall jog your memory about this when the time comes.

Well, so far the heart seems still to be there. Nonetheless later in their years either pushed by the adversities of their trade and by the difficulties of everyday life, or simply by the growing greediness for a luxurious life, or more likely by the uncertainties of their future associated to the unstoppable sunset of their beauty and the unavoidable decadence of their “body assets”, these women were able to touch the deepest forms of cynicism and behave in the rudest materialistic conduct, as it is depicted in this courtesan’s “blunt” letter (composed by Alciphron) – where she is refusing any further contact with this unlucky and financially ruined lad:

“Why do you waste your time writing me so often? I want fifty gold pieces, not letters. If you do love me, well give them to me; but if you are too attached to your money, don’t bother me. Farewell.”

And especially this other rather “scary” letter, again composed by one of Alciphron’s courtesan-personages in response to a marvellous heart-breaking, full of tears love letter of her unfortunate, sincere, but now “bankrupt”, lover :

“How I wish that a woman’s household could be maintained on tears! I should live majestically, for I know you would keep me lavishly supplied with them; but, as it is, unhappily we want cash, garments, ornaments and maids. Our activities rely exclusively upon this. I have no estates at Myrrhinus, no split in the silver mines; I only depend upon the little gifts I am given, and the favours of silly lovers, squeezed from them with many moans and tears. I have known you now for more than one year, and I am no better for it. My hair is awful; it has not seen any oil all this time. I only wear one Tarentine tunic, so aged and tattered that I am absolutely embarrassed to be seen in it by my friends. I hope I may have better luck! And do you think that, while I stand by you, I shall be capable to find other resources? You weep; be sure that won’t last long. But I shall be fairly starving, unless I can discover a lover to give me something. I question your tears: how ridiculous they are! O Aphrodite! You say, Simalion, that you are crazy in love with a woman, and that you cannot live without her. Well, my friend, have you no precious drinking-cups at home? Has not your mother some jewels? Cannot you get some values belonging to your father? How lucky is Philotis! The Graces have bestowed her with favours. What a great lover she had in Meneclides, who each day presents her with something. That is way better than your tears. And me miserable girl, I have no lover, but a rented mourner, who sends me nothing but flowers and garlands, just like I was to beautify an early tomb for me, and proclaims that he cries all night. Well if you can bring me anything, come and meet me, but please — no tears. Or else, keep your sorrow to yourself, and stop bothering me.

However it is remarkable how avid ruthless women and weak pathetic lovers are to be found throughout literature of all times. Very explicit and hopelessly straightforward, sound the appalling words of the late XIX century Viennese courtesan Josephine Mutzenbacher portrayed by Felix Salten:

If you consider a year has 365 days, and calculating at least three men a day, you get around one thousand and one hundred men a year, thus over thirty thousands in three decades. Quite an army… You cannot pretend I can account for each of those “brushes” who “dusted” me… Ultimately love is a stupid thing. A woman resembles an old fipple pipe, with only a couple of holes from which you can get only two, three notes.”

Naturally a magisterial example of the power exercised by greedy cold-blooded women is Nana – it is simply unforgettable her pitiless conduct and voraciousness for all the riches of Paris pursued by exploiting every single inch of her natural “endowments” and every penny of her ill-fated lovers:

“This was the period of her life when Nana lit up Paris with redoubled splendour. She rose higher than ever on the horizon of vice, dominating the city with her insolent display of luxury and contempt of money which made her openly squander fortunes. Her house had become a sort of glowing forge, where her continual desire burned fiercely and the slightest breath from her lips changed gold into fine ashes which the wind swept away every hour. Nobody had ever seen such a passion for spending. The house seemed to have been built over an abyss in which men were swallowed up – their entire possessions, their bodies, their very names – without leaving even a trace of dust behind them.”

And how to forget the frightful, bitter and dry sense of power and self-contemptuousness of Madam Michèle de Burne, when another unfortunate victim falls into her cage?:

“Restée seule, elle sourit avec une joie victorieuse. Les premiers mots lui avaient suffit pour comprendre que c’était là, enfin, la déclaration d’amour. Il avait résisté bien plus qu’elle n’aurait cru, car depuis trois mois elle le captait avec un grand déploiement de grâce, des attentions et des frais de charme qu’elle n’avait jamais faits pour personne. Il semblait méfiant, prévenu, en garde contre elle, contre l’appât toujours tendu de son insatiable coquetterie. Il avait fallu bien des causeries intimes, où elle avait donné toute la séduction physique de son être, tout l’effort captivant de son esprit…pour qu’elle aperçût enfin dans son oeil cet aveu de l’homme vaincu, la supplication mendiante de la tendresse qui défaille. Elle connaissait si bien cela, la rouée! Elle avait fait naître si souvent, avec une adresse féline et une curiosité inépuisable, ce mal secret et torturant dans les yeux de tous les hommes qu’elle avait pu séduire! Cela l’amusait tant de les sentir envahis peu à peu, conquis, dominés par sa puissance invincible de femme, de devenir pour eux l’Unique, l’Idole capricieuse et souveraine!”

Unquestionably Huysmans vividly – yet very sadly – did synthesise this awful state of affairs within Paris de fin siècle :

“Fathers devoted their lives to their businesses and labours, families devoured one another on the pretext of trade, only to be robbed by their sons who, in turn, allowed themselves to be fleeced by women who posed as sweethearts to obtain their money. In all Paris, from east to west and from north to south, there existed an unbroken chain of female tricksters, a system of organized theft, and all because, instead of satisfying men at once, these women were skilled in the subterfuges of delay.”

Apparently altogether quite a dismaying scenario; thus, along with old wise Monsieur Lamarthe, it can only be simply acknowledged and always born in mind:

“…dans notre jeune société riche, les femmes n’ont envie et besoin de rien et n’ont d’autre désir que d’être un peu distraites, sans dangers à courir…”

Glycera and Menander

I am quite surprised of how many of my readers have emailed me enquiring about the personage of Glycera and especially showing their concern about her response to her lover’s tender appeal (dated 1800 years ago) that I published in my latest post. Glycera was, for what can be inferred, a real character and namely a well-known courtesan (ταραhetaera): in that age a totally distinct role from mere prostitutes who were always slaves and used to work within the numerous brothels opened by law in all the districts of Athens (being the Keramikos and the Pireus – the most famous and crowded). It is also worth mentioning that actually her name (meaning “Sweetie”) was a fairly diffused soubriquet within such industry as well as Boopiscow-eye” (believe it or not a highly valued compliment!), Gnatenajaw” (I spare you any comment on this one…) and Melissabee” (in spite of today’s exceedingly praised skinny top models, ancient Greeks loved large hips). Our Glycera was only one of the several famous courtesans who accompanied eminent personages of her times: e.g. the greatly admired Thespian beauty Phryne and Praxiteles the most famous sculptor of his times; the irresistible Neaira of Corinth and Stephanos a shady Athenian politician; the famous Thaïs and Ptolemy I Soter; the irascible Leontion and the philosopher Epicurus whose relationship is also reported by Diogenes Laërtius, (Διογένης Λαέρτιος ),

“…κα Λεοντίῳ συνεναι τ ταρ….

κα λλαις δ πολλας ταραις γρφειν, κα μλιστα Λεοντίῳ

and of course Lamia and Demetrius I (a.k.a. Poliorcetes), son of Antigonus I Monophthalmus, and King of Athens – this latter couple, in spite of the age difference between the two lovers (let us say she was way more experienced than him…) was apparently a great love and it was also reported by both Athenaeus and Plutarch:

“Lamia, by her own initiative collected money from many people in order to prepare a feast in honour of the King, the dinner was so outstanding for its opulence that Lynceus of Samos [a renowned gastronome] wrote its description from beginning to end”.

And now here goes Glycera’s response:


As soon as I received the King’s letter, I’ve read it. By Demeter Καλλιγενειαν! in whose temple I now stand, I extraordinarily exulted, Menander, being mad with joy, which I could not conceal from my companions. There were with me my mother, my sister Euphorium, and one of my friends whom you know, who has often supped with you, and whose Attic dialect you so much-admired, but as if you were half afraid to congratulate her, whenever I smiled and kissed you more warmly. Don’t you recall, dear Menander?

When they saw the unusual joy in my face, and in my eyes, they asked me, “What amazing good fortune has occurred to you, dear Glycera? You seem transformed in mind, in body, in everything. Happiness beams all over your person; cheerfulness and happy satisfaction spread through your whole being.” I told them, raising my voice and speaking louder, that all who were present might hear me: “Ptolemy, King of Egypt, has invited my Menander to visit him, and promised him the half of his kingdom,” and, at the same time, in proof of this, I shook proudly in the air the letter bearing the royal seal.

“Will you be glad if he leaves you like that?” they all asked. Most certainly, dear Menander, that was not the motive, by all the goddesses. Even if an ox were to speak, to use the words of the proverb, [meaning something impossible to happen] I would never, never believe that Menander would have the heart to leave his Glycera in Athens and be successful all alone in Egypt, in the midst of such opulence.

It was obvious to me, besides, from the King’s letter, which I’ve read, that he well knew about our love relations, and my fondness for you. It seemed to me that he meant to tease you in a Attic way with Egyptian clever remarks. I am thrilled to think that the report of our love has crossed the ocean. The King, from what he has been told, will see the absolute pointlessness of wishing Athens to be transferred to Egypt. For what would Athens be without Menander? What would Menander be without Glycera, who arranges his masks, wears his costumes for him, and awaits standing by the side of the scene to solicit the applause in the theatre, and to join it with her own clapping? Then, may Artemis be my witness! I shiver, then I breathe again, and cling you into my arms, the sacred offspring of comedy. Need I to tell you the reason of the joy I demonstrated before my friends? It was simply the thought that not Glycera alone, but even distant sovereigns love you, and that the celebrity of your qualities has extended across the sea. Egypt, the Nile, the promontory of Proteus, the tower of Pharos, are all full of impatient interest to watch Menander, and to hear the conversations of the misers, the lovers, the superstitious, the sceptics, the fathers, the slaves — in short, all the personages that are showed upon the stage. They may indeed be able to attend to your masterpieces, but those who truly desire to see the dramatist in person will have to come all the way to Athens to me: here they will be witnesses of my delight in the possession of a man whose renown fills the world, and who never leaves my side by day or night.

However, if the promised contentment which awaits you over there has charms for you — by all means, wonderful Egypt, with its pyramids, its resonant statues, its famed labyrinth, and the other marvels of antiquity and art — I implore you, dear Menander, do not let me stand in your way: this would make me detested by all the Athenians, who are already reckoning the bushels of corn which the King, out of regard for you, will bestow upon them [Egypt and Sicily were Attic's most important suppliers of wheat and cereals]. Go, under the blessings of the gods and Fortune, with a propitious wind, and may Zeus be favourable to you! As for me, I will never leave you: do not expect ever to hear me say that; and, even if I wanted to do so, it would be unachievable for me. I will leave my mother and sisters and will join you on board. I feel confident that I shall soon turn out to be a good sailor. If the motion of the oars affects you, and the unpleasantness of sea-sickness, I will tend and look after you. Without any thread, I will guide you, like another Ariadne, to Egypt; although you definitely are not Dionysus himself, but his assistant and priest. I have no fear of being abandoned at Naxos, to lament your disloyalty in the midst of the solitudes of the ocean [clear reference to the legend of Theseus]. What care I for Theseus and the infidelities of the men of ancient times?

No place can change our love, Athens, the Piraeus, or Egypt. There is no country which will not find our love unimpaired: even if we had to live upon a rock, I know that our love would make it the seat of worship. I am convinced that you seek neither money, nor opulence, nor luxury: your happiness consists in the possession of myself and the writing of comedies; but your kinsmen, your country, your friends — all these, you know, have many needs; they all wish to grow rich and to pile up money. Whatever happens, you will have nothing to reproach me with, either great or small, of that I am positive for you have long felt the deepest affection for me, and you have now learnt to judge me aright. This, dearest Menander, is a matter of happiness to me, for I always used to fear the brief duration of a love based upon simple passion. Such a love, though violent it may be, is always easily broken up; but, if it be accompanied by reason, the bonds of affection are drawn tighter, it gains sure possession of its pleasures, and leaves us free from care. Do you, who have often guided me on several occasions, tell me whether I am right in this. But, even if you should not reproach me, I should still have great fear of those Athenian wasps, who would be sure to trouble me on all sides at the moment of my departure, as if I were taking away the wealth of Athens.

Wherefore, dear Menander, I beg you, do not be in to great a rush to respond to the King; think it over a little longer; wait until our meeting and we see our friends Theophrastus [he was Menander's tutor] and Epicurus; for perhaps their view will be different. Or rather, let us offer sacrifice, and see what the entrails of the victims portend: whether they advise us to set out for Egypt or to stay here; and, since Apollo is the god of our nation, let us also send messengers to Delphi, to consult the oracle. Whether we go or remain here, we shall always have an alibi — the will of the gods. Yet, I have a better idea. I know a woman, very clever in all these matters, who has just arrived from Phrygia. She excels in the art of gastromancy [art of divination by reading animals' interiors, especially liver], the stretching of the animals’ fibres, and the nightly evocation of the shades. As I do not believe merely in words, but require acts as well, I will send to her; for she says she must perform an initiatory washing and prepare appropriate animals for the sacrifice, as well as the male frankincense [male incense, considered perfect], the tall styrax [a resin from the homonym tree], the round cakes for the moon ["focaccia" of roundish shape], and some leaves of wild flowers. I think that you have decided to come from the Piraeus; if not, tell me how long you will be able to exist without seeing Glycera, that I may prepare this Phrygian and hasten to you. But perhaps you have already of your own accord considered with yourself how you may slowly fail to remember the Piraeus, your little property, and Munychia.

I indeed can do and endure anything; but you are not equally your own master, since you are entirely wrapped up in me. Even if kings send for you, I am more your queen and mistress than them all, and I consider you as a devoted lover and a most diligent observer of your oath. Therefore, my darling, try to come without delay to the city, so that, in case you change your mind in regard to visiting the King, you may nevertheless have those plays ready which are most likely to please Ptolemy and his Bacchus, no ordinary one, as you know: for instance, either the Thaises, the Misumenos, the Thrasyleon, the Epitrepontes, the Rhapizomene, or the Sicyonian [all titles of famous plays Menander wrote]. But how rash and daring am I to take upon myself to review the compositions of Menander — I, a woman who knows nothing about such matters! But I have a bright master in your love, which has taught me to comprehend even them; you have shown me that any woman, who possesses natural skill, swiftly learns from those she loves, and that love acts with no impediment. I should be embarrassed, by Artemis, if I were to show myself undeserving of such a master by being slow to learn. Nevertheless, dear Menander, I implore you also to get ready that play in which you have depicted myself, so that, even if not present in person, I may sail with you by proxy to the court of Ptolemy; so the King will more unmistakably understand how strong your affection must be, since you take with you at least the written history of the same, although you leave behind you in the city the living object of our affections. But you shall not even leave that behind; you may be certain that I shall apply myself in the mysteries of steering the helm and keeping look-out, until you come back to me from the Piraeus, so that I may safely lead you over the waves with my own hands, if you think it best to go.

I pray all the gods that what may be to the benefit of us both may be revealed, and that the Phrygian may predict what is to our interest even better than your Θεοφοροθμενης [she is referring to "the young lady in divine frenzy" apparently the title of another play she inspired him to write] . Take care.”

What marvellous words of love, sincere admiration and devotion accompany Glycera’s determination in removing any possible barrier and distance conflicting against their love’s fulfilment – she is even willing to learn how to sail! Or to consult a fortune-teller!

No fear, no hesitation, but pure  grand enthusiasm and profound respect for her lover do guide her resolutions. Evidently poor André Mariolle was right when he reckoned during his silent and meditative  – yet useless … – retirement  in Montingy-sur-Long:

“Comme une femme se transforme vite, devient ce qu’il faut qu’elle soit, suivant les désirs de son âme ou les besoins de sa vie!”

Thus Glycera not at all sounds like one of Maupassant’s heroines who unreasonably surrenders to the  early hurdles, weakened by mere appearances and dampened by differences and adversities, albeit regretfully then sighing:

“Oui, [l’amour] c’est la seule bonne chose de la vie, et nous la gâtons souvent par des prétentions impossibles de perfection.”

Dignified slaves, venerable masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EUTHERUS “Oh, not long, of course.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spartan “democratic” experiment

V century B.C. Athens is irrefutably celebrated for being the holy source of Western Culture, the humus into which philosophy and tragedy developed and above all for indisputably representing the very cradle of democracy. Quite as much as Sparta – her most fierce and inextinguishable enemy – is renowned for her warfare excellence, her strictly regimented standard of living and some of her fairly inexplicable inhuman rituals. Nevertheless, analysing VI and V century B.C. Spartan political institutions, it would not be totally inappropriate to admit that even the Lacedaemonians attempted – and to some extent achieved – their own democratic experiment.

Spartan society was divided mainly into three classes, the Omoioi - ὅμοιοι (literally the equals): full right male citizens equally assignees of collectively owned lots of land, the Perioeci – περίοκοί: free inhabitants of Sparta’s outskirts and Laconia coastlines and the Ελωτες – Helots: nearly state’s slaves-land-workers assigned to the Omoioi – these both with no political rights and compelled to military duties. Politically the Spartans had their assembly (Apella) gathering solely the Omoioi; then a consultative-board composed by 28 Elders Γερουσία (Gerousia) whose members were 60 years or older and belonged to the noble class and 2 hereditary Kings: principally endowed with military powers and full control of the army; finally 5 magistrates yearly elected (Ephores) were in charge of the auditing of the laws and the preservation of the integrity of the institutions – they were a true executive body. This framework of Spartan Constitution was attributed to the patient work of a semi-mythological legislator Lycurgus, who produced them in a sort of unmemorable old epoch, wrapped within a mythical aura as the verses of Tyrtaeus portray:

These oracles they from Apollo heard, and brought from Pytho home the perfect word

So – as Plutarch writes – Lycurgus brought from Delphi the oracle’s Rethra:

So eagerly set was he upon this establishment, that he took the trouble to obtain an oracle about it from Delphi, the Rhetra, which runs thus: “After that you have built a temple to Zeus Hellanius, and to Atena Hellania, and after that you have organised the people in phyles, and ordered them into obes, you shall establish a council of thirty elders, the including the archagetai, and shall, from time to time, apellazein the people betwixt Babyca and Cnacion, there propound and put to the vote. The comunity have the final voice and decision. “By phyles and obes are meant the divisions of the people; by the archagetai, the two kings; apellazein, referring to the Pythian Apollo, signifies to assemble; Babyca and Cnacion they now call Oenus; Aristotle says Cnacion is a river, and Babyca a bridge. Betwixt this Babyca and Cnacion, their assemblies were held, for they had no council-house or building, to meet in. Lycurgus deemed that ornaments were so far from advantaging them in their counsels, that they were rather an hindrance, by diverting their attention from the business before them to statues and pictures, and roofs curiously fretted, the usual embellishments of such places amongst the other Greeks. The people then being thus assembled in the open air, it was not allowed to any one of their order to give his advice, but only either to ratify or reject what should be propounded to them by the king or Gerousia. But because it fell out afterwards that the people, by adding or omitting words, distorted and perverted the sense of propositions, kings Polydorus and Theopompus inserted into the Rhetra the following clause: “That if the people talk and decide deceivingly, it should be lawful for the elders and archagetai to dissolve the assembly and dismiss the people as they divert the motions and bias the works and resolutions of the assembly”.

Thus the Apella, (assembly) gathered once a month and admitted every Spartan over 30 years old and held the power to decide and approve whatever motion the kings (archagetai) and the Gerousia might bring to its attention. Similarities with early pre-Pericles Athenian social structure and political-institutional organisation are evident – perhaps more formal than substantial, though: on most matters in the agenda, the Apella had no actual decisional power as the omoioi could approve or express disapproval, but could not speak in the assembly. That right being reserved to the Ephors, Kings and members of Gerousia, left the other citizens with limited opportunity to suggest new ideas. Although even the members to the Athenian assembly (Ecclesia) were rarely truly numerous, and the people who actually took the stand proposing new motions – something which in theory any participant was entitled to – were always the same few well trained demagogues and/or unofficial spokesman of a specific party…

Nonetheless comparisons were made and sameness already in those days was often pointed out, in so much as Isocrates strove to somehow defended the derivation and originality of Athenian democracy:

“ἐγ δμολογ μν ρεν πολλ τν κε καθεσττων, οχ ς Λυκοργου τι τοτων ερντος διανοηθντος, λλς μιμησαμνου τν διοκησιν ς δυνατν ριστα τν τν προγνων τν μετρων, κα τν τε δημοκραταν καταστσαντος παρατος τν ριστοκρατίᾳ μεμιγμνην, περ ν παρμν, κα τς ρχς ο κληρωτς λλαρετς ποισαντος, κα τν γερντων αρεσιν τν πιστατοντων πασι τος πργμασι μετ τοσατης σπουδς ποιεσθαι νομοθετσαντος, μεθσης πρ φασι κα τος μετρους περ τν ες ρειον πγον ναβσεσθαι μελλντων, τι δ κα τν δναμιν ατος περιθντος τν ατν, νπερ δει κα τν βουλν χουσαν τν παρμν.

τι μν ον τν ατν τρπον τκε καθστηκεν σπερ εχε τ παλαιν κα τ παρμν, παρ πολλν σται πυθσθαι τος εδναι βουλομνοις: ς δ κα τν μπειραν τν περ τν πλεμον ο πρτερον σκησαν οδμεινον χρσαντο Σπαρτιται τν μετρων, κ τν γνων κα τν πολμων τν μολογουμνων γενσθαι κατκενοι τν χρνον οτως ομαι σαφς πιδεξειν, στε μτε τος νοτως λακωνζοντας ντειπεν δυνσεσθαι τος ηθεσι, μτε τος τ μτερα μα τε θαυμζοντας κα βασκανοντας κα μιμεσθαι γλιχομνους.”

[I acknowledge that I am going to speak at length of the institutions of Sparta, not taking the view, however, that Lycurgus invented or conceived any of them, but that he imitated as well as he could the government of our ancestors, establishing among the Spartans a democracy tempered with aristocracy - even such as existed in Athens -, enacting that the offices be filled, not by lot, but by election, ordaining that the election of the Elders, who were to supervise all public affairs, should be conducted with the very same care as, they say, our ancestors also exercised with regard to those who were to have seats in the Aeropagus, and, furthermore, conferring upon the Elders the very same power which he knew that the Council of the Aeropagus also had in Athens.

Now that the institutions of Sparta were established after the manner of our own as they were in ancient times may be learned from many sources by those who desire to know the truth. But that skill in warfare is something which the Spartans did not practise earlier than our ancestors or employ to better advantage than they I think I can show so clearly from the struggles and the wars which are acknowledged to have taken place in those days that none will be able to contradict what I say - neither those who are blind worshippers of Sparta nor those who at once admire and envy and strive to imitate the ways of Athens.]

Paradoxically the remarkable resemblance of the Spartan Constitution is corroborated by Isocrates argumentations; he, particularly nostalgic in his late years and struggling against the growing praising pro-Spartan atmosphere, even maintained that Lycurgus did actually copycat the Athenian political and institutional framework from Theseus an ancient hero-mythological king of Athens…

In spite of Isocrates, many – in different ways and degrees of appreciation and on diverse grounds and pursuing various aims – have been the admirers of the Lacedaemonian social and political structure including even Plato and Xenophon. An interesting, detached and rather technical analysis of the Spartan political institutions was carried out a few centuries later by Polybius who considered it “the best of all existing constitutions”:

“Lycurgus had perfectly well understood that all the above changes take place necessarily and naturally, and had taken into consideration that every variety of constitution which is simple and formed on principle is precarious, as it is soon perverted into the corrupt form which is proper to it and naturally follows on it. For just as rust in the case of iron and wood-worms and ship-worms in the case of timber are inbred pests, and these substances, even though they escape all external injury, fall a prey to the evils engendered in them, so each constitution has a vice engendered in it and inseparable from it. In kingship it is despotism, in aristocracy oligarchy, and in democracy the savage rule of violence; and it is impossible, as I said above, that each of these should not in course of time change into this vicious form. Lycurgus, then, foreseeing this, did not make his constitution simple and uniform, but united in it all the good and distinctive features of the best governments, so that none of the principles should grow unduly and be perverted into its allied evil, but that, the force of each being neutralized by that of the others, neither of them should prevail and outbalance another, but that the constitution should remain for long in a state of equilibrium like a well-trimmed boat, kingship being guarded from arrogance by the fear of the commons, who were given a sufficient share in the government, and the commons on the other hand not venturing to treat the kings with contempt from fear of the elders, who being selected from the best citizens would be sure all of them to be always on the side of justice; so that that part of the state which was weakest owing to its subservience to traditional custom, acquired power and weight by the support and influence of the elders. The consequence was that by drawing up his constitution thus he preserved liberty at Sparta for a longer period than is recorded elsewhere.”

Polybius could distinguish within the Lacedaemonians Constitution an unparalleled long-lasting political solution, a cleverly conceived organised mix of monarchical ancestral foundations, aristocratic guidance and popular support under the shelter of a well trained army. He admired this lifelong melange of democracy and oligarchy, gained by the Spartans with patience/experience and enforced with the authoritative support of religion, something lacking – as he instead strongly lamented – within the process Rome had been going through in achieving a steady political order.

Undoubtedly it may be objected that part of the bright Spartan democracy/oligarchy success was based on her strongly reduced population (circa 9,000 Omoioi – always decreasing), and a great mass of no-right workers/slaves; and above all on a very primitively socialist – and consequently less complicated – economical system. Nevertheless this attention-grabbing “example” still stands, especially when conceiving democracy not simply as an ideology, but as Hans Kelsen suggests, as an ensemble of procedures in order to defend and promote the development of a society and its members, thus he accordingly maintains:

“Neither capitalism or socialism imply a prefigured political procedure, therefore, in principle, both of them may be compatible with whether democracy or autocracy”.

Moreover the incredible duration of the said Constitution and its relatively remarkable steadiness throughout the stormy centuries previous the spreading of the Roman empire and the collapse/absorption of the Greek world, keep playing a leading role in praising high still now the Spartan peculiarly democratic experiment.

Sallust: a disenchanted moralist

“Since when wealth became to be considered an honour, and glory, authority, and power attended on it, virtue lost her influence, poverty was thought a disgrace, and a life of innocence was regarded as a life of ill-nature. From the influence of riches, accordingly, luxury, avarice, and pride prevailed among the youth; they grew at once rapacious and prodigal; they undervalued what was their own, and coveted what was another’s; they set at nought modesty and continence; they lost all distinction between sacred and profane, and threw off all consideration and self-restraint”.

This sad portrait of times that are changing most certainly sounds like one of those brief – and perhaps somewhat trite – social backgrounds that normally accompany a comment-article on today’s degeneration of costumes and youth’s lack of moral values; it could resemble a sad and sour comment found in the papers beside one of the last tragic young-people-related breaking news or a new – and alas! nowadays not anymore a “scoop” … – political scandal… Ultimately words and remarks like these could have been easily extracted from the New York Times or The Guardian. Yet, they have been written exactly 2000 years ago by Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus) a – to some extent – controversial ancient Roman politician and excellent historian, acute observer and brilliant interpreter of his own times:

“Postquam divitiae honori esse coepere et eas gloria imperium potentia sequebatur, hebescere virtus, paupertas probro haberi, innocentia pro malevolentia duci coepit. Igitur ex divitiis iuventutem luxuria atque avaritia cum superbia inuasere: repere consumere, sua parvi pendere, aliena cupere, pudorem pudicitiam, divina atque humana promiscua, nihil pensi neque moderati habere. Operae pretium est, cum domos atque villas cognoueris in urbium modum exaedificatas, visere templa deorum, quae nostri maiores, religiosissimi mortales, fecere”.

Rich, but not noble by birth, Sallust owed his early political success to Julius Caesar whose protective wing was hovering on him; although later on the verge of his denounce of the famous conspiracy against the Republic conceived by Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), depicted by Sallust in his De Catilinae Coniuratione as a merciless and unscrupulous political criminal, he might have willingly forgotten that Julius Caesar could have been behind the early steps of the attempted coup and would have gained several advantages from its success… however, apparently when Catiline started recruiting rioters from the lower classes (seemingly even slaves) Julius Caesar and Crassus took their distance from the revolutionary plans and consul Cicero eventually discovered and diverted the putsch.

Perhaps due to his radical approach to politics, or simply because of the complex and quite confused and anarchical scenario of those days, Sallust himself was – it seems on false grounds – impeached and expelled from the Senate probri causa; but shortly after he was reinstated by Julius Caesar and appointed pro-consul of Numidia (the present Algeria). There he accumulated an enormous wealth that allowed him, once he retired after Caesar’s death, to devote himself to otium and writings in a magnificent mansion celebrated for its gardens: horti sallustiani.

De Catilinae Coniuratione was Sallust’s first published writing and it may be considered the first historical-theme monograph of Latin literature. Its structure and development follows the Hellenistic paradigm consisting of an introduction, description of the central character, a description of the social/political/ethical environment and then facts, documents and speeches. Within this framework Sallust was able to dart against the overly spreading dishonesty, the decadence of aristocracy, the lack of social commitment and the corruption of youth:

“Fortune then began to exercise her tyranny, and to introduce universal innovation. To those who had easily endured toils, dangers, and doubtful and difficult circumstances, ease and wealth, the objects of desire to others, became a burden and a trouble. At first the love of money, and then that of power, began to prevail, and these became, as it were, the sources of every evil. For avarice subverted honesty, integrity, and other honourable principles, and, in their stead, inculcated pride, inhumanity, contempt of religion, and general venality. Ambition prompted many to become deceitful; to keep one thing concealed in the breast, and another ready on the tongue; to estimate friendships and enmities, not by their worth, but according to interest; and to carry rather a specious countenance than an honest heart. These vices at first advanced but slowly, and were sometimes restrained by correction; but afterward, when their infection had spread like a pestilence, the state was entirely changed, and the government, from being the most equitable and praiseworthy, became rapacious and insupportable”.

Once again this above would easily be considered the outburst of indignation of a disappointed old citizen remembering the good old days, or the dismay of a voter against the scandalous turns of society and unreliability of politicians and politics. Yet, this is still Sallust who again rushes violently, against greed, shallowness and hyper-ambition; and his utmost motive of preoccupation and rage is the conduct of the younger generations:

“…saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit. Qui labores, pericula, dubias atque asperas res facile toleraverant, iis otium divitiaeque, optanda alias, oneri miseriaeque fuere. Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit: ea quasi materies omnium malorum fuere. Namque avaritia fidem probitatem ceterasque artis bonas subuertit; pro his superbiam, crudelitatem, deos neglegere, omnia venalia habere edocuit. Ambitio multos mortalis falsos fieri subegit, aliud clausum in pectore, aliud in lingua promptum habere, amicitias inimicitiasque non ex re, sed ex commodo aestimare, magisque vultum quam ingenium bonum habere. Haec primo paulatim crescere, interdum vindicari; post ubi contagio quasi pestilentia inuasit, civitas immutata, imperium ex iustissimo atque optimo crudele intolerandumque factum.

In truth in so far as younger generations are concerned not even Pericles’ Athens was a true Garden of Eden. The heroes of Marathon, only a few decades earlier, struggling for survival and for the protection of the city walls from the Persian invaders had been a fantastic inspiration for civil unity, political growth and social and cultural progress. Thus collectively allowed by several marvellous – by many judged historically unrepeatable – circumstances, and economically funded by the treasure of the Delian League a widely diffused high level of prosperity and a remarkable sense of safety and wellness had spread almost all over the population (meaning of course principally the urban Attic inhabitants of male gender and free from slavery…). Nonetheless the new generations were now born with a sort of natural swanky self-confidence, without any particular inclination towards sacrifice or room for any social conscience or a true civil involvement. As Professor Schachermeyer pointed out in analysing Pericles’ Golden Age:

“The new generation, lacking the push of danger or necessity, became lazy and indolent. Even within the families the so called trigenerational scheme reveals its typical succession: while the first generation starts an enterprise with hard work and the second one enlarges its size, the third one puts everything it has inherited in jeopardy because of its carelessness and arrogance.

…in those days it was frequent too see too loving and permissive, and thus weak, fathers and too insolent ungrateful children…

Therefore even in the Athens of the Pentecontaetia the richness and welfare so hardly gained, accompanied by the disappearance of moderation and rigorousness soon left room to a decaying society and its dissolving moral and values. Thus in that unparalleled half century where flourished arts and culture which have influenced the entire Western civilisation, many youths lost any inhibition and ethics facing their existence without any vacillation: aspiring to a life only of pleasures within a luxurious environment, where everything was allowed and any ill-action arguable and defendable by simply being socially highly recognised, boldly witty, politically well connected and above all rhetorically endowed – conducts and vices that the greatest play-writer Aristophanes portrays in such numerous and brilliant personages and dialogues:

CHORUS LEADER: Now down to work, you spinner of words,
you explorer of brand new expressions.
Seek some way to persuade us, so it will appear
that what you’ve been saying is right.

PHEIDIPPIDES: How sweet it is to be conversant with
things which are new and clever, capable
of treating with contempt established ways.
When I was only focused on my horses,
I couldn’t say three words without going wrong.
But now this man has made me stop all that,
I’m well acquainted with the subtlest views,
and arguments and frames of mind. And so,
I do believe I’ll show how just it is
to punish one’s own father.

These young people, mainly belonging to the Athenian fast growing mercantile class were enthusiastic only with luxury and extravagance; dreamed of a life of pure and sole enjoyment and were interested in any petty thing only for a very short while and then got easily bored. How many ancient Greek plays describe parsimonious bourgeois fathers struggling against dissipating children who wasted all their finances with comrades, parasites, courtesans and consequently assiduously eroding the family wealth. Crucial was the circumstance that the youth did not want anything to do with moral, did not see in the polis anything but an institution to be exploited in order to satisfy their own interests and get rich and famous quickly… actually so far nothing unheard or unfamiliar to a young man like myself and not at all an antiquate behavioural analysis of modern life’s goals and ambitions…

It is remarkably curious how these perceptions and complaints keep coinciding as we move along the centuries as well as we switch latitude/longitude. Huysmans describing French society of late nineteenth century vividly laments the absolute superficiality and impoliteness of French youths:

Bien que les penchants utilitaires transmis par l’hérédité et développés par les précoces impolitesses et les constantes brutalités des collèges, eussent rendu la jeunesse contemporaine singulièrement mal élevée et aussi singulièrement positive et froide, elle n’en avait pas moins gardé, au fond du coeur, une vieille fleur bleue, un vieil idéal d’une affection rance et vague.

The writer also plunges at the decadence of nobility and the greed and vulgarity of the fast growing bourgeoisie:

Après l’aristocratie de la naissance, c’était maintenant l’aristocratie de l’argent; c’était le califat des comptoirs, le despotisme de la rue du Sentier, la tyrannie du commerce aux idées vénales et étroites, aux instincts vaniteux et fourbes.

Plus scélérate, plus vile que la noblesse dépouillée et que le clergé déchu, la bourgeoisie leur empruntait leur ostentation frivole, leur jactance caduque, qu’elle dégradait par son manque de savoir-vivre, leur volait leurs défauts qu’elle convertissait en d’hypocrites vices; et, autoritaire et sournoise, basse et couarde, elle mitraillait sans pitié son éternelle et nécessaire dupe, la populace, qu’elle avait elle-même démuselée et apostée pour sauter à la gorge des vieilles castes!

…classe bourgeoise qui avait peu à peu monté, profitant de tous les désastres pour s’enrichir, suscitant toutes les catastrophes pour imposer le respect de ses attentats et de ses vols?

It is striking how Huysmans conclusion on the raising magnitude given simply and solely to money, luxury and power by an increasing number of one-dimensional people:

…rassurée, trônait, jovial, de par la force de son argent et la contagion de sa sottise…. Le résultat de son avènement avait été l’écrasement de toute intelligence, la négation de toute probité…

does not differ, in spite of the 1900 years of distance in between, from the lapidary but sadly modern thought of Sallust – taken from his other masterpiece De Bellum Iugurthinum:

Romae omnia venalia esse

something that even – and perhaps more than ever – nowadays sounds quite hopeless being Roma caput mundi… and considering that apparently humans do not seem to learn any lesson from history…