Athenian orators, politicians and demagogues

ancient-athens-rhetors-politicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sausage-Seller: Yes.

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

Sausage-Seller: What! I?

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

Sausage-Seller: I see them. What then?

Servant: Look at the storehouses and the shipping.

Sausage-Seller: Yes, I am looking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sausage-Seller: But what does the oracle say?

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

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

Servant: The eagle-tanner is the Paphlagonian.

Sausage-Seller: What do the hooked claws mean?

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

Sausage-Seller: And the dragon?

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

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

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

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

Political absenteeism in ancient Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The women of Heinrich Schliemann

sophia-schliemann-priams-treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later on he wrote her:

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

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

Domestic happiness is the greatest of all earthly blessings

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?

CROBYLE: Yes.

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…”

Emotions and feelings in Virgil

Virgil, a rather complex personality, described by both his contemporaries and scholars as a quiet, silent and absorbed soul, not interested in any present glory or actual success. His poetry is absolutely uplifting as he could transform into beautiful verses anything he could rhyme about and enrich his poems with incredibly deep and detailed analysis of psychological aspects of both characters and situations. He could thus achieve the minutia of each portrayal of events and personages with such an elegance and style very difficult to find in Latin literature and perhaps even in modern times.

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None of his characters is definitely positive or negative: he was able to depict the inner side of each of them and could find and describe even contradictory aspects of a personality, which is what normally constitutes and characterises the multi-facets nature of human beings. Like king Mezentius, a rather shady character of Aeneid, who shows feelings like paternal love and sympathy and remorse when he finds out that his son Lausus has been slain by Aeneas, and also already foresees his own end:

At Lausum socii exanimem super arma ferebant
flentes, ingentem atque ingenti volnere victum.
Agnovit longe gemitum praesaga mali mens:
canitiem multo deformat pulvere et ambas
ad caelum tendit palmas et corpore inhaeret.
`Tantane me tenuit vivendi, nate, voluptas,
ut pro me hostili paterer succedere dextrae,
quem genui? Tuane haec genitor per volnera servor,
morte tua vivens? Heu, nunc misero mihi demum
exitium infelix, nunc alte volnus adactum!
Idem ego, nate, tuum maculavi crimine nomen,
pulsus ob invidiam solio sceptrisque paternis.
Debueram patriae poenas odiisque meorum:
omnis per mortis animam sontem ipse dedissem!
Nunc vivo neque adhuc homines lucemque relinquo.
Sed linquam.’

O’er his broad shield still gush’d the yawning wound,
And drew a bloody trail along the ground.
Far off he heard their cries, far off divin’d
The dire event, with a foreboding mind.
With dust he sprinkled first his hoary head;
Then both his lifted hands to heav’n he spread;
Last, the dear corpse embracing, thus he said:
“What joys, alas! could this frail being give,
That I have been so covetous to live?
To see my son, and such a son, resign
His life, a ransom for preserving mine!
And am I then preserv’d, and art thou lost?
How much too dear has that redemption cost!
‘T is now my bitter banishment I feel:
This is a wound too deep for time to heal.
My guilt thy growing virtues did defame;
My blackness blotted thy unblemish’d name.
Chas’d from a throne, abandon’d, and exil’d
For foul misdeeds, were punishments too mild:
I ow’d my people these, and, from their hate,
With less resentment could have borne my fate.
And yet I live, and yet sustain the sight
Of hated men, and of more hated light:
But will not long.

The king’s spirit is now abated by the pain of his wounds and the grief of his recent loss as he speaks tender words of wisdom even to Rhaebus, his horse, before charging his final assault:

Simul hoc dicens attollit in aegrum
se femur et, quamvis dolor alto volnere tardet,
haud deiectus equum duci iubet. Hoc decus illi,
hoc solamen erat; bellis hoc victor abibat
omnibus. Adloquitur maerentem et talibus infit:
`Rhaebe, diu, res siqua diu mortalibus ulla est,
viximus. Aut hodie victor spolia illa cruenti
et caput Aeneae referes Lausique dolorum
ultor eris mecum aut, aperit si nulla viam vis,
occumbes pariter; neque enim, fortissime, credo,
iussa aliena pati et dominos dignabere Teucros.’
Dixit et exceptus tergo consueta locavit
membra manusque ambas iaculis oneravit acutis,
aere caput fulgens cristaque hirsutus equina.
Sic cursum in medios rapidus dedit: aestuat ingens
uno in corde pudor mixtoque insania luctu,
et furiis agitatus amor et conscia virtus.


With that he rais’d from ground
His fainting limbs, that stagger’d with his wound;
Yet, with a mind resolv’d, and unappall’d
With pains or perils, for his courser call’d
Well-mouth’d, well-manag’d, whom himself did dress
With daily care, and mounted with success;
His aid in arms, his ornament in peace.
Soothing his courage with a gentle stroke,
The steed seem’d sensible, while thus he spoke:
“O Rhoebus, we have liv’d too long for me-
If life and long were terms that could agree!
This day thou either shalt bring back the head
And bloody trophies of the Trojan dead;
This day thou either shalt revenge my woe,
For murther’d Lausus, on his cruel foe;
Or, if inexorable fate deny
Our conquest, with thy conquer’d master die:
For, after such a lord, rest secure,
Thou wilt no foreign reins, or Trojan load endure.”
He said; and straight th’ officious courser kneels,
To take his wonted weight. His hands he fills
With pointed jav’lins; on his head he lac’d
His glitt’ring helm, which terribly was grac’d
With waving horsehair, nodding from afar;
Then spurr’d his thund’ring steed amidst the war.

Virgil is mainly known for his epic poem Aeneid that emulates both Iliad and Odyssey: Aeneas running away from Troy travels as Odysseus looking for a new place to settle down and to found a new country (Rome) by defeating the Latin indigenous leaded by Turnus King of the Rutuli – a typical Homeric Iliad character. Therefore by chanting the Roman origins and representing the highest example of Latin Epos the poem gained him fame and a tranquil life during Augustus Empire within Mecenate intellectual and literary circle. Naturally somehow he had to recognise this “gift” by using – fortunately with some discretion – also apologetic themes and encomiastic tones towards the Empire within his opus that soon was considered and became a regime poem. As when Aeneas meets his father in the otherworld and the old king explains to him his extraordinary mission: to found Rome which will be renowned for its warfare ability and its political expansion, leaving to the old Greek civilisation the heights of fine arts and sciences:

excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
credo equidem, uiuos ducent de marmore uultus,
orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus
describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
hae tibi erunt artes, pacisque imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

Let others better mold the running mass
Of metals, and inform the breathing brass,
And soften into flesh a marble face;
Plead better at the bar; describe the skies,
And when the stars descend, and when they rise.
But, Rome, ‘t is thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war by thy own majestic way;
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.

However, within and beside his epic production, there are personages and lines that I personally find particularly meaningful and rich of insightful messages like the words pronounced by Dido, the Queen of Carthage, showing her sublime sweetness and kind-heart for Aeneas and his people – in just one line:

Non ignara mali, miseris succurrere disco.

[I’m not unwonted to bad times and occurrences, thus I’ve learnt to aid those in distress.]

I truly think that Virgil was able to find as Hugo von Hofmannstal’s Lord Philipp Chandos was as well trying to:

“…unter all den ärmlichen und plumpen Gegeständen einer bäurishen Lebensweise nach jenem einem sucht, dessen unscheibare Form, dessen von niemand beachtetes Daliegen oder –lehnen, dessen stumme Wesenheit zur Quelle jenes rätselhaften, wortlosen, schrankenlosen Entzückens warden kann”.

[…among all those poor and clumsy objects of country life, only the one that with his non evident shape, whose unwilling tossing or placing, whose mute essence is able to spring that mysterious, silent, boundless exaltation]

As I think few others can be more suggestive and romantic than these lines from Virgil’s first ecloga, which sound so modern, so Lakist or Leopardian:

Hic tamen hanc mecum poteras requiescere noctem
fronde super viridi. sunt nobis mitia poma,
castaneae molles et pressi copia lactis,
et iam summa procul villarum culmina fumant
maioresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae.

[Please stay and rest with me tonight
on the green leaves, I’ve got ripe apples
sweet chestnuts and plenty of cheese,
See already in the distance the smoky cottages’ chimneys,
and taller the shadows are coming down from the mounts.]

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I am today more than ever certain that it takes very little to a true poet to create an atmosphere. Maybe a true artist’s secret is, as Hugo von Hofmannstal brilliantly pointed out:

“Oder als könnten wir in ein neues, ahnungsvolles Verhältnis zum ganzen Dasein treten, wenn wir anfingen, mit dem Herzen zu denken

[We could get into a new, meaningful relationship with the entire universe if we started thinking with our heart]

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Books: love and hatred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dedicated to…

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Penelope revisited

Well known also to the non classicists and most certainly famous to a wider public for her faithfulness and her never ending thread, Penelope is still nowadays used a stereotypical example of the trustworthy and forgiving wife, a patiently loving companion who awaits in anguish and cries aloud for her husband Odysseus to return, pushing away the uncouth attempts of very many (one hundred and eight for the records…) of unappeasable suitors.

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These qualities are very well described along the verses of The Odyssey and in several occasions they are reaffirmed and corroborated. First of all Penelope is often reported to be wise and witty:

with a grace divine her soul is blest,
And all Athena breathes within her breast
In wondrous arts than woman more renown’d,
And more than woman with deep wisdom crown’d;
Though Tyro nor Mycene match her name,
Not great Alcmena (the proud boasts of fame);
Yet thus by heaven adorn’d, by heaven’s decree
She shines with fatal excellence, to thee

She is also shrewd, when for instance she devises the famous everlasting thread; as well as when she uses the bed trick to prove her alleged husband’s identity:

The secrets of the bridal bed are known
To thee, to me, to Actoris alone
(My father’s present in the spousal hour,
The sole attendant on our genial bower).
Since what no eye hath seen thy tongue reveal’d
Hard and distrustful as I am, I yield.”

Penelope is also very beautiful and experienced at the loom, two additional fundamental qualities for an ancient Greek house-woman:

Reflecting to the queen the silver sounds.
With grief renew’d the weeping fair descends;
Their sovereign’s step a virgin train attends:
A veil, of richest texture wrought, she wears,
And silent to the joyous hall repairs.
There from the portal, with her mild command,

But most important of all she knows her place as a woman, as for instance when more than once she obeys to her son’s order to retire in her quarters and devote her to the loom and other womanly activities instead of disturbing the men’s feast:

But bold Telemachus assumed the man.
“Instant (he cried) your female discord end,
Ye deedless boasters! and the song attend;
Obey that sweet compulsion, nor profane
With dissonance the smooth melodious strain.
Pacific now prolong the jovial feast

Thus at first sight Penelope embodies all the qualities that a woman was supposed to have in accordance with the archaic – and then even classic – Greek lifestyle, tradition and social customs. Nevertheless there are several instances that reveal a different character, a perspective into which Penelope seems quite shady and to a certain extent more real and womanly than how she has been portrayed. Penelope is self conscious of her beauty and endowments and often uses them to flirt, perhaps just to satisfy her petty vanity, with her suitors:

Thus wailing, slow and sadly she descends,
On either band a damsel train attends:
Full where the dome its shining valves expands,
Radiant before the gazing peers she stands;
A veil translucent o’er her brow display’d,
Her beauty seems, and only seems, to shade:
Sudden she lightens in their dazzled eyes,
And sudden flames in every bosom rise;
They send their eager souls with every look.
Till silence thus the imperial matron broke:

Additionally she does not seem so firm in her decision of waiting for Odysseus to come back instead of marrying and starting a new life, as she simply confesses:

My mind, reflective, in a thorny maze
Devious from care to care incessant strays.
Now, wavering doubt succeeds to long despair;
Shall I my virgin nuptial vow revere;
And, joining to my son’s my menial train,
Partake his counsels, and assist his reign?

And meanwhile she is pondering as whether to get married again or not, she too often seems to manoeuvre and double cross her suitors, probably only out of female narcissism or perhaps purposely, by accepting gifts and exchanging messages with more than one of them, as Antinous says:

δη γρ τρτον στν τος, τχα δ εσι τταρτον,
ξ ο τμβει θυμν ν στθεσσιν χαιν.
πντας μν ῥ᾽ λπει κα πσχεται νδρ κστ
γγελας προϊεσα, νος δ ο λλα μενοιν.
[…this is already the third year and the forth one is coming
that she deceives and makes fun of our hearts
she instills hopes and makes promises to everyone
by sending messages…]

Accordingly also Athena warns Odysseus while he is still away on the disputable behaviour of his alleged loyal wife who is playing along with each of the suitors by sending messages to them all:

πντας μν ῥ᾽ λπει κα πσχεται νδρ κστ,
γγελας προϊεσα, νος δ ο λλα μενοιν

Moreover Penelope shows even some greed, when she solicits riches by lamenting the absolute lack of gifts that the suitors are instead, according to the tradition, supposed to bring since her wedding choice/date is approaching. This witty and soft reproach will induce the suitors to profuse themselves in precious gifts that she will immediately accept and store – instead of refusing with disdain:

ς φατ ντνοος, τοσιν δ πινδανε μθος·
δρα δ ρ οσμεναι πρεσαν κρυκα καστος.
ντινόῳ μν νεικε μγαν περικαλλα ππλον,
ποικλον· ν δ ρ σαν περναι δυοκαδεκα πσαι
χρσειαι, κλησιν ϋγνμπτοις ραρυαι.
ρμον δ Ερυμχ πολυδαδαλον ατκ νεικε.
χρσεον, λκτροισιν ερμνον ἠέλιον ς.
ρματα δ Ερυδμαντι δω θερποντες νεικαν,
τργληνα μορεντα· χρις δ πελμπετο πολλ.
κ δ ρα Πεισνδροιο Πολυκτορδαο νακτος
σθμιον νεικεν θερπων, περικαλλς γαλμα.
λλο δ ρ λλος δρον χαιν καλν νεικεν.
μν πειτ νβαιν περϊα δα γυναικν,
τ δ ρ μ μφπολοι φερον περικαλλα δρα
ο δ ες ρχηστν τε κα μερεσσαν οιδν
τρεψμενοι τρποντο, μνον δ π σπερον λθεν

I guess that perhaps to better understand this rather ambiguous character it should be taken in consideration the strong educational and moral weight and importance that Homer’s poems had to have on entire generations of ancient Greeks. This would probably explain in a cultural perspective that even a positive character as the multi-quality Penelope is nevertheless always a woman, and therefore someone to be sceptic about “by principle” according to Greek moral, experience and ethic. And in fact even Odysseus, the shrewdest man known, will reveal his own identity to his wife only at the very last: she will eventually know that her husband is back only after his father, his son, his swineherd and his wet-nurse have… and when he finally unveils she justifies her coldness and scepticism by saying:

Against the fondness of my heart I strove:
’Twas caution, O my lord! not want of love.

Should we believe her?

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