The Hemlock Cup

I have just this very instant completed reading The Hemlock Cup”. Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes a splendid portrait of a man, an extremely documented and detailed description of a society and an marvellous representation of an epoch.

I have greatly admired, perusing its pages, the endeavour and conscientiousness with which the author has assembled countless pieces of information of different nature and sources (historical, philological, literary, archaeological etc.) in order to converge towards a unexpectedly brilliant portrayal of the man considered the father of modern western thought.

In truth many events concerning Socrates’ existence are wrapped in a veil of uncertainty, thus compelling Ms. Hughes’ serious philological background unavoidably to prevail and as a consequence to consciously and frankly infer a few facts. Nevertheless the narration never lowers its rhythm, on the contrary: continuous chronicled references on Athenian daily life and actual allusions on museum and archaeological sites spur the imagination and the time-travel experience of any – even the one not initially enthusiast – reader.

It is also true that there are many Socrates’ scholars and biographers, which most likely have dissected any possible historical and philosophical aspect of Socrates’ life and death; yet the book offers an original and multifaceted portraiture of Socrates’ times and society enriched with indirect and sometimes anecdotal information about his shoddy demeanour and inquisitive attitude, and  delivers us a closer view of the “human being” instead of the unreachable puzzling Greek philosopher.

Now I cannot refrain wondering a renown and yet recurrent paramount question: how could Athens, such a highly praised civilisation – probably the very incarnation of Western Golden Age – accuse and sentence to death its most prominent mind and eminent son? Athens, the cradle of the same philosophy which has dominated sciences, arts, politics and life at least until the Middle Age and still influences modern thought; the mother and model of democracy, implementing any possible device to involve and include as many citizens as possible in active political life and to avert bribery and enticement – and the eulogy could go on and on…

In this regard Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840 bluntly concluded that:

Athènes, avec son suffrage universel, n’était donc, après tout, qu’une république aristocratique où tous les nobles avaient un droit égal au gouvernement. [De la démocratie en Amérique, Tome Deuxième, Chap. XV]

More harshly George Bernanos, in 1942, thus accused the French collaborationists, considering that elite culpable of betraying the French loyal spirit and code of honour:

En parlant ainsi je me moque de scandaliser les esprits faibles qui opposent aux réalités des mots déjà dangereusement vidés de leur substance, comme par exemple celui de Démocratie

La Démocratie est la forme politique du Capitalisme, dans le même sens que l’âme est la Forme du corps selon Aristote, ou son Idée, selon Spinoza. [Lettre aux Anglais, Atlantica editora, Rio de Janeiro 1942].

But way before XIX or XX century even Plato, already in his days – not too far from those of the death of his mentor – identifies the very root of the question, when he allows his fictional Socrates to unveil it by quoting an ironical parody of the legendary self-celebrating Pericles’ epitaph for the dead soldiers of the Peloponnesian War (in Plato’s dialogue fictitiously ghost-written by Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress):

…ἐπιμνησθῆναι. πολιτεία γὰρ τροφὴ ἀνθρώπων ἐστίν, καλὴ μὲν ἀγαθῶν, ἡ δὲ ἐναντία κακῶν. ὡς οὖν ἐν καλῇ πολιτείᾳ ἐτράφησαν οἱ πρόσθεν ἡμῶν, ἀναγκαῖον δηλῶσαι, δι’ ἣν δὴ κἀκεῖνοι ἀγαθοὶ καὶ οἱ νῦν εἰσιν, ὧν οἵδε τυγχάνουσιν ὄντες οἱ τετελευτηκότες. ἡ γὰρ αὐτὴ πολιτεία καὶ τότε ἦν καὶ νῦν, ἀριστοκρατία, ἐν ᾗ νῦν τε πολιτευόμεθα καὶ τὸν ἀεὶ χρόνον ἐξ ἐκείνου ὡς τὰ πολλά. καλεῖ δὲ ὁ μὲν αὐτὴν [d] δημοκρατίαν, ὁ δὲ ἄλλο, ᾧ ἂν χαίρῃ, ἔστι δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ μετ’ εὐδοξίας πλήθους ἀριστοκρατία. βασιλῆς μὲν γὰρ ἀεὶ ἡμῖν εἰσιν· οὗτοι δὲ τοτὲ μὲν ἐκ γένους, τοτὲ δὲ αἱρετοί· ἐγκρατὲς δὲ τῆς πόλεως τὰ πολλὰ τὸ πλῆθος, τὰς δὲ ἀρχὰς δίδωσι καὶ κράτος τοῖς ἀεὶ δόξασιν ἀρίστοις εἶναι, καὶ οὔτε ἀσθενείᾳ οὔτε πενίᾳ οὔτ’ ἀγνωσίᾳ πατέρων ἀπελήλαται οὐδεὶς οὐδὲ τοῖς ἐναντίοις τετίμηται, ὥσπερ ἐν ἄλλαις πόλεσιν, ἀλλὰ εἷς ὅρος, ὁ δόξας σοφὸς ἢ ἀγαθὸς εἶναι κρατεῖ καὶ ἄρχει. [ΣΩΚΡΑΤΗΣ ΜΕΝΕΞΕΝΟΣ, 238, c,d]

For a polity is a thing which nurtures men, good men when it is noble, bad men when it is base. It is necessary, then, to demonstrate that the polity wherein our forefathers were nurtured was a noble one, such as caused goodness not only in them but also in their descendants of the present age, amongst whom we number these men who are fallen. For it is the same polity which existed then and exists now, under which polity we are living now and have been living ever since that age with hardly a break. One man calls it “democracy,” another man, according to his fancy, gives it some other name; but it is, in very truth, [d] an “aristocracy” backed by popular approbation. Kings we always have; but these are at one time hereditary, at another selected by vote. And while the most part of civic affairs are in the control of the populace, they hand over the posts of government and the power to those who from time to time are deemed to be the best men; and no man is debarred by his weakness or poverty or by the obscurity of his parentage, or promoted because of the opposite qualities, as is the case in other States. On the contrary, the one principle of selection is this: the man that is deemed to be wise or good rules and governs.

Thus the enthusiasts of Athenian democracy have often failed, purposely or naively, to envisage the clearly distinguishable components and facets of an oligarchy of very few wealthy families, of which the rest of citizens (the vast majority, poor and illiterate) were easy preys; a sect of professional politicians/orators ruling the city slyly and untouched; an economic elite purporting an actual form of modern proto-imperialism over the Aegean Sea by means of a self-celebrating fame, violence and taxation to the benefit of a self-preserving authority.

It appears that the unconditional laudator temporis acti approach towards ancient Athens tends, still nowadays, to disregard the side effects even of the best democracy: its step-sister demagogy – perhaps the true responsible of Socrates’ death.

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 death of Philip II: a cold case

wedding-philip-ii-to-olympia-of-epirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proud faith in democracy

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In these last weeks a sudden and unexpected wave of optimism, proud patriotism and faith in the power of democracy has moved on and been spreading almost all over the world. The glowing hopes and the great expectations for the time to come seem to have overcome even the most deep rooted scepticism.

Indeed attachment and loyalty to the community had an extraordinary significance especially in the ancient world, it was a sacrosanct duty and certainly had a remarkable influence on citizens and politicians alike. Patriotism was also the most effective means of cohesion, perhaps the true basic proviso able to achieve – or at least to grant the preconditions of – social stability and widespread respect for the laws and institutions.

In truth there are quite several examples in ancient Greek literature of expressions of  the pride to belong to a community and praising its foundations and traditions. Very likely the most famous eulogy to one’s country and frank praise of democracy is Pericles’ speech to commemorate the Athenian soldiers who perished in the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-430 b.C.). This episode is masterly narrated by Thucydides and, albeit according to his writing style it cannot be considered utterly authentic: meaning not a true and fair journalistic report of the facts, it certainly is a honest artistically well structured and written memoir of this outstanding actual event. During this tribute the supreme στρατεγος took the opportunity not simply to condole the parents, wives and children of the war victims, but also to celebrate the institutions of his πολις, its social and political achievements and its remarkably highly advanced customs and lifestyle: a model for the other Greek πολεις – and, as we have then well learnt, altogether a most refined and enlightened civilisation leadership under whose influence we still live today:

“I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour… but what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric upon these men…

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life… But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

… We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger… And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger…

In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause.

Not so rarely, even the Greek tragedies of the V century b.C. report plain hints of acclamation towards the achievements of Athens and the nationalistic courage of its citizens and soldiers. In the Persians, written by Aeschylus in 472 b.C., the plot’s background is the naval victory the Greeks (lead by the Athenians) on the Persians in the waters of Salamina in 480 b.C.; Aeschylus places the tragic leverage on showing the events under the perspective of the defeated army and court: Xerses, his mother Queen Atossa and thus the whole dialogues among the Persians aim at amply show the enormous differences between the two contenders:

ATOSSAYou, its first interpreter, have indeed read the meaning of my dream with goodwill, at least, toward my son and house. May the outcome then prove beneficial! When I return to the palace, I will perform for the gods and my dear ones beneath the earth all those rites which you recommend. Meanwhile, my friends, I would like to learn where Athens is located.

CHORUSFar from here, to the west where the last rays of our Lord the Sun set.

ATOSSACan it then really be that my son had the keen desire to make this city his prey?

CHORUSYes, for then all Hellas would be subject to the King.

ATOSSADoes their army have such a multitude of men?

CHORUSYes, it is an army of such magnitude that it has caused great disaster for the Medes.

ATOSSAAnd what else have they besides? Do they have sufficient wealth in their homes?

CHORUSOf silver they possess a veritable fountain, a treasure chest in their soil.

ATOSSAIs the bow-stretching arrow particularly suited to their hands?

CHORUSFar from it; they have lances for close fight and shields that serve them for armour.

ATOSSAAnd who is set over them as shepherd and is master of their host?

CHORUSOf no man are they called the slaves or vassals.

ATOSSAHow then can they withstand the attack of an invading foe?

CHORUSSo well as to have destroyed Darius’ great and courageous host.

ATOSSAIn truth, your words have given the fathers and mothers of those who are now on their way there dire food for thought.

CHORUSNo, rather I think that you will soon learn the truth of the matter. For here comes one who is beyond a doubt a Persian courier. He bears clear tidings of some issue, be it good or bad.

A more accurate praise of Athens democratic foundations and their social and political success in governing the golden πολις, is plainly stated by Euripides in his Suppliants (424 b.C.), where the author compares the institutions of Thebe with the constitution of Athens. Within the plot Theseus, king of Athens, confronts the messenger of Creon (the king of Thebe) explaining to him what were – and still are – most unanimously considered the greatest attainments of Athens’ democracy:

THEBAN HERALDWho is the tyrant of this land? To whom must I announce the message of Creon who rules over the land of Cadmus, since Eteocles was slain by the hand of his brother Polyneices, at the sevenfold gates of Thebes?

THESEUS - You have made a false beginning to your speech, stranger, in seeking a dictator here. For this city is not ruled by one man, but is free. The people rule in succession year by year, allowing no preference to wealth, but the poor man shares equally with the rich.

THEBAN HERALD - You give me here an advantage, as in a game of checkers; for the city from which I come is ruled by one man only, not by the mob; no one there puffs up the citizens with specious words, and for his own advantage twists them this way or that, one moment dear to them and lavish of his favours, the next harmful to all; and yet by fresh calumnies of others he hides his former failures and escapes punishment. Besides, how would the people, if it cannot form true judgments, be able rightly to direct the state? No, it is time, not haste, that affords a better understanding. A poor farmer, even if he were not unschooled, would still be unable from his toil to give his mind to politics. Truly the better sort count it no healthy sign when the worthless man obtains a reputation by beguiling with words the populace, though before he was nothing.

THESEUSThis herald is a clever fellow, a dabbler in the art of talk. But since you have thus entered the contest with me, listen awhile, for it was you that challenged a discussion. Nothing is more hostile to a city than a despot; where he is, there are first no laws common to all, but one man is tyrant, in whose keeping and in his alone the law resides, and in that case equality is at an end. But when the laws are written down, rich and weak alike have equal justice, and it is open to the weaker to use the same language to the prosperous when he is reviled by him, and the weaker prevails over the stronger if he has justice on his side. Freedom’s mark is also seen in this: “Who has wholesome counsel to declare unto the state?” And he who chooses to do so gains renown, while he, who has no wish, remains silent. What greater equality can there be in a city?

Again, where the people are absolute rulers of the land, they rejoice in having a reserve of youthful citizens, while a king counts this a hostile element, and strives to slay the leading men, all such as he thinks discreet, fearing for his power. How then could a city remain stable, where one cuts short all enterprise and mows down the young like meadow-flowers in spring-time? What good is it to acquire wealth and livelihood for children, merely to add to the tyrant’s substance by one’s toil? Why train up daughters virtuously in our homes to gratify a tyrant’s whim, whenever he wishes, and cause tears to those who rear them? May my life end if ever my children are to be wedded by violence! This bolt I launch in answer to your words.

Pride, celebration, self-praise truly characterised those years and, in a more nostalgic nuance, many more to come… Unfortunately Athens’ Golden Age did not last too long, though. Nonetheless it is undeniable that the achievements of the Pentecontaetia still somehow reverberate their fair light onto our world.

“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” [Aristotle]

Love letters from Ancient Greece

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

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

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

MENANDER to GLYCERA:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and before him departing for Greece:

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

When Rhodes outshone Athens

The Hellenistic age is characterised by the shifting of the barycentre of the Greek world toward East. In continental Greece, distressed by poverty and social struggles, only a few πολεις – Athens and perhaps Corinth – maintain a rather formal independence by preserving some of their political and social institutions and even Sparta is waning as for the first time builds its defensive walls around the πολις. Pericles’ golden age political spirit, Athens’ “imperial” attitude and “attire” are just a fading memory: no more hoplites but mercenaries defend the πολις and Piraeus is to some extent away from the new mercantile routes. Only thanks to its intellectual prestige Athens is slowly drifting to the status of prime academic-city (although not exclusive as Alexandria, Kos and other learning centres are developing), where scholars, philosophers and students continue gathering and generating thought. Meanwhile the Aegean islands benefit of this new Mediterranean political and commercial layout as maritime commercial routes, including the entire middle East (from Ponto to Cilicia and Syria), Nile’s delta, Sicily, Cyrene, Crete, Cyprus need several stepping stones, ports and storage warehouses.

dalicolossus.jpg

Rhodes has a prime role as a πολις in this age. Founded in 408 B.C. by συνοικισμóς (union) of three πολεις who positioned their main centre in Rhodes (northwest of the island), subjugated until the death of Alexander the Great it has expelled his successors’ army and has resisted to the assault of Demetrius I Poliorcetes (305 B.C.). Rhodes incarnates a very rare example of the survived spirit of πολις during the Hellenistic age – an epoch of large kingdoms and revered monarchs. Its remarkable, though not long-lasting, fortune is principally based on the practical-commercial attitude of its population, proud and clever, integrated with rich resident foreign merchants, as well as unsurprisingly on its geographic location: a stone’s throw from the Turkish coasts and not far away from Alexandria and the Niles’ delta.

Rhodes has three main ports: commercial, military and transit and two minor landings – guarded by the famous 110 feet Κολοσσος a bronze statue to the God Helios, one of the World’s Seven Wonders and legendary emblem of the πολις. Ιts warehouses are full of amphora where wheat, cereals, wine, olive oil and other commodities are stored to depart for markets/destinations all over the known world – numerous amphora with Rhodes seal have been unearthed all over the Middle-East, Italy, Maghreb, Spain, France and even in Central Europe. The unsurpassed banking system, born and developed in Athens/Piraeus is now concentrated in Rhodes, where are established various branches of ancient financial institutions and where loans, currency exchange and clearing operations take place. Even from the legal standpoint the celebrated Lex Rhodia are widely applied to transactions and several principles of are even taken by Marcus Aurelius as a basis for his maritime code, whose roots can be found also in Byzantine and Republic of Venice Codes.

Rhodes fleet is one the best equipped of the whole Mediterranean and its 50 ships considerably reduce the risks and dangers of pirates – always a problem to maritime trade in those days – struggling to maintain safety and guarantee mercantile traffics. Thanks to the war to pirates and its mercantile alliance with Ptolemaic Egypt, major producer of wheat, Rhodes fosters its importance in the Mediterranean and subsequently its revenues.

Rhodes is ruled by a mixed democratic-aristocratic government solution and enacts several particular social policies – like mandatory food contributions to assist the lower classes – which altogether acquired Rhodes the fame of best administered πολις of whole Greek world. Rhodes public education system is well developed and broadly accessible, moreover all the citizens must serve in the πολις navy: these and other public policies grant a robust spirit of comradeship that surpasses any social class and characterises the social texture of this πολις. Its splendour survives also a major earthquake in 227 B.C. when it is almost completely destroyed: Rhodes is rebuilt even more superb with the financial aid of the whole Greek world – fine arts develop thanks, among the others, to Apollonius who left Alexandria and choose Rhodes as his abode.

Nonetheless, its fortune will not last for too long. Being a loyal ally of Rome during the wars against Philip V of Macedonia and Antioch III the Great, in consequence of the peace of Apamea Rhodes obtains several additional territories on the main land, namely in Lycia and Caria. Later on Rhodes probably overestimates its political power and diplomatic shrewdness by playing a too much ambiguous role with Rome in occasion of the war against Perseus of Macedonia. Thus the Empire, by reaction creates in 166 B.C. a new Tax Haven in Delos (former subsidiary location of Rhodes) under the jurisdiction of Athens which consequently polarises almost the entire Aegean mercantile traffic: in only a couple of years Rhodes’ Customs revenues (2% on fair value) collapse from 1 million drachma to only 150 thousand. Moreover Rhodes resists the siege of Mithridates VI the Great, Eupator Dionysius of Ponto (Rome worst enemy), but in 43 B.C. is taken by Crassus and completely devastated.

Since then Rhodes, although obtains the status of independence during the Roman Empire, will never regain its pivotal role in the Eastern Mediterranean, nonetheless it will become an academic centre, attracting many young rich aristocratic Romans to learn rhetoric (Apollonius Molon of Alabanda, teacher of Cicero later in Rome) and philosophy – its major school was founded by the Stoic Posidionius, a former student of another distinguished Rhodes citizen Panaetius.

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