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.

The death of Philip II: a cold case


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The women of Heinrich Schliemann


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

In praise of daydreaming

In this moneymaking, high-speed, success-oriented and appearance-is-all ruled world habitually “daydreamer” is a slightly offensive adjective of mockery with which inflexible restless sad workaholics, stiff etiquette and formalism worshippers and taut sentence-spitters pitifully address to the high cultural circles’ outcasts and world-that-counts’ pariahs in other words and to their bold self confident eyes  a flock  of absentminded and hopelessly quiet losers.

Nonetheless among those who ridiculously cannot realise and accept the limits and conditions of their own personalities, finances and lives and regardless strive to unreasonably divert the course of the events and nonsensically force them into an impossible lusty paradigm – which could be called utopians; or those who wish to follow unworthy highly publicised role models or worse to involve others into their own miserable ineptitude – which we could call visionaries; there are those who wisely lead their lives leaving room to sound and temperate daydreaming: a most commendable practise and meditative exercise – and naturally these are the fortunate ones I am hereby referring to.

Dreaming is unquestionably a fundamental aspect of living: imagination and fantasy create true emotions and indelible feelings. Hopes and expectations, as well as regrets and remorse, widely spread throughout daydreams accompanying the steps of our life. Anyhow woolgathering is neither a unmistakably distinct project of life, nor a well pondered definitive course of action, and it is not even the childish and useless proclaim for an alternative and of course better reality; it is a mere, and consciously distinct, image of reality that exceeds every day’s life and reassesses it under a new – happier and smoother – light.

In truth sometimes this reverie is more dangerously like a vague sense of emptiness and it reveals the confidence, or perhaps the warm hope, one has for being worthy of something better, yet, not knowing what this something actually is – as wonderfully depicted in a few lines by Flaubert:

“ Vaguement je convoitais quelque chose de splendide que je n’aurais su formuler par aucun mot, ni préciser dans ma pensée sous aucune forme, mais dont j’avais néanmoins le désir positif, incessant. ”

More often though this daydreaming fights against the hardships and responsibilities that age and reality usually – and inexorably… – bring along:

“Et puis, sont-ce là des états? Il faut s’établir, avoir une position dans le monde, on s’ennuie à rester oisif, il faut se rendre utile, l’homme est né pour travailler: maximes difficiles à comprendre et qu’on avait soin de souvent lui répéter.”

and this by opposing a marvellously clear and mellow perspective, often unachievable, that – I daresay fortunately – melts within one’s imagination. Flaubert, rather a gloomy personality, reaches wonderful nuances of merriment when daydreaming..:

“Que ne suis-je gondolier à Venise ou conducteur d’une de ces carrioles, qui, dans la belle saison, vous mènent de Nice à Rome! Il y a pourtant des gens qui vivent à Rome, des gens qui y demeurent toujours. Heureux le mendiant de Naples, qui dort au grand soleil, couché sur le rivage, et qui, en fumant son cigare, voit aussi la fumée du Vésuve monter dans le ciel! Je lui envie son lit de galets et les songes qu’il y peut faire; la mer, toujours belle, lui apporte le parfum de ses flots et le murmure lointain qui vient de Caprée. Quelquefois je me figure arriver en Sicile, dans un petit village de pêcheurs, où toutes les barques ont des voiles latines. C’est le matin; là, entre des corbeilles et des filets étendus, une fille du peuple est assise, elle a ses pieds nus, à son corset est un cordon d’or, comme les femmes des colonies grecques ; ses cheveux noirs, séparés en deux tresses, lui tombent jusqu’aux talons, elle se lève, secoue son tablier; elle marche, et sa taille est robuste et souple à la fois, comme celle de la nymphe antique. Si j’étais aimé d’une telle femme! ”

Nonetheless, I wish to remark that daydreaming does not mean censure or forgetfulness of actuality, or worse escape from real life; it is rather a flame in the darkness, a rosy perspective in proximity of a paramount choice or a capital turn of life. Even art – especially poetry – is always inspired and supported by dreams: the artists represents life just the way he/she sees it; without borders, rules and limitations. Even though sometimes this representations of the world might be rather sorrowful and murky the satisfaction of creation gives him/her peace and joy: music enthuses the listener with memories, and evoking affections and relations. Fortunately this is not a mere privilege of great minds, everyone can seek for the spark that can inspire and enrich his/her aspirations and expectations from life. In fact the great emotions that art can instigate are tightly linked to its ability in setting free the reality from the schemes and formats, by expressing it through new and diverse representations.

Human beings should never level themselves to the immediate representation of reality, but they have the right – if not the duty – to transfigure it to the extent that, via this new image of actuality, they can comply, or at least cope, with the dream of the life they mostly cherish for. It is obviously a clear fact that all human activities must consider the existing conditions and requisites and the overall framework they develop within; actually too often mirages get shattered, perspectives fade away, prospect projects weaken down: but even those professionally firmly taken decisions and highly detailed programmed/budgeted doings are based on an implicit fallacious assumption: the absolute existence of solely controllable variables… Yet even pessimism is, to a certain extent, a degenerated representation of reality, which additionally discourages from hard fighting and forecloses any enthusiasm.

Even such a severe author like Dante Alighieri, who most certainly knew enough the world’s crudeness and  its impact on actual life as he had his share of defeats, disappointments and troubles, could not refrain from daydreaming:

“Guido, i’ vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io
Fossimo presi per incantamento,
E messi in un vasel ch’ad ogni vento
Per mare andasse al voler vostro e mio,

Sì che fortuna od altro tempo rio
Non ci potesse dare impedimento,
Anzi, vivendo sempre in un talento,
Di stare insieme crescesse ‘l disio.

E monna Vanna e monna Lagia poi
Con quella ch’è sul numer de le trenta
Con noi ponesse il buono incantatore:

E quivi ragionar sempre d’amore,
E ciascuna di lor fosse contenta,
Sì come i’ credo che saremmo noi.”

[Guido, I wish that Lapo, you and I,
could be by spells conveyed, as it were now,
upon a vessel, with all the winds that blow
across all seas at our good whim to sail.

So that no misfortune nor temper of the sky
could ruin our route with hatred or cruel slip;
but we, respecting our old friendship,
to be companions still should long thereby.

And Lady Joan, and Lady Lagia, then
with she who’s the thirtieth on my rank,
with us should our good wizard set:

sailing and talking always and only of love:
and each of our three ladies would be merry
as we should be, I think, if this were thus.]

Thus surprisingly such an austere writer, who dared to describe in his Divina Commedia an audaciously insightful journey throughout the “Other World” portraying crude punishments, poignant atonements and mystic joy, used to covet a very simple – and rather common I daresay – dream: to sail far and away, boundlessly, on a little vessel with his two best friends and fellow poets Guido Cavalcanti and Lapo Gianni and their  three girlfriends, cherishing the pleasure of infinite hours spent talking about art and love within the smooth waves of the tranquil ocean.

I definitely concur that modern life requires a cold blooded capacity of promptly and correctly analysing people and situations. Nonetheless daydreams accompany life, do not replace it; they do not overflow on actuality, but can smooth it out – thus reducing its severity, intransigence and harshness; and they allow to overcome dire moments by unveiling promising new perceptions of present and future. Therefore consequent joy, sadness, hopes and fears should move along our daily steps following – but absolutely not stopping – the rhythm of our life, which would be otherwise too rational, and also way more droning.

Ultimately daydreaming is both the spring and symptom of a positive attitude towards life, because in each and every moment gives room and way to hints of happiness, flashes of possible satisfactions and anticipations of prospect victories: altogether some softer and milder expectations that may try to counterbalance those foggy, grey and gloomy hours and days that nobody ever lacks of…

Glycera and Menander

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

“…κα Λεοντίῳ συνεναι τ ταρ….

κα λλαις δ πολλας ταραις γρφειν, κα μλιστα Λεοντίῳ

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

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

And now here goes Glycera’s response:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander the Great in India

Alexander the Great, the Macedonian, grand general and irresistible conqueror, shrewd and charismatic, dissolute and merciless: altogether one of the most contradictorily impressive characters of the entire ancient world and founder of one of the largest empires of history whose expansion ranged from the Balkans to Punjab! Further to the kind enquiry of two of my most affectionate readers, here are some abstracts of my findings on Alexander’s two years in India – throughout the reports of the ancient texts.

In the summer of 327 B.C. Alexander organised a new army which counted almost 120,000 soldiers: mainly Macedonians plus Egyptians and Phoenicians sailors (these latter were indispensable to sail along the river Indus); besides the Macedonians were barely sufficient for his war-campaign as he – moving on with his victories – needed also to establish political structures and organise military-bureaucratic infrastructures on the newly conquered territories. Thus, according to Lucius Flavius Arrianus (Arrian), Alexander crossed the river Indus from Hund and reached Taxila, just across the Hindu Kush – Καύκασος Ινδικός, where the king Omphis (also known as Taxiles) yielded himself:

“Alexander laid a bridge over the river Indus… when Alexander had crossed to the other side of the river Indus, he again offered sacrifice there, according to his custom. Then starting from the Indus, he arrived at Taxila, a large and prosperous city, in fact the largest of those situated between the rivers Indus and Hydaspes. He was received in a friendly manner by Taxiles, the governor of the city, and by the Indians of that place; and he added to their territory as much of the adjacent Country as they asked for.”

Taxiles also asked him for help against King Porus (or Raja Puru) of Pauravaa, between the rivers Hydaspes and the Acesines (Jhelum and the Chenab) in the Punjab and his ally the King of Kashmir Abisares-Αβισαρης (or Abhisara or Embisarus) whose reign was behind the river Hydaspes and his dominions extending to Hyphasis (nearby the present Lahore), who were together trying to conquer the whole of Punjab. Thus Alexander had made his first Indian ally, as Plutarch reports:

“Taxiles, we are told, had a realm in India as large as Egypt, with good pasturage, too, and in the highest degree productive of beautiful fruits. He was also a wise man in his way, and after he had greeted Alexander, said: “Why must we war and fight with one another, Alexander, if thou art not come to rob us of water or of necessary sustenance, the only things for which men of sense are obliged to fight obstinately? As for other wealth and possessions, so-called, if I am thy superior therein, I am ready to confer favours; but if thine inferior, I will not object to thanking you for favours conferred.” At this Alexander was delighted, and clasping the king’s hand, said: “Canst thou think, pray, that after such words of kindness our interview is to end without a battle? Nay, thou shalt not get the better of me; for I will contend against thee and fight to the last with my favours, that thou mayest not surpass me in generosity.” So, after receiving many gifts and giving many more, at last he lavished upon him a thousand talents in coined money. This conduct greatly vexed Alexander’s friends, but it made many of the Barbarians look upon him more kindly”.

During his stay in Taxila Alexander also was able to meet for the first time the famous Indian philosophers: the Gymnosophists, (Darshanas) and the Brahmins priests which seriously tried to endanger his plans and strategies as they both pushed cities and citizens against the foreign conqueror. He brutally reacted to this entanglement…:

“The philosophers, too, no less than the [Indian] mercenaries, gave him trouble, by abusing those of the native princes who attached themselves to his cause, and by inciting the free peoples to revolt. He therefore took many of these also and hanged them.”

Some other philosophers were more fortunate as Plutarchus reports:

“He captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer.”

Alexander then showed even more curiosity for these ascetics and eagerly wanted to meet them, something he tried with alternate success…:

“These philosophers, then, he dismissed with gifts; but to those who were in the highest repute and lived quietly by themselves he sent Onesicritus, asking them to pay him a visit. Now, Onesicritus was a philosopher of the school of Diogenes the Cynic. And he tells us that Calanus very harshly and insolently bade him strip off his tunic and listen naked to what he had to say, otherwise he would not converse with him, not even if he came from Zeus; but he says that Dandamis was gentler, and that after hearing fully about Socrates, Pythagoras, and Diogenes, he remarked that the men appeared to him to have been of good natural parts but to have passed their lives in too much awe of the laws. Others, however, say that the only words uttered by Dandamis were these: “Why did Alexander make such a long journey hither?”

Plutarch says that Calanus eventually came to better terms and met Alexander, although his meeting ended with a wise suggestion that nonetheless incorporated a sinister presage…:

“Calanus, nevertheless, was persuaded by Taxiles to pay a visit to Alexander. His real name was Sphines, but because he greeted those whom he met with “Cale,” the Indian word of salutation, the Greeks called him Calanus. It was Calanus, as we are told, who laid before Alexander the famous illustration of government. It was this. He threw down upon the ground a dry and shrivelled hide, and set his foot upon the outer edge of it; the hide was pressed down in one place, but rose up in others. He went all round the hide and showed that this was the result wherever he pressed the edge down, and then at last he stood in the middle of it, and lo! it was all held down firm and still. The similitude was designed to show that Alexander ought to put most constraint upon the middle of his empire and not wander far away from it.”

Thus according to Arrian in April-May 326 B.C. while king Abisares had sent his emissary to surrender without fighting, king Porus intended to contrast Alexander and was waiting to fight him with his army and 120 elephants across the river Hydaspes. A violent and sanguinary battle took place, with minor loss on Alexander’s army, while the Indians were severely defeated and both soldiers and elephants dispersed on the battlefield:

“Porus, with the whole of his army, was on the other side of that river, having determined either to prevent him from making the passage, or to attack him while crossing…. Alexander took the forces which he had when he arrived at Taxila, and the 5,000 Indians under the command of Taxiles and the chiefs of that district, and marched towards the same river… of the Indians little short of 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry were killed in this battle. All their chariots were broken to pieces; and two sons of Porus were slain”.

Even King Porus fought bravely and was wounded:

“Porus, who exhibited great talent in the battle, performing the deeds not only of a general but also of a valiant soldier… but at last, having received a wound on the right shoulder, which part of his body alone was unprotected during the battle, he wheeled round”

When Alexander met his imprisoned enemy: Porus, he was impressed by the courage and the charisma of his enemy. According to the dialogue Arrian has reported he treated him in a knightly manner and made him his new ally:

“Alexander… admired his [Porus] handsome figure and his stature, which reached somewhat above five cubits. He was also surprised that he did not seem to be cowed in spirit, but advanced to meet him as one brave man would meet another brave man, after having gallantly struggled in defence of his own kingdom against another king. Then indeed Alexander was the first to speak, bidding him say what treatment he would like to receive. The story goes that Porus replied: “Treat me, O Alexander, in a kingly way !“ Alexander being pleased at the expression, said : “For my own sake, O Porus, thou shalt be thus treated; but for thy own sake do thou demand what is pleasing to thee!” But Porus said that everything was included in that. Alexander, being still more pleased at this remark, not only granted him the rule over his own Indians, but also added another country to that which he had before, of larger extent than the former.’ Thus he treated the brave man in a kingly way, and from that time found him faithful in all things.”

Porus proposed Alexander to fight on his Eastern borders against the Nanda dynasty who ruled the kingdom of Magadha nearby Patliputra (nowadays Patna); the Macedonian soldiers started the march, nonetheless once they reached the river Hyphasis they refused to go any further as they wanted to go back home. Alexander, although reluctantly, adhered to their request and, as Diodorus Siculus reports, after having built 12 enormous altars to the Greek Pantheon put the expedition to an end.

“He decided thus to interrupt his campaign at this point, and in order to mark his limits he first of all erected altars of the twelve gods each fifty cubits high…”.

Actually the return would have revealed not as easy as he could have foreseen, as he had to split the army: some garrisons followed the banks of the Indus, others sailed along the river itself, others were exploring the ocean coasts of Belucistan (or Balochistan) and the Persian Gulf.

However the great triumph of Alexander’s warfare skills as well as the magnitude of his empire, though ephemeral, have been vastly celebrated along the centuries, and perhaps this passage from Quintus Curtius Rufus best synthesises the enthusiasm and spirit of victory and winners on their way back home:

“Iam nihil gloriae deesse; nihil obstare virtuti, sine ullo Martis discrimine, sine sanguine orbem terrae ab illis capi.”

[Now nothing was amiss to their glory; nothing could stop their courage: without fighting, without bloodshed they were the masters of the whole world.]

not quite as moving as – so antithetically, though – Joseph Roth’s description of the deep sadness and exhaustion  accompanying the return to Vienna (on a sad 1918 Christmas Eve) of one of the victi, discomfited of the Great War:

“The armed bayonets seemed not at all real, the rifles where loosely hanging askew on the soldiers’ shoulders. It was like they wanted to sleep, the guns, tired of four years of shootings. I was not the least surprised if none of the soldiers saluted me, my stripped cap, my stripped jacket’s collar did not impose any obligation on anyone. Yet I did not rebel. It was only painful. It was the end.”

Sallust: a disenchanted moralist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romae omnia venalia esse

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