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 (ἑταῖρα – hetaera): 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 Boopis “cow-eye” (believe it or not a highly valued compliment!), Gnatena “jaw” (I spare you any comment on this one…) and Melissa “bee” (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 ),
“…καὶ Λεοντίῳ συνεῖναι τῇ ἑταίρᾳ….
…καὶ ἄλλαις δὲ πολλαῖς ἑταίραις γράφειν, καὶ μάλιστα 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:
GLYCERA to MENANDER.
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.”