Odysseus judge and executioner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The disloyal concubines were all hanged to death:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revenge and justice in Odysseus

Feelings and actions in Homer characters offer a wonderful and rich amount of clues as to the ancient Greek world’s moral values, religious creed and social custom and rituals. Nevertheless we usually tend to idealise the heroes and their acts, and we seldom actually contextualise the poems, a practice that sometimes may lead us to contradictory or fallacious interpretations of their behaviour. For instance: Odysseus is back to Ithaca after twenty years of (mis)adventurous wanderings, thanks to the help of Athena he is disguised as an old beggar and hosted in his own palace by his own (still unaware) wife and his accomplice son; yet there is no time at all to cherish his return: his first duty is to take back the control of his kingdom, his palace, his oikos and avenge himself. To restore his honour and take vengeance is his first and foremost aim. The occasion is given by the uninformed Penelope herself:

“Now when the fair lady reached the wooers, she stood by the door-post of the well-built hall, holding before her face her shining veil; and a faithful handmaid stood on either side of her. Then straightway she spoke among the wooers, and said: “Hear me, ye proud wooers, who have beset this house to eat and drink ever without end, since its master has long been gone, nor could you find any other plea to urge, save only as desiring to wed me and take me to wife. Nay, come now, ye wooers, since this is shown to be your prize. I will set before you the great bow of divine Odysseus, and whosoever shall most easily string the bow in his hands and shoot an arrow through all twelve axes, with him will I go, and forsake this house of my wedded life, a house most fair and filled with livelihood, which, methinks I shall ever remember even in my dreams.”

Odysseus awaits in a corner and observes each of the candidates’ failure, and finally asks  for the permission to try; then allowed by the Queen, among the laughs and mockeries of the all the contenders, he grabs the bow and effortlessly aces the test. This is the moment of revelation and revenge: Telemachus in his shining bronze armour takes the stand by his father’s side and Odysseus, suddenly back to his young and strong himself, taking everyone by surprise kills first Antinous (with an arrow through his throat) and then one by one the whole 108 usurpers.

Now, some readers – and even some scholars – deem this violent vendetta rather excessive, especially considering the crimes committed by the pretenders were not that grave, even in those days. Furthermore it is worth to notice that among the 108 suitors-victims there are several quite different personalities with distinct aims and levels of participation to the felonies perpetrated by the bunch. Actually Homer refers to the suers quite always as a group, nonetheless, there are examples within and throughout the poem into which the Poet describes individuals by characterising either their specific evil disposition or their disagreement and/or dissociation with respect to some criminal decisions and ill-actions performed by the group.

There is no doubt that Antinous, their natural charismatic chief, was portrayed as the worst of them all, keenly taking advantage of the devastating situation in Ithaca and trying unsuccessfully to kill Telemachus:

“The wooers they straightway made to sit down and cease from their games; and among them spoke Antinous, son of Eupeithes, in displeasure; and with rage was his black heart wholly filled, and his eyes were like blazing fire. “Out upon him, verily a proud deed has been insolently brought to pass by Telemachus, even this journey, and we deemed that he would never see it accomplished. Forth in despite of all of us here the lad is gone without more ado, launching a ship, and choosing the best men in the land. He will begin by and by to be our bane; but to his own undoing may Zeus destroy his might before ever he reaches the measure of manhood. But come, give me a swift ship and twenty men, that I may watch in ambush for him as he passes in the strait between Ithaca and rugged Samos. Thus shall his voyaging in search of his father come to a sorry end.” So he spoke, and they all praised his words, and bade him act”.

Actually twice failing in his plot and yet eagerly inciting his companions:

“Then among them spoke Antinous, son of Eupeithes: “Lo, now, see how the gods have delivered this man from destruction. Day by day watchmen sat upon the windy heights, watch ever following watch, and at set of sun we never spent a night upon the shore, but sailing over the deep in our swift ship we waited for the bright Dawn, lying in wait for Telemachus, that we might take him and slay the man himself; howbeit meanwhile some god has brought him home. But, on our part, let us here devise for him a woeful death, even for Telemachus, and let him not escape from out our hands, for I deem that while he lives this work of ours will not prosper. For he is himself shrewd in counsel and in wisdom, and the people nowise show us favour any more. Nay, come, before he gathers the Achaeans to the place of assembly–for methinks he will in no wise be slow to act, but will be full of wrath, and rising up will declare among them all how that we contrived against him utter destruction, but did not catch him; and they will not praise us when they hear of our evil deeds. Beware, then, lest they work us some harm and drive us out from our country, and we come to the land of strangers. Nay, let us act first, and seize him in the field far from the city, or on the road; and his substance let us ourselves keep, and his wealth, dividing them fairly among us; though the house we would give to his mother to possess, and to him who weds her. Howbeit if this plan does not please you, but you choose rather that he should live and keep all the wealth of his fathers, let us not continue to devour his store of pleasant things as we gather together here, but let each man from his own hall woo her with his gifts and seek to win her; and she then would wed him who offers most, and who comes as her fated lord.”

But above all is he the very one who beats up Ulysses (while he was camouflaged as a ragged vagrant) the very morning of our hero’s revenge:

“…and Antinous waxed the more wroth at heart, and with an angry glance from beneath his brows spoke to him winged words: “Now verily, methinks, thou shalt no more go forth from the hall in seemly fashion, since thou dost even utter words of reviling.” So saying, he seized the footstool and flung it, and struck Odysseus on the base of the right shoulder, where it joins the back. But he stood firm as a rock, nor did the missile of Antinous make him reel; but he shook his head in silence, pondering evil in the deep of his heart.”

Eurymachus is another ill-character, he takes the command after Antinous’ death, but immediately afterwards he realises that there is no gateway, consequently he tries another strategy by admitting the serious offence he caused and offering his public apology by paying him back for the damages and his wrongdoing:

“many deeds of wanton folly in thy halls and many in the field…. but do thou spare the people that are thine own; and we will hereafter go about the land and get thee recompense for all that has been drunk and eaten in thy halls, and will bring each man for himself in requital the worth of twenty oxen, and pay thee back in bronze and gold until thy heart be warmed; but till then no one could blame thee that thou art wroth.”

Eurymachus’ proffer  cannot be deemed totally inconsiderate by Ancient Greek standards, yet his cowardice is peer to his deceitfulness as he puts the entire blame on the just murdered – and until only a few minutes before comrade – Antinous:

“But he [Antinous] now lies dead, who was to blame for all, even Antinous; for it was he who set on foot these deeds, not so much through desire or need of the marriage, but with another purpose, which the son of Cronos did not bring to pass for him, that in the land of settled Ithaca he might himself be king, and might lie in wait for thy son and slay him”.

The deal – act of contrition and patrimonial indemnity – is brusquely refused by Odysseus:

“Eurymachus, not even if you should give me in requital all that your fathers left you, even all that you now have, and should add other wealth thereto from whence ye might, not even so would I henceforth stay my hands from slaying until the wooers had paid the full price of all their transgression. Now it lies before you to fight in open fight, or to flee, if any man may avoid death and the fates; but many a one, methinks, shall not escape from utter destruction.”

Thus the feral revenge takes place, no escape, no mercy, one by one the suitors are slain by a thunderous Odysseus:

“…Odysseus amid the bodies of the slain, all befouled with blood and filth, like a lion that comes from feeding on an ox of the farmstead, and all his breast and his cheeks on either side are stained with blood, and he is terrible to look upon..”.

What has been often remarked is that Odysseus unemotionally kills all of them, including Leiodes, their soothsayer who always sincerely dreaded their actions:

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

And also shows no mercy for Amphinomus, an unprejudiced personage who had appeared wise also to Penelope’s eyes:

“He was the glorious son of the prince Nisus, son of Aretias, and he led the wooers who came from Dulichium, rich in wheat and in grass, and above all the others he pleased Penelope with his words, for he had an understanding heart.”

and had refused to participate in the plot for the assassination of Telemachus:

“Friends, I surely would not choose to kill Telemachus; a dread thing is it to slay one of royal stock…”

Thus Odysseus’ conduct may seem somewhat incongruous as he completely disregards the individual behaviour of the single members of the bunch and massacres indifferently each and everyone of them ignoring any of their attempts of justification and even any considerate appeal for mercy, including the one of Leiodes – regardless “deeds of wanton folly were hateful to him alone, and he was full of indignation at all the wooers”.

In reality in Homeric society revenge, justice and punishment are conceived, placed and administered at different levels. In Homer’s world vengeance takes no notice of behavioural choices taken by the offender: no matter if he was under pressure, or obeying an order or worse just following the stream while mingling within the crowd – which is the case. There is no consideration whatsoever as to the possible unequal conscience’s situations and single ethic circumstances within the members of the gang. Revenge has no concern for consciousness and culpability, willingness and motive: these concepts pertain to the justice’s sphere, which has really little to do with reprisal itself. In Homer, vendetta is a mere matter of honour – offended honour – and the only plausible reparations within this ancient themis and nomos framework are either the killing or the forgiveness. Nonetheless each and both determinations have no other reason to prevail than the offended pure will, without any possible reference to the circumstances, intentions and emotional participation that have accompanied the committed crime. Honour, if it has been offended, must be somehow compensated, in a form and in a way that can unquestionably restore the image, stature and status of the insulted king primarily within his own community and even in the outer world – he will incontestably decide his offenders’ atonement path.

Ultimately vendetta within the Homeric poems  is purely a matter of regaining incontrovertibly the lost reputation and re-establishing social standing and political power and credibility above and within the community. Therefore, given the perpetrated and reiterated offences carried out against his realm, family, possessions and oikos in general, Odysseus – albeit certainly also blinded by his escalating rage – seems to have followed paradigmatically, and rather canonically, the ritual retaliation of mass hybris.

Timeless heartless women

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

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

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

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

CROBYLE: Yes.

CORINNA: But she is a courtesan!

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

CORINNA: (sobs and cries)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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