Alcaeus and Sappho. Location: Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol, via Wikimedia.
The citizenry themselves are the best safeguard
On May 25, we celebrated Memorial Day, when we pay tribute to the men and women who have sacrificed their lives in the service and defense of their country. This day gives us the opportunity to reflect on what it means to defend and protect our nation.
There are those who think that the best defense is to literally build fortification walls of stone and cement and to withdraw from all contact with other nations and from all international agreements. This conduct is not only useless but can backfire. Whereas useful exchange, of commodities, people, and information is strangled, harmful exchange of corporeal items such as drugs, and incorporeal material such as malign computer programs, always find a way to cross borders. And as we have seen with the pandemic of coronavirus, a virus knows no borders. Walls do not help in a plague: we saw in the Quotation of the Month for March that the Great Plague at Athens of 430 B.C. was exacerbated by the close penning up of thousands of inhabitants behind their Long Walls — with no social distancing!
The fundamental way to achieve national strength is to develop a strong people who not only have a robust set of ideals but who live up to those ideals, and who set an example to be followed by other nations.
Our Quotation of the Month is a short fragment from the Greek poet Alcaeus of Mytilene, from the sixth century B.C., expressing a sentiment that is surprisingly appropriate, that the strength of a city-state is not in its walls but in its people.
Alcaeus, the other poet from Lesbos
Alcaeus (ca.620-ca.580 B.C.) was from the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. When we think of Lesbos, we generally think of the poetess Sappho (ca.630-ca.570 B.C.), and in fact the two very likely knew each other. (Legend has them be lovers, but there is little if any evidence for this.) Alcaeus belonged to the aristocratic ruling class of Mytilene, and was involved in its political disputes and rivalries. Little is known of Sappho's family. Their poetic output differed in scope, hers being of a more personal nature, whereas he composed poetry on a variety of subjects, including hymns to various gods, war songs, love songs, drinking songs, and political commentary. Both wrote in their native Aeolic dialect.
But both Alcaeus and Sappho suffer from the loss of most of their poetry. It exists today mainly in quotations in other writers and in fragmentary papyri found in the ancient rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere in Egypt.
Alcaeus on defense of the city
The quotation we have chosen is the one labeled as No 29 in the Loeb edition. It was quoted by Aristides in The Four Great Athenians (and paraphrased by other writers). The city, Alcaeus says, is composed not of stone and timber, but of men.
Below, in Greek and English, are the words of Alcaeus on what makes a great city.
An ancient hero. Sculpture of Heracles capturing the Deer of Ceryneia (his third labor). Location: the Museum at Delphi. (From a postcard.)
A view from my back window. The magnolia tree in the back yard, with birdbath in the foreground. Photo by C.A. Sowa.
A look out the window at Nature
On Earth Day (April 22), many were stuck this year inside a house or apartment having to enjoy nature by just looking out the window at a tree or a bird, or even just by watching TV or the Internet. The magnolia tree in our back yard, depicted above, produces a cloud of pink flowers for a week or so, but is now dropping its petals and replacing them with green foliage.
Tragically, the scourge of the coronavirus has taken many of our loved ones from us. Ironically, however, our inability to go anywhere we like has had perhaps a positive effect on the other scourge of our era, climate change. There is, at least temporarily, less pollution in our air, due to the lack of toxic emissions from cars and aircraft. (There is, however, a downside. It was reported that due to sanitary concerns, there was been an uptick in the use of non-reusable plastic.)
We must treat the Earth right, and she will treat us right, as expressed in this month's Quotations of the Month, the Homeric Hymn to Gaia and a short epigram from the so-called Homeric Epigrams.
A Hymn to Gaia
The Hymn to Gaia is one of the Homeric Hymns, a group of poems, in the same oral epic tradition as the Iliad and Odyssey, probably from the eighth century B.C. The longer Hymns are each about the length of one book of the major epics, and may have been meant for one evening's performance at dinner in some great house, although since they tend to end with a phrase like "Hail to you, goddess, and I will remember you in another song also," the bard may have intended an encore.
The longer Hymns are our sources for some important myths. The Hymn to Demeter tells of the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades, king of the Underworld, and how her mother, Demeter, goddess of the grain, searched for her, and having been reunited with her, founded the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Hymn to Apollo tells of Apollo's birth on Delos and his founding of his temple at Delphi. The Hymn to Hermes recounts the god's birth and how he invented the lyre from the shell of a tortoise, and gave the instrument to his half-brother, Apollo. The Hymn to Aphrodite is our source for the story of the goddess' love for the Trojan prince Anchises, and the birth of her son Aeneas, who was made famous in Vergil's Aeneid. Other Hymns are shorter, but tell stories, like the Hymns to Dionysos and Pan.
Many Hymns in the collection, however, are but short invocations of a divinity. There are thirty-three Hymns in all, the shortest only four or five lines long. The Hymn to Gaia, Mother Earth, is of medium length, at nineteen lines, praising the Earth for providing abundance to all, but with a word of warning, for, the poet says,
It is yours to give the means of life and to take it away from mortal men.
The poem ends with the usual formula
I will remember you and another song, also.but not before the poet has included his own personal request to the goddess for a successful career in exchange for his praise of her!
A warning epigram about Earth's moods
The second selection is a three-line invocation of the Earth goddess (here called Gê instead of Gaia) from the so-called Homeric Epigrams. These short musings were ascribed to Homer in antiquity, but who knows? The epigram selected here makes even more clear that Earth can act kindly toward those she likes, but can turn on those she is angry at. This is a message that we can take to heart. In these days when we repeatedly mistreat the Earth, we can expect her to turn on us, but if we treat her well, she will reward us.
Below, in Greek and English, are the two Quotations, Homeric Hymn XXX to Gaia and Homeric Epigram VII.
Gaia as giver of abundance and ferility. From R.H. Roscher, Ausfürliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1894-1890, Vol. I p.1583.
Above: Pericles, 2nd Century A.D. Roman copy of a lost Greek original, the British Museum, photo by Brett Bigham, 2016, via Wikipedia.
A long history of epidemics
We are in the midst of an epidemic (or pandemic, since it affects many different populations) of the disease known as the Coronavirus. Not only is the disease easily communicable and frequently deadly. The social and economic toll is equally deadly, with families separated and jobs and incomes gone. Health care workers are particularly at risk, since they are in constant contact with the sick, as are those incarcerated or otherwise forced to live in crowded circumstances.
The epidemic is described as "unprecedented," like nothing seen before. No one is sure how long it will last, or how to treat it. Some turn to religion or superstition — President Trump originally said that it would "miraculously" disappear, and some claim that religious medals will ward off infection. Conspiracy theories abound, claiming that the virus was manufactured in a laboratory by — take your pick — the Chinese or the Americans.
As a matter of fact, the experience is not without precedent. Often mentioned is the influenza epidemic of 1918, but even earlier, in the nineteenth century, waves of malaria and yellow fever devastated cities. Great numbers of people from rural areas were moving into cities, which had minimal infrastructure for handling sewage, which was usually dumped into the nearest river or bayou. In Memphis alone more than 5000 inhabitants perished in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. The germ theory was a novel idea, questioned by many, and yellow fever was particularly mysterious, as the connection with mosquitos was still unknown. The French attempt to build the Panama Canal (later successfully completed by the U.S.) was thwarted not only by massive mismanagement but by devastating losses to the fever, only conquered at last by eradication of the mosquito. The most famous plague of course is the Black Death, the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century, which wiped out much of the population of Europe.
But long before any of these epidemics, there was the Great Plague at Athens in 430 B.C.
Thucydides describes the great plague at Athens
Thucydides (ca. 460 - ca. 400 B.C.) in Book 2 of his Histories describes the great plague that weakened Athens in the second year of the 27-year Peloponnesian War. The situation is eerily similar to that of the current epidemic, and a description of today's disaster could be ripped from the pages of the Greek historian.
As Thucydides describes the plague, it was unprecedented; no one could remember anything like it; no one knew what the cause was or how to treat it. Athens was overcrowded, as people from surrounding areas were crammed, by government policy, into the city. Physicians died in greatest numbers, since they were caring for the sick. People turned to religion or to divination, until they realized it was of no use. There were conspiracy theories, that the enemy had poisoned the waters. Thucydides himself became ill, and describes the course of the disease, in hopes that someone in the future will be able to recognize the disease, if it ever breaks out again.
The Peloponnesian War: the Peloponnesian League vs. the Delian League
The Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) was fought between two major coalitions of Greek city-states. One group was made up of "the Lacedaemonians and their allies," often referred to as the Peloponnesian League. It was made up of Sparta and allied cities, mostly from the Peloponnese, including Corinth, whose strategic trade route on the isthmus joining the Aegean Sea and the Ionian Sea made that city a commercial rival of Athens. The other group was made up of Athens and her allies, which drew from members of the Delian League.
The Delian League was an organization of Greek states formed after the war with Persia and the defeat of Xerxes, in which Sparta had played a major role. Its purpose was to defend Greek interests against further incursions by the Persian king. Its headquarters and treasury were located on the holy island of Delos, which was most famous for the myth that it was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Athens gradually took over as the leader of the alliance, and its treasury was moved to Athens. Members could either supply ships and men, or pay money. Most members chose to send money. Athens appropriated — we might say embezzled — most of the money for its own purposes, and the Delian League morphed into the Athenian Empire, with member states contributing the tribute that funded the Golden Age of Athens. Many of the monuments that we admire, including the Parthenon, were paid for by tribute money from Athens' client cities.
Pericles pens up the Athenians behind the Long Walls
Athens had, for a couple of hundred years, teetered between democracy and dictatorship (as described in the Quotation of the Month for February, 2020 "Impeachment and Ancient Athenian "Ostracism"). In the 5th century B.C., Pericles, who held the office of general, became the de facto ruler of Athens. As Thucydides puts it, Athens "became in name a democracy but in fact was the rule by its first man" ( hypo tou protou andros archê Thuc. II.65). Though from a noble family, Pericles was what we would call a populist, whose "base" was the working class, whose favor he won by such things as free theater tickets and lowering the property requirements for the important office of archon. In the Persian Wars he favored the navy over the land forces, partly because the sailors were largely drawn from the lower classes.
The first years of the war, known as the "Archidamian" War after the Spartan king Archidamus, consisted mainly of the Peloponnesians ravaging the orchards and farmlands around Athens, and the Athenians retaliating by sending their fleet around the Peloponnese and harassing the inhabiants. The political history of the time being murky and complicated, it is difficult to say what part Pericles played in stirring up hostilities, but his decision to crowd all the inhabitants of Attica behind its walls hastened not only the disaster of the plague but the eventual weakening of Athens itself.
Athens, in its inland position, had been connected to the port of Piraeus by fortifications known as the Long Walls (which can be seen in the map at the bottom of this item). Pericles somehow persuaded the rural inhabitants of Attica to abandon their farms and their livelihoods to cram into the space between these fortifications in the heat of summer, trusting to Athenian seapower to bring an end to the conflict. In these crowded conditions, the city, once the plague started, became, as we would say, a petri dish of contamination.
The symptoms of the disease, described by Thucydides
Thucydides, who suffered from the plague himself, describes in excruciating detail the symptoms of the disease. It started suddenly with a violent heat in the head and inflammation of the eyes, progressing down the body to a bloody throat, pain in the chest, upset stomach and nausea followed by violent spasms. The skin broke out in pustules. Internal heat caused people to throw themselves into cold water in a vain attempt to get cool. At this point many died, but in those that survived this initial attack, the disease continued down the body, attacking the private parts and the fingers and toes, and some became blind. Some of those who recovered suffered at first from loss of memory and "did not recognize themselves or their friends."
It is still not known what disease caused the plague. Some have speculated that it was typhoid. At least one third of the population of Athens (about 30,000 victims) perished.
Death of Pericles and military collapse of Athens
Pericles himself died of the plague, and Athenian politics, which had always been chaotic, became even more so. Leaders came and went. A disastrous attack on Syracuse, in Sicily, destroyed Athens' sea power. An oligarchy briefly took over. Aristophanes' comedy, Lysistrata, in which women go on strike, refusing to have sex until the men end the war, was produced in 411 B.C., expressing the people's frustration with the continued fighting.
Athens eventually lost the war to Sparta, but power went back and forth between the Greek cities. Thebes, the great seven-gated city famous for Cadmus, Oedipus, and Dionysus, was the leader for a while. Even the Persians got in on the act, mostly backing the Peloponnesians. Finally, in the 4th century B.C., Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander ("the Great"), who had studied with Aristotle, swept down and took over all of Greece, and beyond. The Peloponnesian War was a conflict involving the entire Greek world, and could be called the World War of its era.
Athens was no longer a military power, but continued to be an intellectual center of learning and philosophy, long into Roman times.
Below, in Greek and English, is the beginning of Thucydides' description of the plague. The funeral mentioned in the first line of the quotation is the funeral for the Athenian war dead in the first year of the war, at which Pericles delivered his electrifying Funeral Oration, in which (in words perhaps enhanced in Thucydides' telling) he describes Athens as she would like to see herself, as a land of opportunity and "the school of Hellas."
A map showing the Long Walls of Athens and the wall connecting Athens with the old port at Phaleron. Map Athene in de Oudheid (in Dutch) by Napoleon Vier, via Wikipedia.
Above: An ostrakon bearing the name of Aristides, on display in the Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, housed in the Stoa of Attalus. photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto, November 9, 2009, via Wikipedia.
Impeachment in America and ostracism in Athens
Impeachment in the U.S is the process of bringing an a accusation against a public official with the goal of removing the official from office. The Constitution provides that the House of Representatives can bring a bill of impeachment against the President of the U.S. for treason, bribery, or "high crimes and misdemeanors," the latter phrase being the subject of heated disagreements. Impeachment is, however, only the accusation; the Senate then votes on whether to remove a duly elected President from office. We have just seen a bill of impeachment brought against President Donald Trump in the the majority Democratic House, but he was acquitted in the heavily Republican Senate. Impeachment is in the Constitution, but stands outside of the regular process of election.
Ancient Athens had a similar process of removal of a public figure that was outside of the normal electoral process. It was called ostracism.
We use the term ostracism today to mean simply a shunning of an individual by any group. In ancient Athens, however, it had a specific legal meaning. Citizens literally wrote the name of the person they wanted to remove on an ostrakon, a broken piece of pottery, or potsherd, and dropped it into an urn in a designated part of the agora, or main square. The person whose name got the most votes was exiled from Athens for ten years, but was allowed to keep his property and the income from it. Citizens included only free men; women and slaves could not vote. A vote of ostracism could be called only once a year, and only one person could ostracized in that year. The reason for ostracizing an individual was not generally the commission of a specific crime, but simply that the person had become too powerful, and was therefore considered a threat to democracy. Sometimes the reason seems to have been largely political rivalry. According to Plutarch, if the total number of votes was less than 6000, the ostracism was void for that year.
According to Aristotle's Constitution of Athens (Athenaion Politeia) the procedure of ostracism was instituted by Cleisthenes, the lawgiver who gave Athenian democracy its historic form, often called the "Father of Athenian Democracy."
Draco, Solon, and Cleisthenes as lawgivers of Athens
Draco (Drakon) gave Athens its first written constitution (621 B.C.), replacing the old unwritten laws and blood feud. His laws, called thesmoi, were posted on wooden tablets where everyone could see them. Draco's laws had a reputation for harshness; death was the punishment for many crimes, including the stealing of a cabbage (however, fragmentary evidence seems to show that there was a distinction between voluntary homicide, punishable by death, and involuntary homicide, or manslaughter, punishable by exile). From this harsh reputation we get the word "draconian."
Solon (ca. 630 - ca.560 B.C.) repealed most of Draco's laws and reorganized the Athenian government. Solon, too, gave us a common English word, "solon," meaning "a wise lawgiver." However, his reforms were not enough to prevent the populist leader Peisistratus from seizing power and ruling Athens as "tyrant" (i.e dictator), followed by his sons Hipparchus and Hippias. These three ruled for over thirty years (546-510 B.C.).
After the Peisistratids were driven out with the help of the Spartans, and after a period of upheaval, our third lawgiver, Cleisthenes, took over leadership and gave form to what we think of as Athenian democracy. Perhaps most importantly, he redefined tribal affiliation. Instead of belonging to a tribe based on hereditary family ties, one's tribal identity was based on one's deme, or neighborhood of residence. Athens was divided into three regions, the city (asty), the coast (paralia), and the inland region (mesogeia). Each tribe consisted of three demes, one from each region, breaking up the old feudal power structure. (It is as if an American voting unit were made up of one precinct from New York, one from California, and one from Iowa.) Cleisthenes was said to have also introduced the procedure of ostracism.
Pre-written ostraka for the illiterate
If the voter was illiterate, he could ask someone else to fill out his "ballot" by inscribing a name on a potsherd for him. Thousands of marked ostraka have been found by archaeologists, with different names on them, showing the popularity of the process. One cache of 190 ostraka all bearing the name of "Themistocles" were found dumped in a well near the Acropolis, written in fourteen different handwritings. Were these prepared as an ancient example of ballot-box stuffing? Or were they simply prepared by campaign workers ready to "help out" those unable to write?
The first known ostracism was in 487 B.C., of Hipparchus, son of Charmos, a relative of the tyrant Peisistratus. The last was in 416 B.C., of Hyperbolus, son of Antiphanes. After this, the question of whether to hold an ostracism was put to the Assembly each year, but none was called for. In 471, the great Themistocles, hero of the Second Persian War, who rebuilt the Athenian navy that defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis (480 B.C.), was ousted by political enemies and ostracized. He went into exile and ended up at the Persian court. He was made governor of Magnesia (in present-day Turkey), where he died in 459 B.C. of natural causes. In 482, Aristides, called "The Just" (Dikaios), was ostracized, but was recalled from exile in 480 to serve as a general in the war against Persia. He was a political rival of Themistocles, and unlike Themistocles, he believed not in naval power but in the primacy of land forces. Yet he served honorably at Salamis with Themistocles, who himself would later be ostracized.
Why the Athenian wanted Aristides "The Just" ostracized
Plutarch, in his Life of Aristides, tells a funny story about the ostracism of Aristides. An illiterate man, not recognizing the great general, asked Aristides to write the name "Aristides" on the ostrakon he was about to deposit in the urn. Aristides asked the man what ill "Aristides" had done him. "None at all," said the man, "I'm simply annoyed at hearing him called 'The Just' all the time." Never letting on who he was, Aristides politely wrote his own name on the ostrakon and gave it to the man.
Below, in Greek and English, is Plutarch's anecdote about the Athenian who asked Aristides to write his own name on the ostrakon. Plutarch says that Aristides then said a prayer that was "the opposite of the one offered by Achilles." Achilles' prayer was for revenge against his fellow Greeks.
A view of Athens, looking toward the Acropolis, on an antique postcard, collection of C.A. Sowa.
Above: A dapper Frog and Rat, of unknown provenance (from Gerald Quinn, The Clip Art Book, 1990).
The Lunar Year of the Rat
It is the time of the Chinese New Year, and in the Lunar Calendar, the year 2020 is a Year of the Rat. The Rat, and persons born in a Year of the Rat, are said to be intelligent, diligent, creative, and adaptable. They have a keen sense of intuition (observe that rats are said to leave a sinking ship, or a mineshaft that is about to collapse). Different Years of the Rat are associated with different ones of the five elements — Metal (gold), Earth, Water, Wood, or Fire. The year 2020 is a year of the Metal Rat.
Rats and mice in ancient Greece and Rome
Rats and mice are thought to have originated in Asia. It is not known when these rodents were first introduced to Greece and Rome. It is quite likely that their introduction owes something to the vast trade routes that crisscrossed the Asiatic and Mediterranean lands. They would have enjoyed in particular the contents of the great grain fleets of the Romans. In both Latin and Greek, the words mus and mys could refer either to a mouse or rat, or one of several other rodent-like types of animal. (In Chinese, also, the word shu can mean "rat," "mouse," or other such animal). Like the rat, the mouse is also diligent, adaptable, and cozy with the human environment.
Our Quotation of the Month is from mock epic in Greek of unknown authorship and date called the Batrachomyomachia, or Battle of the Frogs and Mice, in which an unlucky mouse (or is it a rat?), although belonging to a species known for its ability to survive, drowns when it falls off the back of a frog that promised him a ride across the pond, but suddenly dives into the water.
The Batrachomyomachia, or Battle of the Frogs and Mice
The Batrachomyomachia has been variously credited to Homer (as the Romans believed), or to Pigres of Halicarnassus, brother of Artemisia, Queen of Caria and an ally of Xerxes (according to Plutarch). Others ascribe the poem to an anonymous poet of the time of Alexander the Great.
In the poem, a mouse, named Crumb-snatcher (Psicharpax) is drinking water from a lake when he encounters a frog named Puff-jaw (Physignathos) swimming across the lake. They fall to comparing genealogies, as well as diets. The mouse prefers such things as bread, honey cakes, cheese, or slices of ham and liver. He is not interested in cabbages and other vegetarian food, such as the frog might like. The frog is not interested in the mouse's food talk, but offers him a ride across the lake to visit the frog's own house. The mouse accepts, riding on the swimming frog's back. All goes well at first, but the mouse begins to regret his decision as waves arise and the land recedes. Suddenly a water snake appears, and the frog, without thinking of the consequences for the mouse, dives. The poor mouse, flailing about, screams and squeaks, but eventually drowns, not before calling for revenge from the Mouse Army (Myôn stratô).
Another mouse observes all this, and the mice declare war on all the frogs. Puff-jaw lies, saying that he had nothing to do with the problem. A tiny Homeric battle ensues, with both sides arming themselves with armor from the natural world, such as greaves made of bean pods, spears made from rushes, and cabbage-leaf shields. Zeus decides to intervene, asking Athena to help the mice. She refuses, complaining that mice are eating the garlands and lamp oil from her temple, and have even chewed holes in her sacred robe. She won't help the frogs, either, because they keep her awake at night with their croaking. The battle rages, going back and forth, and finally the mice are winning. Zeus takes pity on the frogs, and sends an army of crabs, who nip at the tails and paws of the mice. The mice at last retreat, and the war is over.
Below, in Greek and English, is the section where the unhappy mouse, thoughtlessly dumped in the lake by the diving frog, drowns, and, as he flails about, calls for vengeance upon the frogs from his fellow mice. The pancration ("all strengths"), at which the mouse claims to excel, was a combination of boxing and wrestling.
A U.S. postage stamp celebrating the Lunar Year of the Rat.
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