These are quotations for the year 2021. For other years, go back to the first quotation page for the Index to Quotations.

Minerva Systems home page
Chapter 1 of The Loom of Minerva: An Introduction to Computer Projects for the Literary Scholar, "A Guide to the Labyrinth"
"The Eureka Machine for Composing Hexameter Latin Verses" (1845)
"Verbal Patterns in Hesiod's Theogony"
Selected Excerpts from Chapters of Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns
"Thought Clusters in Early Greek Oral Poetry"
"Holy Places", a study of myths of landmarks
"Epilogue to 'Holy Places': the World Trade Center as a Mythic Place"
Writings on Building and Architecture
"Ancient Myths in Modern Movies"
Archived "Quotations of the Month"
Write e-mail to Cora Angier Sowa
Apollo playing the lyre

Illustration: Apollo, patron god of music, plays the lyre, the instrument with which the bard accompanied himself as he sang of mythical stories or the news of the day.

Archived quotations of the month

Beginning with September, 2004, my home page will feature a different quotation from Classical or other literature each month, appropriate to the season or to current events. Starting in October, 2004, these pages will contain "Quotations of the Month" from previous months. Translations are my own, except where otherwise noted.

Below is the index to the quotations for 2021, followed by the quotations themselves.

Index to quotations for 2021

Below are quotations for the year 2021. For other years, go back to the first quotation page for the Index to Quotations or click on one of the years below:

Quotations of the Month for the year 2021

Click on a link to read each quotation


Quotation for April, 2021


Vitruvius Book 3 p. 31 detail


What is Infrastructure? Vitruvius De Architectura

Fano Cathedral

Above: The fourth century Cathedral of Fano, ancient Fanum Fortunae, perhaps incorporating parts of a basilica designed by Vitruvius. Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, photo by MarkusMark, August, 2009, via Wikimedia.

Top: An illustration from the edition of Vitruvius de Architectura published in Venice in 1511 by Fra Giovanni Giocondo, Book 3 p. 31, detail. Metropolitan Museum.

A dispute over definitions: roads, bridges, and child care

The Democrats have introduced legislation to appropriate federal funds to improve infrastucture throughout the United States. It would fund what has traditionally been called "infrastructure," comprising roads, bridges, airports, railroads, and transit, including money for the Amtrak passenger rail system. It expands the definition for a modern age by including funds for Internet connections for underserved populations, especially in rural areas, much like the rural electrification program of an earlier era. But, defining "infrastructure" as the underlying framework that enables the smooth running of society, the proponents of the bill have included child care, elder care, free pre-kindergarten and community college education. These measures are wildly popular among people at large, but evoke howls of protest from Republican legislators. "That's not infrastructure!" they cry, ignoring the fact that state colleges, now grown into state universities, were founded in the nineteenth century to provide free higher education to the sons and daughters of working families.

The fight over whether to adopt a narrow or a wide definition of infrastructure is reminiscent of the "silo-ization" of much of our society, where we are not supposed to step out of our area of experience or expertise. Most recently we have seen this in resistance to encouraging police to step out of a semi-military role to render psychological or social services. In higher education, students are encouraged to specialize immediately, whether in business, art history, economics, or Classics, and after graduation, they are expected to "stay in their lane" and not comment on anything outside of their major. (Carrying this to a silly extreme, someone recently criticized President Biden's wife for daring to call herself "Dr." Jill Biden, when she is not a physician!)

The Greek philosophers as polymaths

It was not always thus. "Philosophy" today, for example, is considered an academic subject, with little connection to the workaday world. The word philosophia, however, means "love of wisdom," and the ancient philosophers were polymaths, occupied in all branches of knowledge. Aristotle was as much a scientist as a "philosopher" in our sense. The Stoics, whose name has unfortunately become a shorthand for people who endure pain and suffering without expression, believed that to accept the world as it is required them to understand that world. Posidonius, a Stoic philospher (ca. 135 B.C. - ca.51 B.C.) was a mathematician, musical theorist, astronomer, politician, and military tactician. He studied the effect of the moon on the tides and calculated the circumference of the Earth and the size and distance of the Moon.

"Epicurean" is another term that has also been distorted, to mean "overindulging" in a life of pleasure. But Epicurus himself (341-270 B.C.), while he believed in the value of happiness and tranqility (ataraxia, "freedom from being bothered"), was most famous for his improving on the theories of the earlier philospher Democritus (ca. 460-370 B.C.), who stated that all things are constructed of atoms. (His atomic theory is known to us from the Roman Lucretius' de Rerum Natura "On the Nature of Things.")

What is an architect? Vitruvius: Roman architect, engineer, inventor, city planner

The professions of architect and engineer have been similarly narrowed. Here again, the ancients would disagree, and a spectacular example is the Roman architect Vitruvius.

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (ca. 80-70 B.C.), is best known for his multivolume work De Architectura "On Architecture," but that title does not fully describe the scope of this undertaking. We know little of the life of Vitruvius, other than what he tells us himself in his book, but as far as we know, he served as a military engineer under Julius Caesar, specializing in the construction of siege engines. In later years the Emperor Augustus may have granted him a pension, and the De Architectura is dedicated to Augustus.

The word "architect" itself means "master builder," and the De Architectura is wide-ranging in the fields Vitruvius considered that the builder must be familiar with. He covers topics including mechanics, building materials, construction and contracting, town planning, music and acoustics (especially with regard to theater design). He discusses the effects of the winds blowing from different directions, the constellations and heavenly bodies (in the section on sundials and water clocks), and advises that the builder also be familiar with aspects of the law and medicine. He also describes the design of various machines, for war and for peaceful purposes, and he includes a design for a device for lifting water based on the Screw of Archimedes, which we discussed in the Quotation of the Month for March, 2021. It is Vitruvius who gives us the story of how Archimedes discovered the method of measuring the volume of an object by the displacement of water while getting into his bathtub (de Arch. 9.9-12).

Firmitas, utilitas, venustas

The most quoted words written by Vitruvius are his statement of the three most important qualities that a structure must have: firmitas, utilitas, venustas. Standing by themselves, they can be translated as "durability, usefulness, and beauty," but of course there is more to it than that, as Vitruvius goes on to tell us, briefly at first, then for the rest of the De Architectura. For firmitas he tells us, the foundations must go down to solid ground, and materials used should not be chosen simply for cheapness; for utilitas, the structure must fill its particular need, and be easy to get around in; for venustas, the structure should be pleasing and in good taste (elegans), and should be well-proportioned. Vitruvius was interested in ideal proportions, whether for a building or for the human body, and his measurements for the Vitruvian Man were the basis for the well-known drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.

Vitruvian Man
Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci, with notes from Vitruvius, ca. 1492. Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. Image from Wikipedia, by Luc Viatour.

The Basilica at Fano

The only actual building that we know was designed by Vitruvius was the basilica built in 19 B.C. at Fanum Fortunae ("Temple of Fortune"), northeast of Rome, whose construction he describes in detail (De Arch. 5.1.6). Fanum Fortunae is today known as the Italian town of Fano. Vitruvius' building has long since disappeared, and even its exact location is unknown. Modern scholars have attempted to reconstruct what it looked like from Vitruvius' description. Since it was common to reuse pieces of ancient buildings in newer construction, it has been conjectured that parts of Vitruvius' shrine may have become part of the twelfth-century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Fano, which itself was built over an older cathedral destroyed by fire in 1111. The cathedral façade, pictured at the top of this article, was restored in the 1920's.

Manuscripts of the De Architectura were widely circulated in succeeding centuries, and were admired and followed by generations of architects, but Vitruvius' original drawings were lost. The first printed edition, with woodcuts based on Vitruvius' descriptions, was published in Venice in 1511 by Fra Giovanni Giocondo. Selections of these illustrations appear at the top and below.

Quotation of the Month, from Vitruvius, de Architectura

For our Classical Quotation of the Month, we bring you, in Latin and English, Vitruvius' famous definition of architecture in Book I of De Architectura. The text is from the Teubner edition of 1912, which can be found on the Perseus website.

Vitruvius Book I Chapter 3.1-2

Vitruvius 1.3.1-2

Vitruvius on the definition of architecture

Architecture has three divisions: building, the making of timepieces, and mechanical construction. Building is divided into two parts, of which one is the erection of walls and works of general use in public places, and the second is the putting up of private structures. Of public works there is a tripartite distribution: the first area is defense, the second religion, the third common convenience. Under defense there is the planning of towers and gates designed to permanently repel enemy attacks; under religion there is the erection of shrines and sacred temples to the immortal gods; under common convenience there is the disposition of places for public use, such as ports, markets, colonnades, baths, theaters, promenades, and other similar facilities that are decided upon for public locations.

All of these must be made so that there is a calculation of durability, usefulness, and beauty. Durability will be achieved when foundations are carried down to solid ground, and a choice of materials is made without cost-shaving; utility, on the other hand, requires that the arrangement of the place is faultless and offers no impediment to use, and that the exposure of each class of building is suitable and appropriate: beauty indeed, will be achieved when the appearance of the work is pleasing and elegant and the proportions of the parts have the correctly reasoned measurements of symmetry.

Vitruvius Book 10 p102

A machine for raising water, based on the Screw of Archimedes. An illustration from the edition of Vitruvius de Architectura published in Venice in 1511 by Fra Giovanni Giocondo, Book 10 p. 102.

Quotation for March, 2021


Archimedes' Tombstone


For Pi Day, Archimedes of Syracuse: Plutarch, Life of Marcellus


Above: Archimedes, as painted by Domenico Fetti, ca. 1620. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

Top: Diagram showing that the ratio between the volume and surface areas of a cylinder and a sphere contained within it are exactly 3:2. Archimedes desired that this diagram be inscribed on his tombstone.

Celebrating Pi Day

On March 14, fans of mathematics celebrated Pi Day. The numeric equivalent of the date is 3.14, representing the mathematical constant pi, usually written with the Greek letter


It is the closest approximation of the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter. The value of pi is often given as 3.14159, but even this is an approximation, as the true value has never been ascertained, although many ingenious mathematical methods have been tried. In 2020 there was a claim that the value had been computed to 50 trillion digits. The use of the letter pi comes from its being the first letter of the Greek periphereia, the circumference of a circle — the Latin circumferentia being an exact translation of the Greek, "a carrying around."

To commemmorate Pi Day, some restaurants offer free or discounted helpings of pie!

For our Quotation of the Month, we celebrate the life of one of the ancient scientists who developed an ingenious method of approximating the value of pi, Archimedes of Syrcuse.

Archimedes of Syracuse, scientist and inventor

The Greek Archimedes (ca. 287 B.C. - 212 B.C.), famous for his inventions, developed a method of approximating pi by computing the dimensions of a series of polygons inside and outside the figure until he approached the desired value. His computations were achieved without the aid of modern calculus. Archimedes was not the first to compute a value for pi. The Chinese, Babylonians, and Egyptians also developed methods for approximating its value. But this was only one of many mathematical calculations made by Archimedes.

Archimedes, born in Syracuse on the island of Sicily, is most famous for his practical inventions, especially the Archimedes Screw, used even today for lifting water as well as other materials. A corkscrew-shaped blade inside of a cylinder is made to revolve by turning a crank by hand or machine, so that as it turns, anything placed or scooped onto it is lifted. (See the diagram at the bottom of this item.) He also invented innovative types of pulleys and defined the principle of the lever, of which he is supposed to have said "Give me a place to stand, and I can move the world." He also designed war engines with which the army of Syracuse was able to fend off the invading Romans for two years.

Archimedes the mathematician

Less well known in popular lore is his work in pure mathematics, which he considered his most important work. This included his aforementioned computation of pi. He also made other geometrical computations, including the volumes and areas of various geometrical figures. In a famous anecdote told by Vitruvius, he discovered that the volume of an object could be determined by seeing how much water it displaced. He made this discovery while taking a bath, seeing how the water level rose as he got in, uttering the famous phrase "Eureka!" (heureka!) "I have found it!" In one of his favorite discoveries, he computed the ratio of the surface area and volume of a sphere to a cylinder of equal height and radius, which he determined to be 2:3. He considered this latter discovery to be of such importance that he requested that a representation of it be inscribed on his tombstone. This was done, and the tombstone was seen and described by Cicero in 75 B.C. when Cicero was serving as quaestor in Sicily. Cicero found the tomb in neglected condition, and had it cleaned up. (See the figure above.)

Archimedes left several treatises on his mathematical work, but none on his practical inventions, considering them to be, by comparison, "ignoble and vulgar" (agennê kai banauson), according to Plutarch (Life of Marcellus 17.4).

The Siege of Syracuse by the Romans under Marcellus

During the Second Punic War, fought by Rome against the Carthaginians under Hannibal, Sicily, including the city of Syracuse, had defected to the Carthaginian side. Syracuse proved to be particularly difficult to crack, thanks in large part, to the inventions of Archimedes. In 214 B.C., the Romans, under the proconsul Marcus Claudius Marcellus laid siege to Syracuse. He brought the full might of the Roman navy against the city's defenses. Archimedes, however, designed engines that could lob huge stones and other weights down upon the ships, as well as other machines. Perhaps his most amazing device was an enormous crane or claw that could seize a ship and dash it against the cliffs beneath the city walls or lift it up and shake it about until all the crew fell out.

Marcellus was finally able to take the city by entering it by an unguarded tower while the inhabitants were celebrating a festival of Artemis. When Marcellus looked down upon the beautiful and prosperous city, he is said by Plutarch to have wept to think that it would soon be plundered and destroyed, for there were many who wanted it burned to the ground. This he would not permit, although he was unable to stop his men from plundering it.

Marcellus mourns the death of Archimedes

Archimedes is said to have died at the hands of a Roman soldier while he was intent on solving a mathematical problem. According to Plutarch, a soldier summoned Archimedes to go with him to Marcellus, but he refused to leave until he had solved the problem and completed its demonstration. The soldier, angered, drew his sword and killed him. Plutarch also offers two other versions, one in which the soldier threatened him as soon as he came in, and another in which Archimedes was carrying some astronomical instruments to Marcellus, and some soldiers thought he was carrying gold, for which they killed him. Marcellus, in obvious admiration for the genius of Archimedes, was outraged, and shunned the killer as a polluted person, going to the relatives of Archimedes and paying them honor.

Marcellus took as his only loot from the city two of Archimedes' devices, which showed the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets. According to the narrative told by Cicero in his dialogue de Re Publica, Marcellus kept one for himself and donated the other to the Temple of Virtue in Rome.

The world's first oceangoing steamship using a screw propeller was the British ship SS Archimedes, launched in 1839.

Quotation of the Month, from Plutarch's Life of Marcellus

For our Classical Quotation of the Month, we bring you, in Latin and English, part of Plutarch's Life of Marcellus that describes the death of Archimedes. Both the text and the translation are from the Loeb edition of 1917.

Plutarch Marcellus 19.4-6

Plutarch Marcellus 19.4-6

Marcellus mourns the death of Archimedes

Plutarch Marcellus 19.4-6

Archimedes screw

Diagram of Archimedes' screw. By turning the device, an object can be lifted, or a ship propelled.

Quotation for February, 2021


Triumphal wreath


For Valentine's Day, a Soldier's Wife Writes to Him: Propertius Elegies 4.3

Roman soldiers

Above: Roman soldiers (infantry and cavalry). Illustration from Caesar's Commentaries, ed. Francis W. Kelsey, 1918.

Valentine's Day in a time of isolation

In February we celebrated Valentine's Day, but because of the quarantine imposed during the pandemic, many of us were unable to be with loved ones on special occasions. We were unable to visit family and friends, either because they were in the hospital with limited or no visiting privileges, or because they live perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles away from us. And of course military families are regularly separated, often for long periods of time.

For this month's Quotation of the Month, we bring you a fictionalized letter from an ancient Roman wife to her soldier husband, serving in one of the Emperor Augustus' many foreign campaigns, written by the Roman poet Propertius.

Augustus' foreign conquests

Under the rule of the Emperor Augustus, which extended from 30 B.C. (when Antony and Cleopatra were defeated at the Battle of Actium) until his death in 14 A.D., Rome, while peaceful at home, was engaged in almost constant foreign warfare. Augustus extended Roman power by consolidating conquests in Gaul, Spain, Egypt, the Lower Danube, and the Middle East. The land of Germany, however, eluded him.

In 26 B.C. Augustus ordered the prefect of Egypt, Aelius Gallus, to invade the Sabaeans of the lower Arabian peninsula. Rome already controlled the upper part of the peninsula, ruled by the Nabataeans. The Nabataean capital was the fantastic rock-carved city of Petra, in present day Jordan. The lower part of the peninsula, known as Arabia felix ("Fortunate (or Fertile) Arabia") in present day Yemen, was a source of the sought-after spices of myrrh and frankincense. Conquest of Arabia would also give the Romans control of both sides of the entrance to the Red Sea and hence access to trade with India and the Horn of Africa. The campaign went badly, and the Roman troops suffered heavy losses, although the Sabaeans eventually entered into an uneasy relationship with the Roman Empire. It is thought that Propertius' letter to a soldier from his wife may date from this campaign.

Propertius' Elegies

The Roman poet Sextus Propertius (ca. 50-45 B.C. - ca. 15 B.C.) was a member of the circle of poets around Augustus and his principal advisor, the wealthy Maecenas, which also included Horace, Vergil, and Gallus. Propertius is known to us from four books in the elegiac meter, with alternating long and short lines. (Some scholars have rearranged the poems of the four-book manuscript tradition into five books, which can make the numbering hard to follow.) His most memorable poems are those addressed to a woman he calls "Cynthia." He often refers to her as a docta puella, or "learned girl," and she herself is described as writing poetry. The relationship did not go smoothly, and eventually they broke up. In his last and most poignant "Cynthia" poem (IV.7), Cynthia has died, and appears to him as a ghost, sad and disappointed, complaining that when she expired, alone and forgotten, he did not even come to her funeral. She requests a short epitaph on her tomb, easily read by the traveller, "as he runs by." Promising (or threatening?) to see the poet in the next world, she departs, "slipping from his embrace."

In his later poems, Propertius branched out more, increasingly presenting characters other than himself. In Elegy IV.11, another shade, that of Cornelia, a relative of Augustus, addresses her widowed husband, Aemilius Paullus. She encourages him to move on, and even, if he wishes, to remarry.

Propertius's poetry is marked by a sometimes complicated use of language, and by allusions to obscure Greek and Roman mythology. This is true of the poem that is our Quotation of the Month (IV.4), in which he speaks in the voice of another woman, the lonely wife of a Roman soldier, away fighting in one of Augustus' endless wars.

A lonely wife writes to her soldier husband

In Elegy IV.3 (or V.3 in editions of five books) a woman named "Arethusa" writes to her husband "Lycotas" in the army. These are obviously pseudonyms (Arethusa was the name of a famous nymph), but we do not know who they represent; they may be fictional characters. Lycotas has been away for years, but she faithfully weaves clothing to send to his camp and is worried about his health. She remembers all the things that went wrong at their wedding, a bad omen for their marriage. She curses the man who invented war, and compares him to the accursed mythological character Ocnus, condemned forever to weave a rope which a hungry ass keeps eating (a painting of Ocnus is described in Pausanias Book X.29.1).

Arethusa is alone in bed, comforted by her sister and a nurse, who tells her optimistic lies that it is only the weather that delays him. She kisses his weapons that he has left at home. She is also comforted by her pet puppy, Craugis, who alone shares her bed (the name is from the Greek kraugê, the "baying" of a dog; perhaps we should call her "Woofie"!).

Arethusa envies the Amazon queen Hippolyte, who fought like a man, and wishes she could join Lycotas in the army. Interestingly, she consults a map to see all the places he has been, and to learn about them. She seems to be a docta puella, an educated girl like Cynthia. She makes offerings at all the altars, and pays attention to omens — a hooting owl, a sputtering candle (a good omen) which must be acknowledged by a sprinkling of wine. She is worried that he may be having affairs, and says that she only wants him back if he is faithful. But she assumes that he will be awarded the pura hasta, the ceremonial spear that was a badge of honor for those who had distinguished themselves in war.

Quotation of the Month

For our Classical Quotation of the Month, we bring you, in Latin and English, Propertius' Third Elegy from Book IV, taken from the Loeb edition of 1916.

Propertius, Elegies Book 4, No. 3

Propertius IV.3

I am lonely and depressed, as I weave clothes to send to the army camps, remembering everything that went wrong at our wedding.

Arethusa sends this message to her Lycotas,
if you can be mine when you are absent so often.
If, as you try to read it, part is missing or smeared,
that blot will have been made by my tears,
or if some letter is unreadable for its uncertain shape,
it will be a sign of my dying hand.
Just now the Bactrians saw you, on repeated days,
and just now the hostile Neuri with their armored horses,
the wintry Getae and Britain with her painted chariots,
the Indian burned black by dawn rising from eastern waters.
Is this the marriage oath and nights sealed in joys,
when I, innocent, gave in to your pressing embraces?
The marriage torch that burned before me as an omen
drew its sooty light from some overturned funeral pyre,
and I was sprinkled with Stygian water, and on my hair
the headband was not set straight; I was married without the god's assent.
Alas, my vows, which bring only harm, hang from every gate!
This is the fourth cloak I weave for your camp.
May he perish, who first harvested the palisade-stake from an undeserving tree,
and who made complaintful trumpets from raucous bones;
he is more worthy than Ocnus, leaning over to twist his rope,
to eternally feed your hunger, little donkey!

Are you well? I am forced to learn where you are by looking at maps. Only my sister and a servant girl are with me.

Tell me, does the breastplate burn your tender arms?
Does the heavy spear chafe your unwarlike hands?
I would rather these hurt you than for some girl
to leave marks on your neck with her teeth, to make me cry.
It is said that your face is lean and drawn, but I hope
your pale color is caused by desire for me.
But when evening brings me bitter nights,
I kiss your weapons that lie around left behind.
Then I complain that the covers do not lie upon the whole bed,
and the birds, heralds of morning, do not sing.
On winter nights I work at weaving things for the camps
and cut wool of Tyrian purple destined only for the sword.
I learn where the Araxes flows, which you must conquer,
and how many miles the Parthian horse can run without water.
I am forced to learn about the world from a painted map,
what is the location of the far-off Scythian Dahae,
which land is sluggish with frost, which is rotten with heat,
which wind will bring your sails safely to Italy.
My one sister attends my cares, and the pale nurse
swears falsely that the delay is caused by winter weather.

I wish Roman girls could join the army, like Hippolyte the Amazon! I am comforted by the whines of my little puppy.

Fortunate Hippolyte! She, with bare breast, bore arms
and savagely hid her soft head beneath a helmet.
How I wish that camps were open to Roman girls!
I would have been a faithful burden to your campaign.
Nor would the hills of Scythia delay me, when the father god
binds more keenly with chill the deep waters.
All love is great, but it is greater with an acknowledged husband.
Venus herself fans this torch, that it may live.
Why should purple garments shine for me with Punic dye,
or clear crystal adorn my hands?
Everything is mute and silent, and only on the infrequent Kalends,
as she is accustomed, one girl opens the closed shrine of the Lares.
The complaining voice of the little puppy Craugis is dear to me;
she alone claims your share of the bed.

I leave prayers at all the altars, but I want you back only if you have been faithful to me!

I cover the shrines with flowers, I envelop the crossroads with boughs,
and the Sabine herb crackles on ancient altars.
If an owl, perched on a neighboring branch, hoots plaintively,
or if the flickering lamp wants sprinkling with wine,
that day announces the slaughter of this year's lambs,
and the high-girt priests are fervent with eagerness for new profits.
But let there not be such glory in scaling Bactra's walls,
or in fine linen torn from some perfumed chieftain,
when leaden balls are scattered from the twisted slings
and the cunning bow zings from the wheeling horse.
But (although, if the progeny of the Parthian land is overcome,
may your honorary spear follow the triumphant horses)
would that you preserve unncorrupted the pledge of my marriage bed!
Only on that condition would I wish you to return.
When I carry the votive arms to the Capene Gate,

Roman soldiers

Above: Roman soldiers (officers, standard-bearers, and musicians). Illustration from Caesar's Commentaries, ed. Francis W. Kelsey, 1918.

Quotation for January, 2021


Zeus and Eagle


Eagles, Lords of the Skies: Pindar's First Pythian Ode

Eagles 2021

Above: Eagles fly across a wintry sky, Croton-on-Hudson, New York, January 13, 2021. Photo by C.A. Sowa. Top: Black-figured cup from Laconia, ca. 560 B.C., now in the Louvre. Photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol, June 1, 2007.

Eagles rule the sky

The eagles have been soaring past my window, back and forth over the Hudson River. The river has been cleaned up, and the fish are back, ready for the majestic birds to swoop down for a meal. When the wind blows strongly, they actually fly backwards, but they do not seem to mind; they just ride the wind. Every year at this time, the Village of Croton hosts the Teatown Lake Reservation's EagleFest, where birdwatchers are invited down to Croton Point Park to watch and photograph these lords of the sky on their annual winter migration. This year, because of the pandemic, the Fest is mostly virtual, but the eagles will still come.

The Hudson River eagles are the American Bald Eagle, the national symbol. They are not actually bald, but the adults are famous for their helmet of white feathers. This distinguishes them from their kin, the Golden Eagle, distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It is the lordly Golden Eagle who sits on the sceptre of Zeus.

Pindar's First Pythian Ode: The eagle, king of birds, charmed by the lyre

The poet Pindar shows us another side of this king of birds (archos oionôn), for we see his susceptibility to the soothing effects of music. Pindar wrote his First Pythian Ode for Hieron, king of the city of Aetna on Sicily. The Ode celebrates Hieron's victory in the chariot race in the Pythian Games of 470 B.C. The Pythian Games, held in honor of Apollo every four years at his sanctuary at Delphi, were one of the four great Panhellenic Games of ancient Greece, along with the Olympic, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.

The Ode begins with an invocation of the lyre, an instrument shared by Apollo and the Muses. It is the instrument that begins the dance and accompanies the singers (such as the ones that will be singing Pindar's Ode). But it can also still the thunderbolt and make Ares, the god of war, lay aside his sword, and it can soothe the minds of deities. And it can make Zeus' eagle, perched on Zeus' sceptre, bend his head, and gently close his eyes, and "slumbering, heave his supple back."

Pausanias' description of the statue of Zeus at Olympia

The eagle was the companion, personification, and alter ego of Zeus. There were many legends and beliefs about the eagle, including Pliny the Elder's claim that the eagle was immune to being struck by lightning. A famous representation of Zeus' eagle was on the gigantic statue of Zeus in his temple at the sanctuary at Olympia, created by the sculptor Phidias around 435 B.C. Standing over forty feet tall, it was made of gold and ivory, over a wooden frame. In his right hand he held a small figure of Nike, the goddess of victory, and in his left he held the sceptre, on which sat a golden eagle.

The statue of Zeus no longer exists, having been destroyed in the fifth century A.D., nor do any copies survive. There are only descriptions by Greek writers and representations on coins and gems. But Pausanias, in his travels, has left us a detailed description of its aspect (Description of Greece 5.11). The description, which goes on for many pages, tells in detail of the many painted and sculpted scenes that decorated the figure and the complicated structure of throne and base. A low sill around the base caught the olive oil with which the statue was regularly lubricated to keep it from being harmed by the marshiness of the place. When Phidias had completed the work, he is said to have asked Zeus himself whether he was pleased. Zeus answered by striking the floor with a thunderbolt. The spot was covered by a bronze vase, still in place in Pausanias' day.

A modern recreation of Phidias' statue of Zeus

In 1814 a illustration depicting the statue as it may have looked was used as the frontispiece of Le Jupiter Olympien, ou l'art de la sculpture antique, by Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy (see illustration below). Quatremère de Quincy, author of a number of books on architecture, was among the first to point out the use of polychromy in Greek sculpture and architecture. (It came as a surprise to many early art critics that Classic Greek statues and temples were not originally pure white but were painted in gaudy colors!)

Quotation of the Month

For our Classical Quotation of the Month, we bring you, in Greek and English, the opening lines of Pindar's First Pythian, consisting of the first strophe and first antistrophe.

Pindar, Pythian 1, vv. 1-12

Pindar First Pythian

The lyre charms all, including Zeus' eagle

Golden lyre, belonging jointly to Apollo and the
violet-haired Muses! The footstep hears you, initiator of festivities.
Singers, too, are obedient to your notes,
whenever, vibrating, you prepare to strike up the overture that begins the dance.
You quench the spear-pointed thunderbolt
of ever-flowing fire. The eagle sleeps on the sceptre of Zeus, relaxing his swift wings on either side,
king of birds, and you shed a dark mist
over his bent head, sweetly locking his eyelids, and he, slumbering,
heaves his supple back, overpowered
by your swelling tones. For even mighty Ares, leaving aside
his rugged pointed spears, warms his heart
in sleep, and your shafts beguile the minds even of the gods, because of the skill of the son of Leto and the deep-bosomed Muses.

Olympian Zeus

Le Jupiter Olympien vu dans son trône, frontispiece of Le Jupiter Olympien, ou l'art de la sculpture antique, by Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy, 1814. Etching and watercolor. The eagle sits on Zeus' sceptre.

<---- Go back to first Quotations page . . . Go to Quotations for 2020 ---->

Copyright © Cora Angier Sowa. All rights reserved.

Send e-mail   Send e-mail to Cora Angier Sowa.

  Return to Minerva Systems home page.

Last Modified: