Simonides and Boris

It has recently been reported that Boris Johnson, current Prime Minister of the UK and Donald Trump bookend, is fond of reciting Simonides:

Johnson’s penchant for the Classics and his ability to recite Greek are often mentioned either to illustrate that he might actually be intelligent or to furnish some additional evidence for his winsome quirkiness. This quotation of Simonides is not only not impressive but it is entirely predictable and tiresome.

What is Simonides known for? Perhaps apocryphally, he is known for surviving a disaster and remembering where everyone was seated.  He is also said to have been saved from a sinking ship by a dream (everyone else died). Of equal interest, he is maligned or at least singled out in antiquity for being one of the first to make money from his poetry.

Sure, memorizing stuff isn’t easy, but it doesn’t mean you understand it or are noble at all. It means you come from a place of privilege where you were given the time and instruction to memorize it.

There’s a lot more to Simonides’ poetry than the muscular epigram in praise of Sparta little BoJo managed to keep in his head when he was failing to learn empathy and how to tell the truth. Memorizing a key bit about Thermopylae just shows you drank int he canon at Boarding school deep and full and you have been trading on shared delirium in your charlatan’s career.

Here are some of our favorites:

Fr. 14

“Weakness is the mortal’s lot,
nor yet does grief avail –
in such truncated time there’s naught
but toil heaped on travail.”

ἀνθρώπων ὀλίγον μὲν
κάρτος, ἄπρακτοι δὲ μεληδόνες,
αἰῶνι δ’ ἐν παύρωι πόνος ἀμφὶ πόνωι

Fr. 15 (definitely on Brexit plans)

“Human strength is meager
Our plains incomplete
Toil follows toil in our short lives.
Death looms inescapable for all—
Men who are good and bad draw
of that an equal portion.”

ἀνθρώπων ὀλίγον μὲν
κάρτος, ἄπρακτοι δὲ μεληδόνες,
αἰῶνι δ’ ἐν παύρωι πόνος ἀμφὶ πόνωι·
ὁ δ’ ἄφυκτος ὁμῶς ἐπικρέμαται θάνατος·
κείνου γὰρ ἴσον λάχον μέρος οἵ τ’ ἀγαθοὶ
ὅστις τε κακός.

Fr. 17 (on a No-deal Brexit?)

“Everything comes to a single, dreadful Charybis—
The great virtues and wealth the same.”

πάντα γὰρ μίαν ἱκνεῖται δασπλῆτα Χάρυβδιν,
αἱ μεγάλαι τ’ ἀρεταὶ καὶ ὁ πλοῦτος.

Fr. 16 (for some humility)

“Since you are human, never say what will come tomorrow.
Nor, if you see a fortunate man, how long it will last.
For not even the time of a tender-winged fly
Is not as fast.”

ἄνθρωπος ἐὼν μή ποτε φάσηις ὅ τι γίνεται 〚αὔριον〛,
μηδ’ ἄνδρα ἰδὼν ὄλβιον ὅσσον χρόνον ἔσσεται·
ὠκεῖα γὰρ οὐδὲ τανυπτερύγου μυίας
οὕτως ἁ μετάστασις.

Fr. 18

“Not even those who were long ago,
The half-divine sons of our lord gods,
Came to old age without finishing
A life of toil, pain and danger.”

†οὐδὲ γὰρ οἳ πρότερόν ποτ’ ἐπέλοντο,
θεῶν δ’ ἐξ ἀνάκτων ἐγένονθ’ υἷες ἡμίθεοι,
ἄπονον οὐδ’ ἄφθιτον οὐδ’ ἀκίνδυνον βίον
ἐς γῆρας ἐξίκοντο τελέσαντες.†


Fr. 525 (perhaps to explain people listing to BoJo)

“The gods easily make off with the minds of men”

ῥεῖα θεοὶ κλέπτουσιν ἀνθρώπων νόον


Fr. 524

“Death catches up with those who run from battle too.”

ὁ αὖ θάνατος κίχε καὶ τὸν φυγόμαχον

Fr. 37

“It is hard for a man to be truly good,
built evenly with hands,
feet and mind without blame.”

ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν μὲν ἀλαθέως γενέσθαι
χαλεπὸν χερσίν τε καὶ ποσὶ καὶ νόωι
τετράγωνον ἄνευ ψόγου τετυγμένον·

As Sarah Bond makes clear, there is more behind the choice of this Simonides: it is about claiming the ever so muscular Spartan mystique. This is all nonsense of course.

Myke Cole has talked about the lie of Sparta (“The Sparta Fetish is a Cultural Cancer”The New Republic). Bond published a piece for Eidolon  about the appropriation of Spartan iconography and values in the modern world (“This Is Not Sparta: Why the Modern Romance with Sparta is a Bad One”).  Neville Morely’s subsequent post on the use of Sparta by the far right is also a must-read. I have gathered some sources on this too.

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