Life on the Water

The work attributed to Longinus (c. 1st century AD), On the Sublime, preserves the longest fragment we have of the Arimaspeia, a work attributed to Aristeas (c.700 BC). 

In the lines quoted below, Aristeas appears to describe a strange and fictional people whose way of life is unlike that of people elsewhere. Longinus says of them: “The person who composed the Arismaspeia meant for this passage to have a powerful effect” ( μὲν γὰρ τὰ Ἀριμάσπεια ποιήσας ἐκεῖνα οἴεται δεινά) when in fact “the passage is more charming than frightening” (παντὶ οἶμαι δῆλον, ὡς πλέον ἄνθος ἔχει τὰ λεγόμενα δέος).

Longinus.10.4. (Fr.1 Kinkel)

Even to our hearts, this is a great marvel:
Men living in water, at a distance from land in the sea.
An unhappy people, for their labors are hard.
Their eyes are on the stars but their hearts are in the sea.
Beyond a doubt, when they raise their dear hands to the gods
It’s with their very innards upraised they desperately pray.

θαῦμ’ ἡμῖν καὶ τοῦτο μέγα φρεσὶν ἡμετέρηισιν.
ἄνδρες ὕδωρ ναίουσιν ἀπὸ χθονὸς ἐν πελάγεσσι
δύστηνοί τινές εἰσιν, ἔχουσι γὰρ ἔργα πονηρά
ὄμματ’ ἐν ἄστροισι, ψυχὴν δ’ ἐνὶ πόντωι ἔχουσιν.
ἦ που πολλὰ θεοῖσι φίλας ἀνὰ χεῖρας ἔχοντες
εὔχονται σπλάγχνοισι κακῶς ἀναβαλλομένοισι.

I myself find the lines quite frightening (δέος) and powerful in their effect (δεινά).

I suspect that if they are merely charming ( ἄνθος) to Longinus it is less because he’s seen more dystopian movies than we have than because they are defanged by the broader context which is long lost to the tradition.

People on the sea raising their dear hands.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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