Baudelaire Among the Greeks

At age 17, Charles Baudelaire wrote to his stepfather: 

“I’m writing with a request which will very much surprise you. You’ve promised me lessons in fencing and horse riding. But instead of that, I ask you–if you’re willing, if it’s possible, if you don’t mind–for a private tutor . . . 

What I would ask of him, among other things, would be Greek–yes, to teach me Greek, which I don’t know at all (like all those who learn it in middle school) . . .

You know I’ve got a taste for ancient languages, and Greek inspires a great curiosity in me. I believe, whatever people say nowadays, that it brings not only great pleasure, but also practical advantage. Why stifle these tastes?”

Baudelaire lettre au Colonel Aupick, 26 February 1839:

Je t’écris pour te faire une demande qui te surprendra fort. Tu m’as promis des leçons d’arme, de manège; au lieu de cela, je te demande, si tu le veux, si c’est possible, si cela ne te gêne pas, un répétiteur . . .

Ce que je lui demanderais aussi, ce serait du grec – oui, de m’apprendre le grec, que je ne sais pas du tout, comme tous ceux qui l’apprennent au collège . . .

Tu sais que je me suis pris de goût pour les langues anciennes, et le grec m’inspire une grande curiosité. Je crois, quoi qu’on dise aujourd’hui, que cela procure non seulement de grandes jouissances, mais encore un avantage réel. Pourquoi étouffer ces goûts-là?

We don’t know whether Baudelaire got his tutor, but we do know that he read a lot of Greek literature in his school days and won prizes for his translations. 

Let’s assume that when in his maturity he sat down to write, somewhere in his memory there was a poem the likes of this Hellenistic “aubade,” the song of lovers interrupted by the arrival of daybreak:

Antipater of Thessalonica 5.3 (Greek Anthology)

The early-morning light came some time ago, Chrysilla,
And dawn’s rooster, with his proclaiming, brings jealous daybreak.
Most envious birds, be gone! You chase me from my own house
And out into the profusion of young men’s blabbing.
You’re growing old, Tithonus.
Why else drive Dawn from your bed at first light?

Antipater of Thessalonica 5.3 (Greek Anthology)
ὄρθρος ἔβη, Χρύσιλλα, πάλαι δ᾽ ἠῷος ἀλέκτωρ
κηρύσσων φθονερὴν Ἠριγένειαν ἄγει.
ὀρνίθων ἔρροις φθονερώτατος, ὅς με διώκεις
οἴκοθεν εἰς πολλοὺς ἠιθέων ὀάρους.
γηράσκεις, Τιθωνέ: τί γὰρ σὴν εὐνέτιν Ἠῶ
οὕτως ὀρθριδίην ἤλασας ἐκ λεχέων;

Spiritual Dawn

In the room of the debauched, the white and vermillion dawn
Forms a league with the gnawing Ideal,
And by the workings of an avenging mystery
An angel awakens in the drowsy brute.

The inaccessible azure of the spiritual heavens,
For the stricken man who still dreams and suffers,
Opens and gapes with the lure of the abyss.
Thus, dear Goddess, Being light and pure,

Above the smoking debris of stupid orgies
Your memory, clearer, more roseate, more charming,
Flutters incessantly before my widened eyes.

The sun has darkened the candles’ flame;
Thus, ever victorious, your phantom is equal,
Resplendent soul, to the immortal sun!

L’Aube Spirituelle

Quand chez les débauchés l’aube blanche et vermeille
Entre en société de l’Idéal rongeur,
Par l’opération d’un mystère vengeur
Dans la brute assoupie un ange se réveille.

Des Cieux Spirituels l’inaccessible azur,
Pour l’homme terrassé qui rêve encore et souffre,
S’ouvre et s’enfonce avec l’attirance du gouffre.
Ainsi, chère Déesse, Être lucide et pur,

Sur les débris fumeux des stupides orgies
Ton souvenir plus clair, plus rose, plus charmant,
A mes yeux agrandis voltige incessamment.

Le soleil a noirci la flamme des bougies ;
Ainsi, toujours vainqueur, ton fantôme est pareil,
Ame resplendissante, à l’immortel soleil !

Pierre Bonnard. “Man and Woman.” (1900) Musee d’Orsay.

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

Have You Heard about Lesbia?

Catullus 58a

Caelius, our Lesbia, that Lesbia,
that Lesbia, whom alone Catullus loved
more than himself and all of his family,
now, at street corners and in alleyways
pleasures the grandsons of great-souled Remus.

*Pleasures: the latin is “glubit,” and whether this vulgarity involves the hands or the mouth is anybody’s guess.

Caeli, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa,
illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
plus quam se atque suos amauit omnes,
nunc in quadriuiis et angiportis
glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes.

Picasso. Bust of a Woman. 1931. Not especially subtle.

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

Wheel of (Mis)Fortune

Seemingly every card-carrying Greek in antiquity bemoaned the workings of chance in human affairs. 

Stobaeus (5th century AD) preserved a fragment by one Hermolochus (no biographical facts are known) who expressed the familiar idea with admirable simplicity.

Aristotle too rehearsed the theme, but shifted the emphasis from the facticity of chance to the character traits necessary to weather it. 

Hermolochus: Fr. 846 (PMG)

All of life bewilders.
Nothing in it secure,
And chance takes it off course.
Hope cheers the heart,
But exactly what’s to come,
And which way one’s carried,
No mortal knows.
A god guides all . . . and yet,
Often, some terrible breeze
Blows against good luck.

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, I.1100b.22-b.32

Things of varying magnitude happen by chance, and little bits of luck, good or bad, are clearly not the decisive things in life. 

However, when a multitude of great chance events are favorable, life is more blessed, for by their very nature such events lend it beauty, and they are put to noble and good use. 

Conversely, some chance events crimp and spoil our bliss, for they bring pain and interfere with many things we do.  But all the same, even in these instances, nobility shines through whenever someone good-naturedly bears a multitude of great misfortunes, and does so not because he’s numb to pain, but because he’s noble and great-souled.  

Hermolochus Fr. 846 (PMG)

ἀτέκμαρτος ὁ πᾶς βίος οὐδὲν ἔχων πιστὸν πλανᾶται
συντυχίαις· ἐλπὶς δὲ φρένας παραθαρσύνει· τὸ δὲ μέλλον ἀκριβῶς
οἶδεν οὐδεὶς θνατὸς ὅπᾳ φέρεται·
θεὸς δὲ πάντας †ἐν κινδύνοις θνατοὺς† κυβερνᾷ·
ἀντιπνεῖ δὲ πολλάκις εὐτυχίᾳ δεινά τις αὔρα.

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, I.1100b.22-b.32

πολλῶν δὲ γινομένων κατὰ τύχην καὶ διαφερόντων μεγέθει καὶ μικρότητι, τὰ μὲν μικρὰ τῶν εὐτυχημάτων, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ τῶν ἀντικειμένων, δῆλον ὡς οὐ ποιεῖ ῥοπὴν τῆς ζωῆς, τὰ δὲ μεγάλα καὶ πολλὰ γινόμενα μὲν εὖ μακαριώτερον τὸν βίον ποιήσει (καὶ γὰρ αὐτὰ συνεπικοσμεῖν πέφυκεν, καὶ ἡ χρῆσις αὐτῶν καλὴ καὶ σπουδαία γίνεται), ἀνάπαλιν δὲ συμβαίνοντα θλίβει καὶ λυμαίνεται τὸ μακάριον: λύπας τε γὰρ ἐπιφέρει καὶ ἐμποδίζει πολλαῖς ἐνεργείαις. ὅμως δὲ καὶ ἐν τούτοις διαλάμπει τὸ καλόν, ἐπειδὰν φέρῃ τις εὐκόλως πολλὰς καὶ μεγάλας ἀτυχίας, μὴ δι᾽ ἀναλγησίαν, ἀλλὰ γεννάδας ὢν καὶ μεγαλόψυχος.

Tyche, the goddess of fortune. Her sheaf of wheat represents prosperity, and her turreted crown is a symbol of security. The Tyche of Antioch. Roman copy (c.300 BC) of Greek original. The statue is in the Vatican.

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

O Yuck, Archilochus

The First Cologne Epode, the longest fragment attributed to the archaic poet Archilochus, offends modern sensibilities and no doubt it had something like shock value in the poet’s own time.

The opening lines are lost. There’s no consensus on how to fill the most meaningful of the text’s many lacunae. There are also colloquialisms, euphemisms, allusions and irresolvable ambiguities which challenge, and charm. (The “glossary” following the poem should answer a few questions.)

Nonetheless, we can discern enough to say: the poem takes the form of a carefully constructed dialogue in which an unmarried young woman tries to turn a sexually eager man’s attention to someone else–unsuccessfully.

Archilochus: fr. 196a West

“…while you abstain completely, wait for requited love.
But, if you’re in a rush, your passion in charge,
There’s someone in our house brimming with yearning,
A lovely virgin, and tender. Her figure’s flawless,
I would say. Make her your beloved.”

That’s what she said. And I replied with this:
“Daughter of Amphimedo, that noble woman
Whom the moldy earth now holds:
Young men have many pleasures from the goddess,
Beside the divine thing. One of them will do.

You and I will plan this calmly, with god’s help.
I’ll do what you say, eager as I am
To be first under your cornice and inside your gate.
Don’t begrudge me this, my dear,
For I’ll keep to your grassy meadow.

And know this: as for that Neoboule,
Another man can have her! She’s too ripe.
Her virgin bloom, her former loveliness,
Have fallen away. She’s not reined in her lust.
The raving woman’s shown the scale of her madness.

Damn her! May Zeus not make me a joke to my neighbors,
With such a wife. I prefer you: one not inconstant
or two-faced. She’s biting, and as for all her men…
I fear fathering blind, untimely children with her,
My zeal and rush to blame, just like the famed bitch.”

That’s what I said, and clutched the virgin girl—
Laid her down among the blooming flowers—
Covered her with my soft cloak—
Cradled her neck in my arms—
A girl as frightened as a fawn.

My hands gently clasped her breasts
And exposed youth’s fresh flesh.
As I felt up her gorgeous body
I discharged my white might,
Lightly touching her fair hair.

A glossary of archaic smut:

“Under your cornice and inside your gate”: Euphemism for sex.

“Pleasures from the goddess/Beside the divine thing”: Aphrodite’s gifts are the amorous pleasures, with intercoutse presumably the highest of them (“the divine thing”).

“I’ll keep to your grassy meadow”: Euphemism for a sex act short of penetration but involving the pubic area.

”I fear fathering blind, untimely children . . . like the famed bitch”: Allusion to what’s regarded as the world’s oldest proverb–“the hasty bitch [female dog] brings forth blind puppies.” The expression means something done without due care produces a bad result.

“πάμπαν ἀποσχόμενος· ἶσον δὲ τόλμ[ησον ποθεῖν.]
εἰ δ ̓ ὦν ἐπείγεαι καί σε θυμὸς ἰθύει,
ἔστιν ἐν ἡμετέρου, ἣ νῦν μέγ ̓ ἱμείρε[ι ]
καλὴ τέρεινα παρθένος· δοκέω δέ μι[ν]
εἶδος ἄμωμον ἔχειν τὴν δὴ σὺ ποίη[σαι φίλην.”] [5]
Tοσαῦτ ̓ ἐφώνει· τὴν δ ̓ἐγὼ ἀνταμει[βόμην·]
“Ἀμφιμεδοῦς θύγατερ, ἐσθλῆς τε καὶ [ ]
γυναικός, ἣν̣ νῦν γῆ κατ’ εὐρώεσσ’ ἔ[χει,]
[τ]έρψιές εἰσι θεῆς πολλαὶ νέοισιν ἀνδ[ράσιν]
π̣αρὲξ τὸ θεῖον χρῆμα· τῶν τ̣ι̣ς ἀρκέσε[ι.] [10]
τ]αῦτα δ’ ἐπ’ ἡσυχίης εὖτ’ ἂν μελανθη[ ]
[ἐ]γώ τε καὶ σὺ σὺν θεῷ βουλεύσομε[ν·]
[π]είσομαι ὣς με κέλεαι· πολλόν μ’ ἐ[ποτρύνει πόθος]
[θρ]ιγκοῦ δ’ ἔνερθε καί πυλέων ὑποφ[θάνειν]
[μ]ή τι μέγαιρε, φίλη· σχήσω γὰρ ἐς ποη[φόρους] [15]
κ]ήπους. τὸ δὴ νῦν γνῶθι· Νεοβούλη[ν μὲν ὦv]
[ἄ]λλος ἀνὴρ ἐχέτω· αἰαῖ, πέπειρα δ[ὴ πέλει,]
[ἄν]θος δ’ἀπερρύηκε παρθενήϊον
[κ]αὶ χάρις ἣ πρὶν ἐπῆν· κόρον γὰρ οὐ κ[ατέσχε πω],
[ατ]ης δὲ μέτρ’ ἔφηνε μαινόλ̣ι̣ς̣ γυνή·[20]
[ἐς] κόρακας ἄπεχε· μὴ τοῦτ’ ἐφεῖτ’ ἄν[αξ θεῶν]
[ὅπ]ως ἐγὼ γυναῖκα τ[ο]ιαύτην ἔχων
[γεί]τοσι χάρμ’ ἔσομαι· πολλὸν σὲ βούλο[μαι ]·
[σὺ] μὲν γὰρ οὔτ’ ἄπιστος οὔτε διπλόη,
[ἡ δ]ὲ μάλ ̓ ὀξυτέρη, πολλοὺς δὲ ποιεῖτα[ι ] [25]
[δέ]δοιχ ̓ ὅπως μὴ τυφλὰ κἀλιτήμερα
[σπ]ουδῇ ἐπειγόμενος τὼς ὤσπερ ἡ κ[ύων τέκω.”]
[τοσ]αῦτ ̓ ἐφώνεον· παρθένον δ ̓ ἐν ἄνθε[σιν]
[τηλ]εθάεσσι λαβὼν ἔκλινα· μαλθακῇ δ[έ μιν]
[χλαί]νῃ καλύψας, αὐχέν ̓ ἀγκάλῃς ἔχω[ν] [30]
[δεί]μ̣ατι πα[ ]μέ̣ν̣ην τὼς ὥστε νέβρ̣[ον ]
[μαζ]ῶν τε χ̣ερσὶν ἠπίως ἐφηψάμη̣ν
[ ]ρ̣ ἔφην̣ε νέον ἥβης ἐπήλυ̣σις χρόα·̣
[ τ]ε̣ σῶμ̣α καλὸν ἀμφαφώμενος
[λευκ]ὸν ἀφῆκα μένος, ξανθῆς ἐπιψαύ[ων τριχός.] [35]


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

Empedocles Recognizes Genius

Empedocles Fr. 129

There was a man among them of unusual knowledge,
Who indeed possessed the greatest wealth of mind,
And was, most of all, master of all kinds of skillful works.
For whenever he exerted all of his mind,
He readily saw all that there is to see
In ten or twenty human lifetimes.

ἦν δέ τις ἐν κείνοισιν ἀνὴρ περιώσια εἰδώς,
ὃς δὴ μήκιστον πραπίδων ἐκτήσατο πλοῦτον
παντοίων τε μάλιστα σοφῶν ἐπιήρανος ἔργων·
ὁππότε γὰρ πάσῃσιν ὀρέξαιτο πραπίδεσσιν,
ῥεῖά γε τῶν ὄντων πάντων λεύσσεσκεν ἕκαστα
καί τε δέκ’ ἀνθρώπων καί τ’ εἴκοσιν αἰώνεσσιν.

Adam Sandler celebrates his 55th birthday today.

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

When Spirits Sin

Empedocles: Fragment 115 (Diels-Kranz)

There is a matter of Necessity, a decree of the gods,
Ancient, eternal, and sealed with broad oaths:
When someone commits the sin of murder
He pollutes his dear limbs, breaching his oath.

But since spirits are allotted long lives,
He’s to wander thirty-thousand years
Separated from the blessed ones,
Coming into being throughout time
As every kind of mortal thing,
This then that painful way of being.

Aether’s might pursues him into in the sea,
Then sea spits him out onto the earth’s floor;
Earth pelts him into the shining sun’s rays,
And that last throws him into aether’s whirls.
One then another, and all despise him.

I’m one of them myself–an exile from god and a wanderer,
Because I put my trust in frenzied Strife.

ἔστιν Ἀνάγκης χρῆμα, θεῶν ψήφισμα παλαιόν,
ἀίδιον, πλατέεσσι κατεσφρηγισμένον ὅρκοις·
εὖτέ τις ἀμπλακίῃσι φόνῳ φίλα γυῖα μιήνῃ
ὅς κεν ἐπίορκον ἁμαρτήσας ἐπομόσσῃ,
δαίμονες οἵτε μακραίωνος λελάχασι βίοιο,
τρίς μιν μυρίας ὧρας ἀπὸ μακάρων ἀλάλησθαι,
φυομένον παντοῖα διὰ χρόνου εἴδεα θνητῶν
ἀργαλέας βιότοιο μεταλλάσσοντα κελεύθους.
αἰθέριον μὲν γάρ σφε μένος πόντονδε διώκει,
πόντος δ’ ἐς χθονὸς οὖδας ἀπέπτυσε, γαῖα δ’ ἐς αὐγάς
ἠελίου φαέθοντος, ὁ δ’ αἰθέρος ἔμβαλε δίναις·
ἄλλος δ’ ἐξ ἄλλου δέχεται, στυγέουσι δὲ πάντες.
τῶν καὶ ἐγὼ νῦν εἰμι, φυγὰς θεόθεν καὶ ἀλήτης,
Νείκεϊ μαινομένῳ πίσυνος.

Detail from William Blake’s Cain Fleeing From the Wrath of God

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

Sappho After Sophocles

Sappho 1

Many-minded immortal Aphrodite,
Child of Zeus, plot weaver, I implore you:
Don’t with vexations and frustrations break
My heart, O queen.

Instead, come here, if ever in past times
From far off you heard, and heeded, my calls;
And quitting your father’s golden palace,
You came,

After yoking the chariot. Small birds,
Handsome, swift, bore you across the black earth.
Their fast wings whirred from the upper heavens
down through the middle air.

Quick, their arrival. Then you, blessed one,
A smile on your immortal countenance,
Asked: what is it, this time, that’s happened to me;
Why, this time, do I call;

And what does my crazed heart most desire:
“Whom, this time, must I persuade—
Go out, that is, and bring into your arms?
O Sappho, who wrongs you?

Even if she’s fleeing, soon she’ll pursue.
If she’s refusing gifts, she’ll give them.
If she’s not in love, soon she’ll be in love—
Even if against her will.”

Come this time too. Release me from hard cares.
Whatever my heart wishes to see done,
Bring about. And you yourself, be my ally
In this fight.

In Archaic song, Aphrodite is perhaps most commonly represented as a goddess who sports with mortal hearts, disturbing their peace with amorous suffering. And so it should be something of a surprise when Sappho presents the “many-minded” (ποικιλόφρον’) “plot-weaver” (δολόπλοκε) goddess as genial and helpful.

The unusual picture begs the question, is the judgment of love-mad Sappho reliable?

I say that it is not, and suggest looking at the Sappho-Aphrodite relationship through the lens of the Ajax-Athena relationship in Sophocles’ tragedy, “Ajax.”

For our purposes, what matters in the tragedy is this: Ajax believes the goddess is helping him when in fact she is harming him. She distorts his thinking such that he mistakes heads of cattle for Achaeans who have slighted him, and he proceeds to abuse and kill the animals.

The word most strongly linking Sappho-Aphrodite with Ajax-Athena is “ally” (σύμμαχος). The final words of Sappho’s song is the plea to the goddess to “be an ally” (σύμμαχος ἔσσο) in the fight for love. Ajax himself, blind to the goddess’s deception, exhorts her to “always stand by me as an ally” (ἀεί μοι σύμμαχον παρεστάναι [Soph. Aj. 117]). Athena picks up the word: she tongue-in-cheek describes herself as his σύμμαχος (Soph. Aj.190) while working his ruin.

Ajax does not know that he’s suffered “a god-sent sickness” (θεία νόσος [Soph. Aj. 185]) until he’s humiliated himself. His mad actions, while he was engaged in them, appeared to him the god-assisted fulfilment of his wishes. Athena says, “That man, when he was subject to his sickness / Delighted in his troubles” (ἁνὴρ ἐκεῖνος, ἡνίκ᾽ ἦν ἐν τῇ νόσῳ / αὐτὸς μὲν ἥδεθ᾽ οἷσιν εἴχετ᾽ ἐν κακοῖς ([Soph. Aj. 271-272]). And she encouraged him in this: “I egged him on; cast him into my wicked trap” (ὤτρυνον, εἰσέβαλλον εἰς ἕρκη κακά [Soph Aj. 59-60]).

Sappho is trapped in an amorous cycle whose stations are desire, frustration, and satisfaction. And as the song emphasizes, the cycle repeats. Sappho pursues new loves, always with Aphrodite’s intervention. Sappho supposes the goddess helps her to satisfaction, but the traditions of Archaic song would have it that Aphrodite’s hand is in the animating desire and subsequent frustration too. Tellingly, Sappho does not pray for release from what Hegel might call “the bad infinite” of love. Rather, she prays for Aphrodite to keep her running on the track. Like Ajax, she delights in her troubles.

“I pity him his unfortunate condition” (ἐποικτίρω δέ νιν δύστηνον [Soph Aj. 121-122]), Odysseus says of Ajax. Perhaps that should be our emotional response to the speaker of Sappho 1.

Sappho 1

ποικιλόφρον’ ἀθανάτ Ἀφρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
πότνια, θῦμον,
ἀλλὰ τυίδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
χρύσιον ἦλθες

ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνωἴθε-
ρος διὰ μέσσω·

αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
μειδιαίσαισ’ ἀθανάτωι προσώπωι
ἤρε’ ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι
δηὖτε κάλημμι

κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
μαινόλαι θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω
[βαι]σ’ ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ’, ὦ
Ψάπφ’, ἀδικήει;

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον, σὺ δ’ αὔτα
σύμμαχος ἔσσο.

Maria Callas in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Here Lucia has gone mad after the loss of her lover.

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

Two Perspectives on Slavery

The starkest of contrasts: an anonymous Hellenistic epigram depicting a grateful slave and his benevolent master, and an Athenian letter recounting a slave’s desperation and his master’s brutality.

Anonymous Epigram 7.179 (Greek Anthology)

Even now from under the earth, master,
I remain obedient to you.
Your kindness I haven’t forgotten:
Three times you saw me from sickness to health;
And now you’ve gone so far as to lay me
Under this sheltering stone, announcing:
Medes, a Persian.
You’ve done right by me.
For that, you’ll have willing slaves in your debt.

In 1972, excavation of the Athenian Agora turned up a unique c.4th-century-BC letter inscribed on a lead tablet: the speaker is an actual slave describing the actual conditions of bondage. (Presumably the letter was dictated to a scribe, and since it was found in a well, presumably it was never delivered.)

As in the fanciful epigram, δεσπότης (“master”) designates the man who command’s the slave’s life. But unlike the fictional δεσπότης whose kindness can never be repaid, the real δεσπότης is a man of limitless brutality.

The letter reads:

“Lesis sends a letter to Xenochles and his mother saying do not overlook that he’s dying in the forge, but come to his masters and find him something better. For I have been handed over to an entirely bad man: I’m dying from the whippings; I’m tied up; I’m horribly abused. And more, more!”

7.179 (Greek Anthology)

σοὶ καὶ νῦν ὑπὸ γῆν, ναί, δέσποτα, πιστὸς ὑπάρχω,
ὡς πάρος, εὐνοίης οὐκ ἐπιληθόμενος,
ὥς με τότ᾽ ἐκ νούσου τρὶς ἐπ᾽ ἀσφαλὲς ἤγαγες ἴχνος,
καὶ νῦν ἀρκούσᾐ τῇδ᾽ ὑπέθου καλύβῃ,
Μάνην ἀγγείλας, Πέρσην γένος. εὖ δέ με ῥέξας
ἕξεις ἐν χρείῃ δμῶας ἑτοιμοτέρους.

Lead tablet letter from the Athenian agora, c.4th BC. (quoted in Edward Harris, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens, page 271)

Detail of lines 2-4 of the slave’s lead tablet letter. Reproduced from David Jordan’s “A Personal Letter Found in the Athenian Agora,” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 2000), pp. 91-103.

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

Go Get Briseis

This selection from the Iliad begins with Agamemnon, ends with Achilles, and has at its center Briseis, a woman captured in war and warred over by the Achaean heroes.

Iliad 1.318-350

Agamemnon did not threaten Achilles
and leave it at that. No, he told his able servants,
the heralds Talthybius and Eurybates:
“Go to Achilles’ hut, take Briseis by the arm,
and bring her here. If he won’t give her up,
well, I’ll go with more men and take her myself—
and all the worse for him.”

With that harsh instruction, he sent them on their way.
Reluctant, they walked the shore of the barren sea
to the Myrmidon encampment. And there they found him,
Achilles, idling by his hut and black ship,
not glad to see them. Frightened, awestruck,
they stood before the king saying nothing,
asking nothing. But, in his heart he knew.
He spoke: “Greetings, heralds. Messengers of Zeus and men,
come closer. You’re not to blame; Agamemnon is.
He’s the one who sent you for the girl, Briseis.
Come then, Zeus-born Patroclus, bring the girl out.
Give her to them to take away . . .”

And so Patroclus obeyed his dear comrade:
he brought Briseis from the hut and gave her over
to be led away. The men went back the way they came,
along the Achaean ships. The woman, reluctant,
went with them. Achilles was in tears.
He left his comrades, sat down on the grey sea’s shore,
and looked out on the boundless waters.

I want to highlight a word which occurs twice in the passage: ἀέκων, which I translate “reluctant.” Homer uses it to describe the heralds as they go to collect Briseis from Achilles. Some lines later he uses it to describe Briseis as the heralds return with her to Agamemnon.

What to make of this symmetry? Does it make sense to suggest the heralds and Briseis are in the same boat? The heralds seem to be reluctant because they fear Achilles. But Briseis is unconsenting in a more fundamental way: she’s a sex slave; all that’s happening is against her will. In other words, there’s reluctance, and then there’s reluctance. Homer, I suspect, is neither so monstrous nor so obtuse as to elide the difference.

So try this: in the passage above, reluctance isn’t a disposition of minds, but a disposition of bodies. Whether it’s the heralds or Briseis we’re talking about, the phenomenology of reluctantly going someplace would be largely the same: dragging feet; nervous glancing; head down; unsmiling expression, etc.

That’s one way to justify the symmetry suggested by ἀέκων (“reluctant”), but is that satisfying? I can’t resolve the matter. But what I’m sure of is that conundrums of this sort contribute to the Iliad’s claim on our attention.

Iliad 1.318-350

. . . οὐδ᾽ Ἀγαμέμνων
λῆγ᾽ ἔριδος τὴν πρῶτον ἐπηπείλησ᾽ Ἀχιλῆϊ,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε Ταλθύβιόν τε καὶ Εὐρυβάτην προσέειπε,
τώ οἱ ἔσαν κήρυκε καὶ ὀτρηρὼ θεράποντε:
ἔρχεσθον κλισίην Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος:
χειρὸς ἑλόντ᾽ ἀγέμεν Βρισηΐδα καλλιπάρῃον:
εἰ δέ κε μὴ δώῃσιν ἐγὼ δέ κεν αὐτὸς ἕλωμαι
ἐλθὼν σὺν πλεόνεσσι: τό οἱ καὶ ῥίγιον ἔσται.

ὣς εἰπὼν προΐει, κρατερὸν δ᾽ ἐπὶ μῦθον ἔτελλε:
τὼ δ᾽ ἀέκοντε βάτην παρὰ θῖν᾽ ἁλὸς ἀτρυγέτοιο,
Μυρμιδόνων δ᾽ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον παρά τε κλισίῃ καὶ νηῒ μελαίνῃ
ἥμενον: οὐδ᾽ ἄρα τώ γε ἰδὼν γήθησεν Ἀχιλλεύς.
τὼ μὲν ταρβήσαντε καὶ αἰδομένω βασιλῆα
στήτην, οὐδέ τί μιν προσεφώνεον οὐδ᾽ ἐρέοντο:
αὐτὰρ ὃ ἔγνω ᾗσιν ἐνὶ φρεσὶ φώνησέν τε:
χαίρετε κήρυκες Διὸς ἄγγελοι ἠδὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν,
ἆσσον ἴτ᾽: οὔ τί μοι ὔμμες ἐπαίτιοι ἀλλ᾽ Ἀγαμέμνων,
ὃ σφῶϊ προΐει Βρισηΐδος εἵνεκα κούρης.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε διογενὲς Πατρόκλεες ἔξαγε κούρην
καί σφωϊν δὸς ἄγειν . . .

ὣς φάτο, Πάτροκλος δὲ φίλῳ ἐπεπείθεθ᾽ ἑταίρῳ,
ἐκ δ᾽ ἄγαγε κλισίης Βρισηΐδα καλλιπάρῃον,
δῶκε δ᾽ ἄγειν: τὼ δ᾽ αὖτις ἴτην παρὰ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν:
ἣ δ᾽ ἀέκουσ᾽ ἅμα τοῖσι γυνὴ κίεν: αὐτὰρ Ἀχιλλεὺς
δακρύσας ἑτάρων ἄφαρ ἕζετο νόσφι λιασθείς,
θῖν᾽ ἔφ᾽ ἁλὸς πολιῆς, ὁρόων ἐπ᾽ ἀπείρονα πόντον:

 Photograph by Hans Bellmer, German Surrealist (1902-1975). The intimations of fear, sex, and violence seem appropriate.

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

Three Options in War

The many Greek epigrams on martial themes could lead to the belief that the only reaction to grim war was to fight valiantly and kill, kill, kill. That was of course the celebrated option:

Simonides 6.2 (Greek Anthology)

This bow, now retired from tear-filled battle,
Rests under the roof of Athena’s temple.
Often the cause of groans
In the chaos of men’s wars,
It’s been cleansed in the blood of Persian horsemen.

But as Timocreon, a contemporary of Simonides, demonstrated, one might also defect to the enemy, and cheer the exposure of other turncoats:

Timocreon Fr.729

It was not Timocreon alone
Who swore an oath to the Medes.
There were other rogues;
Mine is not the only clipped tail.
There are other foxes.

Archilochus showed yet another alternative to fighting: take the life-preserving coward’s path of dropping your weapons and running away:

Archilochus Fr.5

Some Saion is strutting with my shield,
Pristine gear I dropped by a shrub.
But, I did save myself!
What’s that shield to me?
Screw it!
The new one I get will be no worse.

Simonides 6.2 (Greek Anthology)

τόξα τάδε πτολέμοιο πεπαυμένα δακρυόεντος
νηῷ Ἀθηναίης κεῖται ὑπορρόφια,
πολλάκι δὴ στονόεντα κατὰ κλόνον ἐν δαῒ φωτῶν
Περσῶν ἱππομάχων αἵματι λουσάμενα.

Timocreon Fr.729

οὐκ ἄρα Τιμοκρέων μόνος
Μήδοισιν ὁρκιατομεῖ,
ἀλλ᾽ ἐντὶ κἆλλοι δὴ πονη-
ροί κοὐκ ἐγὼ μόνα κόλου-
ρις· ἐντὶ κἄλλαι ᾽λώπεκες.

Archilocus Fr.5

ἀσπίδι μὲν Σαΐων τις ἀγάλλεται, ἣν παρὰ θάμνῳ
ἔντος ἀμώμητον κάλλιπον οὐκ ἐθέλων:
αὐτὸν δ᾽ ἔκ μ᾽ ἐσάωσα: τί μοι μέλει ἀσπὶς ἐκεινη;
ἐρρέτω: ἐξαῦτις κτήσομαι οὐ κακίω.

Corinthian helmet. c.700-480 BC.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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