What Became of Lais?

There are at least seven poems preserved in the Greek Anthology ‘celebrating’ a courtesan named Lais. The poem controversially attributed to Plato is elegant, compact, and clever. The poem attributed to Antipater is some combination of prosaic, creepy, and cruel.

Plato 6.1 (Greek Anthology)

That Lais who proudly laughed at Hellas
And had swarms of young lovers at her door,
Now gives to Aphrodite this mirror—
Since I won’t look at myself as I am,
And can’t look at myself as I used to be.

ἡ σοβαρὸν γελάσασα καθ᾽ Ἑλλάδος, ἥ ποτ᾽ ἐραστῶν
ἑσμὸν ἐπὶ προθύροις Λαῒς ἔχουσα νέων,
τῇ Παφίῃ τὸ κάτοπτρον: ἐπεὶ τοίη μὲν ὁρᾶσθαι
οὐκ ἐθέλω, οἵη δ᾽ ἦν πάρος οὐ δύναμαι.

Antipater 7.218 (Greek Anthology)

Debauched woman robed in purple and gold,
Love’s accomplice, softer than soft Kypris—
Corinthian Lais, it’s she I hold.
More dazzling than the tumbling waters
Of Peirene’s pellucid spring.
That mortal Cythereia: more pursued
By noble suitors than the unwed
Daughter of Sparta’s king, Tyndarius.
Men enjoyed her favors, her paid-for love.
Now, her saffron-scented tomb: the moist bones
Still redolent with incense unguents,
And her oiled hair exhales its fragrant breath.
For her, Aphrodite scratched her lovely face,
And in his mourning Eros groaned and cried.
If only she hadn’t made of her bed
A slave to money, and open to all—
Hellas would have endured ordeals for her,
Just as it had for Helen.

τὴν καὶ ἅμα χρυσῷ καὶ ἁλουργίδι καὶ σὺν Ἔρωτι
θρυπτομένην, ἁπαλῆς Κύπριδος ἁβροτέραν
Λαΐδ᾽ ἔχω, πολιῆτιν ἁλιζώνοιο Κορίνθου,
Πειρήνης λευκῶν φαιδροτέραν λιβάδων, [p. 124]
τὴν θνητὴν Κυθέρειαν, ἐφ᾽ ᾗ μνηστῆρες ἀγαυοὶ
πλείονες ἢ νύμφης εἵνεκα Τυνδαρίδος,
δρεπτόμενοι χάριτάς τε καὶ ὠνητὴν ἀφροδίτην:
ἧς καὶ ὑπ᾽ εὐώδει τύμβος ὄδωδε κρόκῳ,
ἧς ἔτι κηώεντι μύρῳ τὸ διάβροχον ὀστεῦν,
καὶ λιπαραὶ θυόεν ἄσθμα πνέουσι κόμαι
ᾗ ἔπι καλὸν ἄμυξε κάτα ῥέθος Ἀφρογένεια,
καὶ γοερὸν λύζων ἐστονάχησεν Ἔρως.
εἰ δ᾽ οὐ πάγκοινον δούλην θέτο κέρδεος εὐνήν,
Ἑλλὰς ἄν, ὡς Ἑλένης, τῆσδ᾽ ὕπερ ἔσχε πόνον.

Marble statue of an old woman. 1st Century AD Roman copy of a 2nd Century BC Greek original. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

When the Plow Was Not a Blessing

The following sepulchral epigram is ascribed to Antiphilus of Byzantium. He appears to have been active in the 1st century AD. Nothing else is known about him.

Antiphilus 7.176 (Greek Anthology)

It’s not that I was denied burial
And was, as a consequence, left to rot.
But here I lie, on the wheat-bearing land,
A naked corpse.
I once received a fitting burial.
Since then though, the iron blades of a plow
Have, by some plowing-man’s hands, turned me up.
Stranger, who calls death the release from ills
When the grave was not my last misfortune?

οὐχ ὅτι με φθίμενον κῆδος λίπεν, ἐνθάδε κεῖμαι
γυμνὸς ὑπὲρ γαίης πυροφόροιο νέκυς:
ταρχύθην γὰρ ἐγὼ τὸ πρίν ποτε, νῦν δ᾽ ἀροτῆρος
χερσὶ σιδηρείη μ᾽ ἐξεκύλισεν ὕνις.
ἦ ῥα κακῶν θάνατόν τις ἐρεῖ λύσιν, ὁππ
ότ᾽ ἐμεῖο,
ξεῖνε, πέλει παθέων ὕστατον οὐδὲ τάφος;

A terracotta votive tablet depicting a body surrounded by mourners. The tablet, dating from the 6th century BC, is attributed to the Gela Painter. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

A Lover Betrayed

“The truth of the matter is that–by an exorbitant paradox–I never stop believing that I am loved. I hallucinate what I desire. Each wound proceeds less from a doubt than from a betrayal: for only the one who loves can betray, only the one who believes himself loved can be jealous…”–Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse.

Dioscorides 5.52 (Greek Anthology)

We swore a mutual oath to Eros,
And based on that oath, Sosipater
Placed his loving trust in Arsinoe.
But she is false, and her oath is empty,
While his love, nonetheless, abides intact.
What the gods can do, hasn’t yet been done:
O Hymenaeus, chant sorrowful songs
At Arsinoe’s latched door, condemning
The betrayal that is her marriage bed.

ὅρκον κοινὸν Ἔρωτ᾽ ἀνεθήκαμεν ὅρκος ὁ πιστὴν
Ἀρσινόης θέμενος Σωσιπάτρῳ φιλίην.
ἀλλ᾽ ἡ μὲν ψευδὴς κενὰ δ᾽ ὅρκια, τῷ δ᾽ ἐφυλάχθη
ἵμερος: ἡ δὲ θεῶν οὐ φανερὴ δύναμις.
θρήνους, ὦ Ὑμέναιε, παρὰ κληῖσιν ἀΰσαις
Ἀρσινόης, παστῷ μεμψάμενος προδότῃ.

5th Century BC Greek loutrophoros, a bathing vessel, depicting a wedding procession.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Ashes and Nightingales

Callimachus and Heraclitus of Halicarnassus, poets of the 3rd Century BC, were friends, as Callimachus’ tribute makes clear in the following poem:

Callimachus 2 (Gow-Page 34)

Someone spoke of your death, Heraclitus,
Moving me to tears.
I remembered how often we, talking,
Made the sun go down.
But now, my Halicarnassian friend,
Somewhere, and for almost too long to count,
You’ve been a pile of ashes.
Yet, your nightingales live on.
Hades, the god who steals everything,
Will not lay his hand on them.

εἶπέ τις, Ἡράκλειτε, τεὸν μόρον, ἐς δέ με δάκρυ
ἤγαγεν, ἐμνήσθην δ᾽ ὁσσάκις ἀμφότεροι
ἥλιον ἐν λέσχῃ κατεδύσαμεν: ἀλλὰ σὺ μέν που,
ξεῖν᾽ Ἁλικαρνησεῦ, τετράπαλαι σποδιή:
αἱ δὲ τεαὶ ζώουσιν ἀηδόνες, ᾗσιν ὁ πάντων
ἁρπακτὴς Ἀίδης οὐκ ἐπὶ χεῖρα βαλεῖ.

Only one of Heraclitus’ “nightingales” survives, and it is the sepulchral poem below:

Heraclitus 7.465 (Greek Anthology)

Earth just recently dug up.
On the face of the tombstone
Half-green leafy garlands sway.
When the writing’s deciphered,
Traveler, we’ll know whose smooth bones
The stone claims to enclose:

“Stranger, I am Aretemias from Cnidus.
It was with Euphronus that I shared the marriage bed.
Rites of child birth were not denied me, and I bore twins:
One I left as a guide for his father in old age;
One I took with me—a reminder of my husband.”

ἁ κόνις ἀρτίσκαπτος, ἐπὶ στάλας δὲ μετώπων
σείονται φύλλων ἡμιθαλεῖς στέφανοι
γράμμα διακρίναντες, ὁδοιπόρε, πέτρον ἴδωμεν,
λευρὰ περιστέλλειν ὀστέα φατὶ τίνος. —
ξεῖν᾽, Ἀρετημιάς εἰμι: πάτρα Κνίδος: Εὔφρονος ἦλθον
εἰς λέχος: ὠδίνων οὐκ ἄμορος γενόμαν
δισσὰ δ᾽ ὁμοῦ τίκτουσα, τὸ μὲν λίπον ἀνδρὶ ποδηγὸν
γήρως: ὃν δ᾽ ἀπάγω μναμόσυνον πόσιος.

Attic terracotta grave marker. 750-735 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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

She Loves Me Not

Among the many poems of the Greek Anthology in which the male speaker is predictably and distastefully “masculine,” there are those in which his love for an unresponsive woman renders him foolish, or pathetic, in the eyes of the reader. The epigrams of Asclepiades offer two such examples. Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse is eloquent and insightful on the subject of waiting (possibly in vain) for the absent beloved. Perhaps Barthes’ words open up new ways of thinking about these epigrams:  

Barthes: 

“Historically, the discourse on absence is carried on by the Woman . . . It follows that in any man who utters the other’s absence something feminine is declared: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized. A man is not feminized because he’s inverted but because he is in love.” 

Asclepiades 5.7

Lamp, you were there when Heracleia swore
Three times she would come, and she has not come.
Lamp, if you’re a god, take revenge on her:
When the deceitful woman is sporting
With a lover she has over, go out.
Give them no more light.

λύχνε, σὲ γὰρ παρεοῦσα τρὶς ὤμοσεν Ἡράκλεια
ἥξειν, κοὐχ ἥκει: λύχνε, σὺ δ᾽, εἰ θεὸς εἶ,
τὴν δολίην ἀπάμυνον ὅταν φίλον ἔνδον ἔχουσα
παίζῃ, ἀποσβεσθεὶς μηκέτι φῶς πάρεχε.

Barthes:

“Amorous absence always functions in a single direction, expressed by the one who stays, never by the one who leaves . . .To speak this absence is from the start to propose that the subject’s place and the other’s place cannot permute; it is to say ‘I am loved less than I love.’”

Asclepiades 5.164

Night, I call you, and not another,
To witness how Nico’s Pythias,
A deceitful woman, mistreats me:
Summoned—not uninvited—I came.
When she’s suffered the same thing,
I hope she complains to you
While still standing at my door.

νύξ: σὲ γὰρ οὐκ ἄλλην μαρτύρομαι, οἷά μ᾽ ὑβρίζει
Πυθιὰς ἡ Νικοῦς, οὖσα φιλεξαπάτις:
κληθείς, οὐκ ἄκλητος, ἐλήλυθα. ταὐτὰ παθοῦσα
σοὶ μέμψαιτ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἐμοῖς στᾶσα παρὰ προθύροις.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Shipwreck is Everywhere

“Bring joy, bring day of his returning”–W.H. Auden, the Wanderer

Callimachus 59 (Wilamowitz 58)

Who are you, shipwrecked wanderer?
Leonticus found your body,
Over there, on the shore,
And buried you here, in this grave.
He wept for his own death-doomed life,
For he himself is not at peace,
Roaming the waters as he does,
Like a seagull.

τίς, ξένος ὦ ναυηγέ; Λεόντιχος ἐνθ:άδε νεκρόν
εὗρέ σ᾽ ἐπ᾽ αἰγιαλοῦ χῶσέ τε τῶιδε τάφωι
δακρύσας ἐπίκηρον ἑὸν βίον: οὐδὲ γὰρ αὐτός
ἥσυχον, αἰθυίηι δ᾽ ἶσα θαλασσοπορεῖ.

Hiroshi Sugimoto–North Sea, Berridale, 1990.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Just a Hole in the Ground

Callimachus 13 (Gow-Page 31)

Does Charidas really lie dead beneath you?
“You mean Arimma’s son from Cyrenaica?
Then yes, he’s underneath me.”
O Charidas, what’s down there?
“Much darkness.”
But what about the ways up?
“Lies.”
And Pluto?
“Myth.”
Ah, nothing remains of us.
“What I’ve given you is my truthful account.
But if you want the pleasing version, here goes:
even small sums buy a big bull in Hades!”

Note: the final line of the Greek is likely corrupt, and therefore while I’ve followed Markovitch in assuming the questionable word is a reference to money (an “obol,” which I’ve freely rendered as “small sums”)–and amending the Greek to reflect that–others assume a reference to the bull’s place of origin (“Pella”).

‘Η ῥ᾽ ὑπὸ σοὶ Χαρίδας ἀναπαύεται; ‘εἰ τὸν Ἀρίμμα
τοῦ Κυρηναίου παῖδα λέγεις, ὑπ᾽ ἐμοί.’
ὦ Χαρίδα, τί τὰ νέρθε; ‘πολὺ σκότοσ᾽. αἱ δ᾽ ἄνοδοι τί;
‘ψεῦδοσ᾽. ὁ δὲ Πλούτων; ‘μῦθοσ᾽. ἀπωλόμεθα.
‘οὗτος ἐμὸς λόγος ὔμμιν ἀληθινός: εἰ δὲ τὸν ἡδύν
βούλει, <χαν> +πελανου βοῦς μέγας εἰν Ἀίδηι.

 

A still from Bergman’s the Seventh Seal in which our Everyman plays chess with Death. To the despair of chess fans, Bergman never reveals whether Death played a cautious opening, like the Ruy Lopez, or something daring, like the Danish Gambit.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

The Loss of a Son and a Daughter

“My child’s death has affected me so greatly that I feel the loss as bitterly as on the first day. My wife is also completely broken down.”

—Letter from Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 1856

Callimachus 37 (Gow-Page edition)

At dawn we laid to rest Melanippus.
At sunset the unwed girl, Basilo,
Died by her own hand.
To live, when her brother’s on the pyre,
That she could not bear.
The house of their father, Aristippus,
Has seen a two-fold evil.
All Cyrene grieved at the sight of a home
Once blessed with children now barren.

Ἠῶιοι Μελάνιππον ἐθάπτομεν, ἠελίου δέ
δυομένου Βασιλὼ κάτθανε παρθενική
αὐτοχερί: ζώειν γὰρ ἀδελφεὸν ἐν πυρὶ θεῖσα
οὐκ ἔτλη. δίδυμον δ᾽ οἶκος ἐπεῖδε κακόν
5πατρὸς Ἀριστίπποιο, κατήφησεν δὲ Κυρήνη
πᾶσα τὸν εὔτεκνον χῆρον ἰδοῦσα δόμον.

Marble grave stele of a little girl.
Circa 450-440 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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

This is Not a Love Poem

CW: Sexual assault, rape

5.199 in the Greek Anthology

Wine and toasts, the ploys, have put Aglaonike to sleep–
And the sweet love of Nicagoras has too.
Her things, all still dripping with perfume,
Are dedicated by her to Cypris,
The delicate spoils of a virgin’s passions:
Sandals and the soft garments which covered her breasts.
Witnesses to sleep and its occasional interruptions.

In Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s 1756 painting, Broken Eggs, the young woman’s loss of virginity Is represented by scattered, broken eggs. Not the eggs per se, but what they represent, accounts for the anxious expressions on the faces of the figures. The painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

οἶνος καὶ προπόσεις κατεκοίμισαν Ἀγλαονίκην
αἱ δόλιαι, καὶ ἔρως ἡδὺς ὁ Νικαγόρεω,
ἧς πάρα Κύπριδι ταῦτα μύροις ἔτι πάντα μυδῶντα
κεῖνται, παρθενίων ὑγρὰ λάφυρα πόθων,
σάνδαλα, καὶ μαλακαί, μαστῶν ἐνδύματα, μίτραι.
ὕπνου καὶ σκυλμῶν τῶν τότε μαρτύρια.

Alongside the familiar topoi of broken oaths, frustrated desires, and the like, the “love” epigrams of the Greek Anthology record crude renderings of sex, and sexual assault. The disturbing subject of the poem below is in tension with the elegance of its construction. That should prompt us to think hard about what an elegant facade makes it possible to say (under the breath, as it were) in the most seemingly benign of the love poems.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

The Sun Also Rises

Variations on a theme–two epigrams by Meleager preserved in the Greek Anthology:

5.172

Morning star, enemy of lovers,
Why so quick to rest above my bed
Just as dear Demo’s body warms mine?
If only you’d turn back your fast course,
Be the evening star, Hesperus, again,
O sweet light shining on me most relentlessly.
That time, when Zeus was with Alcmena,
You went the other way—
You’re no stranger to reversing course.

5.173

Morning star, why now, enemy of lovers,
Are you slow to rotate the world
When another man warms himself
Under Demo’s woolen cloak?
Yet, when the slim girl is in my arms
You’re quick to stop and fix yourself in place,
Thus shining on me your gleefully wicked light.

5.172

ὄρθρε, τί μοι, δυσέραστε, ταχὺς περὶ κοῖτονἐπέστης
ἄρτι φίλας Δημοῦς χρωτὶ χλιαινομένῳ;
εἴθε πάλιν στρέψας ταχινὸν δρόμον Ἕσπεροςεἴης,
ὦ γλυκὺ φῶς βάλλων εἰς ἐμὲ πικρότατον.
ἤδη γὰρ καὶ πρόσθεν ἐπ᾽ Ἀλκμήνῃ Διὸς ἦλθες
ἀντίος: οὐκ ἀδαής ἐσσι παλινδρομίης.

5.173

ὄρθρε, τί νῦν, δυσέραστε, βραδὺς περὶ κόσμον ἑλίσσῃ,
ἄλλος ἐπεὶ Δημοῦς θάλπεθ᾽ ὑπὸ χλανίδι;
ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε τὰν ῥαδινὰν κόλποις ἔχον, ὠκὺς ἐπέστης,
ὡς βάλλων ἐπ᾽ ἐμοὶ φῶς ἐπιχαιρέκακον.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.