Sickness and Knowledge

Sophocles, Trachiniae 1120-1121

“Say what you need to and leave! I am sick
And I can’t understand any of your ancient subtleties”

εἰπὼν ὃ χρῄζεις λῆξον· ὡς ἐγὼ νοσῶν
οὐδὲν ξυνίημ᾿ ὧν σὺ ποικίλλεις πάλαι.


Euripides, Orestes, 229-230

“Look, when someone is sick, their bed is dear.
It may be an annoying thing, but it’s still what they need.”

ἰδού. φίλον τοι τῷ νοσοῦντι δέμνια,
ἀνιαρὸν ὄντα κτῆμ᾿, ἀναγκαῖον δ᾿ ὅμως.


“Even if someone isn’t sick, but thinks they are,
They are struck by exhaustion and helplessness.”

κἂν μὴ νοσῇ γάρ, ἀλλὰ δοξάζῃ νοσεῖν,
κάματος βροτοῖσιν ἀπορία τε γίγνεται.


[Menelaos] “What thing do you suffer? What disease destroys you?
[Orestes]: “Understanding—that I know the terrible things I have done.”

ΜΕΝΕΛΑΟΣ τί χρῆμα πάσχεις; τίς σ᾿ ἀπόλλυσιν νόσος;
ΟΡΕΣΤΗΣ ἡ σύνεσις, ὅτι σύνοιδα δείν᾿ εἰργασμένος.

Hans Sebald Beham, The Death of Herakles

O Sappho, Who Wrongs You?

Sappho, fr. 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 love?
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.

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.

A wayward thought:

The conventional reading of the lyric assumes that the speaker is a lover (name: Sappho) who needs Aphrodite’s help to win (or punish) a reluctant beloved. An alternative interpretation: Sappho is a singer who needs Aphrodite’s help not to win a lover but to compose a persuasive love song. This reading turns first on the summons “come here” and “come”, and then on the god’s epiphany—or rather, the unexpected sounding of the god’s voice.

The temptation is to hear in the call to Aphrodite the traditional summons of lyric hymn. There, the suppliant speaker calls on the god to perform some beneficial task. For example, Anacreon 357:

On my knees I beg you,
Come to me,
Listen to my pleasing prayer:
To Cleobulus be
A good counselor so that he accepts
My love, O Dionysus.

In Sappho 1, things are somewhat different. The call to Aphrodite more resembles an invocation to the muse, the plea to enable song making (not find a lover). We might associate this practice with epic, but of course it exists in Archaic lyric too. Alcman 27:

Come, Muse Calliope, daughter of Zeus—
Begin with lovely verses—
Put charm into our hymn—
And make our dance a graceful one.

In Alcman’s figural language, the muse is to “begin” the very song Alcman himself is beginning to sing. Hesiod says of the muses, “they breathed into me wonderous song,” (Theog. 31-32) and Alcman asks the same of his muse. And so does Sappho. But what’s distinctive about Sappho is that she makes literal what is only metaphorical in the tradition. The voice of her responsive god literally issues from her throat as she sings her song (strophes 5 and 6). This is what it means for the god to have come: it is Aphrodite who “begins” when Sappho sings, enabling her song. The struggle of song-making: That’s the fight in which she needs an ally. In the absence of the allied muse, song-making would be an exercise in “vexations and frustrations.”

Anacreon 357 (excerpt)

γουνοῦμαί σε, σὺ δ’ εὐμενὴς
ἔλθ’ ἡμίν, κεχαρισμένης
δ’ εὐχωλῆς ἐπακούειν·
Κλεοβούλωι δ’ ἀγαθὸς γένεο
σύμβουλος, τὸν ἐμόν γ’ ἔρωτ’,
ὦ Δεόνυσε, δέχεσθαι.

Alcman 27

Μῶσ᾿ ἄγε Καλλιόπα, θύγατερ Διός,
ἄρχ᾿ ἐρατῶν ϝεπέων, ἐπὶ δ᾿ ἵμερον
ὕμνῳ καὶ χαρίεντα τίθη χορόν.

Terra Cotta amphora. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. c.490 BC. Young man singing and playing the Kythera. 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

Let’s Talk About Sweat, Baby

sweating profusely” sudans multum, Fronto

“much sweat was pouring down” πολὺς δ’ ἐξέρρεεν ἱδρὼς, Quintus Smyrnaeus

Aristotle, Problems 2, 866b10 (Problems Concerning Sweat) Selections

“Why does head sweat not stink or at least stink less than that from the body? Is it because the top of the head is well aired?”

Διὰ τί ὁ ἱδρὼς ἐκ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἢ οὐκ ὄζει ἢ ἧττον | τοῦ ἐκ τοῦ σώματος; ἢ ὅτι εὔπνους ὁ τῆς κεφαλῆς τόπος

“Why does the face sweat most of all?”

Διὰ τί ἱδροῦσι μάλιστα τὰ πρόσωπα;

“Why do our backs sweat more than our fronts?”

Διὰ τί ἱδροῦμεν τὸν νῶτον μᾶλλον ἢ τὰ πρόσθεν;

“Why do we sweat less while we are toiling than when we stop?”

Διὰ τί ἧττον ἱδροῦσιν ἐν αὐτῷ τῷ πονεῖν ἢ ἀνέντες;

Hippocrates, Prorrhetic 1.39 (Full Greek text on the Scaife Viewer)

“To sweat acutely, especially with an unpleasant perspiration over the head, is bad; even more so if it comes with dark urine. Difficult breathing in these patients is bad” 
Οἱ ἐφιδρῶντες καὶ μάλιστα κεφαλὴν ἐν ὀξέσιν ὑποδύσφοροι, κακόν, ἄλλως τε καὶ ἐπ᾿ οὔροισι μέλασι, καὶ τὸ θολερὸν πνεῦμα ἐν τούτοισι κακόν.
Hippocrates, Coan Prenotions 561 (Full Greek text on the Scaife Viewer)
“The best sweat is one that breaks a fever on the necessary day, but one that brings relief is also useful. A cold sweat developing only around the head and neck is not good and also indicates limited time and danger.”
Ἱδρὼς ἄριστος μὲν ὁ λύων τὸν πυρετὸν ἐν ἡμέρῃ κρισίμῳ, χρήσιμος δὲ καὶ ὁ κουφίζων· ὁ δὲ ψυχρὸς καὶ μοῦνον περὶ κεφαλὴν καὶ τράχηλον γινόμενος, φλαῦρος, καὶ γὰρ χρόνον καὶ κίνδυνον σημαίνει.

Unmasking Characters In Power

Plutarch, Life of Sulla 30 5.10

“It is understandable that he brought a prejudice on the highest offices in the land, which would no longer allow people to return the characters they started with, but instead could make them mean, boastful, and inhumane. Whether this is a movement or a change of nature because of chance or it is an unmasking of the truth when there is evil in authority, some other investigation will discover.”

εἰκότως προσετρίψατο ταῖς μεγάλαις ἐξουσίαις διαβολὴν ὡς τὰ ἤθη μένειν οὐκ ἐώσαις ἐπὶ τῶν ἐξ ἀρχῆς τρόπων, ἀλλ’ ἔμπληκτα καὶ χαῦνα καὶ ἀπάνθρωπα ποιούσαις.  τοῦτο μὲν οὖν εἴτε κίνησίς ἐστι καὶ μεταβολὴ φύσεως ὑπὸ τύχης, εἴτε μᾶλλον ὑποκειμένης ἀποκάλυψις ἐν ἐξουσίᾳ κακίας, ἑτέρα τις ἂν διορίσειε πραγματεία.

ἀποκαλύπτειν, [anakaluptein] “to unveil, uncover,” perhaps, “unmask”; “to disclose or uncover one’s mind”

ἀποκάλυψις, ἡ [apokalupsis]: “a revelation, disclosure, making known of a fault”, perhaps “unmasking”

From Wikimedia Commons

Debate-Me Guys and the Nature of Bigness

Plato, Phaedo 101 and 102

“But you wouldn’t mix things up like those debate-me guys who talk about a principle and its results at the same time if you really want to discover something real. These guys probably have not one single understanding or concern for the truth.

They’re just good enough to please themselves with their ‘wisdom’, even though they’re mixing everything up.”

ἅμα δὲ οὐκ ἂν φύροιο ὥσπερ οἱ ἀντιλογικοὶ περί τε τῆς ἀρχῆς διαλεγόμενος καὶ τῶν ἐξ ἐκείνης ὡρμημένων, εἴπερ βούλοιό τι τῶν ὄντων εὑρεῖν; ἐκείνοις μὲν γὰρ ἴσως οὐδὲ εἷς περὶ τούτου λόγος οὐδὲ φροντίς· ἱκανοὶ γὰρ ὑπὸ σοφίας ὁμοῦ πάντα κυκῶντες ὅμως δύνασθαι αὐτοὶ αὑτοῖς ἀρέσκειν· σὺ δ’, εἴπερ εἶ τῶν φιλοσόφων, οἶμαι ἂν ὡς ἐγὼ λέγω ποιοῖς.

“Bigness seems to me not only never willing to be big and small at the same time, but the bigness in us is never eager to accept smallness nor to be surpassed, but it does two things: it flees or shrinks whenever the opposite—smallness—is present or, once it has approached, it perishes.”

ἐμοὶ γὰρ φαίνεται οὐ μόνον αὐτὸ τὸ μέγεθος οὐδέποτ’ ἐθέλειν ἅμα μέγα καὶ σμικρὸν εἶναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ ἐν ἡμῖν μέγεθος οὐδέποτε προσδέχεσθαι τὸ σμικρὸν οὐδ’ ἐθέλειν ὑπερέχεσθαι, ἀλλὰ δυοῖν τὸ ἕτερον, ἢ φεύγειν καὶ ὑπεκχωρεῖν ὅταν αὐτῷ προσίῃ τὸ ἐναντίον, τὸ σμικρόν, ἢ προσελθόντος ἐκείνου ἀπολωλέναι· ὑπομένον δὲ καὶ δεξάμενον τὴν σμικρότητα.


Untroubled as Day Passes to Night?

Euripides, Herakles Mainomenos 502-507

“I guess it is necessary that we die.
Old men—the matters of life are brief,
So complete this course as sweetly as you can,
Going untroubled as the days pass to night.

Time has no idea how to keep hope alive;
No, it hurries on for itself and flits away.

Just look at me: I was once something special to look at,
Famous for my deeds, but luck stole me away
In a single day, just like a feather on the wind.”

θανεῖν γάρ, ὡς ἔοικ’, ἀναγκαίως ἔχει.
ἀλλ’, ὦ γέροντες, σμικρὰ μὲν τὰ τοῦ βίου,
τοῦτον δ’ ὅπως ἥδιστα διαπεράσατε
ἐξ ἡμέρας ἐς νύκτα μὴ λυπούμενοι.
ὡς ἐλπίδας μὲν ὁ χρόνος οὐκ ἐπίσταται
σώιζειν, τὸ δ’ αὑτοῦ σπουδάσας διέπτατο.
ὁρᾶτ’ ἔμ’ ὅσπερ ἦ περίβλεπτος βροτοῖς
ὀνομαστὰ πράσσων, καί μ’ ἀφείλεθ’ ἡ τύχη
ὥσπερ πτερὸν πρὸς αἰθέρ’ ἡμέραι μιᾶι.

Hercules and the Hesperides, by G. A. Pellegrini

We Need An Art of Forgetting

Cicero De Finibus 2 104-5

“What kind of sense, then, is there to the idea that a wise person should not let go of good memories but forget bad ones? First, is what we remember under our control? Themistocles, it is said, when Simonides promised to teach him the art of memory, responded, “I’d prefer learning to forget. For I remember things I wish I didn’t and I can’t forget the things I want to.” [Epicurus] was a man of great insight, but the fact us that a philosopher who prohibits remembering asks too much of us.”

Iam illud quale tandem est, bona praeterita non effluere sapienti, mala meminisse non oportere? Primum in nostrane est potestate quid meminerimus? Themistocles quidem, cum ei Simonides an quis alius artem memoriae polliceretur, ‘Oblivionis,’ inquit, ‘mallem; nam memini etiam quae nolo, oblivisci non possum quae volo.’ Magno hic ingenio; sed res se tamen sic habet ut nimis imperiosi philosophi sit vetare meminisse.

Magic Words and Quack Cures: An ‘Epic’ Fail During a Plague

Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet 36

“There was one oracle, also an autophone, which he had sent to all peoples during the plague. It was a single line of verse, “Phoebus, with uncut hair, keeps off the cloud of plague.”

This line was to be seen everywhere, written on doorposts as a spell against the plague. In most cases it produced the opposite result. For, through some fortune, those homes on which the line was written were those which were especially impacted. Don’t imagine that I am saying that they were destroyed because of the line, but that it happened this way in some fashion. Perhaps the people who were encouraged by the words acted negligently or took everything too easily and did nothing to help the oracle against the disease because they believed they had these syllables to fight for them and “long-haired” Apollo to shoot down the plague with his bow.”

ἕνα δέ τινα χρησμόν, αὐτόφωνον καὶ αὐτόν, εἰς ἅπαντα τὰ ἔθνη ἐν τῷ λοιμῷ διεπέμψατο· ἦν δὲ τὸ ἔπος ἕν·

Φοῖβος ἀκειρεκόμης λοιμοῦ νεφέλην ἀπερύκει.

καὶ τοῦτο ἦν ἰδεῖν τὸ ἔπος πανταχοῦ ἐπὶ τῶν πυλώνων γεγραμμένον ὡς τοῦ λοιμοῦ ἀλεξιφάρμακον. τὸ δ᾿ εἰς τοὐναντίον τοῖς πλείστοις προὐχώρει· κατὰ γάρ τινα τύχην αὗται μάλιστα αἱ οἰκίαι ἐκενώθησαν αἷς τὸ ἔπος ἐπεγέγραπτο. καὶ μή με νομίσῃς τοῦτο λέγειν, ὅτι διὰ τὸ ἔπος ἀπώλλυντο· ἀλλὰ τύχῃ τινὶ οὕτως ἐγένετο. τάχα δὲ καὶ οἱ πολλοὶ θαρροῦντες τῷ στίχῳ ἠμέλουν καὶ ῥᾳθυμότερον διῃτῶντο, οὐδὲν τῷ χρησμῷ πρὸς τὴν νόσον συντελοῦντες, ὡς ἂν ἔχοντες προμαχομένας αὑτῶν τὰς συλλαβὰς καὶ τὸν ἀκειρεκόμην Φοῖβον ἀποτοξεύοντα τὸν λοιμόν.

Herakles tripod Louvre F341.jpg
Apollo and Herakles fight over tripod, Taleides painter

The Sorrow of Times Like These

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 6.1230-1251

“This thing alone had to be mourned the most,
This lamented: how when anyone would give up
when they realized they had contracted the disease
As condemned to die, they would stretch out with a sad heart,
Surrendering their spirit while considering the rites of the dead.

For the spread of that greedy sickness did not stop
Even for a single moment from one to another,
Thick together as woolly flocks and horned heads—
That’s the reason why grave was piling on grave.
Whoever was reluctant to see their own sick,
For this very excessive love of life and fear of death
They were punished eventually with a foul and evil end,
As deserters without help, paid back for their neglect.

But those who stayed to help faced contagion too,
And the suffering which shame compelled them to meet.
The pleading voice of the weary mixed with cries of complaint.
Well, the best kinds of souls met death like this.

…Then some falling upon others, fighting to bury their masses
Of dead, worn out by tears and grief as they returned.
They surrendered to their beds for the better part.

No one could be found anywhere who was untouched by the disease
By the death, by the sorrow of times like these.”

Illud in his rebus miserandum magnopere unum
aerumnabile erat, quod ubi se quisque videbat
implicitum morbo, morti damnatus ut esset,
deficiens animo maesto cum corde iacebat,
funera respectans animam amittebat ibidem.

quippe etenim nullo cessabant tempore apisci
ex aliis alios avidi contagia morbi,
lanigeras tamquam pecudes et bucera saecla;
idque vel in primis cumulabat funere funus.
nam quicumque suos fugitabant visere ad aegros,
vitai nimium cupidos mortisque timentis
poenibat paulo post turpi morte malaque,
desertos, opis expertis, incuria mactans.

qui fuerant autem praesto, contagibus ibant
atque labore, pudor quem tum cogebat obire
blandaque lassorum vox mixta voce querellae.
optimus hoc leti genus ergo quisque subibat.
. . . . . . .
inque aliis alium, populum sepelire suorum
certantes; lacrimis lassi luctuque redibant;
inde bonam partem in lectum maerore dabantur.
nec poterat quisquam reperiri, quem neque morbus
nec mors nec luctus temptaret tempore tali.


Triumph of Death Fresco, Palermo

File:Follower of Jheronimus Bosch - The Harrowing of Hell.jpg
“The Harrowing of Hell” Hieronymus Bosch

Write This Down: You are the City. You Are the people

Aeschylus, Suppliants 179-180

“I suggest you safeguard my words by writing them on tablet in your minds”
αἰνῶ φυλάξαι τἄμ᾿ ἔπη δελτουμένας

Aeschylus, Suppliants, 200-204

“Don’t be too aggressive or broken in speech:
These people are especially ready to be angry.
Remember to be accommodating: you are a foreign refugee in need.
To speak boldly is not a fitting move for the weak.”

καὶ μὴ πρόλεσχος μηδ᾿ ἐφολκὸς ἐν λόγῳ
γένῃ· τὸ τῇδε κάρτ᾿ ἐπίφθονον γένος.
μέμνησο δ᾿ εἴκειν· χρεῖος εἶ, ξένη, φυγάς·
θρασυστομεῖν γὰρ οὐ πρέπει τοὺς ἥσσονας.

Aeschylus, Suppliants, 370-375

“You are the city, really. You are the people.
An unjudged chief of state rules
The altar, the city’s hearth,
With only your votes and nods,
With only your scepter on the throne
You judge every need. Be on guard against contamination!”

σύ τοι πόλις, σὺ δὲ τὸ δάμιον·
πρύτανις ἄκριτος ὢν
κρατύνεις βωμόν, ἑστίαν χθονός,
μονοψήφοισι νεύμασιν σέθεν,
μονοσκήπτροισι δ᾿ ἐν θρόνοις χρέος
πᾶν ἐπικραίνεις· ἄγος φυλάσσου.

File:Nicolas Bertin - The Danaides in Hell.jpg

The Danaides in hell, by Nicolas Bertin

Aeschylus, Suppliants 991-997

“Write this down with the many other notes
In your mind of the wisdoms from your father:
An unfamiliar mob is evaluated by time,
But everyone has an evil tongue prepared to lash out
over immigrants and speaking foully is somehow easy.
I advise you not to bring me shame
Now that you are in the age which turns mortal gazes.”

καὶ ταῦτα μὲν γράψασθε πρὸς γεγραμμένοις
πολλοῖσιν ἄλλοις σωφρονίσμασιν πατρός,
ἀγνῶθ᾿ ὅμιλον ἐξελέγχεσθαι χρόνῳ·
πᾶς δ᾿ ἐν μετοίκῳ γλῶσσαν εὔτυκον φέρει
κακήν, τό τ᾿ εἰπεῖν εὐπετὲς μύσαγμά πως.
ὑμᾶς δ᾿ ἐπαινῶ μὴ καταισχύνειν ἐμέ,
ὥραν ἐχούσας τήνδ᾿ ἐπίστρεπτον βροτοῖς