“Even though I have recorded these things faithfully, I do recognize that some things have probably escaped me. And if, although I have applied great thought and effort trying to compose a continuous and clear history of the lives of the best philosophers and rhetoricians, I did not obtain my goal, I have suffered much the same kind of thing as those who love madly and obsessively. For they, when they see the one they love and witness her overwhelming beauty in real life, they look down, too weak and dazed to gaze upon the one they desire.”
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers [Chrysippus] 7.7
“If someone is in Megara he is not in Athens. If a body is in Megara there is nobody in Athens. If you say something, then something moves through your mouth. So, you say “wagon”. And then a wagon moves through your mouth. Also, if you did not lose anything, then you have it. You never lost horns, so you have horns.” Some say Euboulides said this.”
“Again, the one who is asked whether he has horns is not so foolish as to search his own brow nor also so incompetent or limited that you may persuade him that he doesn’t know this with that most sophisticated logic. These kinds of things deceive without harm in the same way as the dice and cup of a juggler in which the deception itself entertains me. But explain how the trick works, and I lose my interest. I say that same thing about these word tricks, for by what name might I better call sophistries? They are harmless if you don’t understand them, and useless if you do.”
Ceterum qui interrogatur, an cornua habeat, non est tam stultus, ut frontem suam temptet, nec rursus tam ineptus aut hebes, ut ne sciat tu illi subtilissima collectione persuaseris. Sic ista sine noxa decipiunt, quomodo praestigiatorum acetabula et calculi, in quibus me fallacia ipsa delectat. Effice, ut quomodo fiat intellegam; perdidi usum. Idem de istis captionibus dico; quo enim nomine potius sophismata appellem? Nec ignoranti nocent nec scientem iuvant.
A sweet force overcomes
The heart in the dances of the cups.
And hope for Aphrodite courses through the thoughts
All mixed up with the gifts of Dionysus.
It raises people’s thoughts to the highest points:
And suddenly: a man seems to sack city walls
And to rule over all men as king.
His homes shine with gold and ivory,
And grain-bearing ships lead home the greatest wealth
From Egypt over the shining sea—
That’s how the mind of a drinker leaps…”
Sophokles says that “drinking is a pain-reliever” and other poems add “pleasant wine, fruit of the earth’ (Il. 3.246). And the king of the poets even has his Odysseus say “whoever fills himself with wine and food may fight all day long with a full heart…” etc.
This is why Simonides says that the origin of wine and music is the same. From drinking, as well, came the discovery of comedy and tragedy in Ikarion in Attica in the season of the grape-harvest [trugês], which is why comedy was first called trug-oidia.
“He gave mortals the pain-relieving vine.
But when there is no more wine, there is no Aphrodite
Nor any other pleasure left for human beings.”
That’s what Euripides says in the Bacchae (771). Astyadamas also says
“He also showed to mortals
The vine, wine-mother, and cure for pain.
If someone fills with wine endlessly, he becomes careless.
If he drinks only a bit, he becomes deeply reflective”.
And then Antiphanes says:
“I am not too drunk to think, but just enough that
I can’t pronounce letters clearly with my mouth.”
Seems like old Alex the son of Phillip the Great is in the news….
Aelian, Varia Historia 14.11
“Philiskos said to Alexander at some point, “Think about your reputation. Don’t be a plague or some great disease, but peace and health instead.” In saying plague he meant ruling violently and cruelly, seizing cities, and destroying peoples. In mentioning health, he meant planning for the safety of his constituents. These goods can come from peace.”
78 “When Alexander arrived in Troy and gazed upon the tomb of Achilles he stopped and said “Achilles, how lucky you were to have Homer as your great herald!” Anaximenes, who was present, said, “but I, lord, will tell your tale.” “By the gods”, Alexander responded, “I’d rather be Homer’s Thersites’ than your Achilles.”
A transcript of a letter from Alexander to his mother Olympias; and what Olympias wrote back to him.
“In the majority of the records of the deeds of Alexander and rather recently in the book of Marcus Varro, which is called “Orestes” or “On Insanity”, we find that Olympias, the wife of Philipp, most cleverly replied to her son. For, when he wrote to his mother, “King Alexander, the son of Zeus Ammon, sends his greetings to his mother Olympias”, she said “My son, hush! lest you defame me or incriminate me before Juno! She will certainly allot me some great harm once you have confessed in your letters that I am her husband’s adultress.”
This courtesy from a wise and prudent woman to a boastful son moderately and elegantly warned him that his puffed-up belief, which he had inflated from great victories, the charms of praise and from successes beyond belief–the idea that he was the offspring of Zeus–ought to be abandoned.”
Descripta Alexandri ad matrem Olympiadem epistula; et quid Olympias festive ei rescripserit.
In plerisque monumentis rerum ab Alexandro gestarum et paulo ante in libro M. Varronis, qui inscriptus est Orestes vel de insania, Olympiadem Philippi uxorem festivissime rescripsisse legimus Alexandro filio. 2 Nam cum is ad matrem ita scripsisset: “Rex Alexander Iovis Hammonis filius Olympiadi matri salutem dicit”, Olympias ei rescripsit ad hanc sententiam: “Amabo”, inquit “mi fili, quiescas neque deferas me neque criminere adversum Iunonem; malum mihi prorsum illa magnum dabit, cum tu me litteris tuis paelicem esse illi confiteris”. 3 Ea mulieris scitae atque prudentis erga ferocem filium comitas sensim et comiter admonuisse eum visa est deponendam esse opinionem vanam, quam ille ingentibus victoriis et adulantium blandimentis et rebus supra fidem prosperis inbiberat, genitum esse sese de Iove.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 26.4
“When a small box was brought to him—which seem more valuable than the rest of the possessions and baggage they had taken from Dareios, [Alexander] asked his friends what thing seem especially worthy of being put in it. Although many of them made many suggestions, Alexander said that he would keep the Iliad safe by placing it inside. Not a few of the most credible sources claim this.
If, as the Alexandrians say is true—since they believe Herakleides—Homer was no lazy or unprofitable travel companion…”
This passage refers to an earlier moment in the Life. Coincidentally, I also sleep the same way…
“[Alexander] was also naturally a lover of language, a lover of learning, and a lover of reading. Because he believed that the Iliad was a guidebook for military excellence—and called it that too—he took a copy of it which had been edited by Aristotle which they used to refer to as “Iliad-in-a-Box”. He always kept it with his dagger beneath his pillow—as Onêsikritos tells us.
When there were no other books in certain lands, he sent to Harpalos for some more. Then Harpalus sent him Philistos’ books along with some tragedies of Euripides, Sophokles and Aeschylus and the dithyrambs of Telestes and Philoxenos.”
“He asked again, “What is greater, land or the sea.?” And one responded, “Land, for the sea rests upon the earth.” Then he asked “Which of all the beasts is the most capable?” And another answered, “man…” Then he said to another, “Whom can we not deceive but must always present with the truth?” And he answered, “God: for we cannot deceive one who knows everything?” And then he said to them, “What do you want to ask of me?” And he said “Immortality.” Alexander said, “I do not have this wealth—for I too am merely mortal.” And they said, “Since you are mortal, why do you make so much war? Is it so that you may seize everything and carry it off somewhere? You will leave them to others in turn.”
And Alexander said to them, “These things depend on the will of those above—and we are but servants of their assignment. The sea will not move unless the wind blows. The trees will not dance unless the air strikes them. Man accomplishes nothing without the will of those above. Even though I wish to stop warring, the tyrant of my mind does not allow it. If we were all in agreement; the universe would be sluggish, the sea would not fill; the land would not be farmed; marriages would not be completed, and there would be no child-bearing. How many met misfortune in the wars I waged by losing all their possessions? Well, how many profited from their losses? For all who steal from others eventually leave their possessions to others still. Nothing belongs to anyone.” After he said this, Alexander walked away…”
“Apollodorus the Athenian in his Summary of Beliefs, because he wants to demonstrate that the works of Epicurus were written with personal force and were prepared with far fewer quotations than the books of Chrysippos, says in this very wording: “if the books of [Chrysippos] were scrubbed of all the superfluous quotations, only empty paper would be left to him.”
So much for Apollodorus. The old women who used to sit next to [Chrysippos], according to Diocles, used to claim that he wrote 500 lines each day. Hekatôn reports that he turned to philosophy because the property left to him by his father was confiscated to the royal treasury.”
“For the sake of Zeus, allow me to interrogate the tragedians and the storytellers who came before them as to what they had in mind when they pour so great an ignorance on Laios’ son who joined that terrible journey with his mother and on Telephos who, although he did not pursue sex, also laid next to the one who bore him and would have done the same things if a serpent had not interrupted him by divine command. How can these things happen when nature even allows the mindless animals to recognize the nature of this union from simple touch—they do not need special signs or anything from the man who exposed Oedipus on Mt. Cithairon.
The camel, indeed, would certainly never have sex with its own mother. There was a herdsman, who tried to force this, and, by covering up a female as much as possible and hiding all of her except for her genitals, drove the child to its mother. The ignorant animal, thanks to its excitement for sex, did the deed and then understood it. While biting and trampling the man who was responsible for this unnatural union, it killed him terribly by kneeling on top of him. Then it threw itself off a cliff.
In this, Oedipus was ignorant in failing to kill himself and just putting out his eyes: for, he did not know that it was possible to escape his troubles by getting rid of himself and not curing his home and family, and as such to try to cure evils which had passed with an incurable evil.”
“Pythagoras shut himself in a hole in the ground and told his mother to tell people that he was dead. After that, once he reappeared again later, he was telling fantastic tales of reincarnation and the people of Hades, explaining to the living about the matters of the dead. From these stories, he created that kind of repute for himself that, before the Trojan War, he was Aithalidês the son of Hermes and then Euphorbos, and then Hermotimos of Samos, then Delian Pythios and after all of them, Pythagoras.”
The title of this post will most likely strike the reader as nonsensical. The canon of Graeco-Roman art, populated with statues of athletes, friezes of battles, a Pompeian fresco or two of dancing fauns, seems to leave no space for abstraction. Most of us think of classical art as uniformly figurative, and we perceive this mimetic tradition as unbroken until the nineteenth century, when experimental figures like J. M. W. Turner begin to display an ever-lesser interest in the minute reproduction of the visually perceptible world.
The likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, it is commonly thought, deal the final blow to the formerly unchallenged tradition of representational art as they start to paint pure abstractions, art bearing no trace of reference to anything recognizable. This straightforward narrative of linear development is challenged in a striking story told by Pliny in his Natural History. In a fascinating anecdote, surprisingly little-known given the extraordinary evidence it presents, Pliny introduces us to the world’s first abstract painting, composed by the celebrated painters Apelles and Protogenes in the fourth century BC.
The story goes as follows. Apelles, the most accomplished painter of all time according to Pliny, once visited the studio of the likewise respected Protogenes, curious to see the works he had so far only heard rumors of. He found nobody there except an old slave and an empty canvas ready for painting. Instead of telling the slave to inform Protogenes of his arrival, Apelles simply drew an exquisitely fine line on the empty canvas and left. When Protogenes returned and examined the line, he instantly knew that Apelles had been there, as only he could have drawn something that perfect.
In reply, Protogenes drew an even finer line in different color upon the previous one and went out again. Soon, Apelles returned and found himself surpassed in Protogenes’ reply. He took up another color and drew an even finer, barely discernible line upon the previous two, leaving no space for anything more delicate to be executed, and left. At this point, Protogenes conceded defeat and went out in search of Apelles to finally make his acquaintance. Left behind in the studio was a piece of abstract art.
So far, there is nothing exceptional in this story. The Natural History is full of such more or less believable anecdotes of artistic dexterity. Pliny, marvelling at the extraordinary verisimilitude in the finest examples of realist painting, relates how horses would neigh when confronted with Apelles’ painting of a horse, and how birds would peck at Zeuxis’ likeness of grapes. Apelles’ Pollock-like technique of throwing a wet sponge at his canvas to create the effect of foam sounds more unorthodox, yet ultimately results in a meticulously realistic reproduction of the recognizable world as well.
Apelles’ and Protogenes’ painting makes no such attempt at mimesis. This would still be nothing surprising in a mere display of artistic skill, and so far the story has not suggested that the painters perceived their competition as anything more. But in a tantalizing twist at the end, Pliny recounts how Apelles and Protogenes thought it appropriate to treat this exercise as a finished work of art, and how it was displayed to an admiring and appreciative public, even only recently at the Imperial palace on the Palatine:
Among the most elaborate works it had all the appearance of a blank space; and yet by that very fact it attracted the notice of everyone, and was held in higher estimation than any other painting there.
audio … [tabulam] spatiose nihil aliud continentem quam lineas visum effugientes, inter egregia multorum opera inani similem et eo ipso allicientem omnique opere nobiliorem. Naturalis Historia 35.36.83
Although the fame of the artists and the virtuosity manifest in the minuteness of the lines must have contributed to the painting’s charm, these features were not of most interest to the ancient audience according to Pliny. It was rather the very emptiness of the painting that was admired, and it was its very blankness that earned it the estimation as the finest piece of art in the exquisite Imperial collection. The abstract composition was clearly perceived as art. The three solitary lines were weighed with reference to the surrounding figurative pieces and chosen as the finest among them. The spectators perceived the abstract, non-representational piece as capable of giving the same kind of aesthetic pleasure as the figurative art they were used to, and they even found the pleasure derived from contemplating this absence of presence in some way superior. For a modern reader, this anecdote conjures up the extraordinary image of ancient Romans crowding around and admiring a minimalist abstract painting, oblivious of the surrounding portraits of gods and goddesses.
Unsurprisingly, the story of Apelles and Protogenes’ experiment did not gain particular traction with early modern artists. Its oddity and simplicity provided little opportunity for opulent classicising compositions and were for a long time overshadowed by tales such as Apelles’ painting and falling in love with Alexander’s mistress Campaspe, subject of numerous renaissance and baroque nudes. One may expect a sudden surge of interest in the anecdote to appear with the emergence of abstract art, yet it does not seem to have resonated with early avantgardists except Guillaume Apollinaire.
In a short 1912 article, Apollinaire writes on the elusiveness of the subject in cubist art and calls this absence of representation ‘pure painting’, providing admirers with ‘artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades and independent of the subject depicted in the picture’. He finds a precedent of such practice in the piece by Apelles and Protogenes, yet nevertheless calls cubism ‘an entirely new plastic art’, apparently uninterested in tracing continuities and eager to portray the avantgarde as a revolutionary breakthrough.
Apollinaire was right in not ascribing too much weight to Pliny’s story and treating it as nothing more than a fascinating curiosity. The painting by Apelles and Protogenes was an isolated case rather than an example of a flourishing abstract tradition in ancient Greek art. The fame of the artists and the ancient admiration of finesse must have been pivotal in enabling this extraordinary, one-off abstract exhibition.
Yet this does not mean that we should not take the story seriously. Rather, it can serve as a reminder that simplistic, traditionalist narratives often overlook the most fascinating details, in the case of art history negating the variety and diversity of artistic expression. Western artbooks skimp over the striking impressionism of Song Dynasty splashed-ink paintings, preceding Turner’s first works by over half a millennium. Women like Georgiana Houghton and Hilma af Klint painted pure abstractions before Kandinsky and Malevich but still gain little recognition for their work. Just so, visitors to the Imperial palace were capable of enjoying ‘artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades’ long before the first cubist exhibition.
Alex Tadel is a recent graduate from an MSt in Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. Stationed in Ljubljana, Slovenia, she is taking a short break from academia and working as a freelance writer, researcher and tutor.
“The Swan, which the poets and many prose authors make an attendant to Apollo, has some other relationship to music and song I do not understand. But it was believed by those before us that the swan died after he sang what was called its “swan-song”. Nature truly honors it more than noble and good men and for good reason: for while others praise and morn people, the swans take care of themselves, if you will.”
“Singing the swan song”: [this proverb] is applied to those who are near death. For swans sing as they die and they know then the end of life is coming upon them and so, in this way, they face that arrival bravely. But human beings fear what they do not know and think that it is the greatest evil. But swans sing out at death the kind of song sung at a funeral…”
“Chrysippos was writing about something like this again in the same work. When someone who loved to make fun of people was about to be killed by the executioner, he said that he wanted one thing, to die after singing his ‘swan-song’. After the executioner agreed, the man made fun of him.”
N.B This is a different Pythagoras from the one with the theorem.
Suda, s.v. Pythagoras of Ephesos
“Pythagoras of Ephesos. Once he overthrew the government called the reign of the Basilidai, Pythagoras became the harshest tyrant. He seemed and sometimes was very kind to the people and the masses, increasing their hopes, but under-delivering on their profits. Because he despoiled those in high esteem and power and liquidated their property, he was not at all tolerable.
He did not hesitate to impose the harshest punishments or to mercilessly kill those who had done no wrong—for he had gotten just this crazy. His lust for money was endless. He was also quickest to anger in response to any insults to those near to him. On their own, these things would have been enough reason for people to kill him in the worst way, but he also was contemptuous of the divine. Indeed, many of his previously mentioned victims he actually killed in temples.
When the daughters of one man took refuge in a temple, he did not dare to extract them forcefully, but he waited them out so long that the girls resolved their hunger with a rope. A plague then afflicted the people along with a famine and Pythagoras, who was worried for himself, sent representatives to Delphi, requesting relief from these sufferings. She said that he needed to build temples and take care of the dead. He lived before Cyrus of Persia, according to Batôn.”