Birthday Parties in Greece and Rome

 Several years ago I posted an absurd speculation about how to say happy birthday in Ancient Greek. Evidence from the ancient world reveals that parents held birthday sacrifices and feasts for children, communities observed birthday feasts for gods and heroes, and people arranged for their own birthday feasts as well. In addition, poetic, political, and philosophical luminaries had their birthdays celebrated after death. And, strangely enough, some people provided for their own postmortem birthday celebrations in their wills.

Valerius Maximus, Memorable Sayings and Deeds 2.12

“Truly The Thracians have earned great praise for their wisdom in celebrating birthdays by weeping and deaths with joyous cheer. Without any fine doctrines from scholars, they have penetrated the true nature of the human condition. Therefore, let life’s sweetness, native to all creatures, the very thing which compels them to act and suffer terribly, let it disappear if its end should still prove more lucky and blessed than its beginning.”

Thraciae vero illa natio merito sibi sapientiae laudem vindicaverit, quae natales hominum flebiliter, exsequias cum hilaritate celebrat, <si>4sine ullis doctorum praeceptis verum condicionis nostrae habitum pervidit. removeatur itaque naturalis omnium animalium dulcedo vitae, quae multa et facere et pati turpiter cogit, si tamen ortu eius aliquanto felicior ac beatior finis reperietur.

Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 2.35

“And he neither revealed to anyone the month in which he was born nor the day of his birth because he did not think it right for anyone to sacrifice or have a feast on his birthday even though he sacrificed and held meals for his friends on the birthdays conventionally dedicated to Plato and Socrates—when it was necessary that the friends who were capable read aloud some argument to those who had gathered.”

οὔτε δὲ τὸν μῆνα δεδήλωκέ τινι καθ᾿ ὃν γεγέννηται, οὔτε τὴν γενέθλιον ἡμέραν, ἐπεὶ οὐδὲ θύειν ἢ ἑστιᾶν τινα τοῖς αὐτου γενεθλίοις ἠξίου, καίπερ ἐν τοῖς Πλάτωνος καὶ Σωκράτους παραδεδομένοις γενεθλίοις θύων τε καὶ ἑστιῶν τοὺς ἑταίρους, ὅτε καὶ λόγον ἔδει τῶν ἑταίρων τοὺς δυνατοὺς ἐπὶ τῶν συνελθόντων ἀναγνῶναι.

Plautus, Pseudolus 165-6

“Today is my birthday, and you all should celebrate it with me.
Put the ham, pork rind, innards and sow’s teats in the water. Can you hear me?”

nam mi hodie natalis dies est, decet eum omnis uosconcelebrare.
pernam, callum, glandium, sumen facito in aquaiaceant. satin audis?

A fancy birthday pen…

Greek Anthology, 6.227 Crinagoras of Mytilene

Procles sends this, on your birthday,
This silver newly made pen tip in its holder
With two easily dividable ends,
It moves well over a flowing page
A small gift but one from a bigger heart
A close friend for your recent ease for learning.”

Ἀργύρεόν σοι τόνδε, γενέθλιον ἐς τεὸν ἦμαρ,
Πρόκλε, νεόσμηκτον †δουρατίην κάλαμον,
εὖ μὲν ἐϋσχίστοισι διάγλυπτον κεράεσσιν,
εὖ δὲ ταχυνομένην εὔροον εἰς σελίδα,
πέμπει Κριναγόρης, ὀλίγην δόσιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀπὸ θυμοῦ
πλείονος, ἀρτιδαεῖ σύμπνοον εὐμαθίῃ.

A homemade gift….

6.326 Leonidas

“One sends you from nets, another from the air or sea,
Eupolis, these birthday gift,
But take from me a line from a Muses, which
Will remain with you always as a sign of friendship and learning.”

Ἄλλος ἀπὸ σταλίκων, ὁ δ᾿ ἀπ᾿ ἠέρος, ὃς δ᾿ ἀπὸ πόντου,
Εὔπολι, σοὶ πέμπει δῶρα γενεθλίδια·
ἀλλ᾿ ἐμέθεν δέξαι Μουσῶν στίχον, ὅστις ἐς αἰεὶ
μίμνει, καὶ φιλίης σῆμα καὶ εὐμαθίης

Birthdays ad infinitum

Select Papyri, Wills 84a (Roman Period)

“My wife, and after her death, my son Deios, will give to my slaves and freedmen [100 drachma] for a feats they will hold near my grave every year on my birthday.”

δώσει δὲ ἡ γυνή μου καὶ μετὰ τελευτὴν αὐτῆς ὁ υἱός μου Δεῖος τοῖς δούλοις μου καὶ ἀπελευθέρ[οι]ς εἰς εὐωχίαν αὐτῶν ἣν ποιήσονται πλησίον τοῦ τάφου μου κατ᾿ ἔτος τῇ γενεθλίᾳ μου

Cicero, De Finibus 2.102

“Therefore, no one has a true birthday. “But the day is observed.” And I take that as if I did not know it. But, is it right that this is still celebrated after death? And to put it in a will when he told us as if giving an oracle that nothing matters to us after death?”

Nullus est igitur cuiusquam dies natalis. ‘At habetur.’ Et ego id scilicet nesciebam! Sed ut sit, etiamne post mortem coletur? idque testamento cavebit is qui nobis quasi oraculum ediderit nihil post mortem ad nos pertinere?

Invitation to a rural birthday party

Alciphron, Letter 3.18

“When we have a feast for the birthday of my child, I invite you to come to the party, Pithakniôn—and not only you, but bring your wife, children, your worker. And, if you wish, bring your dog: she’s a good guard and she frightens away those who plot against the flocks with her loud barking.”

Τοὐμοῦ παιδίου γενέσια ἑορτάζων ἥκειν σε ἐπὶ τὴν πανδαισίαν, ὦ Πιθακνίων, παρακαλῶ, ἥκειν δὲ οὐ μόνον ἀλλ᾿ ἐπαγόμενον τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ παιδία καὶ τὸν συνέργαστρον· εἰ βούλοιο δέ, καὶ τὴν κύνα, ἀγαθὴν οὖσαν φύλακα καὶ τῷ βάρει τῆς ὑλακῆς ἀποσοβοῦσαν τοὺς ἐπιβουλεύοντας τοῖς ποιμνίοις.

Imperial Birthday appropriation

Ad. M. Caes III.9 Marcus Aurelius to Fronto

Dear best teacher,

I know that on everyone’s birthday friends make prayers for the person whose birthday it is. Nevertheless, because I love you as much as I love myself, I wish on this birthday of yours to make a prayer for myself.”

Salve mi magister optime.

Scio natali die quoiusque pro eo, quoius is dies natalis est, amicos vota suscipere; ego tamen, quia te iuxta a memet ipsum amo, volo hoc die tuo natali mihi bene precari.

Plautus, The Captives 175

“Since it is my birthday: I want to be asked to a dinner at your home.

quia mi est natalis dies;
propterea te uocari ad te ad cenam uolo.

Birthday Sorrow

Sulpicia, 14.1-3

“The hated birthday is here, the sad day which
Must be celebrated in annoying hicksville without Cerinthus.”

Invisvs natalis adest, qui rure molesto
et sine Cerintho tristis agendus erit.

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 3 Jan 47

“I write these things to you on my birthday, a day which I wish had never seen me or that no one else had been born from my mother afterwards. I am kept from writing more by weeping”

Haec ad te die natali meo scripsi; quo utinam susceptus non essem, aut ne quid ex eadem matre postea natum esset! plura scribere fletu prohibeor.

Image result for Ancient Greek and Roman sacrifice

Birthday Parties in Greece and Rome

Someone turns 40 today. Several years ago I posted an absurd speculation about how to say happy birthday in Ancient Greek. Evidence from the ancient world reveals that parents held birthday sacrifices and feasts for children, communities observed birthday feasts for gods and heroes, and people arranged for their own birthday feasts as well. In addition, poetic, political, and philosophical luminaries had their birthdays celebrated after death. And, strangely enough, some people provided for their own postmortem birthday celebrations in their wills.

Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 2.35

“And he neither revealed to anyone the month in which he was born nor the day of his birth because he did not think it right for anyone to sacrifice or have a feast on his birthday even though he sacrificed and held meals for his friends on the birthdays conventionally dedicated to Plato and Socrates—when it was necessary that the friends who were capable read aloud some argument to those who had gathered.”

οὔτε δὲ τὸν μῆνα δεδήλωκέ τινι καθ᾿ ὃν γεγέννηται, οὔτε τὴν γενέθλιον ἡμέραν, ἐπεὶ οὐδὲ θύειν ἢ ἑστιᾶν τινα τοῖς αὐτου γενεθλίοις ἠξίου, καίπερ ἐν τοῖς Πλάτωνος καὶ Σωκράτους παραδεδομένοις γενεθλίοις θύων τε καὶ ἑστιῶν τοὺς ἑταίρους, ὅτε καὶ λόγον ἔδει τῶν ἑταίρων τοὺς δυνατοὺς ἐπὶ τῶν συνελθόντων ἀναγνῶναι.

Plautus, Pseudolus 165-6

“Today is my birthday, and you all should celebrate it with me.
Put the ham, pork rind, innards and sow’s teats in the water. Can you hear me?”

nam mi hodie natalis dies est, decet eum omnis uosconcelebrare.
pernam, callum, glandium, sumen facito in aquaiaceant. satin audis?

A fancy birthday pen…

Greek Anthology, 6.227 Crinagoras of Mytilene

Procles sends this, on your birthday,
This silver newly made pen tip in its holder
With two easily dividable ends,
It moves well over a flowing page
A small gift but one from a bigger heart
A close friend for your recent ease for learning.”

Ἀργύρεόν σοι τόνδε, γενέθλιον ἐς τεὸν ἦμαρ,
Πρόκλε, νεόσμηκτον †δουρατίην κάλαμον,
εὖ μὲν ἐϋσχίστοισι διάγλυπτον κεράεσσιν,
εὖ δὲ ταχυνομένην εὔροον εἰς σελίδα,
πέμπει Κριναγόρης, ὀλίγην δόσιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀπὸ θυμοῦ
πλείονος, ἀρτιδαεῖ σύμπνοον εὐμαθίῃ.

A homemade gift….

6.326 Leonidas

“One sends you from nets, another from the air or sea,
Eupolis, these birthday gift,
But take from me a line from a Muses, which
Will remain with you always as a sign of friendship and learning.”

Ἄλλος ἀπὸ σταλίκων, ὁ δ᾿ ἀπ᾿ ἠέρος, ὃς δ᾿ ἀπὸ πόντου,
Εὔπολι, σοὶ πέμπει δῶρα γενεθλίδια·
ἀλλ᾿ ἐμέθεν δέξαι Μουσῶν στίχον, ὅστις ἐς αἰεὶ
μίμνει, καὶ φιλίης σῆμα καὶ εὐμαθίης

Birthdays ad infinitum

Select Papyri, Wills 84a (Roman Period)

“My wife, and after her death, my son Deios, will give to my slaves and freedmen [100 drachma] for a feats they will hold near my grave every year on my birthday.”

δώσει δὲ ἡ γυνή μου καὶ μετὰ τελευτὴν αὐτῆς ὁ υἱός μου Δεῖος τοῖς δούλοις μου καὶ ἀπελευθέρ[οι]ς εἰς εὐωχίαν αὐτῶν ἣν ποιήσονται πλησίον τοῦ τάφου μου κατ᾿ ἔτος τῇ γενεθλίᾳ μου

Cicero, De Finibus 2.102

“Therefore, no one has a true birthday. “But the day is observed.” And I take that as if I did not know it. But, is it right that this is still celebrated after death? And to put it in a will when he told us as if giving an oracle that nothing matters to us after death?”

Nullus est igitur cuiusquam dies natalis. ‘At habetur.’ Et ego id scilicet nesciebam! Sed ut sit, etiamne post mortem coletur? idque testamento cavebit is qui nobis quasi oraculum ediderit nihil post mortem ad nos pertinere?

Invitation to a rural birthday party

Alciphron, Letter 3.18

“When we have a feast for the birthday of my child, I invite you to come to the party, Pithakniôn—and not only you, but bring your wife, children, your worker. And, if you wish, bring your dog: she’s a good guard and she frightens away those who plot against the flocks with her loud barking.”

Τοὐμοῦ παιδίου γενέσια ἑορτάζων ἥκειν σε ἐπὶ τὴν πανδαισίαν, ὦ Πιθακνίων, παρακαλῶ, ἥκειν δὲ οὐ μόνον ἀλλ᾿ ἐπαγόμενον τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ παιδία καὶ τὸν συνέργαστρον· εἰ βούλοιο δέ, καὶ τὴν κύνα, ἀγαθὴν οὖσαν φύλακα καὶ τῷ βάρει τῆς ὑλακῆς ἀποσοβοῦσαν τοὺς ἐπιβουλεύοντας τοῖς ποιμνίοις.

Imperial Birthday appropriation

Ad. M. Caes III.9 Marcus Aurelius to Fronto

Dear best teacher,

I know that on everyone’s birthday friends make prayers for the person whose birthday it is. Nevertheless, because I love you as much as I love myself, I wish on this birthday of yours to make a prayer for myself.”

Salve mi magister optime.

Scio natali die quoiusque pro eo, quoius is dies natalis est, amicos vota suscipere; ego tamen, quia te iuxta a memet ipsum amo, volo hoc die tuo natali mihi bene precari.

Plautus, The Captives 175

“Since it is my birthday: I want to be asked to a dinner at your home.

quia mi est natalis dies;
propterea te uocari ad te ad cenam uolo.

Birthday Sorrow

Sulpicia, 14.1-3

“The hated birthday is here, the sad day which
Must be celebrated in annoying hicksville without Cerinthus.”

Invisvs natalis adest, qui rure molesto
et sine Cerintho tristis agendus erit.

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 3 Jan 47

“I write these things to you on my birthday, a day which I wish had never seen me or that no one else had been born from my mother afterwards. I am kept from writing more by weeping”

Haec ad te die natali meo scripsi; quo utinam susceptus non essem, aut ne quid ex eadem matre postea natum esset! plura scribere fletu prohibeor.

Image result for Ancient Greek and Roman sacrifice

Living Today and Talking About Death

Gnom. Vat.160 “Biôn used to say that [we have] two teachers for death: the time before we were born and sleep.”

Βίων ἔλεγε δύο διδασκαλίας θανάτου εἶναι, τόν τε πρὸ τοῦ γενέσθαι χρόνον καὶ τὸν ὕπνον.

446 “Plato said that sleep was a short-lived death but death was a long-lived sleep.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφησε τὸν μὲν ὕπνον ὀλιγοχρόνιον θάνατον, τὸν δὲ θάνατον πολυχρόνιον ὕπνον.

Recently, I saw my grandfather, who is 91, at a family wedding. He told me he does not even like to buy green bananas any more because he can’t be sure he will be around to eat them when they ripen. This made me remember and then question that old Ciceronian claim that “no one is so old that he does not think he will live another year” (nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere, de Senectute 24)

A few of my students do this thing where they—only half-jokingly, I think—ask if I am ok, like really, really ok, after I make some quip about how we are all going to die or mention Seneca’s or Plutarch’s thoughts on life and death. When I talk about the Odyssey being obsessed with the death of Odysseus, or the Iliad deeply impacted by the precarity and scarcity of human existence, they seem to worry instead that I am the one obsessed, that I have some sort of morbid fixation.

Indeed, I would not be surprised if readers of this blog or the twitter feed have a similar suspicion when I ask questions like what text you would read if you knew you could only read one before you died or when I repeatedly post the dirges of Simonides. But the fact is, I am really acting with restraint here. If I were not sure that it would alienate most followers, I would set up the twitter feed to remind us of death every day, if not every hour.

Ok, this might be a little obsessive. But unlike what I think my students fear, I am not depressed about it. And I know I am not depressed because I spent a large part of my life depressed and fighting the feeling of the ultimate futility of life. One of my earliest memories of this is of being in third grade and lying awake at night trying to imagine what it was like to be nothing. I grew up in a fairly (but perhaps not deeply) religious family. We were Scandinavian protestants, though. This means we went to church frequently, but we didn’t really talk about it.

In fourth grade I remember talking with our minister about my doubts and objections. We went through the Nicene and Apostolic Creeds line by line and she told me I could leave out the words I did not believe in if it really bothered to say something aloud when I was uncertain. When I told her that I just could not make sense of the resurrection as a phenomenon, she told me that doubt was an important part of faith.

This kept me going for a long time. But my doubts did not fade and talking about them in a religious context seemed only to make things worse. By the time I was in high school, I would regularly spend nights awake nearly paralyzed by fear and sorrow. Even though I had a delightful undergraduate career by all measures, some of my strongest memories from those years remain breaking down and laboring under the weight of the depression.

Solon, fr. 18

“I grow old, always learning many things.”

γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·

Graduate school is not a good place for mental health. It is a great place to develop harmful coping mechanisms (narcissism, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.). Again, I think I probably seemed functional as a graduate student (and early career professor), but like many of us I was on a very precarious tight-rope. Even to this day, I know it was sheer luck that I did not suffer some kind of irreparable harm.

In graduate school, however, I did start to read more widely and to lean on my reading more to make sense of life in general. I started reading pre-Socratic philosophers and Roman writers like Seneca. When I was an undergraduate and I first read Plato’s Socrates asserting that “death is one of two things” either a dreamless sleep or the transformation of the soul in Greek, I was elated because here was something I could relate to. When we talked about Plato in philosophy classes, however, this topic rarely came up. When it did, it was discussed only briefly and almost elliptically.

But what is more important than talking about death? How many errors do we make because we refuse to do so? How many days are wasted in pursuits we might otherwise discredit if we really considered our lives in their entirety?

We have a cultural taboo about talking about death. When we do so individually and outside rather narrow confines, we are pathologized as quirky, morbid, or mentally ill. Even in psychological research, there is a reluctance to study how we think about death and its impact on our lives. As Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski 2015 argue, however, this taboo itself is pathological and it has a wide impact on the well-being of individuals and whole cultures. We don’t want to talk about death because it is painful; but by not talking about death we collectively suffer more pain than we need to. Even Galen notes the paradox that fear of death can become a depressive obsession which robs us of the very thing we don’t want death to take.

So, for a great part of my life I did not talk about death because no one else wanted to. But this had a harmful effect–it meant that I bottled it up, I ruminated over it, and it would come bubbling out, uncontrollably, at the worst times.

In graduate school, I did finally find some professors who would talk about death, but only in the terms laid out by ancient authors. Here, there was an acceptable, but indirect way to have a conversation. There is this basic idea which I have seen described as Epicurean and Stoic but which really emerges as a regular part of Roman eclecticism that death should not be feared because when it comes we will not experience it. Seneca (EM 30.17-18) asserts that we do not fear death itself, but the thought of death (Non mortem timemus, sed cogitationem mortis), which I guess is true in a way, but it is still a prevarication. Is it not the thought of anything that we initially and mostly fear or desire? (Seneca actually cites Lucretius here, not a Stoic exemplar.) Of course, Plutarch rightly asks us whether we are more moved by fear of death or love of life.

Sophocles, fr. 65

“No one loves living as much as a man growing old”

τοῦ ζῆν γὰρ οὐδεὶς ὡς ὁ γηράσκων ἐρᾷ

Elsewhere, Seneca says that death is either “the end or a transformation” (EM 65) and that the former should not be feared because it is the same as never having begun (Aut finis aut transitus. Nec desinere timeo, idem est enim, quod non coepisse). This is the same as the basic assertion that we know what death is because it is a return to what we were before we were alive. In response to this notion, even the Stoic master Marcus Aurelius insists that we should consider we might die in every action we take. But, as Erik notes in an essay on “Frost, Horace and Death”, lyric poets like Catullus and Horace muse on the cyclical nature of the natural world only to conclude that our conscious lives are something different—As Catullus puts it, when the time comes “we must sleep one endless night” (nox est perpetua una dormienda, Carm. 5)

I wish my story involved going to therapy because I think that step is something which is a little easier to offer to others instead of prescribing that people spend a decade reading Seneca and Greek poetry. But this would be a lie. Like many of my generation, I was raised considering therapy for mental health a sign of weakness. I don’t rationally believe this, but the level of my disinclination to seek any kind of assistance is certainly problematic. Also, I do believe that, while therapy is absolutely the right move for people afflicted by depression, the injunction to do so is unrealistic for so many people because of costs and access issues.

On Timon, D. L. 9.12

“Antigonos says that Timon was fond of drinking; and, whenever he had free time from philosophizing, he wrote poems”

Ἦν δέ, φησὶν ὁ Ἀντίγονος, καὶ φιλοπότης καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν φιλοσόφων εἰ σχολάζοι ποιήματα συνέγραφε

The truth is that I only emerged from what was almost decades of suffering through slow, deliberate change. And reading—especially reading philosophy and poetry—was instrumental in helping me along the way. At some point, I learned to make thinking about death a practice. Obviously, some of this is just growing older and more stable—one chief antidote to depression is having a sense of belonging and something to do. And having children is a double-gift: it provides that sense of belonging and purpose while also allowing us to remember that life is full of real, precious wonder.

(The importance of belonging and purpose should make us even more aware of the position we put undergraduate and graduate students in: they are necessarily in precarious positions when it comes to social roles and cultural capital; but they also often have limited access to support services.)

Cicero, de Senectute

“Every age is burdensome to those who have no means of living well and happily”

Quibus enim nihil est in ipsis opis ad bene beateque vivendum

It is not really classical reflections on the nature of death that I have found especially enlightening or moving, but rather the constant reminder that, given what we know (or don’t know) about death, learning how to live is critical. Once you absorb this lesson, it seems like it should have been patently obvious from the beginning. It is as simple as this: we really don’t know anything about what happens after death, but we are certain we are alive now and that this life is limited. Is it not absolute insanity to do anything but try to live it well?

I don’t want to moralize much here or in any way denigrate systems of thought that bring people comfort when facing that starkest of uncertainties, but belief systems that deprive us of joy and (non-harmful) pleasure in this life steal from us by trading on the promise of the unknown. Yes, these systems of thought can do us good by enforcing standards of behavior that make us treat each other better than we would in a state of nature. And, yes, many of them do provide true comfort against that chilling fear of the endless night. But I think many of us make this deal before we can possibly understand the value of what we are bargaining.

The problem is that we wonder at death and we think it is something remarkable. What is remarkable is that each of our individual consciousnesses exist. The miracle is that we live at all. This should be celebrated and life should be enjoyed—we should revel in the fact that we are because we know for certain that we once were not and must understand the very good chance that we will not be.

This does not, of course, mean we have to be destructive. We can live fully and experience life well without taking the same opportunities from others. We don’t need to wear out life, heeding a refrain we hear from Pliny who admits his own fear of death and implores “So, while life remains to us, let’s make it so that death discovers as little as possible to destroy.” (Proinde, dum suppetit vita, enitamur ut mors quam paucissima quae abolere possit inveniat, Epistle 5.5). But we must take some stock of what it means to live.

Plato, Critias 108d

“I need to do this already, I can’t procrastinate anymore!”

τοῦτ᾿ οὖν αὐτὸ ἤδη δραστέον, καὶ μελλητέον οὐδὲν ἔτι.

This is in part why I love the two epitaphs assigned to Ashurbanipal in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. Both feature the King known for his legendary wealth reminding his addressee that we are mortal and that even the wealthy and powerful like himself die. He continues by asserting “I kept whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy / I took from sex. My wealth and limitless blessings are gone” (κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι / τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται). The variant has a slightly less hedonistic take: “I keep whatever I learned and the thoughts I had and the fine things / I experienced with them. Everything else, however pleasing, is gone.” (ταῦτ’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔμαθον καὶ ἐφρόντισα καὶ μετὰ τούτων / ἔσθλ’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ καὶ ἡδέα πάντα λέλειπται).

I think that these two options belong together—that the dueling versions do not present opposite ways of living, but instead mark out that one life is incomplete without the other. We are bodies and we are minds and the two are entwined. This is why the extreme Cyrenaic claim that life’s balance of pleasure and pain should be considered as a reason for suicide is suspect. It underestimates the value of being able to ask and answer this question in the first place.

When people ask how I ended up pursuing a career in academia in general and, in particular, why Classics, I usually tell them about my deep love of literature and how I ended up pursuing Classics as an undergraduate degree because I wanted the same type of education as my favorite authors. This is true, but not complete. When I was younger I decided that a life spent doing something that did not have a meaningful connection to what I believed life was all about was a life wasted. (Yes, I was a lot of fun in high school too.)

Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 18

“For when beauty, wealth and sex converge upon you, you better not sit or procrastinate!”

κάλλος γὰρ καὶ πλοῦτος καὶ ἔρως εἰ συνῆλθον ἐπὶ σέ, οὐχ ἕδρας οὐδὲ ἀναβολῆς

The problem with this statement is figuring out what life is “all about”. My short answer was—and remains—that having the time and allowing yourself the freedom to think about what life is for is an essential part of living fully and well. When I considered a future life as an adolescent, I wanted more time and I did not want to be in a subculture where thinking was discouraged. I wanted to be able to read and write. I wanted to have access to ancient thoughts on the same problems. Moment by moment, becoming a Classicist became almost inevitable. Indeed, Petrarch certainly sees the transience of human life through a Classical frame.

Instead, what I want to point out is there is at the base of Classical Humanism a deep and abiding contemplation of what it means to be human (including what it means to be mortal). I fear too often that Philology and many current academic practices emphasize minutiae and actually disincentivize any thought about larger pictures. To return again to Seneca, he laments that too many of us turn “to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology” (adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est, EM 108).

When I read Seneca’s Moral Epistles now, part of what emerges is the sense of a writing practice to remind oneself that life must be lived. From his first letter to Lucilius, Seneca emphasizes that time is the only thing we really have and that most people do not realize how valuable it is. Even though he insists in the de Brevitate Vitae that life is plenty long and the problem is that most people waste it, it argues in the Epistles that we must still “embrace every hour” (omnes horas complectere). Indeed, in a different essay, Seneca begs his reader to seize life because not even the next hour is guaranteed.

And how Seneca himself does this is an object lesson. He does not mean we should spend every hour in pleasure or its pursuit—indeed, he would be a hypocrite if he meant this. No, what he means is the living of life with intention and meaning. His writing of the Moral Epistles is actually a demonstration of this, of a life lived through and for contemplation but not in contempt of the experiences of the body and of others.

Seneca, Moral Epistles 76.3-5

“You must learn as long as you are ignorant—if we may trust the proverb, as long as you live. And nothing is more fit to the present than this: as long as you live you must learn how to live. Nevertheless, there is still something which I teach there. You ask, what may I teach? That an old man must learn too.”

Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est, quemadmodum vivas, quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris, quid doceam? Etiam seni esse discendum.

Plato famously has one of his speakers say that “In truth, those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying” (τῷ ὄντι ἄρα, ἔφη, ὦ Σιμμία, οἱ ὀρθῶς φιλοσοφοῦντες ἀποθνῄσκειν μελετῶσι, Phaedo 67e). I cannot disagree with this, but I think that it needs to be explained a bit. Cicero’s gloss on this “that the life of philosophers, as the same man says, is a contemplation of death” Tota enim philosophorum vita, ut ait idem, commentatio mortis est (Tusc. Disp. 30.74-31.71.5) gets a little closer to what Montaigne understands: that without understanding death and acknowledging it for what it likely is, we make the mistake every day of not remembering to live. To contemplate death is to remind ourselves every day that life must be lived and should be lived well. To ignore it, is pretty much the opposite. This practice is not about learning how to die but instead about learning to accept that we are mortal and through that acceptance to learn truly how to live.

I started writing this in honor of turning 40 this week. I am not delighted about this number—even though I know that this is irrational and that 39 was in no real material way that different. Oh, how strange the number 40 is! My students think I’m old; my older colleagues think I am still young. I feel generally the same as I have for years, except I know rationally that the number of years which have passed are most likely now to outnumber those that remain.

To celebrate this, I am leaving the country. My wife surprised me with a trip to Greece and this is a big deal because, somehow, I have never actually made it to Greece. I know it is ridiculous that a Hellenist has never been to Greece and I am sure that this among many other things exposes what a charlatan I am, but there are plausible explanations. My parents never possessed passports; a good deal of my travel abroad was funded by someone else. Etc. etc.

When my wife told me she had booked a trip to Greece to mark (or perhaps avoid?) this auspicious occasion, I had to wonder aloud if we could afford to go. She said, can we afford not to? Who am I to argue with wisdom so deep?

So, for the next week there will be a series of pre-scheduled posts about Athens, a place I deeply love from texts, but a world to which I have never truly been. Until then, a reminder from Martial.

Martial, 5.58

“Postumus, you always say that you will live tomorrow, tomorrow!
But that ‘tomorrow’ of yours – when does it ever come?
How far off is that ‘tomorrow’! Where is it, or where should it be sought?
Does it lie hidden among the Parthians, or the Armenians?
That ‘tomorrow’ is as old as Priam or Nestor.
For how much can ‘tomorrow’ be purchased?
You will live tomorrow, you say?
Postumus, even living today is too late;
he is the wise man, who lived yesterday.

Cras te uicturum, cras dicis, Postume, semper:
dic mihi, cras istud, Postume, quando uenit?
Quam longe cras istud! ubi est? aut unde petendum?
Numquid apud Parthos Armeniosque latet?
Iam cras istud habet Priami uel Nestoris annos. 5
Cras istud quanti, dic mihi, possit emi?
Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est:
ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.

06d31-mosaic2bhatay

Weep on Birthdays, Cheer at Funerals?

Another entry on birthdays in the Ancient Greek and Roman world.

Valerius Maximus, Memorable Sayings and Deeds 2.12

“Truly The Thracians have earned great praise for their wisdom in celebrating birthdays by weeping and deaths with joyous cheer. Without any fine doctrines from scholars, they have penetrated the true nature of the human condition. Therefore, let life’s sweetness, native to all creatures, the very thing which compels them to act and suffer terribly, let it disappear if its end should still prove more lucky and blessed than its beginning.”

Thraciae vero illa natio merito sibi sapientiae laudem vindicaverit, quae natales hominum flebiliter, exsequias cum hilaritate celebrat, <si>4sine ullis doctorum praeceptis verum condicionis nostrae habitum pervidit. removeatur itaque naturalis omnium animalium dulcedo vitae, quae multa et facere et pati turpiter cogit, si tamen ortu eius aliquanto felicior ac beatior finis reperietur.

Image result for Ancient Roman parties

Birthday Parties in Greece and Rome

We published several years ago speculation about how to say happy birthday in Ancient Greek. Evidence from the ancient world reveals that parents held birthday sacrifices and feasts for children, communities observed birthday feasts for gods and heroes, and people arranged for their own birthday feasts as well. In addition, poetic, political, and philosophical luminaries had their birthdays celebrated after death. And, strangely enough, some people provided for their own postmortem birthday celebrations in their wills.

Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 2.35

“And he neither revealed to anyone the month in which he was born nor the day of his birth because he did not think it right for anyone to sacrifice or have a feast on his birthday even though he sacrificed and held meals for his friends on the birthdays conventionally dedicated to Plato and Socrates—when it was necessary that the friends who were capable read aloud some argument to those who had gathered.”

οὔτε δὲ τὸν μῆνα δεδήλωκέ τινι καθ᾿ ὃν γεγέννηται, οὔτε τὴν γενέθλιον ἡμέραν, ἐπεὶ οὐδὲ θύειν ἢ ἑστιᾶν τινα τοῖς αὐτου γενεθλίοις ἠξίου, καίπερ ἐν τοῖς Πλάτωνος καὶ Σωκράτους παραδεδομένοις γενεθλίοις θύων τε καὶ ἑστιῶν τοὺς ἑταίρους, ὅτε καὶ λόγον ἔδει τῶν ἑταίρων τοὺς δυνατοὺς ἐπὶ τῶν συνελθόντων ἀναγνῶναι.

Plautus, Pseudolus 165-6

“Today is my birthday, and you all should celebrate it with me.
Put the ham, pork rind, innards and sow’s teats in the water. Can you hear me?”

nam mi hodie natalis dies est, decet eum omnis uosconcelebrare.
pernam, callum, glandium, sumen facito in aquaiaceant. satin audis?

A fancy birthday pen…

Greek Anthology, 6.227 Crinagoras of Mytilene

Procles sends this, on your birthday,
This silver newly made pen tip in its holder
With two easily dividable ends,
It moves well over a flowing page
A small gift but one from a bigger heart
A close friend for your recent ease for learning.”

Ἀργύρεόν σοι τόνδε, γενέθλιον ἐς τεὸν ἦμαρ,
Πρόκλε, νεόσμηκτον †δουρατίην κάλαμον,
εὖ μὲν ἐϋσχίστοισι διάγλυπτον κεράεσσιν,
εὖ δὲ ταχυνομένην εὔροον εἰς σελίδα,
πέμπει Κριναγόρης, ὀλίγην δόσιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀπὸ θυμοῦ
πλείονος, ἀρτιδαεῖ σύμπνοον εὐμαθίῃ.

A homemade gift….

6.326 Leonidas

“One sends you from nets, another from the air or sea,
Eupolis, these birthday gift,
But take from me a line from a Muses, which
Will remain with you always as a sign of friendship and learning.”

Ἄλλος ἀπὸ σταλίκων, ὁ δ᾿ ἀπ᾿ ἠέρος, ὃς δ᾿ ἀπὸ πόντου,
Εὔπολι, σοὶ πέμπει δῶρα γενεθλίδια·
ἀλλ᾿ ἐμέθεν δέξαι Μουσῶν στίχον, ὅστις ἐς αἰεὶ
μίμνει, καὶ φιλίης σῆμα καὶ εὐμαθίης

 

Birthdays ad infinitum

Select Papyri, Wills 84a (Roman Period)

“My wife, and after her death, my son Deios, will give to my slaves and freedmen [100 drachma] for a feats they will hold near my grave every year on my birthday.”

δώσει δὲ ἡ γυνή μου καὶ μετὰ τελευτὴν αὐτῆς ὁ υἱός μου Δεῖος τοῖς δούλοις μου καὶ ἀπελευθέρ[οι]ς εἰς εὐωχίαν αὐτῶν ἣν ποιήσονται πλησίον τοῦ τάφου μου κατ᾿ ἔτος τῇ γενεθλίᾳ μου

 

Cicero, De Finibus 2.102

“Therefore, no one has a true birthday. “But the day is observed.” And I take that as if I did not know it. But, is it right that this is still celebrated after death? And to put it in a will when he told us as if giving an oracle that nothing matters to us after death?”

Nullus est igitur cuiusquam dies natalis. ‘At habetur.’ Et ego id scilicet nesciebam! Sed ut sit, etiamne post mortem coletur? idque testamento cavebit is qui nobis quasi oraculum ediderit nihil post mortem ad nos pertinere?

 

Invitation to a rural birthday party

Alciphron, Letter 3.18

“When we have a feast for the birthday of my child, I invite you to come to the party, Pithakniôn—and not only you, but bring your wife, children, your worker. And, if you wish, bring your dog: she’s a good guard and she frightens away those who plot against the flocks with her loud barking.”

Τοὐμοῦ παιδίου γενέσια ἑορτάζων ἥκειν σε ἐπὶ τὴν πανδαισίαν, ὦ Πιθακνίων, παρακαλῶ, ἥκειν δὲ οὐ μόνον ἀλλ᾿ ἐπαγόμενον τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ παιδία καὶ τὸν συνέργαστρον· εἰ βούλοιο δέ, καὶ τὴν κύνα, ἀγαθὴν οὖσαν φύλακα καὶ τῷ βάρει τῆς ὑλακῆς ἀποσοβοῦσαν τοὺς ἐπιβουλεύοντας τοῖς ποιμνίοις.

 

Imperial Birthday appropriation

Ad. M. Caes III.9 Marcus Aurelius to Fronto

Dear best teacher,

I know that on everyone’s birthday friends make prayers for the person whose birthday it is. Nevertheless, because I love you as much as I love myself, I wish on this birthday of yours to make a prayer for myself.”

Salve mi magister optime.

Scio natali die quoiusque pro eo, quoius is dies natalis est, amicos vota suscipere; ego tamen, quia te iuxta a memet ipsum amo, volo hoc die tuo natali mihi bene precari.

 

 

Plautus, The Captives 175

“Since it is my birthday: I want to be asked to a dinner at your home.

quia mi est natalis dies;
propterea te uocari ad te ad cenam uolo.

Birthday Sorrow

Sulpicia, 14.1-3

“The hated birthday is here, the sad day which
Must be celebrated in annoying hicksville without Cerinthus.”

Invisvs natalis adest, qui rure molesto
et sine Cerintho tristis agendus erit.

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 3 Jan 47

“I write these things to you on my birthday, a day which I wish had never seen me or that no one else had been born from my mother afterwards. I am kept from writing more by weeping”

Haec ad te die natali meo scripsi; quo utinam susceptus non essem, aut ne quid ex eadem matre postea natum esset! plura scribere fletu prohibeor.

 

Image result for Ancient Greek and Roman sacrifice

(Re-Post with Updates) Happy Birthday in Ancient Greek

Here’s a re-post of thoroughly reckless speculation.

The following pursuit began a few years back when a simple realization came over me:

 

After tweeting in desperation last night, I awoke with a mission: to learn more about birthdays in ancient Greek (whether they observed them, how and what, if anything, they said). I sent some emails and then started in two logical places: a Greek phrase book and the Oxford Classical Dictionary.

H. W. Auden’s Greek Phrase Book provides a phrase for observing birthday sacrifices: τὰ γενέθλια ἑστιᾶν (1963, 44). And there is also a pretty awkward illustration of this when Priam and Hecuba get drunk while performing a birth sacrifice for Helenos and Kassandra in the temple of Apollo (they ‘forget’ their infants in the temple).

Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd Edition (s.v. Birthday): γενέθλιος ἡμέρα: The ancient Greeks celebrated the birthdays of some of the Olympian gods during the days of the month. Birthdays, according to this entry, became more significant along with ruler-cults and biographical traditions. The Romans seem to have celebrated birthdays from an early period.

Then the Homerist and all-around good-guy Erwin Cook told me via email that we know little about the birthday sacrifices held in the Archaic and early Classical periods, but he pointed me to Aeschylus’ mention in the Eumenides of giving a birthday gift to Apollo (8-9):

Φοίβη• δίδωσι δ’ ἣ γενέθλιον δόσιν
Φοίβῳ• τὸ Φοίβης δ’ ὄνομ’ ἔχει παρώνυμον.

Euripides also mentions birthday sacrifices (Ion 805): παιδὸς προθύσων ξένια καὶ γενέθλια.   Our friend, Platosparks, tells me that modern Greeks use καλά γενέθλια as a benediction, which seems like a nice derivation from the sacrifice. But multiple respondents have reported something like the following for modern Greek usage:

And recently, another twitter correspondent has added some modern and Byzantine twists:

All of which is good to know. Phrynichus tells us a little about the Athenian practice–but not enough (Eklogai, 75.1-3):

Genesia are not strictly speaking on the day of birth. Among the Athenians, the genesia are a festival. It is better to call them days of birth or birth-day sacrifices.”

Γενέσια οὐκ ὀρθῶς τίθεται ἐπὶ τῆς γενεθλίου ἡμέρας• Γενέσια γὰρ ᾿Αθήνησιν ἑορτή. λέγειν οὖν δεῖ τὰς γενεθλίους ἡμέρας ἢ γενέθλια.

But, as with many rituals from the ancient world, we know little about what they entailed and what they meant to the individuals who practiced them. The historian Appian gives us the kernel of the phrase ‘birthday’ (γενέθλιον ἦμαρ) as well:

εἰσὶ δ’ οἳ καὶ λέγουσιν αὐτὸν εἰσηγήσασθαι τὴν ἡμέραν θέσθαι τῇ πόλει γενέθλιον

Plato (Alcibiades 121c7) notes that all of Asia celebrates the birthday of the great King:

ὧν ἂν ἄρχῃ, εἶτα εἰς τὸν ἄλλον χρόνον ταύτῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ βασιλέως γενέθλια πᾶσα θύει καὶ ἑορτάζει ἡ ᾿Ασία• ἡμῶν

Lucian, Gallos 9.10 writes of gathering together to celebrate a daughter’s birthday: “Μίκυλλε,” φησί, “θυγατρὸς τήμερον ἑστιῶ γενέθλια καὶ παρεκάλεσα τῶν φίλων μάλα πολλούς• ἐπεὶ δέ τινά φασιν αὐτῶν. See also Hermotimus 11.12 for a daughter’s birthday feast.

But nowhere could I find an indication of how to wish good fortune on the birthday. We know (1) that a birthday gift was a thing; that (2) birthday sacrifices and eventually feasts were also culturally recognized phenomena. But no benediction was to be found. (which doesn’t mean that there isn’t one somewhere!)

So, using the Latin Felix Dies Natalis as a model (and the phrase γενέθλιον ἦμαρ from Appian, paralleled in the Greek Anthology as PlatoSparks notes in the comments) and choosing the neuter form to hedge as to whether this is accusative (in an absolute sense) or nominative, I decided to make it up myself (as Palaiophron comments, this is an anachronistic somewhat silly exercise, but once down the rabbit-hole….):

ὄλβιον
μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ [sc. εἴη σοι]
εὐτυχὲς
καλὸν (based on καλά γενέθλια)

Of the three, I think I like this combination the most: γενέθλιον ἦμαρ εὐτυχὲς
I also like the rhythm of this one: μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ.
But with the parallel καλά γενέθλια from PlatoSparks, perhaps καλὸν γενέθλιον ἦμαρ is good too.

And we can add particles for flavor and force:

εἰ γὰρ μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!
μακάριον δὴ γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!

or

εἰ γὰρ καλὸν γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!
καλὸν δὴ γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!

To be sure, it is highly unlikely that any Ancient Greek ever said this. But no ancient Greek used twitter either. Any suggestions for improvement?

Or Youtube:

Lending Books, Equal Rights and Bad Poets: Some Cicero on His Birthday

Equal Rights for All Citizens

Cicero, de re publica I.49

“Since law constitutes the bond of civil society, and the authority of the law is equal, how can the society of citizens be maintained when their condition is not equal? If it be not pleasing to place their wealth on equal footing, and if everyone is endowed with unequal abilities, certainly all of those who are citizens of the same republic ought to have equal rights. For, what is the state but the shared rights of its citizens?”

quare cum lex sit civilis societatis vinculum, ius autem legis aequale, quo iure societas civium teneri potest, cum par non sit condicio civium? si enim pecunias aequari non placet, si ingenia omnium paria esse non possunt, iura certe paria debent esse eorum inter se qui sunt cives in eadem re publica. quid est enim civitas nisi iuris societas civium?

Turning thought into speech

Tusculan Disputations 1.3.

“But it can happen that someone may have a good thought which he cannot express well.”

fieri autem potest, ut recte quis sentiat et id quod sentit polite eloqui non possit

The Human condition

Tusculan Disputations 1.7.1

“Are we not wretched, we who live though we must die? What joy can there be in life, when we must think day and night that we must at some time die?”

qui vivimus, cum moriendum sit, nonne miseri sumus? quae enim potest in vita esse iucunditas, cum dies et noctes cogitandum sit iam iamque esse moriendum?

Tusc. Disp. 1.1.

“I thought it better to illustrate this in Latin, not because philosophy cannot be understood from Greek writers and Greek teachers, but it was always my opinion that the Romans have either discovered all things with more wisdom by themselves, or have improved those things which they received from the Greeks and deemed worthy of their labor.”

hoc mihi Latinis litteris inlustrandum putavi, non quia philosophia Graecis et litteris et doctoribus percipi non posset, sed meum semper iudicium fuit omnia nostros aut invenisse per se sapientius quam Graecos aut accepta ab illis fecisse meliora, quae quidem digna statuissent, in quibus elaborarent.

On lending books

Letters to Atticus, 8

“Beware of lending your books to anyone; save them for me, as you write that you will. The greatest excitement for them has gripped me, along with a contempt for everything else.”

libros vero tuos cave cuiquam tradas; nobis eos, quem ad modum scribis, conserva. summum me eorum studium tenet, sicut odium iam ceterarum rerum.

Image result for Cicero

On Plato, the murderer

Tusc. Disp. 1.33-4

“But death takes us away from the evils of life, not its joys, if we are truthful. This position, indeed, was so thoroughly explored by Hegesias of Cyrene that he was banned by king Ptolemy from speaking in the schools, because so many went to seek their deaths after hearing him. There is, in fact, an epigram of Callimachus written against Theombrotus of Abracia, who, although nothing bad had happened to him, hurled himself from a wall into the sea, after reading Plato. This Hegesias, whom I just mentioned, wrote a book calld the Apokarteron, in which a man dying of hunger, after being called back to life by his friends, responds to them by enumerating the many ills of human life.”

a malis igitur mors abducit, non a bonis, verum si quaerimus. et quidem hoc a Cyrenaico Hegesia sic copiose disputatur, ut is a rege Ptolomaeo prohibitus esse dicatur illa in scholis dicere, quod multi is auditis mortem sibi ipsi consciscerent.

Callimachi quidem epigramma in Ambraciotam Theombrotum est, quem ait, cum ei nihil accidisset adversi, e muro se in mare abiecisse, lecto Platonis libro. eius autem, quem dixi, Hegesiae liber est apokarteron, quo a vita quidem per inediam discedens revocatur ab amicis; quibus respondens vitae humanae enumerat incommoda.

On a bad poet

Letters to Atticus, 2.20

“I received some books from Vibius. He really is a terrible poet, and knows nothing: but he is not entirely useless. I am copying them down, and will send them back.”

a Vibio libros accepi. Poeta ineptus et tamen scit nihil, sed non est inutilis. Describo et remitto.

On a threat to the state

Against Catiline, 2.20

“They have even driven some of our rural men, who are poor and needy, into the very same hope of renewing the old mode of land seizure. I place both of them in the same class of predators and thieves, but I warn them to stop raving and thinking about proscriptions and dictatorships. The painful memory of those former times is so sewn into the fabric of our state that the people – nay, not even cows are likely to tolerate it!”

… qui etiam non nullos agrestis homines tenuis atque egentis in eandem illam spem rapinarum veterum impulerunt. Quos ego utrosque in eodem genere praedatorum direptorumque pono, sed eos hoc moneo, desinant furere ac proscriptiones et dictaturas cogitare. Tantus enim illorum temporum dolor inustus est civitati ut iam ista non modo homines sed ne pecudes quidem mihi passurae esse videantur.

Some shorter bits

Epist. ad Fam. 6.6.6

“I would prefer the most unfair peace to the justest war”

iniquissimam pacem iustissimo bello anteferrem

Philippics 12.5

“All men make mistakes; but it is fools who persist in them”

cuiusvis hominis est errare; nullius nisi insipientis perseverare in errore

On Old Age, 24

“No one is so old that he thinks he could not live another year”

nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere

In Verrem, 1.1.4

“There is nothing so sacred that it cannot be sullied, nor anything so protected that it cannot be overcome by money”.

nihil esse tam sanctum quod non violari, nihil tam munitum quod non expugnari pecunia possit.

Tusculan Disputations, 2.47

“Reason is the mistress and queen of all things”

domina omnium et regina ratio

De Oratore, 3.7

“O, how misleading is the hope of men”

O fallacem hominum spem

εἰ γὰρ καλὸν γενέθλιον ἦμαρ! Sententiae Antiquae is Four Years Old

This site is now four-years old—it has transformed a bit from its first days where we posted a line or two of text a day.  Some days, I find myself wondering if my time could be put to better use. But then I read through what we have done here and find myself not just entertained but reminded of all the things I still don’t know. (And those I am using this site to remember for me…)

No Epitaph needed yet...
No Epitaph needed yet…

In honor of the three-year anniversary last year, we got a little silly trying to figure out how someone might say “Happy Birthday” in Ancient Greek (whether someone actually would say that is another question).  The post became our most popular of all time.

Since this time last year, we went a little crazy over the Homeric Batrakhomuomakhia (“The Battle of Frogs and Mice”). We did a translation and a full commentary. Meanwhile, we drew some inspiration from time abroad in Siena, Italy 

There were some heady days too.  We engaged in some translation tomfoolery, attempting to put the words of Paul Holdengraber’s mother (“Two Ears, One Mouth”) into Greek, Latin and verse) only to find out the proverb was already in Latin and Greek (and Danish and Arabic too!).

In the category of obsessions, we also investigated the numerous children of Odysseus not named Telemachus in vertiginous detail. /. When we weren’t immersed in mythography, we relaxed our severe standards a bit and got a bit naughty with poets like Martial (who instructed us on the difference between a finger and a penis). And, we even got another correspondent, the Fabulous Festus, to join in on the fun.

To be honest, we spent a good deal over time over the past year considering and championing the strange and obscure—probably posting too much from the Scholia to Lykophron’s Alexandra.  This was the year we got addicted to anecdotes, quoting liberally from Aulus Gellius (he knows why Socrates stayed married!), Aelian (who tells the heart-breaking story of Thrasyllos and other people’s ships), and Philostratus (who tells us that Demosthenes refrained from wine!). Oh, we also took our quotes on a marathon.

Last year also witnessed the inclusion of anecdotes from and about scholars of the ancient world  (Dr. Johnson: “Greek, sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.” ) This was edifying at times—we learned why Housman failed to learn names of his students. And we learned about the darker side of lexicography in tales of Dr. Liddell himself.

Despite much of this silliness and revelry in the bizarre, we also used the site to explore other parts of the classics—for example, a course I taught on leadership in the ancient world, tried to teach ancient cavalry tactics using Risk pieces and put down some thoughts about how classical authors have influenced my approach to teaching.

Thanks to all who read this site for another fun year. The interest and support we have received has been both humbling and heartening. Here’s Euripides fr.910 to raise the tenor of the post a bit:

“Happy is he who has learned from inquiry
Not because he searches for pain for his countrymen
Nor some other unjust deeds
But because he seeks out the ageless order
of immortal nature—where
it came together, where it came from
And how.
Such men never harbor
A love of shameful deeds.”

ὄλβιος ὅστις τῆς ἱστορίας
ἔσχε μάθησιν,
μήτε πολιτῶν ἐπὶ πημοσύνην
μήτ’ εἰς ἀδίκους πράξεις ὁρμῶν,
ἀλλ’ ἀθανάτου καθορῶν φύσεως
κόσμον ἀγήρων, πῇ τε συνέστη
καὶ ὅπῃ καὶ ὅπως.
τοῖς δὲ τοιούτοις οὐδέποτ’ αἰσχρῶν.

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit: Some Vergilian Quotes on His Birthday

Publius Vergilius Maro was born on this day in 70 BCE. He is probably best known for the challenging and unforgettable Aeneid, but his Eclogues and Georgics are eminently quotable. Oh, and a man who writes his own epitaph deserves some respect:

http://twitter.com/DMendelsohn1960/status/654714935671296001

Here are a handful of  our favorite lines.

Aeneid, 1.203

Perhaps one day it will be a joy to remember also these things”

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit

Eclogues, 3.60

“Beginnings are from Jove, oh Muses! Everything is full of Jove”

ab Jove principium, Musae; Jovis omnia plena

Aeneid, 6.266

“Let me have the right to speak what I have heard”

sit mihi fas audita loqui

Georgics, 1.505-7

“Right and wrong are turned upside down: so many wars throughout the world, so many faces of wickedness, the plow is given no proper respect”

fas versum atque nefas: tot bella per orbem,
tam multae scelerum facies, non ullus aratro
dignus honos

Aeneid, 7.312

“If I cannot bend the gods, I will move Acheron”.

flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.

Eclogues, 4.18-20

“And for you, little boy, the uncultivated earth will scatter its first small gifts, wandering ivy and cyclamens everywhere, beans mixed with laughing acanthus”

at tibi prima puer nullo munuscula cultu / errantis hederas passim cum baccare tellus / mixtaque ridenti colocasia fundet acantho.

Aeneid, 12.677

“Whither Zeus and cruel Fortune summon, let us go.”

quo deus et quo dura vocat Fortuna sequamur.

How To Say “Happy Birthday” in Ancient Greek

This is our first post from an airplane. And it is a re-post. It is my wife’s birthday. Thanks to the insanity of this site, I can now wish her happy birthday in Ancient Greek.

After tweeting in desperation last night, I awoke with a mission: to learn more about birthdays in ancient Greek (whether they observed them, how and what, if anything, they said). I sent some emails and then started in two logical places: a Greek phrase book and the Oxford Classical Dictionary.

H. W. Auden’s Greek Phrase Book provides a phrase for observing birthday sacrifices: τὰ γενέθλια ἑστιᾶν (1963, 44)

Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd Edition (s.v. Birthday): γενέθλιος ἡμέρα: The ancient Greeks celebrated the birthdays of some of the Olympian gods during the days of the month. Birthdays, according to this entry, became more significant along with ruler-cults and biographical traditions. The Romans seem to have celebrated birthdays from an early period.

Then the Homerist and all-around good-guy Erwin Cook told me via email that we know little about the birthday sacrifices held in the Archaic and early Classical periods, but he pointed me to Aeschylus’ mention in the Eumenides of giving a birthday gift to Apollo (8-9):

Φοίβη• δίδωσι δ’ ἣ γενέθλιον δόσιν
Φοίβῳ• τὸ Φοίβης δ’ ὄνομ’ ἔχει παρώνυμον.

Euripides also mentions birthday sacrifices (Ion 805): παιδὸς προθύσων ξένια καὶ γενέθλια.   Our friend, Platosparks, tells me that modern Greeks use καλά γενέθλια as a benediction, which seems like a nice derivation from the sacrifice. But multiple respondents have reported something like the following for modern Greek usage:

All of which is good to know. Phrynichus tells us a little about the Athenian practice–but not enough (Eklogai, 75.1-3):

“Genesia are not strictly speaking on the day of birth. Among the Athenians, the genesia are a festival. It is better to call them days of birth or birth-day sacrifices.”

Γενέσια οὐκ ὀρθῶς τίθεται ἐπὶ τῆς γενεθλίου ἡμέρας• Γενέσια γὰρ ᾿Αθήνησιν ἑορτή. λέγειν οὖν δεῖ τὰς γενεθλίους ἡμέρας ἢ γενέθλια.

But, as with many rituals from the ancient world, we know little about what they entailed and what they meant to the individuals who practiced them. The historian Appian gives us the kernel of the phrase ‘birthday’ (γενέθλιον ἦμαρ) as well:

εἰσὶ δ’ οἳ καὶ λέγουσιν αὐτὸν εἰσηγήσασθαι τὴν ἡμέραν θέσθαι τῇ πόλει γενέθλιον

Plato (Alcibiades 121c7) notes that all of Asia celebrates the birthday of the great King:

ὧν ἂν ἄρχῃ, εἶτα εἰς τὸν ἄλλον χρόνον ταύτῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ βασιλέως γενέθλια πᾶσα θύει καὶ ἑορτάζει ἡ ᾿Ασία• ἡμῶν

Lucian, Gallos 9.10 writes of gathering together to celebrate a daughter’s birthday:, “Μίκυλλε,” φησί, “θυγατρὸς τήμερον ἑστιῶ γενέθλια καὶ παρεκάλεσα τῶν φίλων μάλα πολλούς• ἐπεὶ δέ τινά φασιν αὐτῶν. See also Hermotimus 11.12 for a daughter’s birthday feast.

But nowhere could I find an indication of how to wish good fortune on the birthday. We know then that a birthday gift was a thing; that birthday sacrifices and eventually feasts were also culturally recognized phenomena. But no benediction was to be found. (which doesn’t mean that there isn’t one somewhere!)

So, using the Latin Felix Dies Natalis as a model (and the phrase γενέθλιον ἦμαρ from Appian, paralleled in the Greek Anthology as PlatoSparks notes in the comments) and choosing the neuter form to hedge as to whether this is accusative (in an absolute sense) or nominative, I decided to make it up myself (and I take Palaiophron’s comments below to heart, this is an anachronistic somewhat silly exercise, but once down the rabbit-hole….):

ὄλβιον
μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ [sc. εἴη σοι]
εὐτυχὲς
καλὸν (based on καλά γενέθλια)

Of the three, I think I like this combination the most: γενέθλιον ἦμαρ εὐτυχὲς
I also like the rhythm of this one: μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ.
But with the parallel καλά γενέθλια from PlatoSparks, perhaps καλὸν γενέθλιον ἦμαρ is good too

And we can add particles for flavor and force:

εἰ γὰρ μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!
μακάριον δὴ γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!
or

εἰ γὰρ καλὸν γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!
καλὸν δὴ γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!

To be sure, it is highly unlikely that any Ancient Greek ever said this. But no ancient Greek used twitter either. Any suggestions for improvement?

Or Youtube: