Telemachus is Not a Monster

The Odyssey is somewhat preoccupied with Telemachus’ paternity and the means by which it might be established. As mentioned in an earlier post, Aristotle suggests that children who are not like their father are monstrous. The Odyssey is also preoccupied with monstrous bodies–the giant Kikones, the deformed (morally and physically) Kyklopesthe transformed sailors, the mutilated bodies of servants–and the transformation of Odysseus’ body because of trauma at sea, age, and the needs of disguise. The threat of finding a monster at home might also be implied…

Athena signals Telemachus’ positive identity from the beginning. But the boy himself is uncertain! 

Homer, Odyssey 1.207-209

“…if in fact this great child is from the same Odysseus.
For you look terribly like that man in his beautiful eyes
and his head…”

εἰ δὴ ἐξ αὐτοῖο τόσος πάϊς εἰς ᾿Οδυσῆος.
αἰνῶς μὲν κεφαλήν τε καὶ ὄμματα καλὰ ἔοικας
κείνῳ, ἐπεὶ θαμὰ τοῖον ἐμισγόμεθ’ ἀλλήλοισι

Telemachus famously quibbles over the identification, wondering in classic moody adolescent fashion if any of this is true. Some of the scholia try to support him…

Od. 1.215-216

“My mother says that I am his, but I, well, I just
Don’t know. For no one ever witnesses his own origin…”

μήτηρ μέν τέ μέ φησι τοῦ ἔμμεναι, αὐτὰρ ἐγώ γε
οὐκ οἶδ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.

Schol. EM ad Od. 1.215 ex

“No one knows his own origin..” and elsewhere [we find] “they claim that that man is my father” (Od.4.387.) Similarly, Euripides says “a mother is a more dear parent than a father / for she knows the child is hers but he only thinks it” and Menander says, “no one knows from what man he is born / but we all suspect or believe it.” And some claim that Telemachus says these things because he was left when he was small.”

οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον] καὶ ἀλλαχοῦ “τόνδε τ’ ἐμὸν πατέρα φάσ’ ἔμμεναι” (Od. δ, 387.). ὁμοίως Εὐριπίδης “μήτηρ φιλότεκνος μᾶλλον πατρός· ἡ μὲν γὰρ αὐτῆς οἶδεν ὄνθ’, ὁ δ’ οἴεται.” καὶ Μένανδρος “αὑτὸν γὰρ οὐδεὶς οἶδε τοῦ ποτ’ ἐγένετο, ἀλλ’ ὑπονοοῦμεν πάντες ἢ πιστεύομεν.” τινὲς δὲ ταῦτα τὸν Τηλέμαχόν φασι λέγειν ἐπεὶ μικρὸς καταλέλειπται. E.M.

Later in the Odyssey, Nestor likens son to father (implicitly).

Od. 3.121-125

“..when shining Odysseus father was preeminent in all kinds of tricks, your father,   if truly you are his son. And wonder overtakes me as I look at you
For your speeches, at least, are really fine—no one would expect
A younger man to utter such suitable things.”

…ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλὸν ἐνίκα δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
παντοίοισι δόλοισι, πατὴρ τεός, εἰ ἐτεόν γε
κείνου ἔκγονός ἐσσι· σέβας μ’ ἔχει εἰσορόωντα.
ἦ τοι γὰρ μῦθοί γε ἐοικότες, οὐδέ κε φαίης
ἄνδρα νεώτερον ὧδε ἐοικότα μυθήσασθαι.

In Sparta, Helen notes that Telemachus looks like, well, Telemachus even though she has never seen him! Menelaos agrees. The scholia get a little frustrated.

Od. 4.138-146

“For I do not think that anyone looks so suitable,
Neither a man nor a woman, and wonder overtakes me as I look at him,
How this one looks like the son of great-hearted Odysseus,
Telemachus, the one that man left just born in his household
When the Achaeans left for the sake of dog-faced me
And went to Troy, raising their bold war.”

οὐ γάρ πώ τινά φημι ἐοικότα ὧδε ἰδέσθαι
οὔτ’ ἄνδρ’ οὔτε γυναῖκα, σέβας μ’ ἔχει εἰσορόωσαν,
ὡς ὅδ’ ᾿Οδυσσῆος μεγαλήτορος υἷι ἔοικε,
Τηλεμάχῳ, τὸν ἔλειπε νέον γεγαῶτ’ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ
κεῖνος ἀνήρ, ὅτ’ ἐμεῖο κυνώπιδος εἵνεκ’ ᾿Αχαιοὶ
ἤλθεθ’ ὑπὸ Τροίην, πόλεμον θρασὺν ὁρμαίνοντες.”

Schol. E. ad Od. 4.143

“She says these things even though she has not seen Telemachus but based instead on the character of Odysseus.”

οὐ Τηλέμαχον εἰδυῖα ταῦτα λέγει, ἀλλ’ ἐκ τοῦ χαρακτῆρος τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως. E.

Schol. Q ad. Od. 4.143

“She compares him to his father even though she has never seen Odysseus’ child.”

ἐξομοιοῖ δὲ αὐτὸν τῷ πατρὶ οὐχ ἑωρακυῖά ποτε ᾿Οδυσσέως παῖδα. Q.

Od. 4.147-150

“Fair Menelaos spoke to her and answered:
‘I was just thinking the same thing, wife, which you imagined.
For these are the same kind of feet and hands,
The look of the eyes and the hair on the head as that man.”

τὴν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη ξανθὸς Μενέλαος·
“οὕτω νῦν καὶ ἐγὼ νοέω, γύναι, ὡς σὺ ἐΐσκεις·
κείνου γὰρ τοιοίδε πόδες τοιαίδε τε χεῖρες
ὀφθαλμῶν τε βολαὶ κεφαλή τ’ ἐφύπερθέ τε χαῖται.

Schol H. ad Od. 4.149 ex 1-4

“These sort of feet are that man’s”: For likeness in bodies especially shows through in the extremities and the gaze. And however so much grows more slowly, that much provides more precise signs of recognition over time. This is why it is said “From feet to the head.”

κείνου γὰρ τοιοίδε πόδες] ἐκ γὰρ τῶν ἄκρων καὶ τῆς ὄψεως μάλιστα αἱ ὁμοιότητες τῶν σωμάτων ἐμφαίνονται. ὅσον δὲ βράδιον ἐστοχάσατο, τοσοῦτον ἀκριβέστερον ἀπεφήνατο τὸν μεταξὺ χρόνον δηλονότι κατανοῶν. τὸ δὲ λεγόμενον, ἐκ ποδῶν εἰς κεφαλήν. H.

The threat of children not looking like fathers is central to the fall of the race of iron. But it is couched within a general social collapse. In this case, ancient scholia turn to the abstract issue. In this case, a child dissimilar to parents would be a monstrum, but in the sense of an omen or a sign of a fallen generation. From this perspective the tension latent in Telemachus’ potential dissimilarity to his father is about stability of the last generation of epic heroes. The bastard sons of Odysseus and potential infidelity of Penelope signal, perhaps, the end of the race of heroes and a premature end to heroic epic.

Hesiod, Works and Days 180–185

“Zeus will destroy this race of mortal humans
Or they will perish when they are born with temples already grey.
Then a father will not be like his children, nor children at all like parents;
A guest will not be dear to a host, a friend not to a friend
And a relative will not be dear as in years before.”

Ζεὺς δ’ ὀλέσει καὶ τοῦτο γένος μερόπων ἀνθρώπων,
εὖτ’ ἂν γεινόμενοι πολιοκρόταφοι τελέθωσιν.
οὐδὲ πατὴρ παίδεσσιν ὁμοίιος οὐδέ τι παῖδες
οὐδὲ ξεῖνος ξεινοδόκῳ καὶ ἑταῖρος ἑταίρῳ,
οὐδὲ κασίγνητος φίλος ἔσσεται, ὡς τὸ πάρος περ.
αἶψα δὲ γηράσκοντας ἀτιμήσουσι τοκῆας·

Schol. ad. Hes. Th. 182b-d ex.

b. “Similar to…” likeness, similarity, a shared voice or similarity in mind or in shape, [lost here] because of the multitude of wickedness and adulteries…”

b. ὁμοίιος: ὁμονοητικός, σύμφωνος ἢ ὅμοιος τῇ γνώμῃ ἢ τῇ ἰδέᾳ, διὰ τὸ τῶν κακιῶν πλῆθος καὶ τῶν μοιχειῶν…

“similar to”: the similarity is clearly the commonness, the conversation, and the affection. For affection (philia) develops from similarity. Altogether this expresses tragically the oncoming evils in life following this, the distrust between children and fathers, between guests and hosts, and among friends. Friendship is the third thing mentioned. Also: cognate, companionable, hospitable.”

c.ὁμοίιος: τὸ μὲν ὁμοίιος δηλοῖ τὸ κοινωνικὸν καὶ προσήγορον καὶ φίλιον· φιλία γὰρ
δι’ ὁμοιότητος ἐπιτελεῖται. πάντα δὲ ἐκτραγῳδεῖ τὰ ἐπεισελθόντα κακὰ τῷ βίῳ μετ’ αὐτόν, τὴν ἀπιστίαν τῶν παίδων καὶ πατέρων, τὴν τῶν ξένων καὶ ξενοδόχων, τὴν τῶν ἑταίρων πρὸς ἀλλήλους. τριττὴ γὰρ ἡ φιλία· συγγενική,
ἑταιρική, ξενική.

d. “Similar to”: Similarity of men, having one desire or, he means, through mixing it up with other women, the bastard sons too.”

d.<ὁμοίιος:> ὁμογνώμων, μίαν θέλησιν ἔχων ἢ διὰ τὰς ἀλληλομιξίας λέγων τῶν γυναικῶν καὶ τοὺς νόθους υἱούς.

Later, Aristotle channels some of the same cultural assumptions from a scientific perspective. Here the monstrum (greek teras) is an indication of deformity.

Aristotle, Generation of Animals, Book 4, 767b

“These causes are also of the same. Some [offspring] are born similar to their parents while others are not. Some are similar to their father; others are like their mother, applying both to the body as a whole and to each part. Offspring are more like their parents than their ancestors and more like their ancestors than passersby.

Males are more similar to their father and females are more similar to their mother. But some are not like any of their relatives, but are still akin to human beings while others are like not at all like humans in their appearance, but rather like some monster. For whoever is not like his parents is in some way a monster because nature has in these cases wandered in some way from the essential character.”

Αἱ δ᾿ αὐταὶ αἰτίαι καὶ τοῦ τὰ μὲν ἐοικότα γίνεσθαι τοῖς τεκνώσασι τὰ δὲ μὴ ἐοικότα, καὶ τὰ μὲν πατρὶ τὰ δὲ μητρί, κατά τε ὅλον τὸ σῶμα καὶ κατὰ μόριον ἕκαστον, καὶ μᾶλλον αὐτοῖς ἢ τοῖς προγόνοις, καὶ τούτοις ἢ τοῖς τυχοῦσι, καὶ τὰ μὲν ἄρρενα μᾶλλον τῷ πατρὶ τὰ δὲ θήλεα τῇ μητρί, τὰ δ᾿ οὐδενὶ τῶν συγγενῶν, ὅμως δ᾿ ἀνθρώπῳ γέ τινι, τὰ δ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἀνθρώπῳ τὴν ἰδέαν ἀλλ᾿ ἤδη τέρατι. καὶ γὰρ ὁ μὴ ἐοικὼς τοῖς γονεῦσιν ἤδη τρόπον τινὰ τέρας ἐστίν· παρεκβέβηκε γὰρ ἡ φύσις ἐν τούτοις ἐκ τοῦ γένους τρόπον τινά.

Image result for Ancient Greek Telemachus
“Look how big and beautiful I am.” Mid-4th century BC. Berlin, Staatliche Museen

A Man Who Does Only What Must Not Be Done

Pliny, Letters 4.2

To My Dear Friend Attius Clementius,

“Regulus lost his son, a single suffering he did not merit but I don’t know if he considered it a bad thing. The boy was clever but of an unreliable nature who still could have turned out well if he had not favored his father. Regulus freed the boy so he could stand as a heir for his mother’s estate. Once the boy was freed—as they commonly say thanks to the man’s habits—his father enchanted him with the foul pretense of indulgence which is not customary to parents.

It is hard to believe, but look at Regulus. He mourns the lost boy madly. The child used to keep many ponies for riding and driving, and he used to have big and small dogs along with nightingales, parrots, and blackbirds. Regulus slaughtered them all around his son’s pyre.This is not grief but a show of grief. There’s also a sudden, miraculous celebrity to him. Everyone despises, hates him, but they rush, even crowd him as if they approve of him, admire him. In short, if I may put it in a phrase, they rival Regulus in Regulus’ way.

He stays in his gardens across the Tiber, a place where he has covered a huge area with giant porticos and covered the bank with his own statues, because he is as luxuriant in his greed as he is effulgent in his severe infamy. In this way, he troubles the whole city at an unhealthy time of year and he thinks it is some solace that he annoys people.

He claims that he wants to take another wife, which is as perverse as everything else he does. You will hear soon enough of the marriage of the mourning old man. Too early for one, too late for the other. How can I predict this, you ask? It is not anything the man said—nothing is more likely a lie than that—but because it is a sure thing that Regulus will do whatever should not be done. Good bye.”

C. Plinius Attio Clementi Suo S.
1Regulus filium amisit, hoc uno malo indignus, quod nescio an malum putet. Erat puer acris ingenii sed ambigui, qui tamen posset recta sectari, si patrem non referret. Hunc Regulus emancipavit, ut heres matris exsisteret; mancipatum (ita vulgo ex moribus hominis loquebantur) foeda et insolita parentibus indulgentiae simulatione captabat. Incredibile, sed Regulum cogita. Amissum tamen luget insane. Habebat puer mannulos multos et iunctos et solutos, habebat canes maiores minoresque, habebat luscinias psittacos merulas: omnes Regulus circa rogum trucidavit. Nec dolor erat ille, sed ostentatio doloris. Convenitur ad eum mira celebritate. Cuncti detestantur oderunt, et quasi probent quasi diligant, cursant frequentant, utque breviter quod sentio enuntiem, in Regulo demerendo Regulum imitantur. Tenet se trans Tiberim in hortis, in quibus latissimum solum porticibus immensis, ripam statuis suis occupavit, ut est in summa avaritia sumptuosus, in summa infamia gloriosus. Vexat ergo civitatem insaluberrimo tempore et, quod vexat, solacium putat. Dicit se velle ducere uxorem, hoc quoque sicut alia perverse. Audies brevi nuptias lugentis nuptias senis; quorum alterum immaturum alterum serum est. Unde hoc augurer quaeris? Non quia adfirmat ipse, quo mendacius nihil est, sed quia certum est Regulum esse facturum, quidquid fieri non oportet. Vale.

Relief from a Roman Sarcophagus

Piraeus, Heterotopia

pir.jpg
Collection of the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation. Karl Baedeker’s “Greece, Handbook for Travelers”, Leipzig, 1894

I. From Omonoia to Piraeus

Aristophanes, Knights, 813-819 (sausage-seller speaks)

“Oh! citizens of Argos, do you hear what he says? You dare to compare yourself to Themistocles, who found our city half empty and left it full to overflowing, who one day gave us the Piraeus for dinner, and added fresh fish to all our usual meals. You, on the contrary, you, who compare yourself with Themistocles, have only sought to reduce our city in size, to shut it within its walls, to chant oracles to us. And Themistocles goes into exile, while you gorge yourself on the most excellent fare”

ὦ πόλις Ἄργους κλύεθ᾽ οἷα λέγει. σὺ Θεμιστοκλεῖ ἀντιφερίζεις;
ὃς ἐποίησεν τὴν πόλιν ἡμῶν μεστὴν εὑρὼν ἐπιχειλῆ,
καὶ πρὸς τούτοις ἀριστώσῃ τὸν Πειραιᾶ προσέμαξεν,
ἀφελών τ᾽ οὐδὲν τῶν ἀρχαίων ἰχθῦς καινοὺς παρέθηκεν:
σὺ δ᾽ Ἀθηναίους ἐζήτησας μικροπολίτας ἀποφῆναι
διατειχίζων καὶ χρησμῳδῶν, ὁ Θεμιστοκλεῖ ἀντιφερίζων.
κἀκεῖνος μὲν φεύγει τὴν γῆν σὺ δ᾽ Ἀχιλλείων ἀπομάττει.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.93.3-5

“Themistocles likewise persuaded them to build up the rest of Piraeus, for it was begun in the year that he himself was archon of Athens, because he conceived the place both beautiful, in that it had three natural havens, and, also that, since the Athenians were now seamen, it would very much advance the enlargement of their power. For he was indeed the first man that dared tell them that they ought to take upon them the command of the sea, and then immediately helped them in the obtaining it. By his counsel also it was that they built the wall of that breadth about Piraeus which can now be seen.”

ἔπεισε δὲ καὶ τοῦ Πειραιῶς τὰ λοιπὰ ὁ Θεμιστοκλῆς οἰκοδομεῖν(ὑπῆρκτο δ᾽ αὐτοῦ πρότερον ἐπὶ τῆς ἐκείνου ἀρχῆς ἧς κατ᾽ ἐνιαυτὸν Ἀθηναίοις ἦρξε)νομίζων τό τε χωρίον καλὸν εἶναι, λιμένας ἔχον τρεῖς αὐτοφυεῖς, καὶ αὐτοὺς ναυτικοὺς γεγενημένους μέγα προφέρειν ἐς τὸ κτήσασθαι δύναμιν(τῆς γὰρ δὴ θαλάσσης πρῶτος ἐτόλμησεν εἰπεῖν ὡς ἀνθεκτέα ἐστί), καὶ τὴν ἀρχὴν εὐθὺς ξυγκατεσκεύαζεν. Καὶ ᾠκοδόμησαν τῇ ἐκείνου γνώμῃ τὸ πάχος τοῦ τείχους ὅπερ νῦν ἔτι δῆλόν ἐστι περὶ τὸν Πειραιᾶ

***

IMG_6005
Piraeus Station

The journey begins at Omonoia Square, one of the most recognizable landmarks of modern Athens, built in the 19th century after the birth of the modern Greek state, and also iconic to the turbulent history of the country: Included in the initial urban plan of Athens (1833), it’s been renamed many times, as many as it has been renovated, rebuilt, destroyed and remade. A witness to the city’s modernization, once the site of the neoclassical architecture that has characterized central Athens (the body politic’s desire to mimic a grandiose past), it was once regarded as an icon of multiculturalism, in the same way that it is now despised for the same reason.

The rather derelict area is now traditionally known as a gray area for foreign workers, low cost retail (and drugs) and most recently, a site of contestation of European identities with the refugee tents going up in the area, making inescapably visible the plight of human rights and the failure of international law to protect those who need it most. As the square watched the refugees of the Asia Minor arrive in Athens from the port of Piraeus to rebuild their lives in Greece, it has now watched refugees from imperialist wars in the Middle East flock into Europe, but with little hope to rebuild anything.

Yet this image of Omonoia Square with the tents (just a stone’s throw from the Greek parliament), has a tendency to fade quickly. In a kind of white flight that saw the wealthy abandon the city center as it became progressively impoverished—a situation that paradoxically gave it its multicultural character. But a recent change of government has put forward plans for the reclamation of the city center by investor capital. Will the square be cleaned from its intangible history of migrations?

It remains to be seen. But it is significant that here we begin the journey towards “Piraeus/Heterotopia”, a participatory theater project by Japanese artist Akira Takayama that took place in 2017 (as a part of the Fast Forward Festival, organized by the Onassis Cultural Center), and is now dormant but latent since I was able to “awaken” it, during a visit to Athens in May. The project consists basically of an unusual walking tour of the port area, armed with a smartphone app and a map, with several stops selected based on the hidden (or at least not apparent right now) history of the area, unlocking a speculative oral history: At every stop, visitors listen to a story (it’s necessary to reach the spot physically to unlock the sound audio in the app) written by commissioned writers from different countries.

ppp
Akira Takayama, Piraeus / Heterotopia, Fast Forward Festival 4, Onassis Cultural Center

The story being told ‘might’ have happened there, and it’s written based on detail research of the history and possible connotations associated with the specific spot. Here we introduce the idea of a para-fiction: It’s both true and fictional. Starting with Ancient Greece, all the way to the current refugee crisis and the Asia Minor catastrophe in between, “Heterotopia” highlights the important role of this area as a space of transition, overturning the current European idea of migration from a state of exception, to an essential aspect of human history.

This “strange land”, is for Takayama an ‘heterotopia’ following from Foucault’s use of the term, as a space of otherness that is larger than the sum of its parts. The urban and economic history of modern Athens has been nothing but strange combination of randomness and neglect, so that the port with its privileged location stands far beyond the metropolitan heart of Athens (centered around the Acropolis), and is not necessarily part of the self-image of Athens today, but it reappears in this project as an epicenter of mobility and demographic change. In what follows, I will stay loyal to the spirit of the project, leaving the oral stories alone, for they need to be experienced in person (the app is still functional and it is possible to do the walking tour).

I will focus on a few spots in the project, attempting to unmask the presence of the past – classical and otherwise, and make it present. At a time of infinite powerlessness before our current condition, with the global erosion of the liberal democratic project, these places of ‘otherness’, at the borders of European capitals (and particularly for Athens, an alleged monument to the Western tradition), remind us of the porousness of history, and therefore, of the tragic but nonetheless pluralistic experiences that have shaped the birth of modern polities.

The arrival in Piraeus is a continuation of the fragile multiculturalism of Omonoia (something that truly stands out in a country like Greece, built along the lines of 19th century ethno-states and largely self-identifying as white, by association with the classical past of Europe), with wares being sold in many languages and crowds of tourists rushing to catch the ferries to the Greek islands. As we know from ancient writers, particularly Thucydides, Piraeus was developed in the 5th century BCE under the statesman Themistocles, who in 493 BCE initiated the works of a fort in Piraeus, and in 483 BCE, the Athenian fleet left their order port in Phaleron, and relocated to Piraeus, a move that would be decisive in the battle of Salamis.

Phaleron, the old harbor, now the district of Palaio Faliro, is also the site of fascinating history: One of the most important archaeological findings of recent years was the mass grave in Faliro Delta, furnishing valuable information—and many new questions—about a rather obscure period of Greek history, the 7th century BCE. The find was the subject of another Japanese artist’s work, when Hikaru Fujii presented his video/performance work “The Primary Fact”, once again at the Onassis Cultural Center’s Fast Forward in 2018, that I wrote about.

IMG_5366.JPG
Hikaru Fujii, “The Primary Fact”, Fast Forward Festival 5, Onassis Cultural Center

The archaeological site was revealed during the construction of a complex for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, now housing the national library and the national opera, highlighting the hybrid situation of Greece where these long-established shipping families such as Onassis and Niarchos act as a kind of para-state; not unlike the rule of the oligarchs, mentioned by Plato in the opening portion of his “Seventh Letter”. But returning to Piraeus, its story is long and complicated: Athens and Piraeus were connected through a pathway between the two walled cities (the Themistoclean Walls were completed in 471 BCE), but it declined after being destroyed by the Romans. What follows for Piraeus is a long dormant period during Byzantine and Ottoman rule, and later revival when Athens was designated the Greek capital under Bavarian Otto I.

To what degree was the revival of Piraeus part of the European antiquarianism regarding Greece? It would be difficult to answer. The current station building goes back to 1920s, a period of intense conflict in Greece with their loss in the war against the new Turkish republic, along the way forfeiting claim to the historical Greek Smyrna, and receiving thousands of Greek refugees from the Asia Minor, reluctantly welcomed into a country still very poor and largely undeveloped. It was from Piraeus that Greek migrants left to pursue the American dream, and it was also from there that the Nazis occupied Greece.

Different generations of migrants have settled in the area temporarily before moving on (during the research for Heterotopia, Takayama and his team also spoke with refugees from Syria in the refugee camp of the Piraeus port), but postclassical history seems to capture little of the imagination in Greek historiography, where the only path to connect a grandiose classical past with the birth of the modern republic, is the silencing of everything else. In this way, Greeks both reconnect with the European tradition and lay claim to their ‘whiteness’ (opposed to the people of the former multicultural Near East), and replace complexity with a traditional nation state.

Continue below for parts 2-4

Continue reading “Piraeus, Heterotopia”

Sparta’s Counterfeit Myth

Myke Cole ushers us into the month of August with a fine overview of how Spartan cosplay and mimicry infects right wing movements in the US and abroad (“The Sparta Fetish is a Cultural Cancer”, The New Republic). He rightly–and for some, surprisingly–points out that the myth of Sparta was something carefully cultivated by the Lacedaimonians themselves (and, when useful, by opportunistic statesmen like the Athenian Themistokles)

This fight against the misinformation of Spartan myth and its reuse in the modern world is constant and perennial. Last year,  Dr. Sarah Bond published a piece for Eidolon  about the appropriation of Spartan iconography and values in the modern world (“This Is Not Sparta: Why the Modern Romance with Sparta is a Bad One”).  Neville Morely’s subsequent post on the use of Sparta by the far right is also a must-read.

If you live in Europe, the coasts in the US or some other blissful bubble, you may be unaware of the fact that the motto μολὼν λαβέ now adorns weapons and military gear of all kinds and is a favorite of certain right-wing political affiliations.

Plutarch, Apophthegmata Lakonica 225 c11-12

“When Xerxes wrote again, “send me your weapons”, [Leonidas] wrote back, “Come and take them”

Πάλιν δὲ τοῦ Ξέρξου γράψαντος ‘πέμψον τὰ ὅπλα’, ἀντέγραψε ‘μολὼν λαβέ.’

(When people hear I teach ancient Greek and tell me they love Sparta, I take the same deep breath I take when others ask about ‘Ancient Aliens’ or Atlantis. ‘Sparta’ is a production of modern culture as much as ancient. Every time I have taught the Peloponnesian War I found myself hoping it might turn out different this time…)

In addition to the eugenics, racism, and fascism at home on this constellation of beliefs, there is this: Sparta was a militarized state which enslaved its neighbors and produced little of worth for the world beyond a mythologized memory of a great fighting force.

When it comes to everything else for which we prize ancient Greece, Sparta was terribly and completely deficient. Tragedy, Epic poetry, lyric poetry, visual art, vases, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, science, history, rhetoric, everything Western cultural chauvinist champion about the ‘Greek miracle’* developed every where else in Greece.

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 3.7.24

“In Sparta, literary pursuits will win less honor than they would in Athens, while endurance and bravery will earn more.”

Minus Lacedaemone studia litterarum quam Athenis honoris merebuntur, plus patientia ac fortitudo.

Read Cole’s article. Read Bond’s piece. And here is some fun And, here are some selections from Spartan ‘culture’. Martial poetry; pithy sayings; puppy sacrifices. If enslaving entire populations, dedicating their whole culture to a war machine, and killing puppies is not enough for you to rethink Sparta, well there’s just not much left to say.

*These are scare quotes. Even as a Hellenist I do not believe in this terminology.

Sparta left some martial poetry. It is, well, uninspiring.

Tyrtaeus, Fr. 10.1-2

“It is a fine thing when a noble man falls
In the first ranks while struggling for his country.”

τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλὸν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι πεσόντα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν περὶ ἧι πατρίδι μαρνάμενον·

Tytaeus, fr. 11.5-8

“Make your life hateful and make the dark fates
Of death as dear as the rays of the sun.
For you know the destructive deeds of much-wept Ares
And you have learned well the fury of fierce war.”

ἐχθρὴν μὲν ψυχὴν θέμενος, θανάτου δὲ μελαίνας
κῆρας αὐγαῖς ἠελίοιο φίλας.
ἴστε γὰρ ὡς ῎Αρεος πολυδακρύου ἔργ’ ἀΐδηλα,
εὖ δ’ ὀργὴν ἐδάητ’ ἀργαλέου πολέμου

Callinus 1. 12-21

“There’s no way for a man to avoid death once it is fated,
Not even if he is a descendant of the immortal gods.
Often when someone has fled strife and the din of spears
Death’s fate will find him at home.
The unsteady man isn’t dear to the people or longed for,
They grieve for him a little even if he suffers something great.
But the whole host misses a strong-hearted man when he dies
A man the equal of living heroes.
They look at him like a tower before their eyes_
He does work of many though he is just one.”

οὐ γάρ κως θάνατόν γε φυγεῖν εἱμαρμένον ἐστὶν
ἄνδρ’, οὐδ’ εἰ προγόνων ἦι γένος ἀθανάτων.
πολλάκι δηϊοτῆτα φυγὼν καὶ δοῦπον ἀκόντων
ἔρχεται, ἐν δ’ οἴκωι μοῖρα κίχεν θανάτου,
ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν οὐκ ἔμπης δήμωι φίλος οὐδὲ ποθεινός
τὸν δ’ ὀλίγος στενάχει καὶ μέγας ἤν τι πάθηι·
λαῶι γὰρ σύμπαντι πόθος κρατερόφρονος ἀνδρὸς
θνήσκοντος, ζώων δ’ ἄξιος ἡμιθέων·
ὥσπερ γάρ μιν πύργον ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶσιν·
ἔρδει γὰρ πολλὼν ἄξια μοῦνος ἐών.

The most famous epigram associated with Sparta was not composed by a Spartan:

Simonides, Epigram (Greek Anthology,7.249): An Epitaph at Thermopylae

“Stranger, go tell the Spartans that we lie here
obedient to their commands.”

Ω ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις, ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

Aelian, 13.19

“Cleomenes the Laconian asserted—in the manner of Spartans—that Homer was a Spartan poet because he spoke about the right way to go to war and that Hesiod was the Helot’s poet, since he talks about how best to farm.”

῎Ελεγεν ὁ Κλεομένης Λακωνικῶς κατὰ τὸν ἐπιχώριον τρόπον τὸν ῞Ομηρον Λακεδαιμονίων εἶναι ποιητήν, ὡς χρὴ πολεμεῖν λέγοντα· τὸν δὲ ῾Ησίοδον τῶν Εἱλώτων, λέγοντα ὡς χρὴ γεωργεῖν.

Part of what has helped to spread the Spartan myth and mystique are the collections of sayings attributed to Spartans made centuries after the fall of the city. The cottage industry of constructing ‘Sparta’ as an austere, manly, independent utopia is two thousand years old. And it is a selected, curated load of nonsense.

Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans (Apophthegmata Lakonica )

208b “When someone was commending a politician for his talent at amplifying minor matters, Agesilaos remarked that a cobbler is not good at his job if he puts big shoes on small feet.”

Ἐπαινοῦντος δέ τινος ῥήτορα ἐπὶ τῷ δυνατῶς αὔξειν τὰ μικρὰ πράγματα, οὐδὲ σκυτοτόμον, ἔφησεν, εἶναι σπουδαῖον, ὃς μικρῷ ποδὶ ὑποδήματα μεγάλα περιτίθησιν.

215d “[Agis] said that the Spartans never asked “how many” of the enemy there were, but only “where are they”.

Οὐκ ἔφη δὲ τοὺς Λακεδαιμονίους ἐρωτᾶν πόσοι εἰσὶν οἱ πολέμιοι, ἀλλὰ ποῦ εἰσίν.

222e “When asked what kind of men the Ionians were, he said “bad free men but good slaves”

Ἐρωτηθεὶς δὲ ὁποῖοι ἄνδρες εἰσὶν οἱ Ἴωνες, “ἐλεύθεροι μέν,” ἔφη, “κακοί, δοῦλοι δὲ ἀγαθοί.”

217d “In response to the Athenian who said the Spartans were uneducated, he said “At least we are the only ones who have learned nothing evil from you.”

Πρὸς δὲ τὸν ἀμαθεῖς καλοῦντα τοὺς Λακεδαιμονίους Ἀθηναῖον, “μόνοι γοῦν,” εἶπεν, “ἡμεῖς οὐδὲν μεμαθήκαμεν παρ᾿ ὑμῶν κακόν.”

218 “In response to someone who praised a musician and was amazed as his talent, he said, “Sir, what prize will you have left for good men when you praise a musician this much?”

Πρὸς δὲ τὸν ἐπαινοῦντα κιθαρῳδὸν καὶ θαυμάζοντα τὴν δύναμιν αὐτοῦ, “ὦ λῷστε,” ἔφη, “ποῖον γέρας παρὰ σοῦ τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς ἀνδράσιν ἔσται, ὅταν κιθαρῳδὸν οὕτως ἐπαινῇς;”

220a “While he listened to a musician play, [Demaratus] remarked, “he doesn’t seem so bad at this nonsense”

Ψάλτου δὲ ἀκροώμενος, “οὐ κακῶς,” εἶπε, “φαίνεταί μοι φλυαρεῖν.”

221f “When someone showed him a city wall and asked if it was strong and high, he said, “isn’t this a place for women?”

Ἐπιδεικνυμένου δέ τινος αὐτῷ τεῖχος καὶ πυνθανομένου εἰ καρτερὸν καὶ ὑψηλόν, “οὐ δὴ γυναικών;” εἶπεν.

224 e-f “This is what Leotychidas said to Philip, the master of the Orphic mysteries who was extremely poor but was claiming that those initiated into the mysteries by him would be blessed after the end of life: “Fool, why don’t you die as quickly as possible so you can stop whining about your bad luck and poverty?”

Πρὸς Φίλιππον τὸν ὀρφεοτελεστὴν παντελῶς πτωχὸν ὄντα, λέγοντα δ᾿ ὅτι οἱ παρ᾿ αὐτῷ μυηθέντες μετὰ τὴν τοῦ βίου τελευτὴν εὐδαιμονοῦσι, “τί οὖν, ὦ ἀνόητε,” εἶπεν, “οὐ τὴν ταχίστην ἀποθνῄσκεις, Fἵν᾿ ἅμα παύσῃ2 κακοδαιμονίαν καὶ πενίαν κλαίων;”

“When someone was asking why they did not dedicated the weapons of their enemies to the gods, he said that it would neither be right to show the youth or to dedicate to the gods weapons which were taken thanks to the cowardice of their owners.”

Πυθομένου δέ τινος διὰ τί τὰ ἀπὸ τῶν πολεμίων ὅπλα τοῖς θεοῖς οὐκ ἀνατιθέασιν, ἔφη ὅτι τὰ διὰ τὴν δειλίαν τῶν κεκτημένων θηραθέντα οὔτε τοὺς νέους ὁρᾶν καλὸν οὔτε τοῖς θεοῖς ἀνατιθέναι.

Some Sayings Attributed to Spartans in the Gnomologicum Vaticanum

69 “When Agesilaos was asked by someone why Sparta was unwalled he said “don’t lie. It is walled not by stones but by its occupants’ excellence.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς ὑπό τινος, διὰ τί ἀτείχιστός ἐστιν ἡ Σπάρτη, „μὴ ψεύδου”, ἔφη, „τετείχισται γάρ, οὐ λίθοις, ἀλλὰ ταῖς τῶν <ἐνοικούντων ἀρεταῖς>”.

394 “When a Spartan man was asked why the Spartans have small spears he said “because they fight close to the enemy”

Λάκων ἀνὴρ ἐρωτώμενος διὰ τί οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι μικρὰ ἔχουσι τὰ ἐγχειρίδια εἶπεν· „ὅτι ἐγγύθεν τοῖς πολεμίοις μάχονται”.

396 “To someone asking why Spartans foster brevity of speech, a Spartan man said “because it is closest to silence”

Λάκων ἀνὴρ πρὸς τὸν εἰπόντα αὐτῷ· „διὰ τί οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι τὴν βραχυλογίαν ἀσκοῦσιν;” εἶπεν· „ὅτι ἔγγιστά ἐστι τοῦ σιωπᾶν”.

Spartan Sayings, 241f6

“Another spartan woman as she was passing her son his shield advised him, “child, [come home] either with this or on it.”

῎Αλλη προσαναδιδοῦσα τῷ παιδὶ τὴν ἀσπίδα καὶ παρακελευομένη ‘τέκνον’ ἔφη, ‘ἢ ταύταν ἢ ἐπὶ ταύτας.’

Sayings Attributed to Spartan Women, 568-576

“When a Spartan woman was speaking to her son who had been crippled in battle and was depressed because of that she said “don’t be sad, child—for each step recalls your private virtue”

Γυνὴ Λάκαινα τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς ἐν παρατάξει χωλωθέντος καὶ δυσφοροῦντος ἐπὶ τούτῳ „τέκνον”, εἶπε, „μὴ λυποῦ· καθ’ ἕκαστον γὰρ βῆμα τῆς ἰδίας <ἀρετῆς ὑπομνησθήσῃ.”>

“A Spartan woman said of her son who was thankful that he was the only one to survive a battle-line “why aren’t you ashamed that you’re the only one alive?”

Λάκαινα γυνὴ σεμνυνομένου τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς ἐπὶ τῷ μόνον ἐκ τῆς παρατάξεως σεσῶσθαι ἔφη· „τί οὖν οὐκ αἰσχύνῃ μόνος ζῶν;”

“When a Spartan woman heard that her son died in the battle line she said “Child, you paid your country back well for your upbringing.”

Γυνὴ Λάκαινα ἀκούσασα τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς ἐν παρατάξει τεθνηκέναι „τέκνον”, εἶπεν, „ὡς καλὰ τροφεῖα τῇ πατρίδι ἀπέδωκας!”

Valerius Maximas, 6.3 Ext 1

“Although it is possible to use the whole planet to offer examples of Roman cruelty, it is not useless to learn of foreign instances in summary. The Spartans ordered that the books of Archilochus were to be expelled from their state because they believed that they were insufficiently modest and were also shameful reading.

They did not want their children’s minds to be filled with these ideas in case they might harm their characters more than it sharpened their wits. For this reason they exiled the greatest or nearly greatest poet because he wounded a household he hated with vulgar curses.”

Ceterum etsi Romanae severitatis exemplis totus terrarum orbis instrui potest, tamen externa summatim cognosse fastidio non sit. Lacedaemonii libros Archilochi e civitate sua exportari iusserunt, quod eorum parum verecundam ac pudicam lectionem arbitrabantur: noluerunt enim ea liberorum suorum animos imbui, ne plus moribus noceret quam ingeniis prodesset. itaque maximum poetam aut certe summo proximum, quia domum sibi invisam obscenis maledictis laceraverat, carminum exsilio multarunt.

Spartans Sacrificed Puppies

Pausanias, 15.14 [In Laconia]

“On each of the bridges there is a sculpture: one has Herakles, the other an image of Lykourgos. Lykourgos established laws for the rest of the state and also for the fighting of youths. There are other things done by the Spartan youths too. They sacrifice in the temple to Apollo before battle. The Phoibaion is outside the city and not too far from Therapne. There, each group of young men sacrifice a puppy to Enyalios, because they believe that the bravest of the tame animals is a sacrifice to the liking of the bravest of the gods.

I don’t know any other Greeks who are in the habit of sacrificing puppies except for the Colophonians. They sacrifice a black female pup to the Goddess of the Wayside. This sacrifice and that of the Spartan youths are performed at night. During the sacrifice, the youths have trained boars fight one another. Whichever group’s boar wins, that group ends up winning the battle when they fight with strength in the Plane-tree Grove. These are the things they do in the Phobaion.”

γεφυρῶν δὲ ἐφ᾿ ἑκατέρᾳ τῇ μέν ἐστιν ἄγαλμα Ἡρακλέους, τῇ δὲ εἰκὼν Λυκούργου. νόμους δὲ ἔς τε τὴν ἄλλην πολιτείαν καὶ ἐς τὴν μάχην τῶν ἐφήβων ἔθηκεν ὁ Λυκοῦργος. καὶ τάδε ἄλλα τοῖς ἐφήβοις δρώμενά ἐστι· θύουσι πρὸ τῆς μάχης ἐν τῷ Φοιβαίῳ· τὸ δὲ Φοιβαῖόν ἐστιν ἐκτὸς τῆς πόλεως, Θεράπνης οὐ πολὺ ἀφεστηκός. ἐνταῦθα ἑκατέρα μοῖρα τῶν ἐφήβων σκύλακα κυνὸς τῷ Ἐνυαλίῳ θύουσι, θεῶν τῷ ἀλκιμωτάτῳ κρίνοντες ἱερεῖον κατὰ γνώμην εἶναι τὸ ἀλκιμώτατον ζῷον τῶν ἡμέρων. κυνὸς δὲ σκύλακας οὐδένας ἄλλους οἶδα Ἑλλήνων νομίζοντας θύειν ὅτι μὴ Κολοφωνίους· θύουσι γὰρ καὶ Κολοφώνιοι μέλαιναν τῇ Ἐνοδίῳ σκύλακα. νυκτεριναὶ δὲ ἥ τε Κολοφωνίων θυσία καὶ τῶν ἐν Λακεδαίμονι ἐφήβων καθεστήκασιν. ἐπὶ δὲ τῇ θυσίᾳ κάπρους ἠθάδας οἱ ἔφηβοι συμβάλλουσι μαχουμένους· ὁποτέρων δ᾿ ἂν ὁ κάπρος τύχῃ νικῶν, ἐν τῷ Πλατανιστᾷ κρατῆσαι τούτους ὡς τὰ πλείω συμβαίνει. τοσάδε μὲν δρῶσιν ἐν τῷ Φοιβαίῳ·

Image result for ancient Greek spartan shield

Spartans and Rape in the Conquered Territory. Another poorly named “erotic story” from Plutarch

Plutarch, Love Stories 3

“A poor man named Skadasos used to live in Leuktra (which is a village in the land of the Thespians). He had two daughters who were named Hippo and Milêtia or, as some say, Thenô and Euksippê. Skedasos was a good man and solicitous of strangers, even though he did not have much. When two Spartan youths came to him, he welcomed them happily. Although they were lusting after the maidens, they were hindered from bold action by the good character of the father. On the next day, they went to Delphi. The same road laid before them.

So, after they got an oracle from the god about which they were in need, they returned homeward again, traveling through Boiotia and returning to the home of Skedasos. But he did not happen to be in Leuktra at the time. Still, the daughters welcomed the strangers in the family’s usual manner. But when the youths found them alone, they raped the girls. When they noticed that the girls were taking the offense pretty badly, they killed them and rid themselves of the burden by throwing the bodies in a well.

When Skedasos returned and did not see his daughters, he discovered that everything else he left behind was safe. He was at a loss over the affair until a certain dog kept pawing at him and often ran up to him and from him back to the well. From this he figured it out, and he raised his daughters’ corpses up from the well. Once he learned from his neighbors that they had seen those Spartans on the previous day and returning again on the next one, he attributed the deed to them because they were constantly praising the girls on the earlier day and counting as blessed the men they would marry.

He went to Sparta in order to take his case to the Ephors. When he was near Argos, because night overtook him, he stayed in an inn. There was another old man in the same inn who was from the city of Oreus in the region of Hestiaia. After Skedasos heard him groaning and cursing the Spartans, he asked him what evil he had suffered at their hands. He explained that he was a Spartan subject and that after Aristodemos was sent to Oreus as a governor, he proved himself to be very cruel and lawless.

He explained, “He lusted after my son. When he couldn’t persuade him, he attempted to rape him and abduct him from the wrestling school. Because the teacher was preventing him and there were many young men helping, Aristodemos retreated out of necessity. But on the following day, he outfitted a trireme, kidnapped the boy and sailed to the opposite shore where he was trying to rape the boy. He killed him because he was fighting back. After returned, he threw a dinner party.” The old man continued, “Once I learned of what happened and took care of the body, I went to Sparta and met with the Ephors. But they showed this no concern.”

Hearing these things, Skedasos lost heart because he was imagining that the Spartans would ignore his case as well. But he did explain his own misfortune to the stranger in turn. The man was advising him not to meet with the Ephors but just to return to Boiotia and build a tomb for his daughters. Skedasos, nevertheless, was not persuaded, but he went to Sparta to meet with the Ephors. When they did not pay attention, he went to the kings and then went up and wept before each of the citizens. When he gained nothing else, he was rushing through the city raising his hands to the sun. Then he was striking his fists on the ground and calling on the Furies. Finally, he killed himself.”

Ἀνὴρ πένης Σκέδασος τοὔνομα κατῴκει Λεῦκτρα· ἔστι δὲ κώμιον τῆς τῶν Θεσπιέων χώρας. τούτῳ θυγατέρες γίνονται δύο· ἐκαλοῦντο δ᾿ Ἱππὼ καὶ Μιλητία, ἤ, ὥς τινες, Θεανὼ καὶ Εὐξίππη. ἦν δὲ χρηστὸς ὁ Σκέδασος καὶ τοῖς ξένοις ἐπιτήδειος, καίπερ οὐ πολλὰ κεκτημένος. ἀφικομένους οὖν πρὸς αὐτὸν δύο Σπαρτιάτας νεανίας ὑπεδέξατο προθύμως· οἱ δὲ τῶν παρθένων ἡττώμενοι διεκωλύοντο πρὸς τὴν τόλμαν ὑπὸ τῆς τοῦ κεδάσου χρηστότητος. τῇ δ᾿ ὑστεραίᾳ Πυθώδε ἀπῄεσαν· αὕτη γὰρ αὐτοῖς προύκειτο ἡ ὁδός· καὶ τῷ θεῷ χρησάμενοι περὶ ὧν ἐδέοντο, πάλιν ἐπανῄεσαν οἴκαδε, καὶ χωροῦντες διὰ τῆς Βοιωτίας ἐπέστησαν πάλιν τῇ τοῦ Σκεδάσου οἰκίᾳ. ὁ δ᾿ ἐτύγχανεν οὐκ ἐπιδημῶν τοῖς Λεύκτροις, ἀλλ᾿ αἱ θυγατέρες αὐτοῦ ὑπὸ τῆς συνήθους ἀγωγῆς τοὺς ξένους ὑπεδέξαντο. οἱ δὲ καταλαβόντες ἐρήμους τὰς κόρας βιάζονται· ὁρῶντες δ᾿ αὐτὰς καθ᾿ ὑπερβολὴν τῇ ὕβρει χαλεπαινούσας ἀπέκτειναν, καὶ ἐμβαλόντες ἔς τι φρέαρ ἀπηλλάγησαν. ἐπανελθὼν δ᾿ ὁ Σκέδασος τὰς μὲν κόρας οὐχ ἑώρα, πάντα δὲ τὰ καταλειφθέντα εὑρίσκει σῷα καὶ τῷ πράγματι ἠπόρει, ἕως τῆς κυνὸς κνυζωμένης καὶ πολλάκις μὲν προστρεχούσης πρὸς αὐτὸν ἀπὸ δ᾿ αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸ φρέαρ ἐπανιούσης, εἴκασεν ὅπερ ἦν, καὶ τῶν θυγατέρων τὰ νεκρὰ οὕτως ἀνιμήσατο. πυθόμενος δὲ παρὰ τῶν γειτόνων, ὅτι ἴδοιεν τῇ χθὲς ἡμέρᾳ τοὺς καὶ πρῴην καταχθέντας ἐπ᾿ αὐτοὺς Λακεδαιμονίους εἰσιόντας, συνεβάλετο τὴν πρᾶξιν ἐκείνων, ὅτι καὶ πρῴην συνεχῶς ἐπῄνουν τὰς κόρας, μακαρίζοντες τοὺς γαμήσοντας.

Ἀπῄει εἰς Λακεδαίμονα, τοῖς ἐφόροις ἐντευξόμενος· γενόμενος δ᾿ ἐν τῇ Ἀργολικῇ, νυκτὸς καταλαμβανούσης, εἰς πανδοκεῖόν τι κατήχθη· κατὰ τὸ αὐτὸ δὲ καὶ πρεσβύτης τις ἕτερος τὸ γένος ἐξ Ὠρεοῦ πόλεως τῆς Ἑστιαιάτιδος· οὗ στενάξαντος καὶ κατὰ Λακεδαιμονίων ἀρὰς ποιουμένου ἀκούσας ὁ Σκέδασος ἐπυνθάνετο τί κακὸν ὑπὸ Λακεδαιμονίων πεπονθὼς εἴη. ὁ δὲ διηγεῖτο, ὡς ὑπήκοος μέν ἐστι τῆς Σπάρτης, πεμφθεὶς δ᾿ εἰς Ὠρεὸν Ἀριστόδημος ἁρμοστὴς παρὰ Λακεδαιμονίων ὠμότητα καὶ παρανομίαν ἐπιδείξαιτο πολλήν. “ἐρασθεὶς γάρ,” ἔφη, “τοῦ ἐμοῦ παιδός, ἐπειδὴ πείθειν ἀδύνατος ἦν, ἐπεχείρει βιάσασθαι καὶ ἀπάγειν αὐτὸν τῆς παλαίστρας· κωλύοντος δὲ τοῦ παιδοτρίβου καὶ νεανίσκων πολλῶν ἐκβοηθούντων, παραχρῆμα ὁ Ἀριστόδημος ἀπεχώρησε· τῇ δ᾿ ὑστεραίᾳ πληρώσας τριήρη συνήρπασε τὸ μειράκιον, καὶ ἐξ Ὠρεοῦ διαπλεύσας εἰς τὴν περαίαν ἐπεχείρει ὑβρίσαι, οὐ συγχωροῦντα δ᾿ αὐτὸν ἀπέσφαξεν.  ἐπανελθὼν δ᾿ εἰς τὴν Ὠρεὸν εὐωχεῖτο. ἐγὼ δ᾿,” ἔφη, “τὸ πραχθὲν πυθόμενος καὶ τὸ σῶμα κηδεύσας παρεγενόμην εἰς τὴν Σπάρτην καὶ τοῖς ἐφόροις ἐνετύγχανον· οἱ δὲ λόγον οὐκ ἐποιοῦντο.” Σκέδασος δὲ ταῦτα ἀκούων ἀθύμως διέκειτο, ὑπολαμβάνων ὅτι οὐδ᾿ αὐτοῦ λόγον τινὰ ποιήσονται οἱ Σπαρτιᾶται· ἐν μέρει τε τὴν οἰκείαν διηγήσατο συμφορὰν τῷ ξένῳ· ὁ δὲ παρεκάλει αὐτὸν μηδ᾿ ἐντυχεῖν τοῖς ἐφόροις, ἀλλ᾿ ὑποστρέψαντα εἰς τὴν Βοιωτίαν κτίσαι τῶν θυγατέρων τὸν τάφον. οὐκ ἐπείθετο δ᾿ ὅμως ὁ Σκέδασος, ἀλλ᾿ εἰς τὴν Σπάρτην ἀφικόμενος τοῖς ἐφόροις ἐντυγχάνει· ὧν μηδὲν προσεχόντων, ἐπὶ τοὺς βασιλέας ἵεται καὶ ἀπὸ τούτων ἑκάστῳ τῶν δημοτῶν προσιὼν ὠδύρετο. μηδὲν δὲ πλέον ἀνύων ἔθει διὰ μέσης τῆς πόλεως, ἀνατείνων πρὸς ἥλιον τὼ χεῖρε, αὖθις δὲ τὴν γῆν τύπτων ἀνεκαλεῖτο τὰς Ἐρινύας καὶ τέλος αὑτὸν τοῦ ζῆν μετέστησεν.

More from Plutarch

Plutarch, Moralia Sayings of Spartan Women 242c-d

“A certain girl who lost her virginity to a man in secret and forced an abortion of the fetus handled is so strongly and uttered no sound that she birthed the child without her father and those who were near her knowing. This is because the overcoming of her indiscretion with discretion prevailed over the magnitude of her pains.”

26. Κρύφα τις διαπαρθενευθεῖσα καὶ διαφθείρασα τὸ βρέφος οὕτως ἐνεκαρτέρησε μηδεμίαν προενεγκαμένη φωνήν, ὥστε καὶ τὸν πατέρα καὶ ἄλλους πλησίον ὄντας λαθεῖν ἀποκυήσασα· τὸ γὰρ μέγεθος τῶν ἀλγηδόνων τῇ εὐσχημοσύνῃ τὸ ἄσχημον προσπεσὸν ἐνίκησε.

“A Spartan woman who was being sold and was asked what she knows how to do, answered, “To be faithful.”

27. Λάκαινα πιπρασκομένη καὶ ἐρωτωμένη τί ἐπίσταται, ἔφη, “πιστὰ ἦμεν.”

“Another Spartan woman, when she was captured and asked a similar question, answered, “to keep a house well.”

28. Ἄλλη αἰχμαλωτευθεῖσα καὶ ἐρωτωμένη παραπλησίως, “εὖ οἰκεῖν οἶκον,” ἔφη.

“When a Spartan woman was asked by some man if she would be good if he he purchased her, answered, “I will. And if you don’t purchase me too”

29. Ἐρωτηθεῖσά τις ὑπό τινος, εἰ ἔσται ἀγαθή, ἂν αὐτὴν ἀγοράσῃ, εἶπε, “κἂν μὴ ἀγοράσῃς.”

“The Equal of Living Heroes”: Sparta’s Counterfeit Myth

Plutarch, Apophthegmata Lakonica 225 c11-12

“When Xerxes wrote again, “send me your weapons”, [Leonidas] wrote back, “Come and take them”

Πάλιν δὲ τοῦ Ξέρξου γράψαντος ‘πέμψον τὰ ὅπλα’, ἀντέγραψε ‘μολὼν λαβέ.’

The remarkable and tireless Dr. Sarah Bond has composed a piece for Eidolon  about the appropriation of Spartan iconography and values in the modern world (“This Is Not Sparta: Why the Modern Romance with Sparta is a Bad One”). If you live in Europe, the coasts in the US or some other blissful bubble, you may be unaware of the fact that the motto μολὼν λαβέ now adorns weapons and military gear of all kinds and is a favorite of certain right-wing political affiliations.

(When people hear I teach ancient Greek and tell me they love Sparta, I take the same deep breath I take when others ask about ‘Ancient Aliens’ or Atlantis. ‘Sparta’ is a production of modern culture as much as ancient. Every time I have taught the Peloponnesian War I found myself hoping it might turn out different this time…)

Dr. Bond does a great job out outlining the sordid modern history of the appropriation of Spartan ideals. But she is especially good at pointing out “A problematic area for valorizing the Spartans lies not only in quoting their famously short (and often witty) turns of phrase and turning them into bumper stickers, but rather in also looking to the Hellenistic culture as a socio-political model for our own society.

In addition to the eugenics, racism, and fascism at home on this constellation of beliefs, there is this: Sparta was a militarized state which enslaved its neighbors and produced little of worth for the world beyond a mythologized memory of a great fighting force.

When it comes to everything else for which we prize ancient Greece, Sparta was terribly and completely deficient. Tragedy, Epic poetry, lyric poetry, visual art, vases, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, science, history, rhetoric, everything Western cultural chauvinist champion about the ‘Greek miracle’* developed every where else in Greece.

Read Bond’s piece. It is a good one. Also, Neville Morely’s post on the use of Sparta by the far right is also a must-read.

And, here are some selections from Spartan ‘culture’.

*These are scare quotes. Even as a Hellenist I do not believe in this terminology. I find it ironic, however, that those who do still cleave to the example of Sparta which is, in many ways, antithetical to ‘core Western values’.

Sparta left some martial poetry. It is, well, uninspiring.

Tyrtaeus, Fr. 10.1-2

“It is a fine thing when a noble man falls
In the first ranks while struggling for his country.”

τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλὸν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι πεσόντα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν περὶ ἧι πατρίδι μαρνάμενον·

Tytaeus, fr. 11.5-8

“Make your life hateful and make the dark fates
Of death as dear as the rays of the sun.
For you know the destructive deeds of much-wept Ares
And you have learned well the fury of fierce war.”

ἐχθρὴν μὲν ψυχὴν θέμενος, θανάτου δὲ μελαίνας
κῆρας αὐγαῖς ἠελίοιο φίλας.
ἴστε γὰρ ὡς ῎Αρεος πολυδακρύου ἔργ’ ἀΐδηλα,
εὖ δ’ ὀργὴν ἐδάητ’ ἀργαλέου πολέμου

Callinus 1. 12-21

“There’s no way for a man to avoid death once it is fated,
Not even if he is a descendant of the immortal gods.
Often when someone has fled strife and the din of spears
Death’s fate will find him at home.
The unsteady man isn’t dear to the people or longed for,
They grieve for him a little even if he suffers something great.
But the whole host misses a strong-hearted man when he dies
A man the equal of living heroes.
They look at him like a tower before their eyes_
He does work of many though he is just one.”

οὐ γάρ κως θάνατόν γε φυγεῖν εἱμαρμένον ἐστὶν
ἄνδρ’, οὐδ’ εἰ προγόνων ἦι γένος ἀθανάτων.
πολλάκι δηϊοτῆτα φυγὼν καὶ δοῦπον ἀκόντων
ἔρχεται, ἐν δ’ οἴκωι μοῖρα κίχεν θανάτου,
ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν οὐκ ἔμπης δήμωι φίλος οὐδὲ ποθεινός
τὸν δ’ ὀλίγος στενάχει καὶ μέγας ἤν τι πάθηι·
λαῶι γὰρ σύμπαντι πόθος κρατερόφρονος ἀνδρὸς
θνήσκοντος, ζώων δ’ ἄξιος ἡμιθέων·
ὥσπερ γάρ μιν πύργον ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶσιν·
ἔρδει γὰρ πολλὼν ἄξια μοῦνος ἐών.

The most famous epigram associated with Sparta was not composed by a Spartan:

Simonides, Epigram (Greek Anthology,7.249): An Epitaph at Thermopylae

“Stranger, go tell the Spartans that we lie here
obedient to their commands.”

Ω ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις, ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

Aelian, 13.19

“Cleomenes the Laconian asserted—in the manner of Spartans—that Homer was a Spartan poet because he spoke about the right way to go to war and that Hesiod was the Helot’s poet, since he talks about how best to farm.”

῎Ελεγεν ὁ Κλεομένης Λακωνικῶς κατὰ τὸν ἐπιχώριον τρόπον τὸν ῞Ομηρον Λακεδαιμονίων εἶναι ποιητήν, ὡς χρὴ πολεμεῖν λέγοντα· τὸν δὲ ῾Ησίοδον τῶν Εἱλώτων, λέγοντα ὡς χρὴ γεωργεῖν.

Some Sayings Attributed to Spartans in the Gnomologicum Vaticanum

69 “When Agesilaos was asked by someone why Sparta was unwalled he said “don’t lie. It is walled not by stones but by its occupants’ excellence.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς ὑπό τινος, διὰ τί ἀτείχιστός ἐστιν ἡ Σπάρτη, „μὴ ψεύδου”, ἔφη, „τετείχισται γάρ, οὐ λίθοις, ἀλλὰ ταῖς τῶν <ἐνοικούντων ἀρεταῖς>”.

394 “When a Spartan man was asked why the Spartans have small spears he said “because they fight close to the enemy”

Λάκων ἀνὴρ ἐρωτώμενος διὰ τί οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι μικρὰ ἔχουσι τὰ ἐγχειρίδια εἶπεν· „ὅτι ἐγγύθεν τοῖς πολεμίοις μάχονται”.

396 “To someone asking why Spartans foster brevity of speech, a Spartan man said “because it is closest to silence”

Λάκων ἀνὴρ πρὸς τὸν εἰπόντα αὐτῷ· „διὰ τί οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι τὴν βραχυλογίαν ἀσκοῦσιν;” εἶπεν· „ὅτι ἔγγιστά ἐστι τοῦ σιωπᾶν”.

Sayings Attributed to Spartan Women, 568-576

“When a Spartan woman was speaking to her son who had been crippled in battle and was depressed because of that she said “don’t be sad, child—for each step recalls your private virtue”

Γυνὴ Λάκαινα τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς ἐν παρατάξει χωλωθέντος καὶ δυσφοροῦντος ἐπὶ τούτῳ „τέκνον”, εἶπε, „μὴ λυποῦ· καθ’ ἕκαστον γὰρ βῆμα τῆς ἰδίας <ἀρετῆς ὑπομνησθήσῃ.”>

“A Spartan woman said of her son who was thankful that he was the only one to survive a battle-line “why aren’t you ashamed that you’re the only one alive?”

Λάκαινα γυνὴ σεμνυνομένου τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς ἐπὶ τῷ μόνον ἐκ τῆς παρατάξεως σεσῶσθαι ἔφη· „τί οὖν οὐκ αἰσχύνῃ μόνος ζῶν;”

“When a Spartan woman heard that her son died in the battle line she said “Child, you paid your country back well for your upbringing.”

Γυνὴ Λάκαινα ἀκούσασα τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς ἐν παρατάξει τεθνηκέναι „τέκνον”, εἶπεν, „ὡς καλὰ τροφεῖα τῇ πατρίδι ἀπέδωκας!”

Image result for ancient Greek spartan shield

Telemachus is Not a Monster

The Odyssey is somewhat preoccupied with Telemachus’ paternity and the means by which it might be established. As mentioned in an earlier post, Aristotle suggests that children who are not like their father are monstrous. The Odyssey is also preoccupied with monstrous bodies–the giant Kikones, the deformed (morally and physically) Kyklopesthe transformed sailors, the mutilated bodies of servants–and the transformation of Odysseus’ body because of trauma at sea, age, and the needs of disguise. The threat of finding a monster at home might also be implied…

Athena signals Telemachus’ positive identity from the beginning. But the boy himself is uncertain! 

Homer, Odyssey 1.207-209

“…if in fact this great child is from the same Odysseus.
For you look terribly like that man in his beautiful eyes
and his head…”

εἰ δὴ ἐξ αὐτοῖο τόσος πάϊς εἰς ᾿Οδυσῆος.
αἰνῶς μὲν κεφαλήν τε καὶ ὄμματα καλὰ ἔοικας
κείνῳ, ἐπεὶ θαμὰ τοῖον ἐμισγόμεθ’ ἀλλήλοισι

Telemachus famously quibbles over the identification, wondering in classic moody adolescent fashion if any of this is true. Some of the scholia try to support him…

Od. 1.215-216

“My mother says that I am his, but I, well, I just
Don’t know. For no one ever witnesses his own origin…”

μήτηρ μέν τέ μέ φησι τοῦ ἔμμεναι, αὐτὰρ ἐγώ γε
οὐκ οἶδ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.

Schol. EM ad Od. 1.215 ex

“No one knows his own origin..” and elsewhere [we find] “they claim that that man is my father” (Od.4.387.) Similarly, Euripides says “a mother is a more dear parent than a father / for she knows the child is hers but he only thinks it” and Menander says, “no one knows from what man he is born / but we all suspect or believe it.” And some claim that Telemachus says these things because he was left when he was small.”

οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον] καὶ ἀλλαχοῦ “τόνδε τ’ ἐμὸν πατέρα φάσ’ ἔμμεναι” (Od. δ, 387.). ὁμοίως Εὐριπίδης “μήτηρ φιλότεκνος μᾶλλον πατρός· ἡ μὲν γὰρ αὐτῆς οἶδεν ὄνθ’, ὁ δ’ οἴεται.” καὶ Μένανδρος “αὑτὸν γὰρ οὐδεὶς οἶδε τοῦ ποτ’ ἐγένετο, ἀλλ’ ὑπονοοῦμεν πάντες ἢ πιστεύομεν.” τινὲς δὲ ταῦτα τὸν Τηλέμαχόν φασι λέγειν ἐπεὶ μικρὸς καταλέλειπται. E.M.

Later in the Odyssey, Nestor likens son to father (implicitly).

Od. 3.121-125

“..when shining Odysseus father was preeminent in all kinds of tricks, your father,   if truly you are his son. And wonder overtakes me as I look at you
For your speeches, at least, are really fine—no one would expect
A younger man to utter such suitable things.”

…ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλὸν ἐνίκα δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
παντοίοισι δόλοισι, πατὴρ τεός, εἰ ἐτεόν γε
κείνου ἔκγονός ἐσσι· σέβας μ’ ἔχει εἰσορόωντα.
ἦ τοι γὰρ μῦθοί γε ἐοικότες, οὐδέ κε φαίης
ἄνδρα νεώτερον ὧδε ἐοικότα μυθήσασθαι.

In Sparta, Helen notes that Telemachus looks like, well, Telemachus even though she has never seen him! Menelaos agrees. The scholia get a little frustrated.

Od. 4.138-146

“For I do not think that anyone looks so suitable,
Neither a man nor a woman, and wonder overtakes me as I look at him,
How this one looks like the son of great-hearted Odysseus,
Telemachus, the one that man left just born in his household
When the Achaeans left for the sake of dog-faced me
And went to Troy, raising their bold war.”

οὐ γάρ πώ τινά φημι ἐοικότα ὧδε ἰδέσθαι
οὔτ’ ἄνδρ’ οὔτε γυναῖκα, σέβας μ’ ἔχει εἰσορόωσαν,
ὡς ὅδ’ ᾿Οδυσσῆος μεγαλήτορος υἷι ἔοικε,
Τηλεμάχῳ, τὸν ἔλειπε νέον γεγαῶτ’ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ
κεῖνος ἀνήρ, ὅτ’ ἐμεῖο κυνώπιδος εἵνεκ’ ᾿Αχαιοὶ
ἤλθεθ’ ὑπὸ Τροίην, πόλεμον θρασὺν ὁρμαίνοντες.”

Schol. E. ad Od. 4.143

“She says these things even though she has not seen Telemachus but based instead on the character of Odysseus.”

οὐ Τηλέμαχον εἰδυῖα ταῦτα λέγει, ἀλλ’ ἐκ τοῦ χαρακτῆρος τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως. E.

Schol. Q ad. Od. 4.143

“She compares him to his father even though she has never seen Odysseus’ child.”

ἐξομοιοῖ δὲ αὐτὸν τῷ πατρὶ οὐχ ἑωρακυῖά ποτε ᾿Οδυσσέως παῖδα. Q.

Od. 4.147-150

“Fair Menelaos spoke to her and answered:
‘I was just thinking the same thing, wife, which you imagined.
For these are the same kind of feet and hands,
The look of the eyes and the hair on the head as that man.”

τὴν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη ξανθὸς Μενέλαος·
“οὕτω νῦν καὶ ἐγὼ νοέω, γύναι, ὡς σὺ ἐΐσκεις·
κείνου γὰρ τοιοίδε πόδες τοιαίδε τε χεῖρες
ὀφθαλμῶν τε βολαὶ κεφαλή τ’ ἐφύπερθέ τε χαῖται.

Schol H. ad Od. 4.149 ex 1-4

“These sort of feet are that man’s”: For likeness in bodies especially shows through in the extremities and the gaze. And however so much grows more slowly, that much provides more precise signs of recognition over time. This is why it is said “From feet to the head.”

κείνου γὰρ τοιοίδε πόδες] ἐκ γὰρ τῶν ἄκρων καὶ τῆς ὄψεως μάλιστα αἱ ὁμοιότητες τῶν σωμάτων ἐμφαίνονται. ὅσον δὲ βράδιον ἐστοχάσατο, τοσοῦτον ἀκριβέστερον ἀπεφήνατο τὸν μεταξὺ χρόνον δηλονότι κατανοῶν. τὸ δὲ λεγόμενον, ἐκ ποδῶν εἰς κεφαλήν. H.

The threat of children not looking like fathers is central to the fall of the race of iron. But it is couched within a general social collapse. In this case, ancient scholia turn to the abstract issue. In this case, a child dissimilar to parents would be a monstrum, but in the sense of an omen or a sign of a fallen generation. From this perspective the tension latent in Telemachus’ potential dissimilarity to his father is about stability of the last generation of epic heroes. The bastard sons of Odysseus and potential infidelity of Penelope signal, perhaps, the end of the race of heroes and a premature end to heroic epic.

Hesiod, Works and Days 180–185

“Zeus will destroy this race of mortal humans
Or they will perish when they are born with temples already grey.
Then a father will not be like his children, nor children at all like parents;
A guest will not be dear to a host, a friend not to a friend
And a relative will not be dear as in years before.”

Ζεὺς δ’ ὀλέσει καὶ τοῦτο γένος μερόπων ἀνθρώπων,
εὖτ’ ἂν γεινόμενοι πολιοκρόταφοι τελέθωσιν.
οὐδὲ πατὴρ παίδεσσιν ὁμοίιος οὐδέ τι παῖδες
οὐδὲ ξεῖνος ξεινοδόκῳ καὶ ἑταῖρος ἑταίρῳ,
οὐδὲ κασίγνητος φίλος ἔσσεται, ὡς τὸ πάρος περ.
αἶψα δὲ γηράσκοντας ἀτιμήσουσι τοκῆας·

Schol. ad. Hes. Th. 182b-d ex.

b. “Similar to…” likeness, similarity, a shared voice or similarity in mind or in shape, [lost here] because of the multitude of wickedness and adulteries…”

b. ὁμοίιος: ὁμονοητικός, σύμφωνος ἢ ὅμοιος τῇ γνώμῃ ἢ τῇ ἰδέᾳ, διὰ τὸ τῶν κακιῶν πλῆθος καὶ τῶν μοιχειῶν…

“similar to”: the similarity is clearly the commonness, the conversation, and the affection. For affection (philia) develops from similarity. Altogether this expresses tragically the oncoming evils in life following this, the distrust between children and fathers, between guests and hosts, and among friends. Friendship is the third thing mentioned. Also: cognate, companionable, hospitable.”

c.ὁμοίιος: τὸ μὲν ὁμοίιος δηλοῖ τὸ κοινωνικὸν καὶ προσήγορον καὶ φίλιον· φιλία γὰρ
δι’ ὁμοιότητος ἐπιτελεῖται. πάντα δὲ ἐκτραγῳδεῖ τὰ ἐπεισελθόντα κακὰ τῷ βίῳ μετ’ αὐτόν, τὴν ἀπιστίαν τῶν παίδων καὶ πατέρων, τὴν τῶν ξένων καὶ ξενοδόχων, τὴν τῶν ἑταίρων πρὸς ἀλλήλους. τριττὴ γὰρ ἡ φιλία· συγγενική,
ἑταιρική, ξενική.

d. “Similar to”: Similarity of men, having one desire or, he means, through mixing it up with other women, the bastard sons too.”

d.<ὁμοίιος:> ὁμογνώμων, μίαν θέλησιν ἔχων ἢ διὰ τὰς ἀλληλομιξίας λέγων τῶν γυναικῶν καὶ τοὺς νόθους υἱούς.

Later, Aristotle channels some of the same cultural assumptions from a scientific perspective. Here the monstrum (greek teras) is an indication of deformity.

Aristotle, Generation of Animals, Book 4, 767b

“These causes are also of the same. Some [offspring] are born similar to their parents while others are not. Some are similar to their father; others are like their mother, applying both to the body as a whole and to each part. Offspring are more like their parents than their ancestors and more like their ancestors than passersby.

Males are more similar to their father and females are more similar to their mother. But some are not like any of their relatives, but are still akin to human beings while others are like not at all like humans in their appearance, but rather like some monster. For whoever is not like his parents is in some way a monster because nature has in these cases wandered in some way from the essential character.”

Αἱ δ᾿ αὐταὶ αἰτίαι καὶ τοῦ τὰ μὲν ἐοικότα γίνεσθαι τοῖς τεκνώσασι τὰ δὲ μὴ ἐοικότα, καὶ τὰ μὲν πατρὶ τὰ δὲ μητρί, κατά τε ὅλον τὸ σῶμα καὶ κατὰ μόριον ἕκαστον, καὶ μᾶλλον αὐτοῖς ἢ τοῖς προγόνοις, καὶ τούτοις ἢ τοῖς τυχοῦσι, καὶ τὰ μὲν ἄρρενα μᾶλλον τῷ πατρὶ τὰ δὲ θήλεα τῇ μητρί, τὰ δ᾿ οὐδενὶ τῶν συγγενῶν, ὅμως δ᾿ ἀνθρώπῳ γέ τινι, τὰ δ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἀνθρώπῳ τὴν ἰδέαν ἀλλ᾿ ἤδη τέρατι. καὶ γὰρ ὁ μὴ ἐοικὼς τοῖς γονεῦσιν ἤδη τρόπον τινὰ τέρας ἐστίν· παρεκβέβηκε γὰρ ἡ φύσις ἐν τούτοις ἐκ τοῦ γένους τρόπον τινά.

Image result for Ancient Greek Telemachus
“Look how big and beautiful I am.” Mid-4th century BC. Berlin, Staatliche Museen

A Disturbing (?) Passage from Modern Scholarship on Ancient Sexuality

I have been weighing the sense and import of the pages below for a few weeks now. Typically, I don’t teach too much about sexuality and I research it even less as a Homerist. I suspect that this is partly disciplinary (Homer is happy to indicate the power and fact of sexual acts with little specification; this is largely a generic characteristic) but part is nurture: my parents were both Lutherans of mid-Western Scandinavian persuasion: sex is fine, as long as no one talks about it.

But I do mention misogyny quite a bit in classes and on the blog and I have long been worried about the ways in which an uncritical presentation of the material in Homer and myth merely recapitulates and strengthens structural biases about gender and power. When it comes to human sexuality, I get a little squeamish with posts on this site: I like to post material that surprises people with the dirtiness of the Ancient world (you know, farting, shitting, middle fingers) and which disabuses people of the notion that what we have from the Ancient Greek and Romans is largely philosophy and Galen. But in a time when people misuse the ancient world for many things–most execrably to support racists and white supremacist views erroneously--I do fear that some postings might appear exploitative or be misused in some way.

This is one reason, for example although I put up a post about masturbation in ancient Greek, I did not follow it up, as requested with one about female masturbation. For one, there is only a small amount of evidence (and the evidence is extremely problematic because it comes from men and is mostly negative). For another, I don’t think there is any way for a male author to post information about female masturbation online without seeming in some way salacious, creepy, or just, well, gross.

(Again, this is where both my nature and my nurture may be causing me problems. Oh, and this: not talking about female masturbation reinforces taboos about female sexuality and agency.)

Another area in which we have posted very little is on topics that pertain to homosexuality, same-sex acts, or non-heteronormative (in a modern sense) eroticism. People respond all too well to lists of words for feces, but descriptions of sexuality that fall under the earlier categories get some strange responses. This is not enough to stop us alone. My worry is akin to my concern in the last paragraph, but more. I fear that some readers will use such material negatively (doing harm to ancient and modern communities); I also feel we run the risk of getting cheap entertainment through the exploitative expropriation of someone else’s sexuality.

But I have been struggling with the line of thought in the passage I am about to cite. The work of the book The Maculate Muse is really groundbreaking (and it is a work to which I have referred for many years), but the comments on comparing modern and ancient ‘homosexuality’ seem skewed in a damaging way. I am posting them not with the intention of shaming the scholar, but instead with the hope that someone will tell me I have read this all wrong.

J. Henderson. The Maculate Muse, 1991 (2nd edition; first 1975): 207

Henderson page 207

The Maculate Muse, 1991: 208

Henderson page 208

I am troubled by a few things here. The bit about “perversion” and “not without reason” seems particularly problematic, especially since it is unexplained. The additional language of compulsion is also borderline for me. Although the second edition is now nearly 30 years old (and the original is closer to 50!), I would have thought that it would be more sensitive in its treatment of sexual categories and notions of sexual activity, sexual identity, gender and sex.

My suspicions about this passage and its implicit definitions of sexuality (and identities) have led me to read a lot of what Henderson says about “pathics”, effeminacy, and the insults which may or may not pertain to these categories with much greater caution.

Update: an important note of context. The comments cited above were not updated from the 1975 edition of the book. The following note precedes the discussion.

A scholar familiar with the development of this book from dissertation to publication and revision was kind enough to share some context. It was dangerous for a career to write this book in the 1970s. Classics has not always been in the social and cultural vanguard.

So, this passage can serve particularly well as a lesson for how our scholarship is shaped by cultural constrainta both in its articulation and ita reception over time.