“Otanês was first urging the Persians to entrust governing to the people, saying these things: “it seems right to me that we no longer have a monarchy. For it is neither pleasing nor good. For you all know about the arrogance of Kambyses and you were a party to the insanity of the Magus. How could monarchy be a fitting thing when it permits an unaccountable person to do whatever he pleases? Even if you put the best of all men into this position he might go outside of customary thoughts. For hubris is nurtured by the fine things present around him, and envy is native to a person from the beginning.
The one who has these two qualities possesses every kind of malice. For one who is overfilled does many reckless things, some because of arrogance and some because of envy. Certainly, it would be right for a man who is a tyrant at least to have no envy at all, since he has all the good things. Yet he becomes the opposite of this towards his citizens: for he envies those who are best around him and live, and he takes pleasure in the worst of the citizens—he is the best at encouraging slanders.
He becomes the most disharmonious of all people—for if you admire him only moderately, then he is upset because you do not support him ardently. But if someone supports him excessively, he is angry at him for being a toady. The worst things are still to be said: he overturns traditional laws, he rapes women, and kills people without reason.”
“While the courts just as in previous eras have been run by the three orders, those political factions still rule them: they give and take what they may, giving the innocent the runaround and heaping honors on their own. Neither crime nor shame nor public disgrace disqualifies them from office. They rob, despoil whomever they please. And finally, as if the city has been sacked, they rely on their own lust and excess instead of the laws.
And for me this would only be a source of limited grief if, in their typical fashion, they were pursuing a victory born from excellence. But the laziest of people whose total strength and excellence come from their tongue are arrogantly administering a tyranny gained through luck and from another person! For what treason or civil discord has obliterated so many families? Who whose spirit was ever so hasty and extreme in victory?”
Iudicia tametsi, sicut antea, tribus ordinibus tradita sunt, tamen idem illi factiosi regunt, dant, adimunt quae lubet, innocentis circumveniunt, suos ad honorem extollunt. Non facinus, non probrum aut flagitium obstat, quo minus magistratus capiant. Quos commodum est trahunt, rapiunt; postremo tamquam urbe capta libidine ac licentia sua pro legibus utuntur.
Ac me quidem mediocris dolor angeret, si virtute partam victoriam more suo per servitium exercerent. Sed homines inertissimi, quorum omnis vis virtusque in lingua sita est, forte atque alterius socordia dominationem oblatam insolentes agitant. Nam quae seditio aut dissensio civilis tot tam illustris familias ab stirpe evertit? Aut quorum umquam in victoria animus tam praeceps tamque inmoderatus fuit?
“I cannot think…or figure out any reason why
I might impeach him. What would let you accuse someone
Who is honorable, if he is good? And if he is not honorable
What would let you impeach him if he thinks it is but a
Nequeo . . .
qua causa accusem hunc exputando evolvere.
Nam si veretur quid eum accuses qui est probus?
Sin inverecundum animi ingenium possidet,
quid autem accuses qui id parvi auditum
aestimet? . . .
Aristophanes fr 228 = Suda sigma 290
“Shaking-down”: Blackmail, this is a metaphor from people who shake trees: “I was shaking them down, I demanded money, I was threatening them and was extorting them again and again.”
“I will now explain why I have told this story. There is in the Akropolis an olive tree and a little salt pond inside the shrine of the one called the Earth-born Erekhtheus. The story among the Athenians is that after Poseidon and Athena struggled for the land they put these there as commemoration.
That olive tree was burned along with the temple by the barbarians. Yet, on the day after it burned, when some of the Athenians who were ordered to go there to sacrifice arrived at the temple, they saw a new shoot about as long as a cubit already growing from the trunk. They then told this story.”
As few years ago I posted this passage as wildfires burned through Attica. As with most non-US and non-Trump related disasters, these fires went under-reported). The recent coverage of the conflagration that is claiming Australia right now is even worse in the US. Part of it is our own myopia and narcissism; the rest is that we are in deep denial that we have crossed some pretty terrible lines. Our hearts are with our friends, colleagues, and everyone else affected by this.
As Harper’s Magazine reports, severe fires are likely to be the rule rather than the exception thanks to our use of resources, lack of preparedness and global warming. This last year saw another season of devastation in the Western US, costing $163 million just to suppress. We can donate to help those affected, but in the long term we need to act to elect leaders who will acknowledge that we are hastening our own doom and we must hold accountable corporations that put short-term profit ahead of all else.
The passage above is from the part of Herodotus’ Histories after the Athenians have abandoned the city and retreated to Salamis to wage the war from the sea. This move is one of the most critical decisions of the Persian Wars, one that, arguably, is far more radical and important that the Spartan stand at Thermopylae. There is a simple beauty in the shoot growing from the burnt tree. But it is a beauty available only in hindsight and not to those who lost their lives before the story was told. The promise of new growth offers little solace to the dead and their bereaved families.
The promise of new life from destruction is central to one of my favorite similes from Homer as well.
Homer, Odyssey 5.488-493
“Just as when someone hides a firebrand in black ash
On the farthest edge of the wilderness where there are no neighbors
And saves the seed of fire when there is no other way to kindle it,
Just so Odysseus covered himself in leaves. Then Athena
Poured sleep over his eyes so he might immediately rest
From his exhausting toil, once she closed his dear lashes.”
The fire in this simile–that promise of life, the seed of the future–is a domesticated fire, one controlled and contingent on human relationships. It is a symbol for human potential to create and in its dormancy suppresses the urge to destroy. The promise of life and regrowth is contingent on the conditions that give life to begin with. We have the ability to make our lives together better or worse. We will never rid ourselves of all risk and disaster, but we can make the decision not to rush headlong into it. When I posted these passages a few years back, I was hopeful, somehow, that something might arise out of them. I am unsure that Herodotus’ historic view or Homer’s heroic vision can encapsulate what we’re facing at all: an unmaking of the world as we know it. This is primordial.
Hesiod Theogony 853-867
“When Zeus filled with strength and took his weapons,
That thunder, lightning, and the shining thunderbolt,
He leapt down from Olympos and attacked. He burned
All the divine heads of the terrible beast around him.
Once Zeus overcame him, slamming him down with his fists,
He fell, bent back, and the great Earth gasped beneath him.
Flame rose up from the thunder-beaten god
On the tops of the mountain ridges in the dry places
where he was struck and the great Earth burned beneath
because of the unbearable force and it melted there—
the way tin melts when fired with skill in the well-made channels
or the way iron—which is the strongest thing of all—
contracts when overcome by bright fire on mountain ridges
only to melt in the rich earth under Hephaistos’s hands—
that’s how the Earth melts in the glare of the burning fire”
Here at the end of Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus uses his overwhelming force and intelligence to face an existential challenge: the destructive potential of the universe contained within one figure, Typhoios (an elemental threat reflecting Zeus’ own surpassing power). Zeus brings order to the kosmos by subduing Typhoios and, in part thanks to this, gets to reign as king, father of gods and men. We don’t live in a poem of the gods; we can’t hope for myths to save our future. We need to do things now.
Or, we can just throw in with the reckless plutocrats and embrace that old Freudian death drive and keep on spending and burning until we’re all dead….
Anonymous, Greek Anthology, 7.704
“When I’m dead, the earth can be fucked by fire.
It means nothing to me since I’ll be totally fine.”
This is the voice that says only the now matters, that this quarter’s profits are more important than sustainability and justice, that today’s ends justify any kinds of means. Unsurprisingly, it is attributed to the Roman Emperors Tiberius and Nero:
Suda tau 552 [cribbing Dio Cassius]
“And Tiberius uttered that ancient phrase, “when I am dead, the earth can be fucked with fire”, and he used to bless Priam because he died with his country and his palace.”
“Where in the world is Crassus? Did he slink back to Alexandria because he was tired of his home? Is he cleaning his walls? Or, more likely, is the drunk suffering from a hangover?”
Crassus ipse ubi gentium est? An Alexandriam taedio domus remeavit? An parietes suos detergit? An, quod verius est, ex crapula helluo attemptatur?
From the Suda:
“Kraipalê: The pounding that comes from drinking too much wine. We also have the participle “carousing” which is when someone acts poorly because of drinking, or just being drunk. It derives from the word “head” (kara) and “pound” (pallein). Or, it could also come from screwing up (sphallesthai) timely matters (kairiôn)
Kraipalôdês: “Prone to drunkenness”: The ancients knew well the weaknesses of the spirit, weather it was a person who was prone to excessive drinking or a love-seeker who has his brain in his genitals.”
“Those who are suffering bodily from drinking and being hungover can find relief from sleeping immediately, warmed with a cover. On the next day, they can be restored with a bath, a massage, and whatever food does not cause agitation but restores the warmth dispelled and lost from the body by wine.”
“Wine (being of a wet nature) stretches those who are slow and makes them quick, but it tends to restrain those who are quick already. On that account, some who are melancholic by nature become entirely dissipated in drunken stupors (kraipalais). Just as a bath can make those who are all bound up and stiff more readily able to move, so does it check those who are already movable and loose, so too does wine, which is like a bath for your innards, accomplish this same thing.
Why then does cabbage prevent drunkenness (kraipale)? Either because it has a sweet and purgative juice (and for this reason doctors use it to clean out the intestines), even though it is itself of a cold nature. Here is a proof: doctors use it against exceptionally bad cases of diarrhea, after preparing it by cooking it, removing the fiber, and freezing it. It happens in the case of those suffering from the effects of drunkenness (kraipalonton) that the cabbage juice draws the wet elements, which are full of wine and still undigested, down to their stomachs, while the body chills the rest which remains in the upper part of the stomach. Once it has been chilled, the rest of the moist element can be drawn into the bladder. Thus, when each of the wet elements has been separated through the body and chilled, people are likely to be relieved of their drunkenness (akraipaloi). For wine is wet and warm.”
“This misery and fear have easily relieved me of my hangover.”
miseria haec et metus crapulam facile excusserunt
If you have read this far, you’re probably not that hungover
Plautus, Rudens 585-590
“But why am I standing here, a sweating fool?
Maybe I should leave here for Venus’ temple to sleep off this hangover
I got because I drank more than I intended?
Neptune soaked us with the sea as if we were Greek wines
And he hoped to relieve us with salty-beverages.
Shit. What good are words?”
sed quid ego hic asto infelix uuidus?
quin abeo huc in Veneris fanum, ut edormiscam hanc crapulam,
quam potaui praeter animi quam lubuit sententiam?
quasi uinis Graecis Neptunus nobis suffudit mare,
itaque aluom prodi sperauit nobis salsis poculis;
quid opust uerbis?
Plautus, Stichus 226-230
“I am selling Greek moisturizers
And other ointments, hangover-cures
Little jokes, blandishments
And a sycophant’s confabulations.
I’ve got a rusting strigil, a reddish flask,
And a hollowed out follower to hide your trash in.”
uel unctiones Graecas sudatorias
uendo uel alias malacas, crapularias;
ac periuratiunculas parasiticas;
robiginosam strigilim, ampullam rubidam,
parasitum inanem quo recondas reliquias.
Myrsôn, what do you find sweet in the spring,
The winter, fall, or summer? Which do you pray for the most?
Is it summer when everything we have worked for is done,
Or is fall sweeter, when hunger is light for men,
Or is it winter, bad for work, when because of the season
Many warm themselves delighting in laziness and relaxation—
Or, surely, is it noble spring which pleases you more?
Tell me what’s on your mind, since leisure has allowed us to chat.
It is not right for mortals to judge divine deeds—
For all these things are sacred and sweet. But for you, Kleodamos,
I will confess what seems sweeter to me than the rest.
I do not wish for the summer, since the sun cooks me then.
I do not wish for the Fall, since that season brings disease.
The Winter brings ruinous snow—and I have chilling fear.
I long for Spring three times as much for the whole year,
When neither the cold nor the heat weigh upon me.
Everything is pregnant in the spring, everything grows sweet in springtime
When humans have nights and days as equal, nearly the same.”