“They Oppress the Oppressed”: Two Early Christian Letters on Evil Men

As I spend another father’s day without my own father and with my own children, I can’t stop thinking about what we are doing to families in this country. Given a certain recent appeal to biblical law, I thought it appropriate to share some words from some early Church leaders.

Letters of Ignatius, To the Smyrneans 8.6

“Learn the truth of those who render false the grace that has come to us from Jesus Christ, how they are truly opposite to the judgment of God. They don’t care about love, about the widow, about the orphan, the oppressed, the people in chains, those who have been set free, or the hungry, or the orphans.”

καταμάθετε δὲ τοὺς ἑτεροδοξοῦντας εἰς τὴν χάριν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τὴν εἰς ἡμᾶς ἐλθοῦσαν, πῶς ἐναντίοι εἰσὶν τῇ γνώμῃ τοῦ θεοῦ. περὶ ἀγάπης οὐ μέλει αὐτοῖς, οὐ περὶ χήρας, οὐ περὶ ὀρφανοῦ, οὐ περὶ θλιβομένου, οὐ περὶ δεδεμένου ἢ λελυμένου, οὐ περὶ πεινῶντος ἢ διψῶντος.

Barnabas, Epistle 20

“The path of the dark one is crooked and curse-filled. For it is the path of endless death with punishment—on it are those things which destroy the soul: idolatry, arrogance, glorification of power, duplicity, adultery, murder, theft, hubris, transgression, lying, wickedness, insolence, drugs, magic, and not fearing God.

This road is filled with those who persecute good people, who hate the truth, who delight in lying, who do not understand the reward of justice, who are not curbed by good or righteous judgment, who do not defend the widow and the orphan, who do not have a sense of reverence for God but instead for wickedness—meekness and kindness are very distant from these men.

They delight in what is empty and pursue profit—they do not pity the poor or work for the oppressed. They do not recognize who has formed them—they are murderers of children, destroyers of God’s creation. They turn their backs on the man in needy, the further oppress the oppressed and are partisans of the wealthy. They sit as judges of the poor without law, these men of total sin.”

1.Ἡ δὲ τοῦ μέλανος ὁδός ἐστιν σκολιὰ καὶ κατάρας μεστή. ὁδὸς γάρ ἐστιν θανάτου αἰωνίου μετὰ τιμωρίας, ἐν ᾗ ἐστὶν τὰ ἀπολλύντα τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτῶν· εἰδωλολατρεία, θρασύτης, ὕψος δυνάμεως, ὑπόκρισις, διπλοκαρδία, μοιχεία, φόνος, ἁρπαγή, ὑπερηφανία, παράβασις, δόλος, κακία, αὐθάδεια, φαρμακεία, μαγεία, πλεονεξία, ἀφοβία θεοῦ·

διῶκται τῶν ἀγαθῶν, μισοῦντες ἀλήθειαν, ἀγαπῶντες ψεῦδος, οὐ γινώσκοντες μισθὸν δικαιοσύνης, οὐ κολλώμενοι ἀγαθῷ, οὐ κρίσει δικαίᾳ, χήρᾳ καὶ ὀρφανῷ οὐ προσέχοντες, ἀγρυπνοῦντες οὐκ εἰς φόβον θεοῦ, ἀλλ᾿ ἐπὶ τὸ πονηρόν, ὧν μακρὰν καὶ πόρρω πραΰτης καὶ ὑπομονή, ἀγαπῶντες μάταια, διώκοντες ἀνταπόδομα, οὐκ ἐλεοῦντες πτωχόν, οὐ πονοῦντες ἐπὶ καταπονουμένῳ, εὐχερεῖς ἐν καταλαλιᾷ, οὐ γινώσκοντες τὸν ποιήσαντα αὐτούς, φονεῖς τέκνων, φθορεῖς πλάσματος θεοῦ, ἀποστρεφόμενοι τὸν ἐνδεόμενον, καταπονοῦντες τὸν θλιβόμενον, πλουσίων παράκλητοι, πενήτων ἄνομοι κριταί, πανθαμάρτητοι.

Image result for medieval manuscript barnabas letter

Some words:

μισοβάρβαρος: “foreigner-hating”
μισοδημία: “democracy-hating”
μισοδημότης: “commonwealth-hating”
μισόθριξ: “hair-hating”
μισόκοσμος: “universe-hating”
μισόνοθος: “bastard-hating”
μισοξενία: “guest-hating”
μισόπαις: “child-hating”
μισοπάτωρ: “father-hating”
μισόφιλος: “friend-hating”
μισότεκνος: “child-hating”

A Predator and His Council: A Fable for Our Times

Phaedrus 2.6: The Eagle and the Crow

“Against those in power, no one has enough defense
If a wicked adviser also enters the scene
His power and malice ruins their opposition.
An eagle carried a tortoise on high,
When he pulled his body in his armored home to hide,
And rested hidden untouched by any attack,
A crow came on a breeze flying near them:

“You have well seized a precious prize with your talons,
But, if I don’t show what you need to do,
It will pointlessly wear you out with its heavy weight.”

Promised a portion, the crow instructs the eagle to drop
The hard shell from the stars upon a cliff’s rock.
It would be easy to feed on the broken flesh!

The eagle followed up these wicked instructions
And also split the feast with her teacher.
Just so, the tortoise who was safe by nature’s gift.
Was ill-matched to those two and died a sad death.”

Contra potentes nemo est munitus satis;
si vero accessit consiliator maleficus,
vis et nequitia quicquid oppugnant, ruit.
Aquila in sublime sustulit testudinem:
quae cum abdidisset cornea corpus domo,
nec ullo pacto laedi posset condita,
venit per auras cornix, et propter volans
“Opimam sane praedam rapuisti unguibus;
sed, nisi monstraro quid sit faciendum tibi,
gravi nequiquam te lassabit pondere.”
promissa parte suadet ut scopulum super
altis ab astris duram inlidat corticem,
qua comminuta facile vescatur cibo.
inducta vafris aquila monitis paruit,
simul et magistrae large divisit dapem.
sic tuta quae naturae fuerat munere,
impar duabus, occidit tristi nece.

Image result for medieval manuscript eagle and crow and tortoise

The Original Virgin Suicides

When looking at discussions of suicide in the ancient world I have been struck by how different attitudes were then when compared to our own. I guess I always knew this, but had not really thought too deeply upon it. I am reluctant to post some of them, because I think that out of context they could be read harmfully as a support for if not glorification of suicide. At the same time, however, I think it probably does more harm than good not to take a hard look at ancient attitudes.

Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. Warning: it contains misogyny as well as reference to suicide clusters. In general, this reminded me of the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley discussed widely a few years ago. But–and I think this is more important–it also points to groups of suicide as an attempt to wrest agency in response to desperation, a lack of agency, and marginalization.

Aulus Gellius, Varia Historia 15.10

“In his first of the books On the Soul, Plutarch included the following tale when he was commenting on maladies which afflict human minds. He said that there were maiden girls of Milesian families who at a certain time suddenly and without almost any clear reason made a plan to die and that many killed themselves by hanging.

When this became more common in following days and there was no treatment to be found for the spirits of those who were dedicated to dying, The Milesians decreed that all maidens who would die by hanging their bodies would be taken out to burial completely naked except for the rope by which they were hanged. After this was decreed, the maidens did not seek suicide only because they were frightened by the thought of so shameful a funeral.”

Plutarchus in librorum quos περὶ ψυχῆς inscripsit primo cum de morbis dissereret in animos hominum incidentibus, virgines dixit Milesii nominis, fere quot tum in ea civitate erant, repente sine ulla evidenti causa voluntatem cepisse obeundae mortis ac deinde plurimas vitam suspendio amississe. id cum accideret in dies crebrius neque animis earum mori perseverantium medicina adhiberi quiret, decrevisse Milesios ut virgines, quae corporibus suspensis demortuae forent, ut hae omnes nudae cum eodem laqueo quo essent praevinctae efferrentur. post id decretum virgines voluntariam mortem non petisse pudore solo deterritas tam inhonesti funeris.

Suicides of public figures cause disbelief because of our cultural misconceptions about depression and about the importance of material wealth and fame to our well-being. While some clusters of suicide can be understood as a reflex of the “threshold problem”, we fail to see the whole picture if we do not also see that human well-being is connected to a sense of agency and belonging. Galen, in writing about depression, notes that melancholy can make us desire that which we fear.

Galen, De Locis Affectis 8.190-191

“But there are ten thousand other fantasies. The melancholic differ from one another, but even though they all exhibit fear, despair, blaming of life and hatred for people, they do not all want to die. For some, fear of death is the principle source of their depression. Some will seem paradoxical to you because they fear death and desire death at the same time.”

ἄλλα τε μυρία τοιαῦτα φαντασιοῦνται. διαφέρονται δὲ ἀλλήλων οἱ μελαγχολικοὶ, τὸ μὲν φοβεῖσθαι καὶ δυσθυμεῖν καὶ μέμφεσθαι τῇ ζωῇ καὶ μισεῖν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἅπαντες ἔχοντες, ἀποθανεῖν δ’ ἐπιθυμοῦντες οὐ πάντες, ἀλλ’ ἔστιν ἐνίοις αὐτῶν αὐτὸ δὴ τοῦτο κεφάλαιον τῆς μελαγχολίας, τὸ περὶ τοῦ θανάτου δέος· ἔνιοι δὲ ἀλλόκοτοί σοι δόξουσιν, ἅμα τε καὶ δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον καὶ θανατᾷν.

In thinking about the impact of agency and belonging on our sense of well-being and relationship to death, I have been significantly influence by this book:

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Stupidity, Evil’s Sibling.

μωρολογία: properly, “stupid-talking” or “the talk of fools”. But why not: “the science of stupidity”?

Sophocles, fr. 924

“Stupidity is a terrible opponent to wrestle”

ὡς δυσπάλαιστόν <ἐστιν> ἀμαθία κακόν

Terence, Phormio, 659-660

“Whether I claim he does this because of stupidity or

malice—whether this is a knowing plot, or incompetence, I am unsure.”

utrum stultitia facere ego hunc an malitia
dicam, scientem an imprudentem, incertu’ sum.

Sophocles, fr. 925

“Stupidity really is evil’s sibling”

ἡ δὲ μωρία
μάλιστ᾿ ἀδελφὴ τῆς πονηρίας ἔφυ

Suetonius, Divus Claudius 38

“But he did not stay quiet even about his own stupidity: but claimed that he had faked it on purpose under Gaius because he would have not escaped and advanced to his eventual position otherwise—and that this was supported by certain oracles. But he persuaded no one. And after a brief time, a book was published with the title “The Ascension of Fools” which posited that no one can pretend stupidity.”

Ac ne stultitiam quidem suam reticuit simulatamque a se ex industria sub Gaio, quod aliter evasurus perventurusque ad susceptam stationem non fuerit, quibusdam oratiunculis testatus est; nec tamen49 persuasit, cum intra breve tempus liber editus sit, cui index erat μωρῶν ἐπανάστασις, argumentum autem stultitiam neminem fingere.

Plutarch, Rational Beasts 998a

“Note that a lack of intelligence or stupidity in some animals emerges in contrast with the abilities and sharpness of others as you might compare an ass or a sheep with a fox, a wolf or a bee. It would be the same if you would compare Polyphemos or that idiot Koroibos to your grandfather Autolykos. For I do not think that there is so great a difference between beasts as there is between individual people in thinking, using reason, and in memory.”

ἐννόησον δ᾿ ὅτι τὰς ἐνίων ἀβελτερίας καὶ βλακείας ἐλέγχουσιν ἑτέρων πανουργίαι καὶ δριμύτητες, ὅταν ἀλώπεκι καὶ λύκῳ καὶ μελίττῃ παραβάλῃς ὄνον καὶ πρόβατον· ὥσπερ εἰ σαυτῷ τὸν Πολύφημον ἢ τῷ πάππῳ σου τῷ Αὐτολύκῳ τὸν Κόροιβον ἐκεῖνον τὸν μωρόν οὐ γὰρ οἶμαι θηρίου πρὸς θηρίον ἀπόστασιν εἶναι τοσαύτην, ὅσον ἄνθρωπος ἀνθρώπου τῷ φρονεῖν καὶ λογίζεσθαι καὶ μνημονεύειν ἀφέστηκεν.

Andocides, On His Return 2

“These men must be the dumbest of all people or they are the most inimical to the state. If they believe that it is also better for their private affairs when the state does well, then they are complete fools in pursuing something opposite to their own advantage right now. If they do not believe that they share common interests with you, then they must be enemies of the state”

δεῖ γὰρ αὐτοὺς ἤτοι ἀμαθεστάτους εἶναι πάντων ἀνθρώπων, ἢ τῇ πόλει ταύτῃ δυσμενεστάτους. εἰ μέν γε νομίζουσι τῆς πόλεως εὖ πραττούσης καὶ τὰ ἴδια σφῶν αὐτῶν ἄμεινον ἂν φέρεσθαι, ἀμαθέστατοί εἰσι τὰ ἐναντία νῦν τῇ ἑαυτῶν ὠφελείᾳ σπεύδοντες· εἰ δὲ μὴ ταὐτὰ ἡγοῦνται σφίσι τε αὐτοῖς συμφέρειν καὶ τῷ ὑμετέρῳ κοινῷ, δυσμενεῖς ἂν τῇ πόλει εἶεν·

Seneca the Elder, Suasoriae, 21

“A special recognition for stupidity needs to be given to the rhetorician Corvus who said, “Since Xerxes is already sailing against us on his sea, shouldn’t we flee before the earth is taken from us””

Corvo rhetori testimonium stuporis reddendum est, qui dixit: “quidni, si iam Xerses ad nos suo mari navigat, fugiamus, ntequam nobis terra subripiatur?”

Image result for ancient greek stupidity

“Your Father Does Not Dine With Us”: Orphanhood and Dehumanization

After the death of Hektor in Iliad 22, the poem moves to Andromache who gives a remarkable speech, most of which is occupied with thoughts of their son.

Iliad 22.482-507

“And now you go under the hidden places of the earth to Hades’ home,
But you leave me in hateful grief, a widow in our home—
And your child too, still an infant, the one we bore
You and I, ill-fated, Hektor, you will not be of any use to him
Since you have died, and he won’t be to you.

For even if he should escape the Achaeans’ war of many tears,
Still there would be toil and griefs for this child afterward.
For others will deprive him of his lands.

The day that makes a child an orphan separates him from his peers.
His looks down all the time; his cheeks are covered in tears;
And the child goes in need to his father’s friends,
Asking one for a cloak and another for a tunic.
He holds out his little cup while they pity him—
He can moisten his lips but never fill his hunger.

A luckier child chases him from the feast,
Striking him with his hands and laying into him with words:
“Go away—your father doesn’t dine with us.”

And the cheerful child will return to his widowed mother,
Atsyanax, who used to eat only marrow and the rich fat
Of sheep as he sat on his father’s needs.
Then when sleep would come over him, he would stop playing
And rest on a bed in the arms of a nurse, his heart full
Of everything good on that soft bed.

But now, he would suffer much once he has lost this dear father,
Astyanax, as the Trojans call him as a nickname,
For you alone defended their bulwarks and great walls.”

νῦν δὲ σὺ μὲν ᾿Αΐδαο δόμους ὑπὸ κεύθεσι γαίης
ἔρχεαι, αὐτὰρ ἐμὲ στυγερῷ ἐνὶ πένθεϊ λείπεις
χήρην ἐν μεγάροισι· πάϊς δ’ ἔτι νήπιος αὔτως,
ὃν τέκομεν σύ τ’ ἐγώ τε δυσάμμοροι· οὔτε σὺ τούτῳ
ἔσσεαι ῞Εκτορ ὄνειαρ ἐπεὶ θάνες, οὔτε σοὶ οὗτος.
ἤν περ γὰρ πόλεμόν γε φύγῃ πολύδακρυν ᾿Αχαιῶν,
αἰεί τοι τούτῳ γε πόνος καὶ κήδε’ ὀπίσσω
ἔσσοντ’· ἄλλοι γάρ οἱ ἀπουρίσσουσιν ἀρούρας.
ἦμαρ δ’ ὀρφανικὸν παναφήλικα παῖδα τίθησι·
πάντα δ’ ὑπεμνήμυκε, δεδάκρυνται δὲ παρειαί,
δευόμενος δέ τ’ ἄνεισι πάϊς ἐς πατρὸς ἑταίρους,
ἄλλον μὲν χλαίνης ἐρύων, ἄλλον δὲ χιτῶνος·
τῶν δ’ ἐλεησάντων κοτύλην τις τυτθὸν ἐπέσχε·
χείλεα μέν τ’ ἐδίην’, ὑπερῴην δ’ οὐκ ἐδίηνε.
τὸν δὲ καὶ ἀμφιθαλὴς ἐκ δαιτύος ἐστυφέλιξε
χερσὶν πεπλήγων καὶ ὀνειδείοισιν ἐνίσσων·
ἔρρ’ οὕτως· οὐ σός γε πατὴρ μεταδαίνυται ἡμῖν.
δακρυόεις δέ τ’ ἄνεισι πάϊς ἐς μητέρα χήρην
᾿Αστυάναξ, ὃς πρὶν μὲν ἑοῦ ἐπὶ γούνασι πατρὸς
μυελὸν οἶον ἔδεσκε καὶ οἰῶν πίονα δημόν·
αὐτὰρ ὅθ’ ὕπνος ἕλοι, παύσαιτό τε νηπιαχεύων,
εὕδεσκ’ ἐν λέκτροισιν ἐν ἀγκαλίδεσσι τιθήνης
εὐνῇ ἔνι μαλακῇ θαλέων ἐμπλησάμενος κῆρ·
νῦν δ’ ἂν πολλὰ πάθῃσι φίλου ἀπὸ πατρὸς ἁμαρτὼν
᾿Αστυάναξ, ὃν Τρῶες ἐπίκλησιν καλέουσιν·
οἶος γάρ σφιν ἔρυσο πύλας καὶ τείχεα μακρά.

I was profoundly moved by this speech for its vividness and terrible irony long before I was a parent myself. The first time I read this passage in Greek as I prepared for my PhD exams, I wept while completing it. As a parent now, I struggle even to think about reading it. The terrible irony of course is that Astyanax is actually killed by the victors before he can suffer the deprivations his mother predicts, although she does fear this fate:

Iliad 24.732–738

“You, child, will also either follow me
Where you will toil completing the wretched works
Of a cruel master or some Achaean will grab you
And throw you from the wall to your evil destruction
Because he still feels anger at Hektor killing his brother
Or father or son, since many a man of the Achaeans dined
On the endless earth under Hektor’s hands.”

… σὺ δ’ αὖ τέκος ἢ ἐμοὶ αὐτῇ
ἕψεαι, ἔνθά κεν ἔργα ἀεικέα ἐργάζοιο
ἀθλεύων πρὸ ἄνακτος ἀμειλίχου, ἤ τις ᾿Αχαιῶν
ῥίψει χειρὸς ἑλὼν ἀπὸ πύργου λυγρὸν ὄλεθρον
χωόμενος, ᾧ δή που ἀδελφεὸν ἔκτανεν ῞Εκτωρ
ἢ πατέρ’ ἠὲ καὶ υἱόν, ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλοὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν
῞Εκτορος ἐν παλάμῃσιν ὀδὰξ ἕλον ἄσπετον οὖδας.

In the popular tradition the one who carries out the killing of Astyanax is Odysseus, that ‘hero’ of that other epic who gets to go home to his own son and father. If the way we talk about and treat our enemies dehumanizes them—and us—what does it mean when we murder, torture, or harm children?

In the future Andromache imagines, Astyanax is marginalized even among his own people by the loss of his father–he loses his status, his friends, and his former happiness. But in a foreign land, he loses all hope of happiness–he is a slave to another if he is lucky to be alive. I have to ask myself every time I read this whether or not an orphaned child is significantly better off today.

I can’t stop thinking about some of the details that surfaced last week about the separation of children from families by the US Government at our borders and within them. This is not some new legacy of course—from slavery through the devastation of indigenous families up into the modern judicial system and its enforcement of the new (and old) “Jim Crows”, we have a powerful and inescapable legacy of separating children from families. This creates an essential cognitive dissonance. You cannot be ‘pro-family’ and tear families apart.

Image result for astyanax greek vase

I know that there has been extensive prevarication about the extent and severity of these separations. I don’t want to hear more of this because it all just amounts to fragile attempts of denial and blame shifting. We are obliterating families for being unlucky, brown-skinned, poor, and on the wrong side of man-made borders. We can’t comfort ourselves that our essential goodness has changed much in a few thousand years.

“What is Written Here is Brief”: Some Roman Memorials for Memorial Day

Some Archaic Latin Inscriptions from the Loeb Classical Library (the LCL numbers are first, translations are mine). There are earlier poetic epitaphs on this site as well, even legendary ones

Epitaphs 14 [CIL 1861]

“Here lies the sweet clown and slave of Clulius
Protogenes, who created many moments of happiness for people with his joking”

Protogenes Cloul[i] | suavis heicei situst | mimus
plouruma que | fecit populo soueis | gaudia nuges.

15 [CIL 1202]

“This monument was erected for Marcus Caecilius
We give you thanks, Friend, since you stopped by this home.
May you have good fortune and be well. Sleep without worry.”

Hoc est factum monumentum | Maarco Caicilio. |
Hospes, gratum est quom apud | meas restitistei seedes. |
Bene rem geras et valeas, | dormias sine qura.

18 [CIL 1211]

“Friend, what is written here is brief—stop and read it all.
This is the unattractive tomb of an attractive woman.
Her parents named her Claudia
She loved her own husband with her whole heart.
She had two sons and leaves one of them
On the earth, but placed the other beneath it.
[She was] charming in conversation; but proper in behavior.
She safeguarded her house. She made wool. I have said it all. Go.”

Hospes, quod deico paullum est; asta ac pellege.
Heic est sepulcrum hau pulcrum pulcrai feminae.
Nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam.
Suom mareitom corde deilexit souo.
Gnatos duos creavit, horunc alterum
in terra linquit, alium sub terra locat.
Sermone lepido, tum autem incessu commodo.
Domum servavit, lanam fecit. Dixi. Abei.

39 [CIL 1219]

“Here are the bones of Pompeia the first daughter
Fortune promises a lot to many but makes a guarantee for no one.
Live for all days and all hours. For nothing is yours wholly.
Salvius and Heros donated this.”

Primae | Pompeiae | ossua heic.|
Fortuna spondet | multis, praestat nemini;
vive in dies | et horas, nam proprium est nihil. |
Salvius et Heros dant.

Image result for ancient roman epitaph

Bona Fortuna on the AP Latin Exam

For all those students taking AP Latin Exams, Vergil speaks:

Aeneid, 1.238–241

“Now this same fortune still pursues these men driven by dangers
What end do you permit for their labors, great king?”

nunc eadem fortuna viros tot casibus actos
insequitur. Quem das finem, rex magne, laborum?

6.95–97

“Don’t yield to evils, but go boldly forward
Where your fortune bids you. The first path of safety
Which you might imagine the least, leads through a city of Greeks.”

tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito,
qua tua te Fortuna sinet. via prima salutis
(quod minime reris) Graia pandetur ab urbe.’

10.282–4

“….Let’s charge to the other side across the wave
While they take their first steps in fear.
Fortune favors the brave.”

…ultro occurramus ad undam
dum trepidi egressisque labant vestigia prima.
audentis Fortuna iuvat.'[….]

CarminaBurana wheel.jpg

Bavarian State Library, Munich, Codex Buranus (Carmina Burana) Clm 4660; fol. 1r with the Wheel of Fortune

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