A Lot of Knowledge, But No Power: Herodotus on the Most Evil Pain

Because this conversation happens after a shared meal, it is thematically appropriate for this month.

Herodotus, Histories 9.16

After dinner when they were drinking together, the Persian next to him asked [Thersander] in Greek what country was his and Thersander said Orkhomenos. Then he responded “Since you are my dinner companion and have had a drink with me I want to leave a memorial of my belief so that you may understand and be able to make some advantageous plans.

Do you see these Persians dying and the army we left in camp by the river? In a short time you will see that few of these men remain.” The Persian stopped saying these things and cried a lot.

After he was surprised at this confession, he responded, “Isn’t it right to tell these things to Mardonios and those noble Persians around him?”

Then he responded, “Friend, whatever a god decrees is impossible for humans to change: for they say that no one wants to believe what is true. Many of us Persians know this and follow because we are bound by necessity. This is most hateful pain for men: when someone knows a lot but has no power.”

I heard these things from Thersander of Orkhomnos and he also told me that he said them to people before the battle occurred at Plataea.”

2] ὡς δὲ ἀπὸ δείπνου ἦσαν, διαπινόντων τὸν Πέρσην τὸν ὁμόκλινον Ἑλλάδα γλῶσσαν ἱέντα εἰρέσθαι αὐτὸν ὁποδαπός ἐστι, αὐτὸς δὲ ὑποκρίνασθαι ὡς εἴη Ὀρχομένιος. τὸν δὲ εἰπεῖν ‘ἐπεὶ νῦν ὁμοτράπεζός τέ μοι καὶ ὁμόσπονδος ἐγένεο, μνημόσυνά τοι γνώμης τῆς ἐμῆς καταλιπέσθαι θέλω, ἵνα καὶ προειδὼς αὐτὸς περὶ σεωυτοῦ βουλεύεσθαι ἔχῃς τὰ συμφέροντα. ’

‘ [3] ὁρᾷς τούτους τοὺς δαινυμένους Πέρσας καὶ τὸν στρατὸν τὸν ἐλίπομεν ἐπὶ τῷ ποταμῷ στρατοπεδευόμενον: τούτων πάντων ὄψεαι ὀλίγου τινὸς χρόνου διελθόντος ὀλίγους τινὰς τοὺς περιγενομένους.’ ταῦτα ἅμα τε τὸν Πέρσην λέγειν καὶ μετιέναι πολλὰ τῶν δακρύων.

[4] αὐτὸς δὲ θωμάσας τὸν λόγον εἰπεῖν πρὸς αὐτὸν ‘οὐκῶν Μαρδονίῳ τε ταῦτα χρεόν ἐστι λέγειν καὶ τοῖσι μετ᾽ ἐκεῖνον ἐν αἴνῃ ἐοῦσι Περσέων;’ τὸν δὲ μετὰ ταῦτα εἰπεῖν ‘ξεῖνε, ὅ τι δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἀμήχανον ἀποτρέψαι ἀνθρώπῳ: οὐδὲ γὰρ πιστὰ λέγουσι ἐθέλει πείθεσθαι οὐδείς. ’

‘ [5] ταῦτα δὲ Περσέων συχνοὶ ἐπιστάμενοι ἑπόμεθα ἀναγκαίῃ ἐνδεδεμένοι, ἐχθίστη δὲ ὀδύνη ἐστὶ τῶν ἐν ἀνθρώποισι αὕτη, πολλὰ φρονέοντα μηδενὸς κρατέειν.’ ταῦτα μὲν Ὀρχομενίου Θερσάνδρου ἤκουον, καὶ τάδε πρὸς τούτοισι, ὡς αὐτὸς αὐτίκα λέγοι ταῦτα πρὸς ἀνθρώπους πρότερον ἢ γενέσθαι ἐν Πλαταιῇσι τὴν μάχην.


Image result for Ancient Persian feast

“Beware the many, if you do not fear the one”

From the Historia Augusta, on the two Maximini, IX

“In order to hide his low birth, he had everyone who knew about it killed—not a few of them were friends who had often given him much because of his pitiable poverty. And there was never a crueler animal on the earth, placing all in his strength as if he could not be killed. Finally, when he believed that he was nearly immortal because of the magnitude of his body and bravery, there was a certain actor whom they report recited some Greek lines when he was present in the theater which had this Latin translation:

Even he who cannot be killed by one is killed by many
The elephant is large and he is killed.
The lion is brave and he is killed
The tiger is brave and he is killed.
Beware the many if you do not fear the one.

And these words were recited while the emperor was there. But when he asked his friends what the little clown had said, they claimed he was singing some old lines written against mean men. And, since he was Thracian and barbarian, believed this.”

IX. nam ignobilitatis tegendae causa omnes conscios generis sui interemit, nonnullos etiam amicos, qui ei saepe misericordiae paupertatis causa pleraque donaverant. neque enim fuit crudelius animal in terris, omnia sic in viribus suis ponens quasi non posset occidi. denique cum immortalem se prope crederet ob magnitudinem corporis virtutisque, mimus quidam in theatro praesente illo dicitur versus Graecos dixisse, quorum haec erat Latina sententia:

“Et qui ab uno non potest occidi, a multis occiditur.

elephans grandis est et occiditur,
leo fortis est et occiditur,
tigris fortis est et occiditur;
cave multos, si singulos non times.”

et haec imperatore ipso praesente iam dicta sunt. sed cum interrogaret amicos, quid mimicus scurra dixisset, dictum est ei quod antiquos versus cantaret contra homines asperos scriptos; et ille, ut erat Thrax et barbarus, credidit.


Image result for maximinus thrax

I am big. Really big. Everyone is saying that, not me. I mean, look how big I am.

A Failure of Education: Commodus’ Cruelty

From the Historia Augusta on Commodus, 1

“Therefore, when his brother had passed, Marcus tried to educate Commodus with his own writings and those of famous and prominent men. As teachers he had Onesicrates for Greek literature, Antistius Capella for Latin and Ateius Sanctus for rhetoric.

But teachers of so many disciplines were useless in his case—such was the power of his native character or of those who were kept as instructors in the palace. For from his early childhood, Commodus was nasty, dishonest, cruel, desirous, foul-mouthed, and corrupted. For he was already a craftsman in those things which were not proper to the imperial class, such as making chalices, dancing, singing, whistling, playing a fool, and acting the perfect gladiator.

When he was twelve years old, he provided an omen of his cruelty at Centumcellae. For, when his bath was accidentally too cool, he ordered that the bath-slave be thrown into the furnace. Then, the slave who was ordered this, burned a sheep’s skin into the furnace, so that he might convince the punishment was performed through the foulness of the smell.”

mortuo igitur fratre Commodum Marcus et suis praeceptis et magnorum atque optimorum virorum erudire conatus est. habuit litteratorem Graecum Onesicratem, Latinum Capellam Antistium; orator ei Ateius Sanctus fuit.

Sed tot disciplinarum magistri nihil ei profuerunt. tantum valet aut ingenii vis aut eorum qui in aula institutores habentur. nam a prima statim pueritia turpis, improbus, crudelis, libidinosus, ore quoque pollutus et constupratus fuit. iam in his artifex, quae stationis imperatoriae non erant, ut calices fingeret, saltaret, cantaret, sibilaret, scurram denique et gladiatorem perfectum ostenderet. auspicium crudelitatis apud Centumcellas dedit anno aetatis duodecimo. nam cum tepidius forte lautus esset, balneatorem in fornacem conici iussit; quando a paedagogo, cui hoc iussum fuerat, vervecina pellis in fornace consumpta est, ut fidem poenae de foetore nidoris impleret.


Image result for Commodus

“He Does Not Prefer Thucydides out of Love”: Romans on the Greek Historian

In my discussions of Thucydides with students over the years, we have focused on the typical modern topoi, his rivalry with Herodotus and Homer, his notion of the representation of speeches which were “appropriate to what was needed for the situation” (ὡς δ’ ἂν ἐδόκουν ἐμοὶ ἕκαστοι περὶ τῶν αἰεὶ παρόντων τὰ δέοντα μάλιστ’ εἰπεῖν, 1.22), the scientific presentation of the causes of the Peloponnesian War, his belief that his history was a “possession for eternity” (κτῆμά τε ἐς αἰεὶ), Perikles’ rhetorical power in Athens, the suspenseful danger of the Mytilenean debate (book 3), and the depressing logic of power in the Melian dialogue (5.84-116). But most of all, we have read his history as a tragedy: Athens falls just as much if not more because of herself as because of Sparta.

Roman authors did not see this Thucydides. (One is tempted to say they value the style far beyond the substance.) Here are some samples of their views.

Cicero, de optimo genre oratorum 17

“This is why if there is ever anyone who claims that he will plead legal cases in the style of Thucydides, he will show that he is completely ignorant of what happens in political and legal matters. If he will merely praise Thucydides, let him record my opinion with his.”

Qua re si quis erit qui se Thucydideo genere causas in foro dicturum esse profiteatur, is abhorrebit etiam a suspicione eius quod versatur in re civili et forensi; sin Thucydidem laudabit, ascribat suae nostram sententiam.


Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 9

“Roman orators, historians, and poets have not ripped off many words from the Greeks, but rather they have improved upon them. Then he offered a saying by Thucydides “success is adept at hiding and cloaking everyone’s mistakes” followed by Sallust’s version: “success is a miraculous cover for vice”. Although the chief virtue in Thucydides is brevity, Sallust has done better and has overcome him in his own territory. The Greek saying is brief enough that you can shorten it without losing the sense. You may take out “hiding” or “shadowing” and then “everyone” and the sense remains, perhaps not as polished, but still whole. You cannot take anything away from Sallust’s version without losing the sense.”

Multa oratores, historici, poetae Romani a Graecis dicta non subripuerunt sed provocaverunt. Tunc deinde rettulit aliquam Thucydidis sententiam: δειναὶ γὰρ αἰ εὐπραξίαι συγκρύψαι καὶ συσκιάσαι τὰ ἑκάστων ἁμαρτήματα, deinde Sallustianam: res secundae mire sunt vitiis obtentui. Cum sit praecipua in Thucydide virtus brevitas, hac eum Sallustius vicit et in suis illum castris cecidit; nam in sententia Graeca tam brevi habes quae salvo sensu detrahas: deme vel συγκρύψαι vel συσκιάσαι, deme ἑκάστων: constabit sensus, etiamsi non aeque comptus, aeque tamen integer. At ex Sallusti sententia nihil demi sine detrimento sensus potest.

Contr. 9

“He does not prefer Thucydides out of love for him, but he praises one he does not fear and believes he may defeat Sallust more easily if he appears to be conquered by Thucydides first.”

Nec hoc amore Thucydidis facit, ut illum praeferat, sed laudat quem non timet et facilius putat posse a se Sallustium vinci si ante a Thucydide vincatur.


Pliny, Natural History 7.111

“The Athenians drove Thucydides the general into exile but recalled the historian. They appreciated the eloquence of a man whose bravery they had condemned.”

Thucydiden imperatorem Athenienses in exilium egere, rerum conditorem revocavere, eloquentiam mirati cuius virtutem damnaverant.


Image result for thucydides ancient Greek

Selections from a Conversation about Treachery and Deceit

Excerpts from Xenophon, Anabasis, 2.5.6-24

“Because I believe that these kinds of misunderstandings are best addressed through conversations, I have come and I plan to explain to you that you mistrust us wrongly.”

[6] τὰς οὖν τοιαύτας ἀγνωμοσύνας νομίζων συνουσίαις μάλιστα παύεσθαι ἥκω καὶ διδάσκειν σε βούλομαι ὡς σὺ ἡμῖν οὐκ ὀρθῶς ἀπιστεῖς.

“First and foremost, our oaths sworn to the gods keep us from being each other’s enemies. Anyone who understands that he has neglected these oaths, I could never consider happy. For I do not know by what speed or in what location someone could run to escape war with the gods—what obscurity could he flee into or into what safe land could he take refuge? For everywhere is subject to the gods; the gods control everything equally.”

 [7] πρῶτον μὲν γὰρ καὶ μέγιστον οἱ θεῶν ἡμᾶς ὅρκοι κωλύουσι πολεμίους εἶναι ἀλλήλοις: ὅστις δὲ τούτων σύνοιδεν αὑτῷ παρημεληκώς, τοῦτον ἐγὼ οὔποτ᾽ ἂν εὐδαιμονίσαιμι. τὸν γὰρ θεῶν πόλεμον οὐκ οἶδα οὔτ᾽ ἀπὸ ποίου ἂν τάχους οὔτε ὅποι ἄν τις φεύγων ἀποφύγοι οὔτ᾽ εἰς ποῖον ἂν σκότος ἀποδραίη οὔθ᾽ ὅπως ἂν εἰς ἐχυρὸν χωρίον ἀποσταίη. πάντῃ γὰρ πάντα τοῖς θεοῖς ὕποχα καὶ πάντων ἴσον οἱ θεοὶ κρατοῦσι.

“When I consider all these things, it seems so amazing to me that you would distrust us that I would hear most sweetly the name of whoever is so clever at speaking that he can persuade you by saying that we are conspiring against you.” Klearkhos said these things; and Tissaphernes answered…

[15] ἐμοὶ μὲν ταῦτα πάντα ἐνθυμουμένῳ οὕτω δοκεῖ θαυμαστὸν εἶναι τὸ σὲ ἡμῖν ἀπιστεῖν ὥστε καὶ ἥδιστ᾽ ἂν ἀκούσαιμι τὸ ὄνομα τίς οὕτως ἐστὶ δεινὸς λέγειν ὥστε σε πεῖσαι λέγων ὡς ἡμεῖς σοι ἐπιβουλεύομεν. Κλέαρχος μὲν οὖν τοσαῦτα εἶπε: Τισσαφέρνης δὲ ὧδε ἀπημείφθη.

“It is a trait of men who are completely at a loss, without artifice, and bound by compulsion—of men who really are wretches—to want to accomplish something by making false oaths to the gods and falsehoods to men. We, at least, are not so illogical or simple-minded.”

[21] παντάπασι δὲ ἀπόρων ἐστὶ καὶ ἀμηχάνων καὶ ἐν ἀνάγκῃ ἐχομένων, καὶ τούτων πονηρῶν, οἵτινες ἐθέλουσι δι᾽ ἐπιορκίας τε πρὸς θεοὺς καὶ ἀπιστίας πρὸς ἀνθρώπους πράττειν τι. οὐχ οὕτως ἡμεῖς, ὦ Κλέαρχε, οὔτε ἀλόγιστοι οὔτε ἠλίθιοί ἐσμεν.

In saying these things, [Tissaphernes] seemed to Klearkhos to be speaking the truth. So he responded. “Therefore, when we have these reasons to be friends, those men who are trying to force us into enmity through slander are worthy of suffering capital punishment?”

[24] ταῦτα εἰπὼν ἔδοξε τῷ Κλεάρχῳ ἀληθῆ λέγειν: καὶ εἶπεν: οὐκοῦν, ἔφη, οἵτινες τοιούτων ἡμῖν εἰς φιλίαν ὑπαρχόντων πειρῶνται διαβάλλοντες ποιῆσαι πολεμίους ἡμᾶς ἄξιοί εἰσι τὰ ἔσχατα παθεῖν;


On Election Night: Polybius’ Cycle of Governments

[I stopped listening to the news and started reading Polybius.]

Polybius, Histories 6.4

“The proof that what I have said is true comes from the following. It must not be asserted that every well-made government is a principality, but only the government which is assented to voluntarily and which is governed by reason rather than fear and force. Nor should we consider every oligarchy to be an aristocracy: the latter emerges only when men rule because they are the most just and the most prudent. In a similar way, a true democracy is not that in which the majority has the power to do whatever it wants, but what counts is if the will of the majority enforces observance of its traditional laws, honor to the customary laws, duty to parents, respect to elders, obedience to the laws—then it is right to call a state a democracy.

From this, we can isolate six types of government: the three I have just mentioned and three additional, related forms, monarchy, oligarchy, and mob rule. The first of these, monarchy, arises naturally, and without machination. The second follows it and develops from it with preparation and adjustment. Once this has transformed into the evil form akin to it, tyranny, and aristocracy develops from the dissolution of both. When aristocracy devolves into oligarchy as is natural, and the people turn into rage over the injustice of their leaders, democracy emerges. Over time, mob-rule develops from outrage and illegality. Anyone can understand clearly from this pattern that the things I am saying now are true, based on the nature of each government in its origins and its evolution.”


ὅτι δ᾽ ἀληθές ἐστι τὸ λεγόμενον ἐκ τούτων συμφανές. [2] οὔτε γὰρ πᾶσαν δήπου μοναρχίαν εὐθέως βασιλείαν ῥητέον, ἀλλὰ μόνην τὴν ἐξ ἑκόντων συγχωρουμένην καὶ τῇ γνώμῃ τὸ πλεῖον ἢ φόβῳ καὶ βίᾳ κυβερνωμένην: [3] οὐδὲ μὴν πᾶσαν ὀλιγαρχίαν ἀριστοκρατίαν νομιστέον, ἀλλὰ ταύτην, ἥτις ἂν κατ᾽ ἐκλογὴν ὑπὸ τῶν δικαιοτάτων καὶ φρονιμωτάτων ἀνδρῶν βραβεύηται. [4] παραπλησίως οὐδὲ δημοκρατίαν, ἐν ᾗ πᾶν πλῆθος κύριόν ἐστι ποιεῖν ὅ, [5] τι ποτ᾽ ἂν αὐτὸ βουληθῇ καὶ πρόθηται παρὰ δ᾽ ᾧ πάτριόν ἐστι καὶ σύνηθες θεοὺς σέβεσθαι, γονεῖς θεραπεύειν, πρεσβυτέρους αἰδεῖσθαι, νόμοις πείθεσθαι, παρὰ τοῖς τοιούτοις συστήμασιν ὅταν τὸ τοῖς πλείοσι δόξαν νικᾷ, τοῦτο καλεῖν δεῖ δημοκρατίαν. διὸ καὶ γένη μὲν ἓξ εἶναι ῥητέον πολιτειῶν, [6] τρία μὲν ἃ πάντες θρυλοῦσι καὶ νῦν προείρηται, τρία δὲ τὰ τούτοις συμφυῆ, λέγω δὲ μοναρχίαν, ὀλιγαρχίαν, ὀχλοκρατίαν. [7] πρώτη μὲν οὖν ἀκατασκεύως καὶ φυσικῶς συνίσταται μοναρχία, ταύτῃ δ᾽ ἕπεται καὶ ἐκ ταύτης γεννᾶται μετὰ κατασκευῆς καὶ διορθώσεως βασιλεία. [8] μεταβαλλούσης δὲ ταύτης εἰς τὰ συμφυῆ κακά, λέγω δ᾽ εἰς τυραννίδ᾽, αὖθις ἐκ τῆς τούτων καταλύσεως ἀριστοκρατία φύεται. [9] καὶ μὴν ταύτης εἰς ὀλιγαρχίαν ἐκτραπείσης κατὰ φύσιν, τοῦ δὲ πλήθους ὀργῇ μετελθόντος τὰς τῶν προεστώτων ἀδικίας, γεννᾶται δῆμος. [10] ἐκ δὲ τῆς τούτου πάλιν ὕβρεως καὶ παρανομίας ἀποπληροῦται σὺν χρόνοις ὀχλοκρατία. [11] γνοίη δ᾽ ἄν τις σαφέστατα περὶ τούτων ὡς ἀληθῶς ἐστιν οἷα δὴ νῦν εἶπον, ἐπὶ τὰς ἑκάστων κατὰ φύσιν ἀρχὰς καὶ γενέσεις καὶ μεταβολὰς ἐπιστήσας.


Arrian on Indian Rivers and Cities

Arrian, Historia Indica, 10

“The story also circulates that the Indians do not make memorials for their dead but instead believe the virtues of the men as sufficient markers for those who have passed and sing odes in their honor. It is not possible to write an accurate count of their cities because of the number of Indians. Cities alongside rivers or the sea are made of wood, since if they were made from brick they would not persist for much time because the water from the sky and the rivers overflowing their banks would fill them with water. The cities, however, which were built in powerful positions and in high places and above the rest of the land, are all made from brick and mud. The Indians’ greatest city is *Palimbothra in the land of the Prasians where the river Erannoboas meets the Ganges, the greatest of the rivers. The Erannoboas could be the third of the Indian rivers, and it is greater than them in some places, but it yields to the Ganges and adds its water to it. Megasthenes claims that on the side where the city is longest it is eighty stades in length and its breadth is 15 stades. It has a ditch built around it the full circumference of the city, about thirty cubits deep. The city has 570 towers on its ways and 64 gates. Every Indian is free, no Indian is a slave. In this, the Spartans are similar to the Indians, although the helots are enslaved by the Spartans and do the work of slaves. There are no slaves among the Indians, or at least no Indian is a slave.”

*Probably Pataliputra

Triumph of Dionysos in India

λέγεται δὲ καὶ τάδε, μνημεῖα ὅτι ᾿Ινδοὶ τοῖς τελευτήσασιν οὐ ποιέουσιν, ἀλλὰ τὰς ἀρετὰς γὰρ τῶν ἀνδρῶν ἱκανὰς ἐς μνήμην τίθενται τοῖσιν ἀποθανοῦσι καὶ τὰς ᾠδὰς αἳ αὐτοῖσιν ἐπᾴδονται. πόλεων δὲ καὶ ἀριθμὸν οὐκ εἶναι ἂν ἀτρεκὲς ἀναγράψαι τῶν ᾿Ινδικῶν ὑπὸ πλήθεος· ἀλλὰ γὰρ ὅσαι παραποτάμιαι αὐτέων ἢ παραθαλάσσιαι, ταύτας μὲν ξυλίνας ποιέεσθαι· οὐ γὰρ ἂν ἐκ πλίνθου ποιεομένας διαρκέσαι ἐπὶ χρόνον τοῦ τε ὕδατος ἕνεκα τοῦ ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ὅτι οἱ ποταμοὶ αὐτοῖσιν ὑπερβάλλοντες ὑπὲρ τὰς ὄχθας ἐμπιμπλᾶσι τοῦ ὕδατος τὰ πεδία. ὅσαι δὲ ἐν ὑπερδεξίοις τε καὶ μετεώροις τόποισι καὶ τούτοισι ψιλοῖσιν ᾠκισμέναι εἰσί, ταύτας δὲ ἐκ πλίνθου τε καὶ πηλοῦ ποιέεσθαι. μεγίστην δὲ πόλιν ᾿Ινδοῖσιν εἶναι <τὴν> Παλίμβοθρα καλεομένην, ἐν τῇ Πρασίων γῇ, ἵνα αἱ συμβολαί εἰσι τοῦ τε ᾿Εραννοβόα ποταμοῦ καὶ  τοῦ Γάγγεω· τοῦ μὲν Γάγγεω, τοῦ μεγίστου ποταμῶν· ὁ δὲ ᾿Εραννοβόας τρίτος μὲν ἂν εἴη τῶν ᾿Ινδῶν ποταμῶν, μέζων δὲ τῶν ἄλλῃ καὶ οὗτος, ἀλλὰ ξυγχωρέει αὐτὸς τῷ Γάγγῃ, ἐπειδὰν ἐμβάλῃ ἐς αὐτὸν τὸ ὕδωρ. καὶ λέγει Μεγασθένης μῆκος μὲν ἐπέχειν τὴν πόλιν καθ’ ἑκατέρην τὴν πλευρήν, ἵναπερ μακροτάτη αὐτὴ ἑωυτῆς ᾤκισται, ἐς ὀγδοήκοντα σταδίους, τὸ δὲ πλάτος ἐς πεντεκαίδεκα. τάφρον δὲ περιβεβλῆσθαι τῇ πόλει τὸ εὖρος ἑξάπλεθρον, τὸ δὲ βάθος τριήκοντα πήχεων· πύργους δὲ ἑβδομήκοντα καὶ πεντακοσίους ἔχειν τὸ τεῖχος καὶ πύλας τέσσαρας καὶ ἑξήκοντα. εἶναι δὲ καὶ τόδε μέγα ἐν τῇ ᾿Ινδῶν γῇ, πάντας ᾿Ινδοὺς εἶναι ἐλευθέρους, οὐδέ τινα δοῦλον εἶναι ᾿Ινδόν. τοῦτο μὲν Λακεδαιμονίοισιν ἐς ταὐτὸ συμβαίνει καὶ ᾿Ινδοῖσι. Λακεδαιμονίοις μέν  γε οἱ εἵλωτες δοῦλοί εἰσιν καὶ τὰ δούλων ἐργάζονται, ᾿Ινδοῖσι δὲ οὐδὲ ἄλλος δοῦλός ἐστι, μήτι γε ᾿Ινδῶν τις.