Historia Augusta, Opellius Macrinus by Julius Capitolinus
“The lives of this emperors who did not last long, whether tyrants or Caesars, remain in obscurity to start with because there’s little in their private lives worth talking about. They would have never been known if they had not strived for power and we can’t say much about their reign since they didn’t rule long. Still, we will offer what has been uncovered in a range of historical materials.
These are details worth remembering! There’s no one who hasn’t done one thing or another each day of their life. A biographer’s task is to tell those details worth knowing. Junius Cordus certainly enjoyed published the lives of emperors he saw as somewhat obscure. But he didn’t achieve very much, since he uncovered very little and less worth recalling, confessing himself that he tracked down minor details about Trajan or Pius or Marcus like how often they went outside, how they varied their meals, when they changed their clothes, and when and who they promoted.
He filled his books with gossip by pursuing these questions and writing them up when, really, minor matters like this shouldn’t be recorded or only sparingly if habits can illuminate character. People want to know about character, but only partly so that the rest of the story can be gathered from it.”
Vitae illorum principum seu tyrannorum sive Caesarum qui non diu imperaverunt in obscuro latent, idcirco quod neque de privata eorum vita digna sunt quae dicantur, cum omnino ne scirentur quidem, nisi adspirassent ad imperium, et de imperio, quod non diu tenuerunt, non multa dici possunt. nos tamen ex diversis historicis eruta in lucem proferemus, et ea quidem quae memoratu digna erunt. non enim est quisquam qui in vita non ad diem quodcumque fecerit. sed eius qui vitas aliorum scribere orditur officium est digna cognitione perscribere. et Iunio quidem Cordo studium fuit eorum imperatorum vitas edere quos obscuriores videbat. qui non multum profecit; nam et pauca repperit et indigna memoratu, adserens se minima quaeque persecuturum, quasi vel de Traiano aut Pio aut Marco sciendum sit, quotiens processerit, quando cibos variaverit et quando vestem mutaverit et quos quando promoverit. quae ille omnia exsequendo libros mythistoriis replevit talia scribendo, cum omnino rerum vilium aut nulla scribenda sint aut nimis pauca, si tamen ex his mores possint animadverti, qui re vera sciendi sunt, sed ex parte, ut ex ea cetera colligantur.
“[It is clear] that the greatest wars also happened because of women. The Trojan War happened because of Helen; the Plague because of Chryseis; Achilles’ rage because of Briseis; and the War called the Sacred War, as Duris claims in the second book of his histories, by another married woman from Thebes who was kidnapped by some Phocian. This war also lasted ten years and in the tenth when Philip allied himself with the Thebes it ended. Then the Thebans took and held Phokis.”
“This is how the Persians say that Io came to Egypt—and not the story the Greeks tell—and this was the first transgression. After that, they claim some Greeks—and they can’t name them—went to Tyre and kidnapped Europê, the daughter of the king. These men would have been Cretans. At this point, the score was even. But then the Greeks were at fault for a second crime. For the Greeks sailed in a great ship to Aia, the Kolkhian, city and to the river Phasis.
Once they finished why they went there, they left, but they also kidnapped Medea, the king’s daughter. When the king sent a herald to Greece demanding recompense for the abduction and asking for his daughter to be returned, the Greeks answered that they would give nothing to the Kolhkians since they had not received anything for the abduction of Io.
In the next generation after that, they say that Priam’s son Alexandros, once he heard about these things, wanted to steal a wife for himself from Greece because he was absolutely certain he would face no penalties since the earlier men hadn’t. When he kidnapped Helen as he did, it seemed right at first for the Greeks to send messengers to demand her return and recompense for the abduction. When the Greeks made these demands, the Trojans brought up the abduction of Medeia and the fact that the Greeks were demanding from others the very things they themselves were not willing to give or repay.
Up to that point of time, the whole matter was only kidnapping on either side. But the Greeks were more to blame after this since they were the first to lead an army to Asia before anyone led one against Europe. As the Persians claim, they believe it is the work of unjust men to kidnap women, but the act of fools to rush off to avenge women who have been abducted. Wise men have no time for raped women, since it is clear they they would not have been abducted if they had not been willing themselves.
They claim that the men of Asia make no big deal when women are abducted while the Greeks, all because of one Lakedaimonian woman, raised a great army, went to Asia, and destroyed Priam’s power. Since that time, they consider Greece their enemy.”
Note: much of the language in this passage referring to abduction and kidnapping could also be translated as rape. I left the language more anodyne to reflect what seems to be Herodotus’ own dismissal or ignorance of the women’s experience.
“As winter started coming on, the disease afflicted the Athenians a second time—even though it hadn’t totally disappeared before, there was still a period of relief. Then it lingered no less than a year when the first encounter was two. The overall result was that nothing overwhelmed the Athenians and sapped their power more than this.
No fewer than 4400 hoplites died from the ranks along with three hundred cavalry. And the number of the rest of the masses that died was never discovered.”
“The Khelônophagoi live underneath turtle shells that are big enough to sail in too. Some of them, because a lot of seaweed is cast onto the shore and makes piles as high as hills, dig into them and live inside. They dispose of corpses as food for fish by allowing them to be drawn away in the high tides.
Three islands are situated in a row: they are named Turtle Island, Seal Island, and Hawk Island. The whole shoreline has palm-trees, olive trees, and laurels and this is not just in the straits but on the outside too. There is a certain Philip’s island, facing which, above the coastline, is a hunting preserve for elephants which is called Pythangelos’ Hunting Ground.
Next to this is Arsinoê which has a city and harbor and beyond these, to Deirê above which is another hunting preserve for elephants. The land right above Deirê is rich in aromatics: the first part part produces myrrh—and it is the land of the Fish-Eaters and Meat-Eaters—and it also produces persea and the Egyptian sykamin. Beyond this land is Likha, another hunting ground for elephants. Frequently there are pools of rain water in the region and when these dry, the elephants dig with their tusks and teeth and uncover water.
On that coast, there are two enormous lakes extending up as far as the Pytholaian headland. One of them has salt water and they call it a sea; the other is fresh and contains both hippopotamuses and crocodiles. It also has papyrus on its shores. People also find the Ibis around this lake. Starting near the Pytholaus, the people who live there have unblemished bodies….”
I have offered you as briefly as possible what things I think are necessary for our nation and your glory. It does not seem any worse to say a few things now about what I have accomplished here.
Most mortals possess—or pretend to possess—enough intelligence to make judgments. But, in truth, everyone’s soul burns to criticize the words and deeds of others, even though their mouth and tongue are not large and quick enough to produces the words contemplated in their hearts.
It causes me no grief to be subject to these men—no, it would hurt more to stay quiet. For whether you persist on this path or another one, I have spoken and offered help in a manly way. All that is left is to hope that the immortal gods smile on what you do and allow it to turn out well.
Quae rei publicae necessaria tibique gloriosa ratus sum, quam paucissimis apsolvi. Non peius videtur pauca nunc de facto meo disserere. Plerique mortales ad iudicandum satis ingenii habent aut simulant; verum enim ad reprehendunda aliena facta aut dicta ardet omnibus animus, vix satis apertum os aut lingua prompta videtur quae meditata pectore evolvat. Quibus me subiectum haud paenitet, magis reticuisse pigeret. Nam sive hac seu meliore alia via perges, a me quidem pro virili parte dictum et adiutum fuerit. Relicuum est optare uti quae tibi placuerint ea di immortales adprobent beneque evenire sinant.
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 dining 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 human beings: 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.”
“And he is really lucky because even though the Greeks are witnesses of his lawbreaking and corruption, he has suffered no penalty. But even though many people as hold power in a single city are subject to oversight, Alcibiades, who is leader and collects funds from our allies, is not liable for anything he does.
No, instead, after doing the kinds of things he has, he was granted the same prize as Olympic victors and he treats it as a victory as if he had crowned the state with glory instead of dishonoring it. If you just look, you will find that people who have performed merely one of the acts that man has done many times have ruined their families. But that man who has fostered all kinds of excess has doubled his fortune.”
The starkest of contrasts: an anonymous Hellenistic epigram depicting a grateful slave and his benevolent master, and an Athenian letter recounting a slave’s desperation and his master’s brutality.
Anonymous Epigram 7.179 (Greek Anthology)
Even now from under the earth, master,
I remain obedient to you.
Your kindness I haven’t forgotten:
Three times you saw me from sickness to health;
And now you’ve gone so far as to lay me
Under this sheltering stone, announcing:
Medes, a Persian.
You’ve done right by me.
For that, you’ll have willing slaves in your debt.
In 1972, excavation of the Athenian Agora turned up a unique c.4th-century-BC letter inscribed on a lead tablet: the speaker is an actual slave describing the actual conditions of bondage. (Presumably the letter was dictated to a scribe, and since it was found in a well, presumably it was never delivered.)
As in the fanciful epigram, δεσπότης (“master”) designates the man who command’s the slave’s life. But unlike the fictional δεσπότης whose kindness can never be repaid, the real δεσπότης is a man of limitless brutality.
The letter reads:
“Lesis sends a letter to Xenochles and his mother saying do not overlook that he’s dying in the forge, but come to his masters and find him something better. For I have been handed over to an entirely bad man: I’m dying from the whippings; I’m tied up; I’m horribly abused. And more, more!”
Lead tablet letter from the Athenian agora, c.4th BC. (quoted in Edward Harris, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens, page 271)
Detail of lines 2-4 of the slave’s lead tablet letter. Reproduced from David Jordan’s “A Personal Letter Found in the Athenian Agora,” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 2000), pp. 91-103.
“Firmus was nevertheless of huge stature with prominent eyes, curly hair, a scarred forehead, a darker complexion on his face while most of his body was white, although it was tough and hairy, so that many used to call him a Cyclops. He used to eat a lot of meat and allegedly ate an ostrich in a day. He drank some wine and a lot of water. He was extremely strong in mind, most robust in nerves to the extent that he overcame Tritannus, whom Varro mentions. For he endured an anvil placed on his chest and struck constantly while he seemed to be rising up rather than lying down because he was face up supporting himself on his hands.
Yet, [Firmus] had a drinking competition with Aurelian’s generals when they wanted to test him. For, when a certain Burburus, one of the standard-bearers and a notable drinker, challenged him to a drinking context, he sucked down two pails of wine but was still sober after the banquet. When Burburus asked him, “Why didn’t you drink the dregs?” he responded “Fool, the earth is not drunk.” We are pursuing lighter notes here, we must speak of more important ones.”
Fuit tamen Firmus statura ingenti, oculis foris eminentibus, capillo crispo, fronte vulnerata, vultu nigriore, reliqua parte corporis candidus sed pilosus atque hispidus, ita ut eum plerique Cyclopem vocarent. 2carne multa vescebatur, struthionem ad diem comedisse fertur. vini non multum bibit, aquae plurimum. mente firmissimus, nervis robustissimus, ita ut Tritannum vinceret, cuius Varro meminit. 3nam et incudem superpositam pectori constanter aliis tundentibus pertulit, cum ipse reclinis ac resupinus et curvatus in manus penderet potius quam iaceret. fuit tamen ei contentio cum Aureliani ducibus ad bibendum, si quando eum temptare voluissent. nam quidam Burburus nomine de numero vexillariorum, notissimus potator, cum ad bibendum eundem provocasset, situlas duas plenas mero duxit et toto postea convivio sobrius fuit; et cum ei Burburus diceret, “Quare non faeces bibisti?” respondit ille, “Stulte, terra non bibitur.” levia persequimur, cum maiora dicenda sint.
Plutarch, On the Fortune of Alexander (Moralia 328d-f)
“When Alexander the great was taming Asia, Homer was being read and the children of the Persians, Susianans, and Gedrosians learned to sing the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. Shoot, even though Socrates, when he was prosecuted for bringing a foreign god to the Athenains, lost his case to those Athenian sycophants, Baktria and the Caucasus learned to kneel before Greek gods.
While Plato wrote a book about a single constitution, he persuaded no one to use it because of its severity; but Alexander created more than seventy cities among barbarian tribes and plated Greek institutions all over Asia and conquered their harsh and uncivilized ways. Few of us have even read Plato’s Laws, but countless thousands have followed Alexander’s and still used them.
Really, those who were conquered by Alexander are luckier than those who resisted him—they had no one who could help them change their pathetic lives; but the champion taught those conquered how to be happy.”
What is amazing about this passage is the quick but clear elision between culture as a marker of value and brute force to impose cultural supremacy. Similar themes are common in European treatises from Plutarch to today.
I mean, if Homer is so great, why does he need Alexander to take him to Asia?