Two Years and then Some More: A Plague’s Retreat and Return

Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 3.87

“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.”

Τοῦ δ’ ἐπιγιγνομένου χειμῶνος ἡ νόσος τὸ δεύτερον ἐπέπεσε τοῖς ᾿Αθηναίοις, ἐκλιποῦσα μὲν οὐδένα χρόνον τὸ παντάπασιν, ἐγένετο δέ τις ὅμως διοκωχή. παρέμεινε δὲ τὸ μὲν ὕστερον οὐκ ἔλασσον ἐνιαυτοῦ, τὸ δὲ πρότερον καὶ δύο ἔτη, ὥστε ᾿Αθηναίους γε μὴ εἶναι ὅτι μᾶλλον τούτου ἐπίεσε καὶ ἐκάκωσε τὴν δύναμιν· τετρακοσίων γὰρ ὁπλιτῶν καὶ τετρακισχιλίων οὐκ ἐλάσσους ἀπέθανον ἐκ τῶν τάξεων καὶ τριακοσίων ἱππέων, τοῦ δὲ ἄλλου ὄχλου ἀνεξεύρετος ἀριθμός.

The famous plague is described at 2.47-55 and first fell on the Athenians in 430 BCE. Three years later, after a respite, it returned.

The tenth plague: the death of the first-born including Pharaoh’s son. From the Haggadah for Passover (the ‘Sister Haggadah’). 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century. British Library

The Rise and Fall of Republican Rome as Stages in a Life

Seneca the Elder, Historical Fragments, 1 [=Lactant. Inst. Div. 7.15.14]

“Seneca outlined the periods of Roman history in “life-stages”. The first was her infancy under the king Romulus, who parented Rome and educated her. Then there followed a childhood under various kings thanks to whom the city grew and was shaped by many practices and institutions. Then, while Tarquin was king and Rome began to become more adult, it could not endure servitude and, once the yoke of arrogant rule was thrown off, preferred to heed laws instead of kings.

Once the Roman adolescence ended with the close of the Punic war,  it began to show the full strength of adulthood. For, when Carthage was subdued, that city which was an ancient rival for power, Rome extended her hands over the whole earth, both land and sea until every king and nation had bent to her power.

But, since there was no reason left for wars, Rome began to use her strengths poorly and wore herself out. This was the first step of old age: when Rome was wounded by civil wars and suffering from internal evil, she returned again to the practice of individual rule, as if she had devolved into a second infancy. Thus she lost the freedom which she defended when Brutus was its agent and champion and grew weak in old age, as if she had not the strength to support herself unless she could use the ‘cane’ of kings.”

Seneca Romanae urbis tempora distribuit in aetates; primam enim dixit infantiam sub rege Romulo fuisse, a quo et genita et quasi educata sit Roma, deinde pueritiam sub ceteris regibus, a quibus et aucta sit et disciplinis pluribus institutisque formata. At vero Tarquinio regnante, cum iam quasi adulta esse coepisset, servitium non tulisse, et reiecto superbae dominationis iugo maluisse legibus obtemperare quam regibus, cumque esset adulescentia eius fine Punici belli terminata, tum denique confirmatis viribus coepisse iuvenescere. Sublata enim Carthagine, quae diu aemula imperii fuit, manus suas in totum orbem terra marique porrexit, donec regibus cunctis et nationibus imperio subiugatis, cum iam bellorum materia deficeret, viribus suis male uteretur, quibus se ipsa confecit. Haec fuit prima eius senectus, cum bellis lacerata civilibus atque intestino malo pressa rursus ad regimen singularis imperii recidit quasi ad alteram infantiam revoluta. Amissa enim libertate, quam Bruto duce et auctore defenderat, ita consenuit tamquam sustentare se ipsa non valeret nisi adminiculo regentium uteretur.

Bust of an elderly Roman man, marble 40BC, Albertinum, Dresden

Souls Burning for Censure: Sallust Advises Caesar

Sallust, First Letter to Caesar 8-10

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.

From Wikipedia

In Honor of Labor Day: Collective Action and the Maturation of Rome

Livy 2.32 Secessio Plebis, 449 BCE

“A fear overcame the senators that if the army were dismissed, then secret assemblies and conspiracies would arise. And thus, even though the draft was made by a dictator—because they had sworn a consular oath they were still believed to beheld by this sacrament—they ordered the legions to depart the city on the grounds that the war had been renewed by the Aequi. This deed accelerated the rebellion.

At first, there was some interest in the murder of the consuls (to absolve them of their obligation); but when they then learned that no crime would release them from their oath, they seceded on to the Sacred Mount across the Anio river, which is three miles from the city, on the advice of a man named Sicinus.  This story is more common than the one which Piso offers—that the secession was made upon the Aventine hill.

There, the camp was fortified without any leader with a trench and wall quietly, as they took nothing unless it was necessary for their food for several days and neither offended anyone nor took offense. But there was a major panic in the city and because of mutual fear all activities were suspended. Those left behind feared violence from the senators because they were abandoned by their own class; and the senators were fearing the plebians who remained in the city because they were uncertain whether they stayed there or preferred to leave. How long could a mass of people who had seceded remain peaceful? What would happen after this if there were an external threat first? There was certainly no home left unless they could bring the people into harmony; and it was decided they must reconcile the state by just means or unjust.”

  1. timor inde patres incessit ne, si dimissus exercitus foret, rursus coetus occulti coniurationesque fierent. itaque quamquam per dictatorem dilectus habitus esset, tamen quoniam in consulum uerba iurassent sacramento teneri militem rati, per causam renouati ab Aequis belli educi ex urbe legiones iussere. [2] quo facto maturata est seditio. et primo agitatum dicitur de consulum caede, ut soluerentur sacramento; doctos deinde nullam scelere religionem exsolui, Sicinio quodam auctore iniussu consulum in Sacrum montem secessisse. trans Anienem amnem est, tria ab urbe milia passuum. [3] ea frequentior fama est quam cuius Piso auctor est, in Auentinum secessionem factam esse. [4] ibi sine ullo duce uallo fossaque communitis castris quieti, rem nullam nisi necessariam ad uictum sumendo, per aliquot dies neque lacessiti neque lacessentes sese tenuere. [5] pauor ingens in urbe, metuque mutuo suspensa erant omnia. timere relicta ab suis plebis uiolentiam patrum; timere patres residem in urbe plebem, incerti manere eam an abire mallent: [6] quamdiu autem tranquillam quae secesserit multitudinem fore? quid futurum deinde si quod externum interim bellum exsistat? [7] nullam profecto nisi in concordia ciuium spem reliquam ducere; eam per aequa, per iniqua reconciliandam ciuitati esse.

The secessio plebis was repeated at key times in Roman history and became a fundamental instrument to force the ruling (and moneyed/landed) class to make political compromises with the larger number of citizen soldiers upon whom the city (and the Republic) depended for its safety (and, really, existence). Modern labor strikes are not directly related to this Roman action–they developed with the rise of the Industrial state. In a short analogy, labor is to capital as the army was to the Roman state.

Labor unions are, in my ever so humble opinion, probably the last possible bulwark against not just the corporatization of higher education but also against the completion of our anglo-american metamorphoses in to technology-driven plutocracies. (And it may be too late.) But I take the limited coverage in our presses as a sign that such subjects are threatening to the very media corporations that deny collective bargaining to their ‘workers’ in the gig economy. 

Caesar, Civil War 1.7.5-7

“Whenever in the past the senate has made a decree asking officers to make sure that the republic meet no harm—and in this wording the senatus consultum is also a call to arms for the Roman people—it has been made under the condition of evil laws, a violent tribune, or during a secession of the plebs when they had occupied the temples and mounts. [Caesar] explained that these examples from an earlier age were paid for with the fates of Saturninus and the Gracchi. (At that time none of these things were done or even considered. No law was suggested; no assembly was called; no secession was made.)

quotienscumque sit decretum darent operam magistratus ne quid res publica detrimenti caperet, qua voce et quo senatus consulto populus Romanus ad arma sit vocatus, factum in perniciosis legibus, in vi tribunicia, in secessione populi, templis locisque editioribus occupatis. 6Atque haec superioris aetatis exempla expiata Saturnini atque Gracchorum casibus docet. (Quarum rerum illo tempore nihil factum, ne cogitatum quidem. Nulla lex promulgata, non cum populo agi coeptum, nulla secessio facta.)

Cicero, Republic II.58

“For that very principle which I introduced at the beginning is this: unless there is equal access in a state to laws, offices, and duties so that the magistrates have sufficient power, the plans of the highest citizens have enough authority, and the people have enough freedom, the state cannot be guarded against revolution. For when our state was troubled by debt, the plebeians first occupied the Sacred Mount and then the Aventine.”

Id enim tenetote, quod initio dixi, nisi aequabilis haec in civitate conpensatio sit et iuris et officii et muneris, ut et potestatis satis in magistratibus et auctoritatis in principum consilio et libertatis in populo sit, non posse hunc incommutabilem rei publicae conservari statum. nam cum esset ex aere alieno commota civitas, plebs montem sacrum prius, deinde Aventinum occupavit.

 

Cicero, Republic II.63

“Therefore, because of the injustice of these men [the decemviri], there was the largest rebellion and the whole state was transformed. For those rulers had created two tables of laws which included most inhumanely, a law against plebeians wedding patricians, even though marriage between different nationalities is permitted! This law was later voided by the plebeian Canuleian Decree. The [decemviri also pursued their own pleasure harshly and greedily in every exercise of power over the people.”

ergo horum ex iniustitia subito exorta est maxima perturbatio et totius commutatio rei publicae; qui duabus tabulis iniquarum legum additis, quibus, etiam quae diiunctis populis tribui solent conubia, haec illi ut ne plebei cum patribus1 essent, inhumanissima lege sanxerunt, quae postea plebei scito Canuleio abrogata est, libidinoseque omni imperio et acerbe et avare populo praefuerunt.

Here is the opening summary from Brill’s New Pauly on the secessio plebis (2006: von Ungern-Sternberg, Jürgen)

“Roman tradition terms as secessio (from Latin secedere, ‘to go away, to withdraw’) the remonstrative exodus of the Roman plebeians from the urban area delimited by the pomerium on to a neighbouring hill. This action was on a number of occasions the culmination of confrontation between the patricians ( patricii ) and the plebs . The first secessio in particular may have been instrumental in the formation of a self-conscious plebeian community under the leadership of at first two, later apparently five people’s tribunes ( tribunus plebis ), to whose protection all plebeians committed themselves by a lex sacrata (‘law subject to the sanction of execration’)”

Related image

Hesiod and Marx Disagree

Hesiod, Works & Days, 302-310.

Hunger follows the man who does not work.
Gods and men resent the one who lives his life
Work-shy, his nature that of a stingless drone
Which consumes the labors of other bees:
That is to say, he’s idle but still eats.

Welcome labor that’s sensibly arranged
So your stores are full of life’s needs each season.
From work men are rich in sheep and rich outright.
Besides, the immortals prefer hard workers.
Work is not disgraceful; not working is.

Karl Marx. Capital. Bk. I. Part III. Chpt. 10 (“The Workday”)

“During the 24 hours of the natural day a man can expend only so much of his vital energy . . . During a part of the day the energy must rest . . .”

Hesiod

λιμὸς γάρ τοι πάμπαν ἀεργῷ σύμφορος ἀνδρί.
τῷ δὲ θεοὶ νεμεσῶσι καὶ ἀνέρες, ὅς κεν ἀεργὸς
ζώῃ, κηφήνεσσι κοθούροις εἴκελος ὀργήν,
οἵ τε μελισσάων κάματον τρύχουσιν ἀεργοὶ
ἔσθοντες: σοὶ δ᾽ ἔργα φίλ᾽ ἔστω μέτρια κοσμεῖν,
ὥς κέ τοι ὡραίου βιότου πλήθωσι καλιαί.
ἐξ ἔργων δ᾽ ἄνδρες πολύμηλοί τ᾽ ἀφνειοί τε:
καὶ ἐργαζόμενοι πολὺ φίλτεροι ἀθανάτοισιν.
ἔργον δ᾽ οὐδὲν ὄνειδος, ἀεργίη δέ τ᾽ ὄνειδος.

Marx

Ein Mensch kann während des natuerlichen Tags von 24 Stunden nur ein bestimmtes Quantum Lebenskraft verausgben . . . Während eines Teils des Tags muß die Kraft ruhen . . .

image of president jimmy carter working to build a home
Seasoned Laborers.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Debts Getting Us Down? Make Like Solon and Shake it Off

Suda, Sigma 289

“Seisakhtheia: Shaking off burdens. The abolition of public and private debts which Solon introduced. Its name comes from the Athenian habit of having the poor work with their bodies for their creditors. When they finished the debt it was like “shaking [aposeisasthai] off the burden” [akhthos]. For this situation, as Philokhoros sees it, the burden was really “voted off”.

Σεισάχθεια: χρεωκοπία δημοσίων καὶ ἰδιωτικῶν, ἣν εἰσηγήσατο Σόλων. εἴρηται δέ, παρ’ ὅσον ἔθος ἦν ᾿Αθήνησι τοὺς ὀφείλοντας τῶν πενήτων σώματι ἐργάζεσθαι τοῖς χρήσταις· ἀποδόντας δὲ οἱονεὶ τὸ ἄχθος ἀποσείσασθαι· ὡς Φιλοχόρῳ δὲ δοκεῖ, ἀποψηφισθῆναι τὸ ἄχθος.

Suda, Sigma 779

“Solon the law-giver of the Athenians, persuaded by friends who were in debt, introduced the cancellation of debts.”

Σόλων: ὅτι Σόλων ὁ νομοθέτης Ἀθηναίων, φίλων ἡττώμενος ὀφειλόντων, χρεῶν εἰσηγήσατο ἀποκοπάς.

File:Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 1.2. 45

“Solon the son of Exekestides, born at Salamis, was the first to introduce the Abolition of Debts for the Athenians. This was a release of bodies and property. For people used to borrow money with their bodies as collateral and many were compelled to work as servants because of poverty. Indeed, he rejected a debt of seven talents due to him because of his father and advised the rest to do what he did. The law is called shaking-off-the-burden for obvious reasons.

Σόλων Ἐξηκεστίδου Σαλαμίνιος πρῶτον μὲν τὴν σεισάχθειαν εἰσηγήσατο Ἀθηναίοις· τὸ δὲ ἦν λύτρωσις σωμάτων τε καὶ κτημάτων. καὶ γὰρ ἐπὶ σώμασιν ἐδανείζοντο καὶ πολλοὶ δι᾿ ἀπορίαν ἐθήτευον. ἑπτὰ δὴ ταλάντων ὀφειλομένων αὐτῷ πατρῴων συνεχώρησε πρῶτος καὶ τοὺς λοιποὺς τὸ ὅμοιον προὔτρεψε πρᾶξαι. καὶ οὗτος ὁ νόμος ἐκλήθη σεισάχθεια· φανερὸν δὲ διὰ τί.

Sulla As Dictator and the Evils of Civil War

Velleius Paterculus 2.28

“The evils of the civil war seemed to have ended when they were rekindled by Sulla’s cruelty. Once he was made dictator—and this honor had been avoided for a hundred and twenty years since the last time it had been used was one year after Hannibal quit Italy—and it is obvious that the fear which prompted the Roman people to want a dictator was less than how much they feared his power. As dictator, Sulla applied the power which earlier dictators had used only to save the country from the greatest dangers with unmeasured degrees of savagery.

He was the first—and I wish he had been the last—to discover the model of proscription with the result that in the same state in which legal recourse is available to an actor booed from the stage, in that state a price was set for the murder of a Roman citizen: he would have the most who killed the most! The reward for the killing of an enemy would be no greater than for the murder of a citizen.

In essence, each man was valued for the price of his own death. Such savagery was applied not only to those who had carried arms against them, but against many innocents too. In addition to this, the goods of the proscribed were offered for sale: children already deprived of their father’s goods were also prohibited from the right of seeking public office and, the most unjust thing of all, they had to maintain the standards of their social rank without recourse to the rights.”

Videbantur finita belli civilis mala, cum Sullae crudelitate aucta sunt. Quippe dictator creatus (cuius honoris usurpatio per annos centum et viginti intermissa; nam proximus post annum quam Hannibal Italia excesserat, uti adpareat populum Romanum usum dictatoris haud metu desiderasse tali quo timuisset potestatem) imperio, quo priores ad vindicandam maximis periculis rem publicam olim usi erant, eo in inmodicae crudelitatis licentiam usus est.3 Primus ille, et utinam ultimus, exemplum proscriptionis invenit, ut in qua civitate petularitis convicii iudicium histrioni ex albo redditur, in ea iugulati civis Romani publice constitueretur auctoramentum, plurimumque haberet, qui plurimos interemisset, neque occisi hostis quam civis uberius foret praemium Geretque quisque merces mortis suae.4 Nec tantum in eos, qui contra arma tulerant, sed in multos insontis saevitum. Adiectum etiam, ut bona proscriptorum venirent exclusique paternis opibus liberi etiam petendorum honorum iure prohiberentur simulque, quod indignissimum est, senatorum filii et onera ordinis sustinerent et iura perderent.

Sulla - Wikipedia

Hesiod, the Persians, and Peeing in the Pool

Every year, as summer approaches, there’s a raft of newspaper and magazine articles exploring swimmers’ concerns about people peeing in the swimming pool. In May 2017, the New York Times published ‘Come On In. The Water’s Fine (Mostly).’ In May 2019, Forbes published ‘Please Stop Peeing in the Pool, CDC Says’. In July 2021, Prevention magazine published ‘How Bad Is It to Pee in a Pool? The CDC Is Here to Remind You That It’s Not a Good Idea.’  In May 2022, the St. Louis Labor Tribune published ‘Summer’s here: Don’t pee in the pool.’ There are whole pages of memes around this fear, not to mention the popular urban myths about a chemical that will make the water turn red if anyone misbehaves. Even ocean swimming worries many people. Thus Business Insider, in 2014, published ‘Is it OK to pee in the ocean?’, and in 2018, the Sun published ‘Urine Trouble: Why You Should Never Wee in the Sea when Swimming in These Places’.

Doctors assure us it’s safe to swim, so why the recurring, exaggerated concern? We might look back to the nineteenth century. A terrible worldwide cholera pandemic, eventually shown to be spread by contaminated water, surely got people thinking about what other dangers might be lurking in their water. Around the same time, the invention of better microscopes, allowing scientists to really see and understand bacteria, led to a flood of popular pamphlets and newspaper articles alerting people that cleanliness and even sterility was the way to avoid infections. Cities all over the world built dams, created reservoirs and laid thousands of miles of pipe to supply clean water to their residents and carry away sewage, separating sewage from drinking water. The vast new 19th c. enthusiasm for swimming encouraged an association between these public health concerns and the new public pools. All of these factors surely did play a role.

Swimmer, personification of the Orontes River. Bronze, 2nd Century CE Louvre

But concern about people peeing in the water goes back thousands of years, long before people knew anything about germs, and long before Europeans knew how to swim. Ancient people worried about pee in the water throughout Southwest Asia and Europe, at least as long ago as the early Iron Age and probably as far back as the Bronze Age. It goes back to a time even before many people in Europe or Southwest Asia knew how to swim.

The Greek poet Hesiod gives us the first literary exposition of this idea of defilement, writing around 700 BC. He warns us to ‘never cross the sweet flowing water of ever flowing rivers on foot before you have prayed, looking into the beautiful stream, and washed your hands in the much loved clear water. Anyone who wades a river without washing the evil from his hands, the gods resent him and send him trouble later. Hesiod admonishes his readers, ‘Never urinate in rivers flowing to their mouths, or in springs; but be careful to avoid this. And don’t defecate in them: it’s not right.’ 

μηδέ ποτ᾽ αἰενάων ποταμῶν καλλίρροον ὕδωρ
ποσσὶ περᾶν, πρίν γ᾽ εὔξῃ ἰδὼν ἐς καλὰ ῥέεθρα,
χεῖρας νιψάμενος πολυηράτῳ ὕδατι λευκῷ.
ὃς ποταμὸν διαβῇ κακότητ᾽ ἰδὲ χεῖρας ἄνιπτος,
τῷ δὲ θεοὶ νεμεσῶσι καὶ ἄλγεα δῶκαν ὀπίσσω….

μηδέ ποτ᾽ ἐν προχοῇς ποταμῶν ἅλαδε προρεόντων
μηδ᾽ ἐπὶ κρηνάων οὐρεῖν, μάλα δ᾽ ἐξαλέασθαι:
μηδ᾽ ἐναποψύχειν: τὸ γὰρ οὔ τοι λώιόν ἐστιν. ( Hesiod, Works and Days, ll. 737–41, 758–9.)

Hesiod here doesn’t mention swimming, because hardly anyone in his audience would have known how to swim, and he surely didn’t know how himself. But he’s definitely against peeing (or pooping) in the water. And he adds the warning not to ‘clean your skin in women’s bath water,’ because it’s ‘temporarily cursed.’

μηδὲ γυναικείῳ λουτρῷ χρόα φαιδρύνεσθαι
ἀνέρα: λευγαλέη γὰρ ἐπὶ χρόνον ἔστ᾽ ἐπὶ καὶ τῷ
ποινή.

Hesiod almost certainly got this idea from Asians further east, who were also not swimmers. In the 500s BC, the prophet Ezekiel, writing in the non-swimming Levant, explicitly blames Egyptians (who were enthusiastic swimmers) for disturbing the water and angering God: 

Cry for Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and say to him, You think you are a lion of the nations, but you are like a dragon in the seas. You burst forth in your rivers; you trouble the waters with your feet, and foul their rivers. Thus says the Lord God: I will . . . water with your blood the land in which you swim . . . I will destroy all the livestock [of Egypt] from beside the great waters, so neither men’s feet nor beasts’ hoofs will trouble them anymore. Then I will let the waters run clear (Ezekiel 32:2–14.

Regio V, Insula X, 3.
the Baths of the Swimmer were built during the reign of Domitian.

In the 400s BC, the Greek historian Herodotus informs us that the Persians were even more careful about polluting the water than Hesiod suggests. The Persians, who were also not generally swimmers, ‘never urinate or spit into a river, nor even wash their hands in one; nor let other people do it; instead, they greatly revere rivers.’ North of the Persians in what is now Ukraine, Herodotus tells us that the Scythians bathe in hemp-seed steam baths, ‘for they absolutely will not wash their bodies with water’. 

ἐς ποταμὸν δὲ οὔτε ἐνουρέουσι οὔτε ἐμπτύουσι, οὐ χεῖρας ἐναπονίζονται, οὐδὲ ἄλλον οὐδένα περιορῶσι, ἀλλὰ σέβονται ποταμοὺς μάλιστα.

οἱ δὲ Σκύθαι ἀγάμενοι τῇ πυρίῃ ὠρύονται. τοῦτό σφι ἀντὶ λουτροῦ ἐστι. οὐ γὰρ δὴ λούονται ὕδατι τὸ παράπαν τὸ σῶμα. (Herodotus, Histories 1.138.2, 4.75.)

By Herodotus’s time, aristocratic Greeks were beginning to pride themselves on their swimming, and Herodotus plainly means to distinguish the Greeks, who love water, from the Persians and Scythians who fear it. But he’s not wrong. Asian sources agree with him on the perceived dangers of disturbing the water’s surface. Zoroastrian hymns, or Avestas, dating back at least to late antiquity if not further, recount a story that the river spirits ‘were dissatisfied by the defilement of still water, so that they would not flow into the world’. The Lord Ahuramazda ‘will pour six-fold holy water into it and make it wholesome again; he will preach carefulness.’ Late antique Sasanian and Manichaean writers are also convinced that bathing equals sin, so that ‘at the warm baths which many have frequented . . . the pious went in, and came out wicked’. These writers warn against entering rivers and pools, like ‘that wicked man who, in the world, often washed his head and face, and dirty hands, and other pollution of his limbs, in large standing waters and fountains and streams, and distressed Hordad the archangel.’ A particular prohibition, echoing Hesiod a thousand years earlier, forbids swimming, or even approaching water, during menstruation. 

Fishermen on the Lac de Bizerte on a Roman Mosaic from the middle of the 5th century AD in the Bardo Museum. Originally from the Frigidarium of a villa in Sidi Abdallah

Looking back on these ancient concerns from today’s perspective, they may seem like simply reasonable concerns about clean water. But ancient writers and doctors didn’t know the germ theory of disease. Their concern with not disturbing the water is only partially about cleanliness. In other contexts, they delivered babies with dirty hands and shared drinking cups. Hippocrates instructs surgeons about the light, their posture, and the size, weight, and finish of their instruments, but says little about cleanliness. Bandages were to hold the wound closed or compress it, not to keep it clean. The ancient emphasis on not disturbing the surface of the water suggests that not cleanliness, but a religious sense of water’s sacredness was uppermost in people’s minds. 

Two swimmers on the mosaic floor of a bath from the Roman villa of Pompianus in Cirta, Algeria, c. 4th century CE,’ photo credit Steve Richards’

That sense is still very much with us today. It not only underlies people’s deep concern about people peeing in the pool, but also shows up in other common concerns around swimming. Europeans are often concerned to minimize splashing in the water; they explain that swimming breaststroke, as many Europeans prefer, reduces splashing and is calmer and more respectful of the water. Even Britain’s radical ‘wild swimmers’, who swim in rivers and lakes, repeatedly mention the desirability of swimming ‘without kicking or thrashing around’, being ‘considerate of your effect on others’, and the ‘meditative’ aspect of swimming. They prefer to enter the water ‘gradually while keeping your head above the surface’. British swimmers bemoan the ‘recklessly vigorous breaststroke’ and prefer ‘slipping’ into the water. This aversion to disturbing the water is surely descended from ancient religious strictures. 

Swimmers in the River, Cave of the Seafarers (Cave 212), Kizil, c. 6th-7th century AD, wall painting – Ethnological Museum, Berlin

From antiquity to today, this fear has raised much more serious barriers for many would-be swimmers. Both medieval Muslims and modern Turks have been forced out of the water on the grounds that they smelled bad. European missionaries were told they were too dirty to swim. Americans have been told they were too dirty, and Aboriginal Australians that they were unhygienic. Roma children were banned from pools and Italian Jews were barred from Mediterranean beaches on the grounds that their bodies polluted the water. In Eastern Europe and Russia, 20th c. swimming pools demanded doctors’ certificates of good health. People object to sharing swimming pools with people who have cerebral palsy, paralysis, or amputations. They feel the same way about swimmers who are overweight, or old. Swimming pools bar swimmers for having the wrong lotion, the wrong haircut, or the wrong type or color of swimsuit. Swimmers even reimagined Blackness as dirt that might come off in the water, so that in 2009 white women in Philadelphia still pulled their children out of the water rather than let them swim with Black children. Even young white women are routinely asked whether their bodies are ‘ready for the beach’. 

This fear of disturbing the water keeps all of us from swimming, and even from learning to swim. Mara Gay, in a recent New York Times article, warned that many New York children can’t swim at all, and listed the many fear-oriented prohibitions of New York’s public pools, from ‘no phones’ to ‘no pool noodles’, ‘no baby strollers,’ and ‘no colored t-shirts.’

Even though much of our enthusiasm for swimming derives from the enthusiasm of ancient swimmers from Cato to Agrippina, much of our fear of the water and of entering the water is also inherited from the ancient world. We must learn to see ancient Greeks and Romans as merely one group of humans among many, right about some things and wrong about others. In swimming, at least, we would do better to be guided by other cultures—African, Native American, Maori, Southeast Asian—with more enthusiasm for swimming and less fear of the water.’

Max Liebermann, Swimmers, 1875

Karen Eva Carr is the author of Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming (2022), just out from Reaktion Books. She is Associate Professor Emerita in History at Portland State University, and has also written on Roman and Visigothic Spain, on the Roman pottery of North Africa, and on the history of hand fans.

History, Stranger than Fiction

Pseudo-Cicero, Letter to Octavian 7

“What a pitiful overthrow of the state–so fast and twisted, so rushed! Who will have the ability to entrust these events to words in a way that they seem facts instead of fiction? Who will have the ease of mind to read them as something other than fantastic, even when they have been faithfully recorded in time?”

o miseram et in brevi tam celerem et tam variam rei publicae commutationem! quisnam tali futurus ingenio est, qui possit haec ita mandare litteris ut facta, non ficta videantur [esse]? quis erit tanta animi facilitate qui quae verissime memoria propagata fuerint non fabulae similia sit existimaturus?

A Pensioner of the Revolution, by John Neagle, The American Revolution Institute collection Note: The portrait depicts Joseph Winter, a homeless veteran living on the street in Philadelphia.

A Good Law?

Herodotus, 2.177 (Full text on the Scaife viewer)

“Amasis made this law for the Egyptians, that each one should reveal how he makes his living to the leader of his state each year and if he does not prove in some way that he lives justly to be punished by death. Solon took this law from Egypt and made it the rule among his people. May they keep this law forever because it is perfect.”

νόμον τε Αἰγυπτίοισι τόνδε Ἄμασις ἐστὶ ὁ καταστήσας, ἀποδεικνύναι ἔτεος ἑκάστου τῷ νομάρχῃ πάντα τινὰ Αἰγυπτίων ὅθεν βιοῦται· μὴ δὲ ποιεῦντα ταῦτα μηδε ἀποφαίνοντα δικαίην ζόην ἰθύνεσθαι θανάτῳ. Σόλων δὲ ὁ Ἀθηναῖος λαβὼν ἐξ Αἰγύπτου τοῦτον τὸν νόμον Ἀθηναίοισι ἔθετο· τῷ ἐκεῖνοι ἐς αἰεὶ χρέωνται ἐόντι ἀμώμῳ νόμῳ.

Solon - Wikipedia
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