In our day and age, this might instead be a text message or a tweet to someone in a position of authority. But this letter is from Libanius to Julian the Apostate, Roman Emperor and our personal (anti-?)hero:
“Even if you don’t send me letters, I still dine on your words. For whenever someone else gets one, we hear about it and immediately read it, either by persuading or overpowering the unwilling recipient. So, my profit is no less than theirs even though it is only their right to be honored. I would also ask for honor, for some love-token from you. For, clearly, if you would honor me in any way, you wouldn’t do it without love.”
“Once a dog has learned to chew leather it can’t stop. Another way is easier: not buying any more books. You are sufficiently educated, you have enough wisdom. You have all of antiquity nearly at the top of your lips.
You know all of history, every art of argumentation including their strengths and weaknesses and how to use Attic words. Your abundance of books has given you a special kind of wisdom and placed you at the peak of learning. Nothing stops me from messing with you since you enjoy being thoroughly deceived.”
“A poor man named Skadasos used to live in Leuktra (which is a village in the land of the Thespians). He had two daughters who were named Hippo and Milêtia or, as some say, Thenô and Euksippê. Skedasos was a good man and solicitous of strangers, even though he did not have much. When two Spartan youths came to him, he welcomed them happily. Although they were lusting after the maidens, they were hindered from bold action by the good character of the father. On the next day, they went to Delphi. The same road laid before them.
So, after they got an oracle from the god about which they were in need, they returned homeward again, traveling through Boiotia and returning to the home of Skedasos. But he did not happen to be in Leuktra at the time. Still, the daughters welcomed the strangers in the family’s usual manner. But when the youths found them alone, they raped the girls. When they noticed that the girls were taking the offense pretty badly, they killed them and rid themselves of the burden by throwing the bodies in a well.
When Skedasos returned and did not see his daughters, he discovered that everything else he left behind was safe. He was at a loss over the affair until a certain dog kept pawing at him and often ran up to him and from him back to the well. From this he figured it out, and he raised his daughters’ corpses up from the well. Once he learned from his neighbors that they had seen those Spartans on the previous day and returning again on the next one, he attributed the deed to them because they were constantly praising the girls on the earlier day and counting as blessed the men they would marry.
He went to Sparta in order to take his case to the Ephors. When he was near Argos, because night overtook him, he stayed in an inn. There was another old man in the same inn who was from the city of Oreus in the region of Hestiaia. After Skedasos heard him groaning and cursing the Spartans, he asked him what evil he had suffered at their hands. He explained that he was a Spartan subject and that after Aristodemos was sent to Oreus as a governor, he proved himself to be very cruel and lawless.
He explained, “He lusted after my son. When he couldn’t persuade him, he attempted to rape him and abduct him from the wrestling school. Because the teacher was preventing him and there were many young men helping, Aristodemos retreated out of necessity. But on the following day, he outfitted a trireme, kidnapped the boy and sailed to the opposite shore where he was trying to rape the boy. He killed him because he was fighting back. After returned, he threw a dinner party.” The old man continued, “Once I learned of what happened and took care of the body, I went to Sparta and met with the Ephors. But they showed this no concern.”
Hearing these things, Skedasos lost heart because he was imagining that the Spartans would ignore his case as well. But he did explain his own misfortune to the stranger in turn. The man was advising him not to meet with the Ephors but just to return to Boiotia and build a tomb for his daughters. Skedasos, nevertheless, was not persuaded, but he went to Sparta to meet with the Ephors. When they did not pay attention, he went to the kings and then went up and wept before each of the citizens. When he gained nothing else, he was rushing through the city raising his hands to the sun. Then he was striking his fists on the ground and calling on the Furies. Finally, he killed himself.”
“As Ephoros has claimed, Minos modeled himself after a certain ancient Rhadamanthys, a most just man who had the same name as his own brother and apparently was the first to make Crete more civilized through laws, integrations of cities, and constitutions, insisting that he was simply introducing each of these ideas to the public from Zeus himself.
In imitating him, Minos also, it seems, retreated for nine years into Zeus’ cave and, after he spent time there, came back carrying certain declarations which he composed but he was claiming were established by Zeus. This is the reason why [Homer] has said, “there, for nine years, Minos was ruling as a companion of great Zeus.”
While Ephorus records these things, ancient authors have provided different accounts about him which run against these claims. They say that Minos was tyrannical, very violent, and greedy for tribute. Some put into tragedies the stories about the Minotaur and the Labyrinth along with the events of Theseus and Daidalos. It is hard to say whether things happened that way.
But there is another account which does not agree with the rest: some claim that Minos was an immigrant to the island, while others claim he was a native. Homer certainly seems to argue for the second view when he says that “[Zeus] first fathered Minos as a protector for Crete.”
Plutarch’s Moralia, “Advice about Keeping Well”, 10
“But, just as flowers’ scents are on their own weak but when mixed with oil they gain strength and tone, so too does an initial mass of food provide substance and body, so to speak, to the causes and origins of afflictions from outside the body. Deprived of this, none of these can be severe, but instead they wither away and decrease on their own, when simple blood and clean breath meet their entry. But in a mass and excess of food, it is just like some kind of churning mud which makes everything unclear, and dirty and hard to pass when it is stirred up.
We should not, then, be just like those praised ship captains who allow a massive cargo because of greed and are for this reason always occupied baling and pouring the sea out of their ship—no, we must not stuff our body and then apply medicine to make us purge it all, but instead we should keep our bodies slim so that if ever we are depressed, our body will rise up again because of its lightness, like a cork.”
The New York Times reports that the current US administration is trying to narrowly define gender in order to strip transgender people of federal protections. Here are some ancient intersex stories we posted over the summer. Human beings have known that gender is not simply binary and is not simply about how we are born for a very long time.
6 Also in Antioch near the Maiander river there was an intersex person, when Antipater who was the Athenians and Marcus Vinicius and Titus Statilus Taurus were consuls. The person was called Kourbinus. As a maiden of famous parents when she was thirteen she was suited by many because of her beauty.
After her parents chose the suitor they wanted, they appointed the day for the marriage But the girl shouted out as she was about to leave the house when the most severe amount of pain over took her.
Those near her lifted her up and were taking care of her because she had pains in her guts and twisting within them. This pain remained for three days straight and her suffering made everyone confused, since they could not give her relief from the toils at night or day.
Even though the doctors in the city applied every type of healing to her they found no cause for the suffering. On the fourth day near dawn, the pains greatly increased and, as she shouted out with a terrible groan, suddenly the masculine parts descended from her and a girl became a man.
After some time, he was taken to Rome to be presented to Claudius Caesar. And he, on account of the fame, had an altar erected for Zeus the Defender of Evils on the Capitoline.”
7 “There was also in Mêouania, an Italian city, in the home of Agrippina Augusta, an intersex person when Dionysodorus was archon in Athens and in Rome Decimus Junius Silanos Torquatos and Quintus Aterius Atonius were consuls.
The girl’s name was Philôtis and she was Smyrnaian in origin. When the time of her marriage came and she had been promised by her parents to a man, male genitals appeared on her and she became a man.”
8 “There was also another intersex person in the same time period in Epidaurus, a child of poor parents who was called Sumpherousa first but was named Sumpherôn when he became a man. He spent his life gardening.”
9 “In Laodikeia there was also a Syrian women named Aitêtê who changed her form when she was already living with her husband and then changed her name to Aitêtos once she became a man. This was when Makrinos was archon in Athens and Lucius Lamia Aelianos and Sextus Carminius Veterus were consuls. I even saw him myself.”
A note on translation. I was a bit dissatisfied with the translations available from the LSJ for ἀνδρόγυνος so I chose the modern “intersex”.
The story of Teiresias, Phlegon of Tralles, On Marvels 4
“Hesiod—along with Dikaiarkhos, Klearkhos, Kallimakhos and some others—relates these things about Teiresias. When Teiresias the son of Euêros in Arcadia was a young man he saw snakes copulating, he wounded one and immediately changed his form. He changed into a woman from a man and then had sex with a man.
But after Apollo prophesied to him that, if he saw snakes copulating again and wounded one in the same way, he would be as he was before, Teiresias took care to do the things which were prophesied by the god and thus regained his older form.
When Zeus was fighting with Hera and saying that in sex a wife surpassed her husband in the pleasures of intercourse—even while Hera was claiming the opposite—it seemed right to them to send for Teiresias because he had tried out both ways. When they questioned him, he responded that if there were ten portions, a man took pleasure in one and a woman took pleasure in ten.
In her rage over this, Hera took out his eyes and made him blind. But Zeus gave him the gift of prophecy and to live for seven generations.”
What is a little different about this version is the presence of Apollo and the claim that Zeus lengthened Teiresias’ life as part of his ‘reward’. This second part helps to explain Tiresias’ presence from the birth of Dionysus to the fall of Thebes with the Epigonoi.
5 “Others tell the story that in the land of the Lapiths the king Elatos had a daughter whose name was Kainis. After Poseidon had sex with her he promised to make her into whatever she wanted. She said she wanted to be changed into a man who was invulnerable. When Poseidon did this—as was right—he changed her name to Kaineus.”
This story is older than Ovid and Phlegon. It is detailed in the fragments of Akousilaus, perhaps alluded to in Homer, definitely indicated by Apollonius Rhodes, and present even in Plato. While the sex-change narrative remains an important element, the main feature of Kaineus’ tale is his hubris–because of his invulnerability he asks to be made into a god.
“Poseidon has sex with Kainê of Elatos. Then—for it was not right for him [sic] to have children with him nor anyone else—Poseidon turned him into an invulnerable man, who had the greatest strength of the men at that time. Whenever anyone tried to strike him with iron or bronze, [the attacker] was completely defeated.
Then [Kaineus] became king of the Lapiths and was warring with the Centaurs. After he set up his javelin in the agora he was asking to be included in the number of the gods. This was not pleasing to the gods. And when Zeus saw him doing this, he threatened him and raised the Centaurs against him. They struck him straight down into the earth and placed a stone above as assign. Then he died.”
In this account, Poseidon seems to be changing Kaineus because of his inability to have children. This makes it rather clear what women are good for from this cultural perspective. In addition, it is interesting that Kaineus as an intersex figure is involved in the war between the Lapiths and Centaurs, a conflict which has its origins in a rapes at a wedding and is often seen as a reflection of the civilized Lapiths struggling against the primitive and violent urges of the Centaurs.
But, as can be seen from the relief below which dates to the early Archaic period, the punishment of Kaineus is a primary motif of the story tradition. In a way, if the sex-change and rape were equally ancient, this is a tale about a women who is raped ultimately being punished for surviving and thriving and exacting retribution for her suffering.
D Scholia ad Il. 264
“Kaineus was a son of Elatos and king of the Lapiths. He was a very beautiful virgin girl before. But after Poseidon had sex with her, she asked to be changed from a young woman into a man. And he became invulnerable, and the most excellent of those alive at the time. And after he stuck his javelin into the middle of the agora, he demanded to be entered into the number of the gods for this reason.
Zeus was annoyed by this request and he arranged the following type of payback from him for impiety. For, even though he was invincible, he made him less while he was fighting the Centaurs. For they were hurling and striking him with pines and oak trees and they drove him into the ground. Apollonius recalls this in the Argonautica saying this, “For the singers used to report the fame that Kaineus was killed by Centaurs, when he alone from the rest of the best drove them, they surged back. They were not strong enough to repel him nor to kill him, but he went under the earth, unbroken, unbent, pummeled by the striking force of powerful pines.”
This story is held up as a wistful impossibility by Plato in the laws. This passage is, well, upsetting.
Plato’s Laws 944d-c
“What then would be the right punishment for someone who has thrown away this kind of a power of a defensive weapon for the opposite? For it is not possible for a person to do the opposite of what they say the god did when he changed the Thessalian Kaineus from a women into a man. For one who throws away his shield, the opposite of this transformation, changing from a man into a women, in some way would be the best of all punishments for this.”
While Lucian is surely messing with us here, I think there are many tomes of Homeric scholarship set aright through this one paragraph.
Lucian, True History 2.20
“Two or three days had not yet passed when I approached the poet Homer at a moment when we both had free time and I was investigated the rest of the matters about him, especially where he was from. For this is still examined by us to this day. He said that he was not ignorant that some people say he his from Khios and others say Smyrna while a majority claims he is Kolophonian. But he was saying that he is in fact Babylonian and was not called Homer among his people but Tigranes. Later on, after he was a hostage [homêreusas] among the Greeks he changed his nickname.
When I asked him about the lines which were considered spurious and whether they had been written by him, he was claiming they were all his. For this reason I started to believe that the grammarians Zenodotus and Aristarchus were guilty of the most close-minded logic. Since he had responded sufficiently on these matters, I was asking him next why he made his poem start with the “rage of Achilles”. He said that it just leapt into his head that way without any prior thought. Then I was eager to know that thing, whether he wrote the Odyssey before the Iliad as many claim. He denied this.”