“I have come from the hidden places of corpses, darkness’ gates,
Once I left the place where Hades lives separate from the gods.
I am Polydorus, a child of Hecuba, the daughter of Kisseus,
And my father was Priam who sent me to this Phrygian city
When danger pressed upon us with a Greek spear.
Because he was afraid he sent me from the Trojan land
To the home of his guest friend Polymestor.”
Each week we select scenes from a play, actors and experts from around the world, and put them all together for 90 minutes or so to see what will happen. This process is therapeutic for us; and it helps us think about how tragedy may have had similar functions in the ancient world as well.
Euripides’ Hecuba was performed in 424 BCE during the first part of the Peloponnesian War in a period when Athens and Sparta had both suffered reversals. The play tells the story of Hecuba coming to terms with the deaths of her children Polyxena and Polydoros after the end of the Trojan War and before her own death. Euripides’ use of both characters exemplifies well his adaptation of myth: Polyxena’s sacrifice on Achilles’ grave is only one part of a revenge fantasy that has Hecuba plotting the murder of her son’s killer, Polymestor. In the Homeric tradition, Polydoros is Priam’s bastard son. But Euripides’ play maximizes on the appearance of the child’s ghost and the rage of a woman at the end of a disastrous war.
“Then Achilles charged with his spear at godlike Polydoros,
Priam’s son. His father did not want him to fight at all
Because he was the youngest of his children
And was dearest to him: he could beat everyone with his feet
And he was foolishly showing off the excellence of his speed
As he raced through the fighters in front, until he lost his life.
Shining, swift-footed Achilles struck him right in the middle of the back
As he tried to leap past, in that place where the belt’s golden buckle
Comes together and the double-thick tunic meets.
The tip of the spear drove straight through to his navel
And he fell to his knees with a groan as a grey cloud
Overshadowed him. He fell forward holding his bowels in his hands.”
“The passion of the debate burned equally
On both sides, until that craft-minded
Criminal, the sweet-talking salesman of the people
The son of Laertes persuaded the army
Not to reject the best of all the Danaans
Over slaughtered slaves…”
Technical, Moral, Administrative Support: Lanah Koelle, Allie Mabry, Janet Ozsolak, Helene Emeriaud, Sarah Scott, Keith DeStone
Euripides, Hecuba 369-378 [Polyxena speaking]
“Ok, then, take me Odysseus, take me to die.
For I see no little hope or expectation here
That I will ever live well at all.
Mother, don’t put any kind of obstacle in my way
By saying anything, by doing anything. Share my plan
To die before meeting some shame I don’t deserve
Someone who is unaccustomed to facing troubles
Endures them but it hurts to bend the neck to the yoke.
One like this who dies is much luckier than being alive:
For not living well is terrible toil.”
“Who defends me? What family do I have?
What kind of city? The old man is gone.
Our children are gone.
What kind of path do I take?
This one? That one? Where would I be saved?
Where is there some god or spirit to help?
Trojan women who have endured evils,
Oh, the evil pains you’ve gone through,
You are dead, you have killed—
A life in the light no longer surprises me.”
No one who is mortal is free—
We are either the slave of money or chance;
Or the majority of people or the city’s laws
Keep us from living by our own judgment.
Since you feel fear and bend to the masses,
I will make you free of fear:
Understand anything wicked I plan against
My son’s murderer, but don’t help me do it.”
“Agamemnon, it’s not right for people
To possess tongues stronger than deeds.
If someone has done good things, then they ought to speak well
If they do wretched things, well, their words are rotten to,
And they are incapable of ever speaking of injustice well.
Wise are those who have become masters of precise speech!
But they cannot be wise all the way to the end.
They all die terribly. There’s no escape from that.”
Each week we select scenes from a play, actors and experts from around the world, and put them all together for 90 minutes or so to see what will happen. This process is therapeutic for us; and it helps us think about how tragedy may have had similar functions in the ancient world as well
Euripides, Trojan Women, 95-98
“Any mortal fool enough to sack cites,
Their temples, shrines and the graves of those they killed,
Dies later on in self-made isolation.”
For obvious reasons of context, then, Euripides’ Trojan Women is often read as a response to the same forces arguing that might makes right in Thucydides’ famous Melian dialogue. For me, the outcome of the Melian decision, that a democratic people voted to destroy an allied city, kill all the men, and enslave all the women and children for the crime of resisting their power, stands with Odysseus’ hanging of the enslaved women in the Odyssey and Achilles’ sacrifice of Trojan youths over Patroclus’ funeral pyre as horrors transmitted by the ancient world that we have all too often minimized or ignored altogether in our reception of the past.
Upcoming Readings (Wednesdays at 3PM EDT, Unless otherwise noted; the project page))
Sophocles, Ajax, May 29th
Euripides, Andromache, June 3rd
Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos, June 10th
Euripides, Ion, June 17th[10 AM EDT/3PM GMT]
Euripides, Hecuba, June 24th
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, July 1st
“Any mortal is a fool who takes some pleasure
From imagining their good luck is safe: in its turns
Fortune’s like a crazed person leaping this way one day
And then another, no one ever keeps the same good luck.”
So, a twitter correspondent (.@stustin) asked me about this one:
This is so fake that it has been debunked by Snopes and Politifact, which traced the simplistic sentiment to a goodreads account in 2008. A simple google books search shows that the misattribution made the leap to books a few years ago and seems to be growing like a virus or cancer.
On my fake quotation scale, this stands somewhere between Peisistratos Fake–because it has been obviously manufactured–and Racist Fake because it is used in political debates by those trying to prevaricate when their interlocutors mention the moral turpitude of someone like a Supreme Court Justice who likes beer and putting his genitals in people’s faces. This is just another one of those lame, nitpicking logic-memes which put on a false mantle of antiquity for authority.
Socrates does talk a lot about slander, but he is usually worried about how slander prejudices audiences against speakers before a debate even happens (he says this in the Apology). In this case, the concern is the opposite of that in the spurious quotation: the quotation fears that debate devolves into name-calling and away from fact whereas Socrates is actually worried that previous name-calling and unquestioned assumptions makes it impossible for his audiences to apprehend the facts of a case.
Plato, Apology 19a
“Well, so be it. I need to defend myself, Athenians, and I need to try to take from you the slander you have absorbed over so long a period in such little time.”
The problematicbiographies, the various Lives of Homer, include some similar information.
Vita Herodotea 332-4
“The man from Khios had children around the same age. They were entrusted to Homer for education. He composed these poems: the Kekropes, Batrakohmuomakia, Psaromakhia, Heptapaktikê, and Epikikhlides and as many other poems as were playful.”
“We aren’t able to say anything about [parody] before Homer—but it is likely there were many—but we must start from Homer who leaves us the Margites and other works of this sort. It is fitting that among these works he also developed the iambic meter—for this is the very reason that iambos is called this today, since men are always mocking each other in that meter. Some of the ancient poets wrote heroic poetry, others wrote iambic. Just as Homer was the exceptional poet in serious matters—for he didn’t only do it well in other ways but he also made his representations dramatic—in the same way he was the first to display the character of comedy in dramatizing something funny, not reproachful. And his Margites completes an analogy for us: just as the Iliad and the Odyssey are to tragedy, so to the Margites is to comedy.”
Asios 1 is from Lydia, son of Kotyon, king of the Lydians
Schol. Ad Il. A 2.261
“Asios was the son of Kotus and Muiô, the king of the Lydians, as Khristodôros claims in his Lydian Histories: “Kotus took another wife to share his bed, the white-armed girl named Muio / and she bore the son Asios.”
[Asios] was from Asios, the son of Kotus the king of Ludia. Kaüstros was son of Penthesilea the Amazon, [and it was he] who married Derketô in Askalôn and had Semiramis from her. Among the Syrians, Derketô is called Atargatîs”
Asios 2 is the son of Hurtakos, also Phrygia or from Arisbê
Schol. Ad Il. 2. 838
“Asios the son of Hurtakos, the marshal of men”: there is a fact that this Asios has the same name as a brother of Hekabê. Aristarchus indicates the same named men in work about Pulaimenos. And regarding the repetition, that this is something extra in the Iliad.”
“He is Phrygian. The younger poets say that Troy and Phrygia are the same. But Homer does not say this. Aeschylus agrees. These are from a smaller part of Phrygia. The greater part lies along the Sangarios where Asios “who is the maternal uncle of Hektor tamer of horses.”
Asios the son of Hurtakos whom horses brought from Arisbe.”…he is about the describe his bold dead, and he has properly designated him through his horses and his father. Arisbê is a city on the Hellespont. He is saying that it was bold for them to come to Troy by foot.
Aristonicus: Asios the son of Hyrtakos: there is a bit extra in the Iliad in the repetitions of this [name]. in the Odyssey it only comes up once.
“Apollo then stood next to him as he was thinking,
Appearing in the shape of a noble and strong man,
Asios, who was the maternal uncle of Hektor the tamer of horses,
One who was a brother of Hekabê, the son of Dumas.
He used to live in Phrygia along the course of the Sangarios.”
“the brother of Hekabe, the “son of Dumas”. Of Dumas and the nymph Euthoê, according to Pherecydes. But according to Athenaion, he was the son of Kisseus and Têlekleia. Unless Asios is a son of the same mother as Hekabe. For Asios is recently present. Therefore, he does not mention him in the Catalogue.”
In this often overlooked scene we find an unnamed slave at the end of a long night’s work.
[Odysseus] carried it outside and then prayed
while raising his hands to Zeus,
“Zeus, father, if you have willingly led me
over the soil and swell to this land,
after you have made me a much lesser man,
let someone of those gathered within utter my fame
and let some other sign of Zeus appear without.”
So he spoke while praying and Zeus the advisor was listening to him.
He immediately thundered from shining Olympus
high above from the clouds. And brilliant Odysseus smiled.
A woman from the house near the mill released a sound [phêmê]
where the twelve mills were set for the shepherd of the host.
There were twelve women working there
regularly working the barley and the wheat, men’s marrow.
The others were sleeping, since they had finished grinding their grain.
But she alone was not yet stopping, since she was the weakest of all.
But then she stopped her mill and spoke, a sign for her master.
“Zeus, father, you who rule over the gods and people,
how you have thundered from the starry sky
where there is no cloud! In this you show your sign.
Now grant to wretched me this word which I speak:
may this be the last and final day on which the suitors
take their lovely feast in the halls of Odysseus.
These men wear the knees of tired, heart-pained me
as I make their meal. Let them dine now for the last.”
So she spoke and Odysseus took pleasure in the speech and the thunder. For he was thinking that he would pay the guilty back.”
This scene illustrates the extent to which minor characters exist and in fact suffer pointlessly for Odysseus’ benefit: we get the briefest glimpse into the life and suffering of one of the mill-working women in order to satisfy Odysseus’ own desire to hear that he is remembered. For me, this scene is a metonym for the narrative’s use of marginalized peoples in the generic instrumentalization of another’s pain to satisfy Odysseus’ narrative ends.
The scene: Telemachus is asking Euryklea how she treated the beggar (who is Odysseus) over night. He does not know that she knows that it is Odysseus. It is not clear whether or not she knows that he knows that this is Odysseus. So, Telemachus takes the opportunity to complain about his mom.
“She stood once she went to the threshold and he addressed addressed Eurykleia
“Dear auntie, how did you honor the guest in our home
With sleep and food—or does he lie there uncared for?
For this is the way my mother is even though she is really intelligent.
She madly honors one man of the mortal human race
Who is worse and then she dishonors another by sending him away.”
Then wise Eurykleia addressed him in turn.
“You shouldn’t blame the blameless now child.
For he sat and was drinking her as long as he wanted
And he said that he was no longer hungry—for she asked him.
But when they were thinking about going to be and sleep
She ordered the slave women to law out blankets for him
But he, just like someone who is completely wretched and poor,
Would not sleep on a bed and on blankets,
But on unworked oxhide and fleeces of sheep
He slept in the front hall. We put a cloak on him.”
So she spoke and Telemachus went out of the bedroom
With a spear in his hand. The swiftfooted dogs were following him.
“This is what my mother is like…” He is not slandering his mother but he means that she honors those beggars who bring good tidings about Odysseus even though they are lying but then does not honor those good ones because they don’t lie.”
56 μειδήσας: “Grinning”, often appears in responses to speeches in Homer, e.g. Il. 23.555 ( ῝Ως φάτο, μείδησεν δὲ ποδάρκης δῖος ᾿Αχιλλεὺς). This masculine participle seems a bit more popular in the Hellenistic period, see Ap. Rhodes 2.61 and Gr. Anth. 12.126.3.
ἀντίον ηὔδα: “He responded, answered back”; a typical Homeric speech introduction for answering.
57 ξεῖνε λίην αὐχεῖς ἐπὶ γαστέρι
λίην: “excessively”, adv.
αὐχεῖς: “You brag about ..” with ἐπὶ γαστέρι. αὐχεῖς is not a Homeric word, but it does appear in Aeschylus (Ag. 1497; cf. Eur. Her. 31 Χο. εἰ σὺ μέγ’ αὐχεῖς).
ἐπὶ γαστέρι: “on your belly” with the sense of “because of”. See Smyth §1689.2c. This is not a typical use of the preposition in Homer. The phrase does appear in the Odyssey (7.216: οὐ γάρ τι στυγερῇ ἐπὶ γαστέρι κύντερον ἄλλο) but the sense there seems more one of addition or comparison (“there is nothing more shameful beyond a belly”).
ἔστι καὶ ἡμῖν: Dative of possession with subject enjambed in the next line.
58 θαύματ’ ἰδέσθαι: This plural (θαύματ’) does not occur in Homer. For the singular with this infinitive, see Hom. Od. 13.108: φάρε’ ὑφαίνουσιν ἁλιπόρφυρα, θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι. The phrase-pattern may have a certain antiquity, however. Cf. the plural at Hes. Th. 834. The rhythmic shape is the same with either ending.
59 ἀμφίβιον…νομὴν: “amphibious realm”; lit. “a double-lived pasture”
Κρονίων: “Son of Kronos”, Zeus, a typical Homeric epithet for Zeus in this position.
60 σκιρτῆσαι κατὰ γαῖαν, ἐν ὕδασι σῶμα καλύψαι: The verb δίδωμι (here, ἔδωκε) often takes an infinitive (i.e. “Zeus grants that we dance upon the earth”). But combined here with the object ἀμφίβιον…νομὴν it seems a bit forced. The chiastic structure of this line (infinitive-prepositional phrases-infinitive) seems rather characteristic of Hellenistic play. Note as well the possible humorous foreshadowing in “covering the body in water” (σῶμα καλύψαι).
61 στοιχείοις: “Parts, or elements”; this is a lengthened or diminutive of στοῖχος which means “row or rank”. The meaning “parts” or “elements” is rather common in philosophical prose. But it also appears more colloquially as well, and a few times in Aesop as in Fab 32.2.9 (“The story shows that no place, no land, no sky nor any part of the water safekeeps murders of men”, ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ, ὅτι τοὺς φονεῖς τῶν ἀνθρώπων οὔτε γῆς οὔτε ἀέρος οὔτε ὕδατος στοιχεῖον οὔτε τόπος ἄλλος φυλάττει). The root noun certainly was available as early as Homer, cf. “in a ranked line” μεταστοιχί (Il. 23.358)
᾿Αναξίμανδρος Πραξιάδου Μιλήσιος. οὗτος ἔφασκεν ἀρχὴν
καὶ στοιχεῖον τὸ ἄπειρον, οὐ διορίζων ἀέρα ἢ ὕδωρ ἢ ἄλλο τι (Diog. Laert. 2.1)
διττοῖς: Un-Homeric. A word such διπλόος would be more common epic usage. Theognis has the non-Attic Δισσαί (837)
δώματα ναίειν: “to inhabit homes”, still governed by ἔδωκε, i.e. “Zeus has granted that we inhabit…” Cf. Hes. Th. 303: ἔνθ’ ἄρα οἱ δάσσαντο θεοὶ κλυτὰ δώματα ναίειν and νῆσος δενδρήεσσα, θεὰ δ’ ἐν δώματα ναίει (Odyssey 1.51)
μεμερισμένα: “divided” from μερίζω, “to divide”. This participle does not occur in Homer, but it can be found in a scholion to The Odyssey, which says of the Aethiopians: Αἰθίοπες ἀνατολικοὶ καὶ δυσμικοί. κατοικοῦσι δὲ ἀμφότεροι πρὸς τῷ ὠκεανῷ. τούτου χάριν φησὶν “ἔσχατοι ἀνδρῶν.” E. νενέμηνται, μεμερισμένοι εἰσίν. (Scholia in Odysseam, Book 1 Line 23.)This gives the boast of Phusignathos a comic effect by extending his range between the real and semi-mythical worlds. See also line 20, where Okeanoio is a given as a variant of Eridanoio.
62 δαήμεναι: from δάω Homeric infinitive, “to learn”, often with a genitive direct object in Homer Cf. Il. 21.487 (εἰ δ’ ἐθέλεις πολέμοιο δαήμεναι…)
εὐχερές: Lit. “ready-to-hand”, i.e. “easy”
63 βαῖνέ… ἐν: tmesis is common in Homer; ἐμβαίνω is often used with getting on ships.
ἐν νώτοισι: “on my back”. The plural is often used metaphorically in Homer for the sea (e.g. Od. 17.146: οἵ κέν μιν πέμποιεν ἐπ’ εὐρέα νῶτα θαλάσσης.) but this dative form appears twice in references to portions of meat (Il. 7.321; Od. 14.437), although archaic poetry also uses it with horses (see Theognis 249: οὐχ ἵππων νώτοισιν ἐφήμενος• ἀλλά σε πέμψει)
κράτει δέ με μήποτ’ ὀλίσθῃς: from κρατέω (imperative singular, often confused with the third person indicative κρατεῖ); “Hold me tight so you don’t slip off”; The verb κράτει has no parallels in Homer but appears with a genitive object in Sophocles (Philokt. 1292: πρότεινε χεῖρα, καὶ κράτει τῶν σῶν ὅπλων).
64 γηθόσυνος: “Happy”, a Homeric adjective, e.g. Il. 4.272 ( ῝Ως ἔφατ’, ᾿Ατρεΐδης δὲ παρῴχετο γηθόσυνος κῆρ).
ὅππως …εἰσαφίκηαι: Uncontracted middle aorist optative from ὰφικνέομαι (optative because of ὅππως (lengthened from ὅπως for metrical reasons), object clause of effort). This is a Homeric form, though rare: μὴ καὶ ὑπὲρ μοῖραν δόμον ῎Αϊδος εἰσαφίκηαι, 30.336). In Homer, object clauses may take the subjunctive or optative where Attic might use future forms. See Smyth §2217.