Hate in the Heart, Love for the Dark: CAN’T LOSE

Tyrtaeus, Fr. 11 [=11 Stob. 4.9. 16]

This fragment is preserved in Stobaeus’ Anthology under the section “On War” [ΠΕΡΙ ΠΟΛΕΜΟΥ]. It is immediately preceded by a passage from Plato’s Menexenus that mentions that “it is offer the case that it is noble to die in war” [πολλαχῇ κινδυνεύει καλὸν εἶναι / τὸ ἐν πολέμῳ ἀποθνῄσκειν]. Not to quibble with Stobaeus’ choices, but Tyrtaeus fr. 10, starting τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλὸν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι πεσόντα might have been better.

“You are the race of unconquerable Herakles!
Come, be brave–Zeus has not yet turned his head away.
Don’t fear the mob of men or think of running,
But let each man hold his shield directly against their front ranks,
Once you make your soul hateful and treat
The dark fates of death as dear as the rays of the sun.

You know the destructive tasks of much-wept Ares,
And you have learned well the fury of painful war;
You have been among the attackers and the retreat,
Young man, and you have had enough of both.

Those who stand at one another’s side dare
To enter the hand to hand fight in the front ranks
And fewer die–they save the army behind them.
When people run away, all excellence perishes.

No one could ever list in words each of the things
That someone suffers, all the evils a person sees in shame.
For it is terrible to stab a man in the back
As he flees in the middle of the enemy army.

It is shameful to see a body lying in the dust,
Driven through, a spear sticking out of its back.

Let everyone stand in place, setting feet firm,
Rooted into the earth, biting lips with teeth,
Covering thighs, shins below, chest and shoulders
With the bellow of a broad shield.

Shake your strong spear in your right hand,
Toss the helmet’s crest terribly on your head.

Learn how to fight from completing acts of strength–
Don’t just stand outside the range of the weapons
But move forward holding your shield,
Attack the enemy face-to-face with spear or sword.

Press foot against foot, shield against shield,
Helmet to helmet and crest to crest,
Fight against a man chest to chest,
Take the hilt of his sword or long spear.
You, light armed men, crouch behind shields
Moving from on to another, and hit the enemy
With huge stones; strike them with javelins,
Stand next to those in armor.

ἀλλ᾿, Ἡρακλῆος γὰρ ἀνικήτου γένος ἐστέ,
θαρσεῖτ᾿·—οὔπω Ζεὺς αὐχένα λοξὸν ἔχει—
μηδ᾿ ἀνδρῶν πληθὺν δειμαίνετε, μηδὲ φοβεῖσθε,
ἰθὺς δ᾿ ἐς προμάχους ἀσπίδ᾿ ἀνὴρ ἐχέτω,
ἐχθρὴν μὲν ψυχὴν θέμενος, θανάτου δὲ μελαίνας
κῆρας <ὁμῶς> αὐγαῖς ἠελίοιο φίλας.

ἴστε γὰρ ὡς Ἄρεος πολυδακρύου ἔργ᾿ ἀΐδηλα,
εὖ δ᾿ ὀργὴν ἐδάητ᾿ ἀργαλέου πολέμου,
καὶ μετὰ φευγόντων τε διωκόντων τ᾿ ἐγένεσθε,
ὦ νέοι, ἀμφοτέρων δ᾿ ἐς κόρον ἠλάσατε.
οἳ μὲν γὰρ τολμῶσι παρ᾿ ἀλλήλοισι μένοντες
ἔς τ᾿ αὐτοσχεδίην καὶ προμάχους ἰέναι,
παυρότεροι θνήσκουσι, σαοῦσι δὲ λαὸν ὀπίσσω·
τρεσσάντων δ᾿ ἀνδρῶν πᾶσ᾿ ἀπόλωλ᾿ ἀρετή.

οὐδεὶς ἄν ποτε ταῦτα λέγων ἀνύσειεν ἕκαστα,
ὅσσ᾿, ἢν αἰσχρὰ πάθῃ, γίνεται ἀνδρὶ κακά·
ἀργαλέον γὰρ ὄπισθε μετάφρενόν ἐστι δαΐζειν
ἀνδρὸς φεύγοντος δηΐῳ ἐν πολέμῳ·
αἰσχρὸς δ᾿ ἐστὶ νέκυς κατακείμενος ἐν κονίῃσι
νῶτον ὄπισθ᾿ αἰχμῇ δουρὸς ἐληλάμενος.

ἀλλά τις εὖ διαβὰς μενέτω ποσὶν ἀμφοτέροισι
στηριχθεὶς ἐπὶ γῆς, χεῖλος ὀδοῦσι δακών,
μηρούς τε κνήμας τε κάτω καὶ στέρνα καὶ ὤμους
ἀσπίδος εὐρείης γαστρὶ καλυψάμενος·

δεξιτερῇ δ᾿ ἐν χειρὶ τινασσέτω ὄβριμον ἔγχος,
κινείτω δὲ λόφον δεινὸν ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς·
ἔρδων δ᾿ ὄβριμα ἔργα διδασκέσθω πολεμίζειν,
μηδ᾿ ἐκτὸς βελέων ἑστάτω ἀσπίδ᾿ ἔχων,
ἀλλά τις ἐγγὺς ἰὼν αὐτοσχεδὸν ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ
ἢ ξίφει οὐτάζων δήϊον ἄνδρ᾿ ἑλέτω,
καὶ πόδα πὰρ ποδὶ θεὶς καὶ ἐπ᾿ ἀσπίδος ἀσπίδ᾿ ἐρείσας,
ἐν δὲ λόφον τε λόφῳ καὶ κυνέην κυνέῃ
καὶ στέρνον στέρνῳ πεπληγμένος ἀνδρὶ μαχέσθω,
ἢ ξίφεος κώπην ἢ δόρυ μακρὸν ἑλών.

ὑμεῖς δ᾿, ὦ γυμνῆτες, ὑπ᾿ ἀσπίδος ἄλλοθεν ἄλλος
πτώσσοντες μεγάλοις βάλλετε χερμαδίοις
δούρασί τε ξεστοῖσιν ἀκοντίζοντες ἐς αὐτούς,
τοῖσι πανόπλοισιν πλησίον ἱστάμενοι.

Red figure vase with two sides of soldiers holding shields and spears facing each other. A double flute player is behind one side
Detail from the Chiggi Vase, c. 7th century CE

Tyranny, Terror, and Mutilation

CW: Violence, torture, killing

Today’s monstrous news shows Russian soldiers mutilating and killing prisoners of warHomeric epic features its ‘hero’ doing the same thing, and few respondents over time have worried about what that means.

Homer, Odyssey 22.474-477 

“They took Melanthios out through the hall and into the courtyard.
They cut off his nose and ears with pitiless bronze.
Then they cut off his balls and fed them raw to the dogs;
And they cut off his hands and feet with an enraged heart.”

ἐκ δὲ Μελάνθιον ἦγον ἀνὰ πρόθυρόν τε καὶ αὐλήν·
τοῦ δ’ ἀπὸ μὲν ῥῖνάς τε καὶ οὔατα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ
τάμνον μήδεά τ’ ἐξέρυσαν, κυσὶν ὠμὰ δάσασθαι,
χεῖράς τ’ ἠδὲ πόδας κόπτον κεκοτηότι θυμῷ.

Ekhetos is mentioned again at 18.116 and 21.308.

Od. 18.83-87

“If this one defeats you and proves stronger,
I will send you to the shore, throw you in a black ship,
And ship you off to king Ekhetos, the most wicked man of all.
He will cut off your nose and ears with pitiless bronze
And after severing your balls, he will feed them raw to his dogs.”

αἴ κέν σ’ οὗτος νικήσῃ κρείσσων τε γένηται,
πέμψω σ’ ἤπειρόνδε, βαλὼν ἐν νηῒ μελαίνῃ,
εἰς ῎Εχετον βασιλῆα, βροτῶν δηλήμονα πάντων,
ὅς κ’ ἀπὸ ῥῖνα τάμῃσι καὶ οὔατα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ
μήδεά τ’ ἐξερύσας δώῃ κυσὶν ὠμὰ δάσασθαι.”

Schol ad. Hom. Od. 18.85 QV

“Ekhetos was the son of Boukhetos, after whom there is also a city named in Sicily. He is said to have been tyrant of the Sicilians. The story is that he did every kind of mischief to the inhabitants of his land and killed foreigners by mutilating them. He exhibited so much wickedness that even those who lived far off would send people to him to kill when they wanted to punish someone. He developed all kinds of unseemly methods. This is why the people would not endure so bitter a tyranny, and they killed him by stoning.”

εἰς ῎Εχετον βασιλῆα] ῎Εχετος ἦν μὲν υἱὸς Βουχέτου, ἀφ’ οὗ καὶ ἐν Σικελίᾳ πόλις Βούχετος καλεῖται. Σικελῶν δὲ τύραννος λέγεται. τοῦτον τοὺς μὲν ἐγχωρίους κατὰ πάντα τρόπον σίνεσθαι, τοὺς δὲ ξένους ἀναιρεῖν λωβώμενον· τοσαύτην δὲ κακίαν ἔχειν ὡς καὶ τοὺς μακρὰν οἰκοῦντας ὅτε θέλοιεν σφόδρα τινὰ τιμωρῆσαι καὶ ξένῳ περιβαλεῖν θανάτῳ ἐκπέμπειν αὐτῷ. πολλὰς γὰρ μηχανὰς ἐξευρεῖν τοῦτον αἰκίας. ὅθεν τὸν λαὸν οὐχ ὑπομένειν τὴν πικρὰν ταύτην τυραννίδα, λίθοις δὲ αὐτὸν ἀνελεῖν.

A lingering interpretive problem for the Odyssey is why the epic  introduces this torture and attributes it to a very bad person, only to have Odysseus commit the very same act later in the epic. A pressing question for modern readers of Homer is why so few of us have bothered to worry about this at all.

Combined with the hanging of the enslaved women, this should be an indictment of Odysseus and support for the rebellion against him in book 24.

From the Suda:

“Tyrannos: The poets before the Trojan War used to name kings (basileis) tyrants, but later during the time of Archilochus, this word was transferred to the Greeks in general, just as the sophist Hippias records. Homer, at least, calls the most lawless man of all, Ekhetos, a king, not a tyrant. Tyrant is a a name that derives from the Tyrrenians because these men were quite severe pirates.* None of the other poets uses the name tyrant in any of their works. But Aristotle in the Constitution of the Cumaeans says that tyrants were once called aisumnêtai, because this name is a bit of a euphemism.”

Τύραννος: οἱ πρὸ τῶν Τρωϊκῶν ποιηταὶ τοὺς βασιλεῖς τυράννους προσηγόρευον, ὀψέ ποτε τοῦδε τοῦ ὀνόματος εἰς τοὺς Ἕλληνας διαδοθέντος κατὰ τοὺς Ἀρχιλόχου χρόνους, καθάπερ Ἱππίας ὁ σοφιστής φησιν. Ὅμηρος γοῦν τὸν πάντων παρανομώτατον Ἔχετον βασιλέα φησί, καὶ οὐ τύραννον. προσηγορεύθη δὲ τύραννος ἀπὸ Τυρρηνῶν: χαλεποὺς γὰρ περὶ λῃστείας τούτους γενέσθαι. οὐδεὶς δὲ οὐδὲ ἄλλος τῶν ποιητῶν ἐν τοῖς ποιήμασιν αὐτοῦ μέμνηται τὸ τοῦ τυράννου ὄνομα. ὁ δὲ Ἀριστοτέλης ἐν Κυμαίων πολιτείᾳ τοὺς τυράννους φησὶ τὸ πρότερον αἰσυμνήτας καλεῖσθαι. εὐφημότερον γὰρ ἐκεῖνο τὸ ὄνομα. ὅτι καὶ ἕτεροι ἐτυράννησαν, ἀλλ’ ἡ τελευταία καὶ μεγίστη κάκωσις πάσαις ταῖς πόλεσιν ἡ Διονυσίου τυραννὶς ἐγένετο.

Theodor van Thulden, 1606 – 1669,

Achilles Reflects on War

Homer, Iliad. 9.308-322.

“Child of Zeus, son of Laertes, savvy Odysseus,
I need to speak with total frankness, and say
exactly what I think and how this will go.
That should stop your stereophonic badgering.
As ghastly to me as Hades’ gates is the man
who hides one thing in his heart and says another.
I instead will say what I think is best:

“I don’t foresee the son of Atreus, Agamemnon,
or any other Danaan, bringing me around.
It was thankless work, endless warring against determined men:
there was equal share for shirker and fierce fighter;
the same respect for coward and brave;
and, a common death for the shiftless and the doer.
There was no reward for what my heart suffered
in always risking life and limb for war.”

διογενὲς Λαερτιάδη πολυμήχανʼ Ὀδυσσεῦ
χρὴ μὲν δὴ τὸν μῦθον ἀπηλεγέως ἀποειπεῖν,
ᾗ περ δὴ φρονέω τε καὶ ὡς τετελεσμένον ἔσται,
ὡς μή μοι τρύζητε παρήμενοι ἄλλοθεν ἄλλος.
ἐχθρὸς γάρ μοι κεῖνος ὁμῶς Ἀΐδαο πύλῃσιν
ὅς χʼ ἕτερον μὲν κεύθῃ ἐνὶ φρεσίν, ἄλλο δὲ εἴπῃ.
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν ἐρέω ὥς μοι δοκεῖ εἶναι ἄριστα·
οὔτʼ ἔμεγʼ Ἀτρεΐδην Ἀγαμέμνονα πεισέμεν οἴω
οὔτʼ ἄλλους Δαναούς, ἐπεὶ οὐκ ἄρα τις χάρις ἦεν
μάρνασθαι δηΐοισιν ἐπʼ ἀνδράσι νωλεμὲς αἰεί.
ἴση μοῖρα μένοντι καὶ εἰ μάλα τις πολεμίζοι·
ἐν δὲ ἰῇ τιμῇ ἠμὲν κακὸς ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλός·
κάτθανʼ ὁμῶς ὅ τʼ ἀεργὸς ἀνὴρ ὅ τε πολλὰ ἐοργώς.
οὐδέ τί μοι περίκειται, ἐπεὶ πάθον ἄλγεα θυμῷ
αἰεὶ ἐμὴν ψυχὴν παραβαλλόμενος πολεμίζειν.

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.

The Wretched of the Earth

“The night of the massacre, I was awakened by my family. My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave and that was it.”

–Viola Fletcher, 107 years old, survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

“It is hard when you leave without knowing where you’re going, without understanding what will happen to you or if you’ll ever see your parents, grandmother, or friends again.”

–Yevhenia, Ukrainian refugee in Poland.

Virgil, Eclogue I. 1-18.


Tityrus, while you lie under a broad sheltering beech
Rehearsing a pastoral song on the slender oaten reed,
We’re leaving the sweep and sweet fields of our homeland.
We’re fleeing our home, while you, Tityrus, at ease in the shade
Teach the woods to say and say again, “lovely Amaryllis.”


O Meliboeus, a god gave us this peace.
And since he will always be a god to me,
Soft lambs from our fold will often stain his altar.
He lets my cattle roam, as you see, and he lets me
make music to my liking on the rustic flute.


No judgment, but I marvel, since turmoil abounds In the land.
Look how in my distress I drive the goats with dispatch.
But even then, Tityrus, I can barely budge this one.
Here in the hazel thicket, a short while ago, she birthed twins.
And, dear me, she left the hope of the flock on the bare stones.
If only my mind had been right…The oaks struck from heaven
I often think of: they foretold this catastrophe.
But all that aside, Tityrus, tell us, who is your god?

“Turmoil abounds in the land” (usque adeo turbatur agris turbamur): Servius, the ancient commentator on Virgil, offered this gloss on the phrase:

“There is no distinguishing of guilt or deserts . . . The choice of ‘turmoil abounds’ is truly wise because it is impersonal; it applies to all people in general . . . Whereas, if you read “we are in turmoil” it would seem applicable only to a few.”

usque adeo turbatur agris turbamur sine ulla discretione culpae vel meriti . . . sane vera lectio est ‘turbatur’, ut sit inpersonale, quod ad omnes pertinet generaliter . . . si enim ‘turbamur’ legeris, videtur ad paucos referri.

Ecloga I.


Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena:
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arva;
nos patriam fugimus: tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.


O Meliboee, deus nobis haec otia fecit.
namque erit ille mihi semper deus, illius aram
saepe tener nostris ab ovilibus imbuet agnus.
Ille meas errare boves, ut cernis, et ipsum
ludere quae vellem calamo permisit agresti.


Non equidem invideo; miror magis: undique totis
usque adeo turbatur agris. en, ipse capellas
protinus aeger ago; hanc etiam vix, Tityre, duco.
hic inter densas corylos modo namque gemellos,
spem gregis, a!, silice in nuda conixa reliquit.
saepe malum hoc nobis, si mens non laeva fuisset,
de caelo tactas memini praedicere quercus.
Sed tamen, iste deus qui sit, da, Tityre, nobis.

Venezuelans fleeing their country.

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.

Teaching the Mahabharata in a Time of War

When Russia invaded Ukraine—the day after my son’s birthday in Ukraine but on his actual birthday in Seattle (because of the time difference we had time for dinner but before the cake and the candles the news had come)—I was teaching one of my bread and butter classes, the Epic Tradition. I pack too much into the ten weeks of this course: we read the Gilgamesh, the Iliad, Táin Bó Cúailnge, and the Odyssey, all in their entirety, and then, at the end, R.K. Narayan’s very short retellings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, supplemented by quotations from academic translations.

When the war started, we had reached the Mahabharata part of the course. Teaching the Mahabharata, in any form, at the beginning of this war is one of those teaching experiences I will not easily forget. The Mahabharata is many (many) things, but the main plot line is about the conflict between two sets of cousins—our heroes, the Pandavas, and our villains, the Kauravas—a conflict that ends in a cosmic and cataclysmic war. It all begins with delightfully complex lines of causality. The older prince is disqualified from ruling because he is blind, so the younger one becomes the king instead.

After a while, he resigns and then dies, so the older one becomes king after all. Whose son should inherit the kingdom? Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, is born before Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas—but Duryodhana’s mother becomes pregnant first. And so on. But as the action unfolds, the complexity, though it never disappears, becomes somehow less of a brainteaser and more of a background against which emerges something much starker, more tragic, more black-and-white. With an excessive, thought-experiment-like consistency Yudhishthira tries to avoid the war. What if I never contradict anyone? (Admittedly, he fails in that, but who wouldn’t?) What if I always completely obey my uncle’s orders? What if we accept half of the kingdom, the infertile lands? They do divide the kingdom, but it doesn’t help. At one point, he asks for just five villages, one for each of his brothers (To call Kauravas’ bluff or in earnest? What would he do if they agreed? We don’t get to find out).

But the war is not to be avoided, of course, as we all have known from the beginning. As in the Greek Epic Cycle, the war is caused by powers beyond mere humans, by the fundamental forces of the universe. It has to happen because the Earth is too burdened and she is shrugging off her load. And so Duryodhana says, in essence, “as long as the Pandavas have anything, I cannot live” and the war begins. Our heroes kill not only their cousins, but their grandfather and their teachers. The most brilliant of the Pandava children, Abhimanyu, is killed shortly after his wedding. Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas (yes, polyandry) loses all of her sons. In the end, the victory is won, but in the Mahabharata the moment when “the good prevails” feels terribly bitter and empty and full of grief.

And so here I was, trudging to class with my slides summarizing the battle books of the epic. I would wake up in the morning hoping that all that happened the day before was a bad dream, that it couldn’t be, or if it could then at least not to that extent—surely the awful, relentless cruelty of it was only a nightmare? But no, this was our new reality. I would feel as though, by the time I’d showered, my energy was spent. But what can you do? You go to class and pull up your slides. You read:

A loud wail went up in all the houses of the Kurus. The whole city, including the children, was riven with grief. Women whose lords had been killed were now in the gaze of common men—women whom not even the hosts of the Gods had ever seen! Having set their lovely tresses free to fly and taken off their ornaments, those women, clad only in simple shifts, ran to and fro helplessly. They emerged from houses that looked like snow-capped mountains, like does leaving secluded mountain valleys when the leader of their herd has been killed. Several groups of distraught women in the throes of grief ran about as if they were in the girls’ yard; and holding onto each others’ arms, they wept for their sons, brothers, and fathers—it was as if they were acting out the destruction of the world at the end of an Age. (Mahabharata 11.9.8, translated by James L. Fitzgerald)

I vividly remember the extreme fatigue of those first days. Was it just the cognitive effort of taking it in? Remarkable, if so.

I was born and grew up in Moscow, but my mother is from Ukraine. She grew up in Dnipro, a big city on Dnepr river, where, as a child, I spent many summer months with my grandparents. They were long, childhood summers— playing with a few local friends in the neighborhood playground, running around in the streets filled with cottonwood fluff, buying ice cream on the nearby leafy boulevard, staring forever at the swallows feeding chicks in their clay nests under cornices.

I remember using a magnet to gather pins from the carpet in my grandmother’s room, where she sewed elaborate dresses for clients (illegally, naturally, under Soviet law) and watching her bake, whipping egg whites by hand for what seemed like hours in front of the tv. I remember my grandfather repairing the clock, the tv, the sewing machine, tending, daily, his window-boxes of petunias and snapdragons. I remember the upheaval of the canning days (tomatoes, cucumbers, dill, shot glasses of vinegar, strictly following detailed instructions in an old notebook my grandmother called her “Talmud”). I remember reading all there was to read in the house, gorging on cherries and sprawling on the couch, through the afternoons.

The images of war are always shocking, but I have to admit that they are much more shocking when the building, the streets, the people, look and sound so achingly familiar. On the BBC news site a woman, tears and despair and rage in her voice, described how she went into the bathroom in her apartment to help her small child and came out to one of those pictures in which the outer walls are gone and the now naked domestic things—cupboards and couches and children’s cribs—hang askance over the void. I felt as if I’d heard her before, knew her somehow. In another video Ukrainian women howl over their dead son and grandson, their voices both familiar in their inflexions and alien in their beyond-human grief. I would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, sit up in bed and feel as if my head were an empty echoing cupola reverberating with those voices, those animal howls, and nothing else. The next day I would stand in front of my class and read:

The earth seems to be crammed with fallen heads, hands, and every sort of limb mixed with every other and put into heaps. And thrilling with horror upon seeing headless bodies and bodiless heads, the women, unaccustomed to these things, are bewildered. After joining a head to a body they stare at it blankly, and then they are pained to realize, “This is not his,” but do not see another one in that place. And these over here, joining arms, thighs, feet, and other pieces cut off by arrows, are overwhelmed by the misery of it and faint over and over again. Some of the Bharata women see other decapitated bodies which the birds and beasts have eaten and which they fail to recognize as their husbands. Some beat their heads with their hands when they lay eyes upon their brothers, fathers, sons, and husbands killed by the enemy, swords still in their hands, earrings still on their ears.  (Mahabharata 11.81.16, translated by James L. Fitzgerald)

Well, I didn’t read this, actually—I pointed to the slide, briefly, and left it at that.

The students had to write short responses to the readings of the day. “My perspective on the matter is that Duryodhana and Yudhisthira’s conflict is a personal one and that involving soldiers and going to war over it is pointless. However, I understand that my perspective is warped because in modern times the leader of the government is not an all-ruling monarch, and perhaps it was more important in older days to consider who was in charge of the country” an excellent student wrote in response to a question about the war in the Mahabharata and whether Yudhishthira should have fought it. “In modern times the leader of the government is not an all-ruling monarch”…. “Not so in Russia,” I thought “not so in the country of my birth. Not so in the world you live in, even if you think that you live in a different, better, more reasonable, safer world. You think you live in a “modern” world. You think that you do. But you do not.” This I did say in class, in different words, to a hushed and surprised room.

One of the worst things about the beginning of the war was the expectation that we would all lose hope, a particular kind of hope. The hope that a country can emerge from the warped reality of the Soviet Union and not slide back, not be sucked back, as Russia inevitably is, into the same black hole. That something else is possible. I’ve always been very pessimistic about Russia, even in the early nineties, when many had visions of a different future for it. I just didn’t see it (and still do not). But Ukraine was different, it had a chance. Now, I thought as the war began, Russia would take that chance away. It would never change itself and it wouldn’t let Ukraine do that either: the hope would be lost as the world stood by.

Of course, that did not happen. The Ukrainians stood up and compelled the reluctant West to act. It felt as if, speaking from shelled and threatened Kiev, Zelenski shifted something big in the world. Types of weapons became household words around the dinner table in my family. Russia choked, and the prospect of its swallowing Ukraine whole evaporated.  People started talking about Russia’s defeat. I cheer every Ukrainian success and register, with some surprise, how much I want Russia to lose—not just to stop, but to lose. I listen to the Ukrainian political commentator and presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych as he speaks (with admiration) of Western values and envisages Ukraine as a frontline defender of these values, calling on all of us to remember what they are.

Such hope. Western values…. In some ways, in appealing to those values, the Ukrainians remind me of Black people in the US who took the “Declaration of Independence” seriously when their white compatriots would not: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” —so let’s act that way. Ukraine too is calling on the West to walk the walk. But there is also a way in which Russia actually embodies, if not Western values exactly, then something else very centrally Western: the colonial worldview.  Also, the concomitant notion of some “destined” way the world has to be. The Russian state is profoundly, quintessentially, colonial and does not have any other ways of being. It is even internally colonial, colonial towards Russians who live in places that have been Russian for as long as this word made sense. The treatment of indigenous peoples amounts to an attempted erasure. And now the worse version of that worldview is used to rationalize the aggression against Ukraine. What a perfect expression of colonialism—to tell a people that they do not exist. The whole world should hope that Russia is defeated, and decisively so. There is no other way of stopping it—or changing it.

But if it is defeated—how much will change? I have my doubts. And in the meanwhile, the Mahabharata is still on my mind, long after my course has ended.  I wonder why that is so. Because of a war between cousins? Perhaps, although in many ways the cousin part actually does not resonate all that much with Ukraine. In the Mahabharata, there are long negotiations and attempts to avert the war, expressions of friendship and affection across the divide, hesitations on everyone’s part—except for Duryodhana, that is. The war begins in a ritual-like way, with mutual respect among most of the opponents. The invasion of Ukraine, by contrast, was a shock not only to the Ukrainians, but also, initially, to the Russian troops who were told that they would do military exercises near the border and then go home—but crossed the border instead. Nor was there any polite and honorable fighting to start with: Russian soldiers seem to have entered this war pre-brutalized, pre-decomposed, ready for genocide.

India, Kangra, circa 1800
Depicting a battle scene with the central figures on horse-drawn chariots with bows and arrows, with numerous figures on horseback and elephants engaging, supported by foot soldiers above and below, the noblemen depicted wearing crowns and with individualized facial features, many identified with inscriptions

And so, no, it is something else, not the superficial similarly of a “war between cousins.” It is the way the war in the Mahabharata is simultaneously completely useless, senseless, and—you would think—easily avoidable, and yet also somehow inevitable. It has to happen because the Earth is burdened—and it isn’t hard to arrange. No matter how many wise and sensible and peace-loving people are involved, one Duryodhana at the right time and in the right place is apparently all it takes, and by the time the war begins the causes are piled up sky-high: disputed lands, mistreatment of Draupadi, the divine machinations. How can you be a Yudhishthira if you share a world with Duryodhanas? Is there any way— apart from fighting a catastrophic war you never wanted? Not in the Mahabharata.

Now, as I write this, new rows of freshly dug graves stand ready in Dnipro at the edge of a growing cemetery filled with flowers and flags and freshly poured earth. It is strange to see it on the BBC website and know that this exists in a city of my childhood, the one with acacia trees along boulevards, and walnut trees whose green fruit stains your fingers brown, and a busy market, and the skins of sunflower seeds always mixed in with the dust.

The city, also, where my great grandparents lie in a mass grave, killed by the Nazis in a mass execution of the Jews of Dnipro on October 13, 1941. I hope for Ukraine’s resounding victory fervently. Will the West really walk the walk? Will there be enough help for a victory? And after this victory, I hope Ukraine gets a chance to play its new role in the world, to live its new life, bereft though it will be of all those already lost and still to be lost in this war.

Except: will Ukraine have the time for this new life? How much CO2 is emitted when a tank battalion is destroyed? Or in the process of transporting hundreds of howitzers? Or when you burn and level an entire city? Or when you rebuild it? Will the Earth’s patience hold long enough for any new order to emerge? Will she hold out a little longer, for Ukraine?

As the war stretches indefinitely, I cannot get the Mahabharata out of my head. This war is so clear, so black and white. Ukraine’s is the just fight. They didn’t ask for it, they didn’t have a choice, this was brought upon them because of one man’s delusion and one country’s murderous system of statehood. What choice do they have but to fight? What choice do we all have but to hope that this war will be “the end of an Age” only in some good sense and not in any terrible one?

Below the hope lies horror at the stark insanity of this war, any war, now, when daily we hear of new climate disasters, droughts and starvation and devastating floods, when you need only to open your eyes to see “the end of an Age”—of our age— rolling our way. The Earth must be burdened with us. So very burdened.


Olga Levaniouk is a Professor of Classics at the University of Washington and the author of Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19 (2011). Her work has focused on Homer, laments and wedding songs, and the comparative study of myth and culture. Her latest article (“Seeking Agariste,” 2022) is an example of a comparative analysis involving ancient Greece and modern India.

The Restoration of Peace

Seneca. Hercules. 362-369.

If mortals continually nurse never-ending hate,
And anger once ignited never leaves their hearts,
But instead, the winning side maintains its arms
While the losing side readies its own,
Then wars will leave nothing standing.

The land will be neglected, the fields ravaged.
When the torch has been put to houses,
Deep ash will cover the inhabitants buried within.

It’s advantageous for the victor to wish
For the restoration of peace,
But for the defeated it’s a necessity.

si aeterna semper odia mortales gerant,
nec coeptus umquam cedat ex animis furor,
sed arma felix teneat infelix paret,
nihil relinquent bella; tum vastis ager
squalebit arvis, subdita tectis face
altus sepultas obruet gentes cinis.
pacem reduci velle victori expedit,
victo necesse est.

Yemen has been at war since 2014.
More than 370,000 have died.
Photo credit: Thomas Glass/ICRC.

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.

When War Overtakes Us

Kallinos, fr. 5

“Now the army of the violent Kimmerians is advancing…”

νῦν δ᾿ ἐπὶ Κιμμερίων στρατὸς ἔρχεται

Kallinos, fr. 1

How long will you wait? When will you embrace your brave heart,
Young men? Aren’t you ashamed to wait so long in front
Of your neighbors? You think that you are sitting back in peace
But war is overtaking the whole land.

Let each person take their last shot even as they die–
There’s real honor for someone to fight against enemies
For their land and their children and their wedded spouses.
Death will come whenever the fates decide it.

But let each one of us go forward, raising our spear high
And keeping a brave spirit behind our shield, now that war is whirling.
There’s no way for anyone to avoid death, at least
When its fated, not even if they’re offspring of the immortal gods.
Often, someone flees the strife and clash of spears
Only to have death’s fate overcome them at home.

That one isn’t forever loved or missed by the people.
But the small and great alike mourn the other, when something happens.
The whole people long for a strong-minded person
when they’re gone, someone the worth of living heroes.
The people look upon them like a mighty tower—
For they do the work of many, even when standing alone.

μέχρις τέο κατάκεισθε; κότ᾿ ἄλκιμον ἕξετε θυμόν,
ὦ νέοι; οὐδ᾿ αἰδεῖσθ᾿ ἀμφιπερικτίονας
ὧδε λίην μεθιέντες; ἐν εἰρήνῃ δὲ δοκεῖτε
ἧσθαι, ἀτὰρ πόλεμος γαῖαν ἅπασαν ἔχει
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
καί τις ἀποθνήσκων ὕστατ᾿ ἀκοντισάτω.
τιμῆέν τε γάρ ἐστι καὶ ἀγλαὸν ἀνδρὶ μάχεσθαι
γῆς πέρι καὶ παίδων κουριδίης τ᾿ ἀλόχου
δυσμενέσιν· θάνατος δὲ τότ᾿ ἔσσεται, ὁππότε κεν δὴ
Μοῖραι ἐπικλώσωσ᾿. ἀλλά τις ἰθὺς ἴτω

ἔγχος ἀνασχόμενος καὶ ὑπ᾿ἀσπίδος ἄλκιμον ἦτορ
ἔλσας, τὸ πρῶτον μειγνυμένου πολέμου.
οὐ γάρ κως θάνατόν γε φυγεῖν εἱμαρμένον ἐστὶν
ἄνδρ᾿, οὐδ᾿ εἰ προγόνων ᾖ γένος ἀθανάτων.
πολλάκι δηϊοτῆτα φυγὼν καὶ δοῦπον ἀκόντων
ἔρχεται, ἐν δ᾿ οἴκῳ μοῖρα κίχεν θανάτου.

ἀλλ᾿ ὁ μὲν οὐκ ἔμπης δήμῳ φίλος οὐδὲ ποθεινός,
τὸν δ᾿ ὀλίγος στενάχει καὶ μέγας, ἤν τι πάθῃ·
λαῷ γὰρ σύμπαντι πόθος κρατερόφρονος ἀνδρὸς
θνήσκοντος, ζώων δ᾿ ἄξιος ἡμιθέων·
ὥσπερ γάρ μιν πύργον ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶσιν·
ἔρδει γὰρ πολλῶν ἄξια μοῦνος ἐών.

“Seated Warriors” by Marcus Grønvold (1870)

War, Some Proverbs

Arsenius 7.16n

“In war, iron is stronger for safety than gold;
But for living, reason is better than wealth.”

᾿Εν μὲν πολέμῳ πρὸς ἀσφάλειαν σίδηρος χρυσοῦ κρείττων,
ἐν δὲ τῷ ζῆν ὁ λόγος τοῦ πλούτου [Socrates]

“You can’t fuck-up twice in a war
Οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν πολέμῳ δὶς ἁμαρτάνειν


“War is tear-free” A proverb applied to those who succeed easily through every danger and beyond expectations.”

῎Αδακρυς πόλεμος: ἐπὶ τῶν ἔξω κινδύνου παντὸς ῥᾷστα δὲ καὶ παρ’ ἐλπίδα τὰ πράγματα κατορθούντων.

Michael Apostolios

“Beginning of wars”: A proverb applied to those who try to do wrong
᾿Αρχὴ πολέμων: ἐπὶ τῶν ἀδικεῖν ἐπιχειρούντων.

“Endless War is Sweet”: A proverb applied to those who throw themselves into dangers because of inexperience

Γλυκὺς ἀπείρων πόλεμος: ἐπὶ τῶν ὑπ’ ἀπειρίας ἑαυτοὺς καθιέντων εἰς κινδύνους.


“War is sweet for someone with no experience of it”

Γλυκὺς ἀπείρῳ πόλεμος

[A variation on the line above]

Heraclitus, D64

“war is father of everything; war is king of everything.”

πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι, πάντων δὲ βασιλεύς


Heraclitus, R53

“Heraclitus claims that Zeus and war are the same thing.”

καὶ | τὸν π̣όλεμο̣[ν] καὶ | τὸν Δ[ί]α τὸν αὐ̣τὸν | εἶν[αι, κα]θάπερ καὶ | τὸν [Ἡ]ράκλειτον λέ|γειν

Xenophon, Hiero 2

“If war is a terrible evil, then tyrants receive its greatest portion.”

εἰ δὲ πόλεμος μέγα κακόν, τούτου πλεῖστον μέρος οἱ τύραννοι μετέχουσιν.


Diogenes Laertius [Demetrius 82]

“Speech can win in politics however much iron can gain in War.”

ὅσον ἐν πολέμῳ δύνασθαι σίδηρον, τοσοῦτον ἐν πολιτείᾳ ἰσχύειν λόγον

Diogenes Laertius [Diogenes 50]

“Alliances come after war.”

μετὰ τὸν πόλεμον ἡ συμμαχία

Qajar-era Iranian court painter Mirza Baba’s depiction of Fath Ali Shah’s victory over the Russians at Yerevan (Siege of Erivan), part of the Russo-Persian War of 1804–1813. The painting is kept at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran.

The Rumble of War

Homer, Iliad 4.440-456

Ares whipped up the Trojans, Athena the Achaeans,
and with her were Terror, Rout, and ravenous Strife,
the sister-comrade of man-murdering Ares.
Strife is small when she first lifts her head. But then
her head towers into heaven, and she roams the earth.
And now she’s tossed the same warring spirit into two armies,
and she moves through the crush of men, multiplying their woes.

When the Trojans and Achaeans came together,
Shields and spears and bronze-armored men collided.
Bossed shields clanged against bossed shields.
There men cried and men exulted.
Men killed and men were killed.
And the earth flowed with blood.

Just as when swollen rivers rush down a mountain,
their mighty waters, torrents from huge springs,
hurl themselves together where they meet,
and some shepherd in the mountain hears the distant rumble–
just so, when the armies met in battle,
came the shouts and exertions of men.

ὄρσε δὲ τοὺς μὲν Ἄρης, τοὺς δὲ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη
Δεῖμός τʼ ἠδὲ Φόβος καὶ Ἔρις ἄμοτον μεμαυῖα,
Ἄρεος ἀνδροφόνοιο κασιγνήτη ἑτάρη τε,
ἥ τʼ ὀλίγη μὲν πρῶτα κορύσσεται, αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
οὐρανῷ ἐστήριξε κάρη καὶ ἐπὶ χθονὶ βαίνει·
ἥ σφιν καὶ τότε νεῖκος ὁμοίϊον ἔμβαλε μέσσῳ
ἐρχομένη καθʼ ὅμιλον ὀφέλλουσα στόνον ἀνδρῶν.

οἳ δʼ ὅτε δή ῥʼ ἐς χῶρον ἕνα ξυνιόντες ἵκοντο,
σύν ῥʼ ἔβαλον ῥινούς, σὺν δʼ ἔγχεα καὶ μένεʼ ἀνδρῶν
χαλκεοθωρήκων· ἀτὰρ ἀσπίδες ὀμφαλόεσσαι
ἔπληντʼ ἀλλήλῃσι, πολὺς δʼ ὀρυμαγδὸς ὀρώρει.
ἔνθα δʼ ἅμʼ οἰμωγή τε καὶ εὐχωλὴ πέλεν ἀνδρῶν
ὀλλύντων τε καὶ ὀλλυμένων, ῥέε δʼ αἵματι γαῖα.

ὡς δʼ ὅτε χείμαρροι ποταμοὶ κατʼ ὄρεσφι ῥέοντες
ἐς μισγάγκειαν συμβάλλετον ὄβριμον ὕδωρ
κρουνῶν ἐκ μεγάλων κοίλης ἔντοσθε χαράδρης,
τῶν δέ τε τηλόσε δοῦπον ἐν οὔρεσιν ἔκλυε ποιμήν·
ὣς τῶν μισγομένων γένετο ἰαχή τε πόνος τε.

Russian war games

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.

The Fight You Can’t Win

Archilochus told us, long before Pat Benatar in 1983 AD, that love is a battlefield.

His martial metaphor for love–or rather, for the lover struck down by Eros–is possibly the earliest such which survives. He sketched, for posterity as it were, the battlefield consequences of losing to Eros: inability to stand, lifelessness, wound, and pain:

Archilochus Fragment (193 West)

I lie here wretched with longing,
And lifeless,
Pierced through my bones
With bitter pains.
The gods’ doings, this.

δύστηνος ἔγκειμαι πόθῳ
ἄψυχος, χαλεπῇσι θεῶν ὀδύνῃσιν ἕκητι
πεπαρμένος δι᾽ ὀστέων.

By the Hellenstic period, what might have been fresh in Archilochus’ hand was now a well-worn trope.

Here is Rufinus employing the martial metaphor. In his light and clever epigram the lover contemplates resisting Eros, but with defeat a foregone conclusion (and Archilochus having articulated what defeat entails) he simply surrenders:

Rufinus (Greek Anthology 5.93)

I’ve strapped reason around my chest,
Armor against Eros.
He won’t defeat me: it’s one against one,
Mortal engaging immortal.
But, if he’s got Bacchus as his helpmate,
What can I, a man alone, do against two?

ὥπλισμαι πρὸς ἔρωτα περὶ στέρνοισι λογισμόν,
οὐδέ με νικήσει, μοῦνος ἐὼν πρὸς ἕνα:
θνατὸς δ᾽ ἀθανάτῳ συστήσομαι. ἢν δὲ βοηθὸν
Βάκχον ἔχῃ, τί μόνος πρὸς δύ᾽ ἐγὼ δύναμαι;

Image from Geoff Winningham’s Friday Night in the Coliseum.
Outclassed, alarmed, defeated…like a man who takes on Eros.

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.