Tag Archives: Persia

An Accord Sown

The first thing [Alexander] did in Persia was pay the womenfolk their money, in accordance with the custom by which whenever Persian kings arrive in the country they give some gold to every woman there. This explains why some of them apparently did not go there very often.
Plutarch, Roman Lives (Alexander, 374)

DSC_0840I burst out laughing when I read the above quote. I was at work, but I couldn’t help myself. One of my jobs is the type in which I can read without getting in trouble.  I finished the, ironically, rather long “life” of Alexander and was a little depressed to discover that I hadn’t even done away with an hour of my five hour shift. A patron came in and asked me a question regarding the show that is currently being shown in the gallery and then he asked me what I was reading. I paused. “Plutarch,” I finally admitted. “Well, somebody should be,” he laughed and walked away. I tried to imagine poor Alexander’s reaction to the disinterest he (mostly) inspires, and I felt bad for him. He really tried very hard. A smart and honorable fellow, perhaps a slave to his ambition, but he wasn’t a scoundrel, and really, at a certain point isn’t that all that matters?

Darius was already on his way down from Susa, with his confidence boosted not just by the size of his army [..], but also by a dream which the Magi had interpreted in a manner designed to please him rather than to accord with probability (327).

I was planning to someday have a staff of Magi to interpret my dreams in a pleasing way, but even I can learn from history- accord with probability– I must remember that. It would make an excellent mantra, and as Darius would surely attest-  save a lot of pain. Plutarch would have been the man to do justice to the noble life of Darius had he a Persian section of Noble Lives, but even still, as he often does,  when he is ostensibly talking about one noble man, he can’t help but go on at length about that noble man’s most worthy foe. By Plutarch’s own measure, that sense of decency makes Plutarch himself something of a noble man.

And he used to say that there was nothing better than sleep and sex for reminding him that he was not a god (332).

Now I’ve never confused myself with a god, but I think I will agree with Alexander that there are not many better things than sleep and sex to remind you of your body. If perfectly sated both activities transport one away from their body, but in their unrealized incarnations there can be no mistaking of one’s mortal state whilst tired or pining. But besides such winning bon mots as that, the question of why anyone should read Plutarch is legitimate. After all, I have no reason other than fun and interest to slog through some of the many nobel lives of Plutarch’s opinion. But I suppose that is the very thing. Plutarch is fun. And he is interesting. Alexander is a fabulous character and the sheer storytelling virtuosity that Plutarch excels in makes it compelling reading. The passage in which Plutarch describes Alexander facing down the gossip of his friend’s supposed betrayal is so marvelous I had to stare out into space for a bit to revel in it. After receiving “news” that Philip (of Acarnania) is planning to poison him, Alexander says nothing; Philip comes to him with a potion to cure him of a minor illness, (but only after overcoming the fear of wrath and retribution should Alexander’s health worsen by his care)  Alexander hands Philip the incriminating letter of accusation:

The ensuing scene was wonderful and worthy of the stage: one of them was reading the letter and the other drinking the potion, and they both looked at each other, but not with the same significance” (328)

What faith in friendship. What wonderful stuff mankind can be made of. This is why one reads Plutarch. Aristotle’s rules of writing: discovery, peripety, and suffering are all on display in the lives of these mostly extraordinary men. The seeds of history: lessons can be learned, bon mots can be savored, models of nobility can be aspired to, and – good storytelling is good storytelling. Period.

*excerpts from Plutarch Greek Lives published by Oxford World’s Classics translated by Robin Waterfield

Plutarch part 1: Lives (Noble or Not)
Plutarch part 2: Argue As You Please
Plutarch segue: Blindfold Art

For Hippokleidas, no problem!

Like most parties, the end of the evening has drawn us below decks (they always have more fun). Herodotus spends a large portion of Book Six explaining interesting idioms of the time like this one- After vying for more than a year to marry the tyrant of Sicyon, Kleisthenes’ daughter, Hippokleides gets a little too funky on the dance floor and “[dances] away [his] marriage!” His reply to his almost father-in-law, “For Hippokleidas, no problem!”  (6.129) becomes a saying used for all time (or until people forget, whichever comes first) to mean “Who cares?” – probably dancing with a table on his head was just a bit too much…but, I’m with Hippo – sometimes ya gotta dance!

I appreciated the clever poignancy of this one the most-  when, in passage 6.37 Croseus threatens the Lampsacenes to release Miltiades or he will “wipe them out like a pine tree.”

The Lampsacenes who tried to interpret this message were at first bewildered[…], but then, after much hard thinking one of the elders came to the realization of its true significance: the pine tree alone of all trees does not produce and new shoot once it has been chopped down, but is utterly destroyed and gone forever.
– The Landmark Herodotus (6.37)

Needless to say, they do his bidding. The use of poetic imagery in warfare is as disturbing as it is effective apparently.

Book Seven went on to a comprehensive examination of Persia’s forays into Greece and ultimate ambitions for all of Europe. When Xerxes takes over he declares that he has no intention of a program change:

“Persians, I am not about to introduce a new custom to you: instead I shall follow the tradition handed down to me.” (7.8)

And what is this fine tradition? Imperialistic war, naturally. There is no end to it it would seem. And although I love the famously clever bridge he built to quickly get into Greece (he basically connected hundreds of boats side to side, with a makeshift road constructed on top to make a pontoon), I can’t see why the endless litany of who fought whom when is of any abiding interest, because in truth we know who fought whom: Who has fought with all. Whether it be with the gods blessing, at their bidding- or not, because clever as we are, if we don’t like the message another one can always be found:

“Lord, deliver us a better oracle…” (7.141)

And He does. Xerxes is a capricious, terrifying tyrant, but he has his moments of humanity; when he suddenly takes to weeping he is asked why and answers:

That is because I was suddenly overcome by pity as I considered the brevity of human life, since not one of these people here will be alive in one hundred years from now.”

Most of them won’t be alive in five minutes thanks to him but I guess the fact that he has been the cause of so much of the brevity perhaps escaped his notice. He goes all-in with superior forces on land and sea, only to eventually retreat back to Persia in the end. Nice work fellas.

Hubris has a strange effect on everyone, both sides, both sexes- according to Herodutus, whenever there was “trouble” in the air the current priestess of Athena would grow a long beard. But I am not shocked, it was felt that everybody should act like men in battle. Case in point, when Artemisia sinks a friendly ship to avoid being attacked (in an act of callous deceit, she tricks the enemy into thinking she must be one of their fleet by attacking her own side, which few, including Xerxes ever figure out, but for Hippokleidas, no problem! It looked good!), never mind that everyone on board the friendly ship dies, she is lauded for the clever warrior she is, Xerxes is reported to have said, “My men have become women, and my women men!” (8.88).

I am starting to look at my watch, But Herodutus assures me there is only one final Book. I am starting to feel like Philippedes (running to get help…Marathon -not really, but for Hippokleidas, no problem!…you know the story [6.105]). But, as the books are short, the stories mostly familiar, and we are good friends now, so I humor him.

“But above all, let them know that they [the Persians] are mere barbarians who have contrived to murder Hellenes who are men.” (9.17)

Do men never tire of declaring their manhood? I sweetly inquire of Herodotus, but he is deep in description of the war at Stenykleros- Wait. I think I’ve seen this movie…300 Spartans, fighting to the death…yes, oh, do continue, My Dear, where were we, fleeing Persians, arguments between Athens and the Lacedaemonians- geesh,  I thought my children argued incessantly! Sorry. I promise I won’t interrupt again. Please, do continue.

More horrors ensue and very little changes. History is an awfully repetitive thing. Now that I have (incredibly) gotten through The Landmark Herodotus, I wonder if it will be necessary for me every to read another history again? In nine books the same basic disputes of wounded prides and avarice were repeated ten thousand times.  But, I have come to love the voice of Herodotus, he is at once infectiously curious, relatively open-minded, and not without humor. The father of history has given his all. The fault does not lie with him that we never learn. The ship sails on.

*The Landmark Herodotus The Histories, Edited by Robert B. Strassler translated by Andrea L. Purvis

Herodotus Book One
Herodotus Book Two
Herodotus Book Three
Herodotus Book Four
Herodotus Book Five

Seducing Amazons: a how-to

preying for a drink

preying for a drink

The night is still young as Herodotus gets going on Scythia and Libya. In Book Four of The Landmark Herodotus there is, surprisingly, much more about the ladies. Starting with the Greek myth of Herakles which explains how Scythia got its name: true, this lady in question was half viper, but we women have learned not be too particular when it comes to getting in on a few bits of history.

I gave up trying to picture the union of Herakles with a girl that was a snake from the waist down, but somehow they accomplished the task and three children were born. I may be missing something vital but from what I can make out, the child that could draw a bow and put on a belt would rule the land. That talented lad was Scythes. The mother seems to disappear from history after that, and Scythia develops as nations do:

He flays the head [of enemies taken in war] by first cutting in a circle around the ears and then, taking hold of it, shaking off the skin. He then scrapes it out with an ox’s rib and works the skin in his hands until he has softened it, after which he uses it as a handkerchief. 4.64

Feeling a little nauseated, as Herodotus gets a little excessive with the gory details, I must say I’m pleased to move on to the Spartan women who saved all their uppity Minyan  husbands by visiting them in prison and exchanging clothes so that the men could make an escape. Annoyingly, Herodotus does not say what happens to the woman left in the prison dressed in their men’s garb. But, I will hold my tongue.

Herodotus: The Boudinoi speak a different language from the Gelonians, and the two peoples follow quite different ways of life. The former are indigenous nomads and the only people in Scythia who eat lice. (4.109)

Me: Ew.

Herodotus: When a Nasamonian man marries for the first time, it is customary for his bride to have intercourse with all the guests at the feast in succession. (4.172)

Me: Ow.

According to Herodotus when the Scythians engaged in battle with the Amazons (whom they called Oiorpata, or ‘man-slayers’) it wasn’t until they viewed the dead corpses that they realized they were fighting women. In an early case of “Make Love Not War,” the men decided to stop killing the lithesome  ladies and instead deliberated on how best to seduce them.

The brilliant plan was as follows-
1) Stop fighting and just chill in a nearby camp.
2) Each night sneak the camp a little bit closer to the Amazon’s camp- no one will notice.
3) If the Amazons ignore them, take that as a sign of encouragement and accidentally- on-purpose come upon them as they walk away from the camp to do their ablutions and what-not.
4) Give her that come-hither look, and voilà, the hithering will come.
Nice work, Fellas.

Herodotus: Well, the Scythians take the seeds of this cannabis, creep beneath the wool covering the stakes, and throw the seed onto the blazing-hot stones within. When the seeds hit the stones, they produce smoke and give off a vapor such as no steam bath in Hellas could surpass. (4.75)

Me: I bet.
Herodotus, Darling, let’s stick to the champagne shall we?

*vintage photo I captured off tumblr months ago of unknown origin- caption mine.

Herodotus Book One
Herodotus Book Two
Herodotus Book Three