Seven Against Thebes (9)


The Heroic Age ended abruptly, as we already noted, in the twelfth century B.C. Ancient scholars calculated this on the basis of the genealogies of ancient clans, and modern scholars arrive at a similar date, though they use different data and methods to make their calculations. Both ancient and modern scholars agree also that the cause of the fall of that age was not a natural cataclysm, but an invasion of tribes which in the twelfth century moved from the north of Greece all the way to the extreme south of the Peloponnesus, from where they even reached the island of Crete; and all along the way they destroyed all centers of civilization. These were Doric tribes. In Greek mythology, as we already mentioned, the invasion is known as the Return of the Heraclids, since Doric rulers claimed descent from Heracles. (This is why the king of Doric Spartans had the ashes of Alcmene, mother of Heracles, moved to his country).

But here the question which we had asked already returns: Greeks believed firmly that a great Heroic Age once took place; but what basis do we have to claim that it was the twelfth century which saw its destruction?

We owe an answer to this question to just one man: Heinrich Schliemann. In love with ancient Greek myths, especially those which had been immortalized by Homer, he devoted his life to proving that they weren’t a fantasy, but a reflection of actual facts. Beginning in 1870, over the course of thirty years, Schliemann conducted great excavations in places famed by great myths. He showed that in all those places there had once existed great palaces, full of treasures and objects of art, populated by rich and powerful men; the lifestyle of those times was totally different from that of the classical Greeks; and it all came abruptly to an end in the twelfth century.

The largest and most impressive palace of those times was in Mycenae. It is located in Peloponnesus, in a country known as Argolis. The rulers of Mycenae, the myths tell us, ruled over many surrounding countries; this is why we now call the Heroic Age "the Mycenaean Period". But besides Mycenae, many other centers flourished at the time; many are mentioned later in this book, but for now three must be named: Tiryns, in Argolis, clearly visible from Mycenae; then Pylos, on the Western coast of Peloponnesus; and Knossos, on Crete. True, magnificent palaces had been built in Knossos in earlier times, also, but it remained an important center in the Mycenaean period as well. Schliemann’s excavations – and those of his successors, since work has continued down to present time – allow us to propose the following rule: every locality in Greece which plays a role in mythology also preserves remains of a flourishing cultural center from the Mycenaean period.

The arriving Dorians destroyed Mycenaeans. All castles fell – even though the walls of many had been built of rocks so large that the succeeding generations refused to believe that they had been built by the hand of man; stories were told that they were built by Cyclops instead. The Mycenaean states collapsed. All major tombs were plundered by the raiders. All life in Greece returned to primitive, barbarian norms. No one built large palaces or castles anymore. The tradition of mural painting was broken off. The art of making fine gold, silver and bronze jewelry was lost. Several centuries of darkness had to pass before there arose the first stirrings of a new high culture, which in time we have come to call The Classical.

But the Dorians have not destroyed everything. Some remains of the Mycenaean glory have survived, both on the surface and underground; and the simple folk who’d lived in the simple huts at the feet of the grand castles, too, has survived. It is these people who have preserved from generation to generation the memory of the notable events of the ruling Mycenaean houses, which had fought each other for land, power and women. And the songs which had once been sung in the halls of the kings also proved more durable than stone or bronze; passed from mouth to mouth, they traveled down the centuries. Heroes grew to match gods, and fragments of Mycenaean history, wrapped in myth and poetry, became immortal, like pre-historical petrified plants.

In Thebes also the memory of the past remained alive – both thanks to legends and the castle’s remains. Walking towards the house of Simmias, the plotters passed the foot of the Cadmean hill. At that time there stood upon Cadmea many large new buildings, but people still pointed out fragments of some ancient walls and associated them with stories of the great events of the Heroic Age. Nowadays, it’s the other way around. Thebes is only a small town and its houses are packed closely on the entire top of the Cadmean hill. It’s difficult to excavate here: one would have to knock down half the town in order to get to the layers beneath. Only from time to time, when some digging work must be done, can one excavate a bit of the ancient ruins which run deep below the present street level.

Despite these difficulties, the Greek archeologist Antonios Keramopoulos, by digging whenever an opportunity presented itself, managed to excavate many-thousand-year old remains in the center of the city. Gradually, between 1906 and 1921 he uncovered a network of rooms, corridors and courtyards which had once been part of a large palace complex. The biggest of these rooms may have been a kind of throne room, while others, smaller, may have served as the apartments of the court ladies, as many small feminine decorations found throughout seem to suggest. There even remained small fragments of wall painting; it had portrayed women in long dresses advancing in a ceremonial procession, perhaps to offer a sacrifice to a deity. Similar paintings – in content and technique – had been found in the ruins of Mycenae and Tiryns. This alone suggests that the palace on Cadmea dates to the same period and that it is therefore Mycenaean. It’s also clear that the palace had been destroyed by a violent fire: there is a very thick layer of ashes on the palace floors.

At first, it was difficult to determine how large an area the complex had occupied. Keramoupulos himself suspected that all other traces of the palace had been wiped out from other sections of the hill by the subsequent construction, but, in 1937, another Greek archeologist, Spiridon Marinatos, determined on the basis of a series of small findings that the Mycenaean palace had once occupied the whole hilltop and even descended down its slope in a series of terraces. It was, in other words, in its time an impressive complex, one of the largest in the Greece of Heroic Age. Who built it? Who ruled here? Was the terrible fire the work of the same Dorians who destroyed other Mycenaean palaces of the time?

In connection with the last question, some doubts quickly arose. Certain evidence seemed to suggest that the fire predated the destruction of the Mycenaean world by some two hundred years. It seems to follow that, unless the great fire was an accident, then Cadmea was destroyed in one of the wars between Mycenaean princes. Did the ancient myths preserve tales of a war against Thebes? Yes: the myths tell the stories of two famous expeditions of seven princes against Thebes; of these, the second culminated in a capture of Cadmea. But we also find in the myths a story that the palace on Cadmea was once destroyed by the lightning of Zeus. In any case, both archeological data and the ancient myths told us that a great catastrophe touched Thebes at the peak of the Mycenaean age.

In 1921, the last year of his excavations, Keramopulos found, in one of the corridors, great amphorae, which had once been used to preserve oil and wine. Pottery is the most common object found in archeological excavations, but these amphorae became a cause of great excitement: over twenty of them featured inscriptions in some kind of a script. It was a strange script, quite unlike anything ever seen in later Greece, and no one was able to decipher it. But it was soon recalled that as early as 1900 the English archeologist Evans had found on Crete, in the palace of Knossos, hundreds of clay tablets covered with short inscriptions; their letters looked just like the letters now found in Thebes!

Since remains of this script had been found in two distant centers of the same civilization, the suspicion arose that the script was shared by all Mycenaeans; and since it was the Heroic Age, if we could only decipher the script would we not be able to learn the truth about the world in which the great myths had been born? Not everyone agreed. Some claimed that the script was really only known on Crete and that the Mycenaeans of the mainland did not know it at all; and the amphorae prove nothing because they had been brought to Thebes from Crete.

Was it possible to reject this claim? Yes, by quoting the story of the tablet from Alcmene’s tomb. The grave certainly dated to Mycenaean times and the bronze tablet was covered with a script which no one in Classical Greece could read; its letters appeared similar to Egyptian, which is why it was then dispatched for decipherment to Memphis. Now, looking at the clay tablets from Knossos, and the inscriptions on the amphorae of Thebes, it was easy to see how an unpracticed eye could mistake some of the letters for Egyptian hieroglyphs; after all some of the signs are really no more than drawings of objects: it is easy to make out heads of horses, pots of various shapes, an ear of wheat, the silhouette of a man, another of a woman, the horns of a goat, an arrow, a sword, a spear, a tripod, a chariot, a wheel – and many others. Of course, even their similarity to their Egyptian counterparts is only superficial; and most letters from Knossos and Thebes are either lines or combinations of lines; there are about eighty of them, and it is thanks to them that the script is called, somewhat prosaically, “linear B”. (The name “linear B” comes from the fact that on Crete there had once existed a similar script, older and more primitive; it is called “linear A”).

At any rate, it is easy to understand and forgive the Spartans, who, at a loss, turned for help to Egypt. But for us the tablet from Alcmene’s tomb is proof – an indirect proof, of course – that linear B was used during the Mycenaean period not only on Crete, but also on the mainland. Haliartus, where the supposed tomb of Alcmene had been located, was in the Mycenaean period a rich settlement, just like several other localities on the plane surrounding Lake Copais. It is not surprising that the memory of the tomb survived so many centuries following the fall of the Mycenaean world. In the whole of Greece ancient Mycenaean cults survived and many Mycenaean tombs were thought to be the burial places of famous heroes.

Several score years have passed since 1921, when Keramopulos discovered in Cadmea the famous amphorae with mysterious inscriptions. Today no one doubts that Mycenaeans had their own script because many fragments of it have since been discovered on the Greek mainland. What is more, we can now read linear B. The heroes have spoken. Are the texts of these ancient inscriptions in any way similar to what the Egyptian priest Chonouphis read in the tablet from Alcmene’s tomb?


Seven Against Thebes (8)


Simmias claimed to have gone to Egypt with Plato. Was this true, or did Simmias only say so in order to add bronze to his studies by claiming to have shared them with a very famous man? There are scholars who claim that Plato in fact never went to Egypt, even though the ancients took this for a fact. But it is certain that Plato was under a great impression of the great antiquity and durability of the Egyptian civilization; he often and openly expressed this humble admiration for it. But he did not believe that the most ancient civilization, the mother of them all, had its origin on the banks of the Nile. His views in this matter were far more interesting. He believed that great civilizations had arisen in other lands also, but that they then collapsed and disappeared without a trace as a result of natural disasters. Then, in their place, new civilizations arose, but without any connection to, or even awareness of what had gone before. According to him the greatness of the Egyptian civilization lay in its durability: in the fact that she has outlasted the rises and falls of all the others, herself remaining unchanged and untouched, like a rock in the middle of stormy sea.

Plato expressed this view, as was his habit, not directly, but through a dialogue which, he claimed, the Athenian Solon had had in the sixth century B.C. with a certain Egyptian priest. During his travels, Solon arrived at an Egyptian city in the Nile delta; it was called Sais and it was the site of worship of the goddess Neith. Local priests claimed that this goddess was known to the Greeks under the name of Athena; both were virgin goddesses, warlike, and represented with weapons in their hands: Athena had a helmet, a shield, and a spear while Neith held a spear and arrows. It’s pointless to argue whether these similarities were accidental: all that matters is that Athens had for centuries maintained close commercial relations with Sais; and for this reason alone, if none other, local priests gladly received Athenian guests and claimed common religious affiliation.

Solon took great interest in the antiquities of Egypt. He held many conversations with the priests, asking them about the origins of mankind; and he narrated to them ancient Greek myths. In the course of telling one, he mentioned that there had once been a great flood and that only two people survived it: Deucalion and Pyrrha; that all men alive today descend from those two; and that counting back the generations one could estimate when that great natural disaster took place. But these stories only elicited patronizing smiles from the Egyptian priests and someone said:

“Oh, Solon, Solon! You Greeks are such kids! There are no old men among you!”

Surprised, the Athenian asked:

“How must I understand your words?”

“You all have young souls because your souls do not contain any ancient views, grown out of a prehistorical tradition; nor do they contain any true knowledge hoary with great age. And why is this? Destruction has descended upon mankind many times before, and in many different ways. The greatest catastrophes came of water and fire, but there were thousands of other causes, too, less permanent in nature. Do you not tell the story of Phaeton, son of Helios, how he once drove his father’s chariot, but, unable to hold it in its proper path, set the whole earth on fire and was himself killed by Zeus’s lighting? So is the story told, as a myth, but the myth contains a kernel of truth, for only a small change in the trajectories of heavenly bodies is needed for fire to singe the surface of the earth; and such small changes of trajectories do happen, though eons apart. At such times, the residents of mountains and plateaus are more at risk than those who sit by the rivers and the sea. And for us, the Nile is then our salvation, as it is in other cases, too. But when gods purify the earth by flooding it with sea waters, then mountain shepherds have a chance to survive, while people in your coastal cities are carried off by rising rivers into the sea. In our own land, divine water never descends from heaven, but rises gradually and calmly from below; and this gives us time to protect ourselves. This is why in our land ancient institutions are preserved and all sorts of things of greatest antiquity.

“And thus whatever happens – with you, or with us, or with some other land known to us – whatever happens that is beautiful, or important, or lofty on some other account – all of that is recorded and preserved in our temples. As for your history, barely has one had the time to write it down when suddenly a flood descends from heavens, or some other natural disaster, like an ever-recurring disease – and what does it leave behind? Yes, at all times some small group of men survives, but these are invariably the least educated ones, unable to read. And so, your civilization is forever reborn; and you are like youth; you know nothing about the past of others, or even your own, because, well, you do not have it. All those myths of yours, Solon, and all your genealogies, well, they aren’t really much different from children’s fairy-tales.”

Then the priest began to tell Solon that that great flood, from which only Deucalion and Pyrrha escaped, was only the latest one and that before it waters have often flooded the earth. He then said that some ten thousand years ago the great goddess Athena-Neith created a great state with an ideal constitution and located it precisely where Solon called his home; only a thousand years later was the Egyptian state conceived by the will of the same goddess and based on the same political principles. That ancient Athenian state bravely resisted a great power which then, thousands of years ago, advanced upon Europe and Asia from the West, from the Atlantic. For there existed at that time, in the Atlantic, a great island, populated by a numerous and rich people. The ancient Athenians have pushed back their attacks and saved the peoples of the Mediterranean from Atlantid slavery. Later, a great natural disaster came, earthquakes and flooding. In the course of just one day and one night, the sea swallowed up Atlantis and the great armies of ancient Athenians disappeared in the bowels of the earth. A new epoch began and the memory of what happened had only survived in Egypt.

That story, which Solon was supposed to have heard from an Egyptian priest, served Plato as an introduction to a treatise on the creation of the universe; it was entitled Timaeus. Later, Plato returned to the subject once more, in his treatise Critias, in which he presented his ideas regarding the constitution of the ideal state using the examples of Atlantis and Athens before the flood.

All of this was of course only a poetic setting for a learned treatise. Yet, the myth of Atlantis, was not entirely free invention: it sprang up on the basis of certain facts. Greek sailors returning from the West reported with amazement the riches of the Atlantic provinces. Certain details of the story of Atlantis allow us to guess that news of the city of Tartessos, in southern Spain, had reached Greece; the city flourished between the years 1100 and 500 B.C. and then died out, perhaps due to a natural disaster; or perhaps some political catastrophe. Already Plato’s predecessors had magnified the story of Tartessos and had pushed it back in time.

Much has been written on this matter, much more perhaps than it deserves. But there is something in Plato’s myth of Atlantis which does deserve our attention: it reveals a very specific notion of human history, perhaps common to all Greeks of the time. We moderns tend to see history as a kind of straight line which constantly rises, every higher and steeper – despite temporary set backs – from the period of animal primitivism to ever fuller human command over the universe. But according to Plato, history should be seen as an oscillating wave, now rising, now falling in accordance with a certain ancient rhythm of changes in the universe: there have once been periods of greater civilization; times of downfall will certainly come; and then, in their wake, there will be new rebirths.

What kind of experiences could have given rise to this kind of view of history? To understand it, we must remember that one of the basic elements of all Greek education was ancient mythology, which recounted the story of the great Heroic Age. We already spoke about this: the present could not rise to the glory of that time: the people of that age had been more courageous, buildings, judging by their ruins, had been more impressive, and gods interacted with men nearly like equals. But that world collapsed, leaving no written record but only myths passed by word of mouth. Whole generations had lived in the wake of the fall like utter barbarians. The question naturally arose: perhaps before the Heroic Age there had once been another glorious period which had been ended by natural disasters of its own, whose only echoes are stories of floods and fires?


Kangxi, again


On the Ordos, where there were many hares

Hunting on the Ordos, the Hares were many

Open country, flat sand,
Sky beyond the river.
Over a thousand hares daily
Trapped in the hunters' ring.

Checking the borders,
I'm going to stretch my limbs;
And keep on shooting the curved bow,
Now with my left hand, now with my right.

Kangxi's literary output isn't Nobel Prize material, but let us give the man a break: even the Nobel Prize material is often not Nobel Prize material. Unlike much Nobel Prize material, though, Kangxi's writing is, at least, always worth reading.

Spence's Emperor of China: Self Portrait of Kang-hsi is as close to an autobiography of any Chinese emperor as we will ever get. Culled from his various edicts, rescripts, and letters, all of which Kangxi wrote personally, and in which he famously, and unusually for a Chinese ruler, maintained a very personal note, the various fragments have been assembled here into chapters with titles like Traveling, Ruling, and Aging, and Sons.

Out of the book there emerges a very likable figure: a sensible and practical man, unceremonious, and forthright; one taking great pleasure (and, with age, pride) in physical activity -- during the Galdan campaign in Outer Mongolia he writes "I travel strenuously 30 or 40 li each day, eat no more than once a day, sometimes once every two, and the cold is very bitter, but I have never been happier in my life" -- and in simple food -- in Ningxia, he writes, the noodles are delicious, better than any ever served at court, and cheap, too; wise, unprejudiced, and fair. The Manchu's are braver than the Chinese, he writes, and often unruly, but they can make good scholars; the Fujianese, he writes, are turbulent and love acts of daring, but surely one cannot say that they are all worthless. To rule men, one must be neither too soft, or they will get cheeky, nor too hard, or they will be paralyzed with fear; it is OK to demote and exile men for a trifle, but death penalty should be dealt most carefully because it is irreversible; when evaluating men, look into their eyes: often a cloud in the pupil can give you a warning; and it is good policy to try to look for the good in them and to discount the bad.

The San-fan war, or Rebellion of The Three Feudatories, came close to overthrowing Kangxi's rule. I have caused it, he says in one of his edicts, no one but me bears the blame. In my decision to demote the three generals and to move them to Manchuria, I have failed to foresee that they may resist, and I have failed to listen to my ministers' advice. If I did, the whole disaster would never have happened.

At one point there is a lengthy description of his personal ministrations at the death bed of his grandmother, the Empress Dowager. For forty days he slept on the floor, by her bedside, preparing her medications, keeping her favorite foods at the ready. It may sound like a typical account of a Chinese confucian extolling his own filial piety, except that he mentions his grandmother in passing on many occasions: orphaned in his childhood, emperor at eight, Kangxi was raised by his grandmother. At fifty-seven, dreams of her will still seem significant and prophetic to him.

Unlike most men of his time, Kangxi is not superstitious; when governors report to him the appearance of the magical zhi fungus on a mountaintop under a purple cloud, a sure proof of the Emperor's virtue and promise of long life, he replies that history books are full of all kinds of magical omens, but such omens are of no use at ruling the country, and the only good omens are good harvests and contented people. Cut it out, he says in so many words.

All his life he was a student of the Tao, reading, mediating on, and discussing the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) with his tutors. But his remarks on Taoist sages are acerbic; they are all either fools or charlatans (like the Archpriest Chonouphis who said he translated the tablet from Alcemene's grave), he says, none has attained immortality, how could anyone ever believe such a thing?

But at one point, perhaps the most tragic point of his life, he came near to believing in magic. His beloved son, Yinreng (Yinjeng) -- every parent, he writes, has sons whom he loves deeply and sons whom he loves not deeply -- his fourth son, whom, unlike all the others, he educated personally, grooming him for succession from the first, had to be deposed. There were various accusations against him: that he bought children for sexual pleasure, that he compromised palace security by admitting all sorts of undesirables, that he had people -- some of them ranking officials -- beaten, that he spoke wildly of his father's death and plotted his father's overthrow, etc., but the real cause for his removal was not legal, but practical: Yinreng proved emotionally unstable, wild, unpredictable and dangerous; his wives feared him and his servants fled from him; no one of his personal retinue would lament his fall, writes Kangxi. We read the subtext: as an emperor, Yinreng would not last a year. He could not be trusted with the job.

After Yinreng was deposed, a charge of magic was brought against another imperial prince, the first son, that he had employed a Mongolian witch-doctor to cast a spell on Yinreng. An investigation discovered a malignant fetish buried under Yinreng's threshold; on the day on which it was dug up, Yinreng suffered an epileptic attack, but recovered soon after and began to give the impression of having suddenly improved. Then Kangxi fell sick and Yinreng ministered by his side the way Kangxi had once ministered by his grandmother. Then the Empress Dowager came to Kangxi in his dream and she was strangely aloof, refusing to speak to him, as if she were upset with something he had done. To me, this is the moment of supreme tragedy in the emperor's life, a moment of such pain as drives men into witlessness: out of love for his beloved son, Kangxi was prepared to believe in magic and dreams. He reinstated Yinreng to Heir Apparency.

But that did not last. Soon Yinreng began to show signs of mental instability again -- mental disease often manifests itself in cycles, creating false hopes of recovery; an accusation of a coup d'etat plot was brought against the prince. Yinreng was again deposed and placed under house arrest. Until his dying day Kangxi refused to name another Heir Apparent; perhaps out of fear that he may have to depose that one, too; but perhaps because he had loved Yinreng too much. "Every parent has sons whom he loves deeply", he writes; "too deeply" we are inclined to read between the lines.

Kangxi died in 1722, after 60 years' reign. In his valedictory edict he wrote the following words, words which exemplify the simple, personal tone of all of his writings:

Over 4,350 years have passed since the first year of the Yellow Emperor to the present, and over 300 emperors are listed as having reigned, though the data from the Three Dynasties -- that is, for the period before the Qin burning of books are not wholly credible. In the 1,960 years from the first year of Qin Shihuang to the present there have been 211 people who have been named emperor and who have taken era names. What man am I, that among all those who have reigned long since the Qin and Han dynasties, it should be I who have reigned the longest?


Seven Against Thebes (7)



Theocritus and his friends chatted about Alcmene’s tomb and waited for Leontiades and his men the leave the house of Simmias the philosopher – it was that very Leontiades who three years earlier had invited the Spartan garrison. Only after he'd gone did the plotters enter the house.

Simmias the philosopher sat upon his bed, lost in somber thought. It was unnecessary to ask: everyone could guess the answer: the pleas have had no result; Amphiteos was going to be executed. At length, after a long silence, Simmias shook off his thoughts. He looked at his guests and sighed:

“By gods, what sort of people were these who’d been here just before you arrived! They are wild beasts, not men! The old saying is right: there is nothing more odd or more disgusting than an old man in power. Even if one experienced no injustice directly himself, it is enough to see the intransigence to come to hate the regime, a regime which breaks the law, feels no responsibility before anyone, and does not even try to hear out rational arguments. Of course, young men often are like this, too, but age adds to it that special ossified inflexibility.”

One could say, in defense of Leontiades, that in his eyes Amphiteos was especially guilty. He was thought to have been the ring-leader of a previous attempt to overthrow the tyrants and their Spartan allies in Cadmea. In fact, the mastermind and animator of that plot had been young Pelopidas, long active in exile in Athens and now leading the seven plotters through the wilds of the Kithairon towards Thebes. But Leontiades did not know any of this.

Meanwhile, Simmias livened up, and, like a true philosopher, set aside oppressive thoughts. He said:

“Well, we must entrust this matter to the gods. Meanwhile, my dear Caphisias, what sort of a stranger was this who’d arrived in your house today?”

Simmias was of course part of the plot, but Caphisias preferred to remain circumspect:

“Who do you mean?”

“Why, Leontiades himself has just told me about it. He’d heard reports that a stranger had been seen at the tomb of Lysis; that he and his retinue had spent the night there; and that he slept on the ground, on a bed of tamarisk and willow. There were also, apparently, traces of some sacrifice of milk, by the remains of the fire. And at dawn he was seen asking people where he might find you, Caphisias, and your brother Epaminondas.”

Caphisias grew alarmed. He had heard no such thing himself; but he had left his house especially early in order to rush to the house of Charon to inquire there how matters stood with the plot, and with the seven coming over from Athens. He began to think aloud:

“Who could it be, that stranger? Surely, a great lord to travel with retinue. Has no one asked him where he was from?”

But Pheidolaos interrupted him impatiently because he was very curious about the story of the funeral tablet and eager to learn more in the matter. He said:

“Yes, yes, he is surely a great lord. We will welcome him worthily when he finally finds us. But now, Simmias, would you tell us how things went with that tablet which king Agesilaus had removed from Alcmene’s tomb? Were the Egyptian priests able to decipher it?”

Simmias remembered the story well and gladly told it; he liked to talk about his travels and about the unusual contacts which he’d made in distant lands.

“To tell the truth, I did not see the tablet itself. But a messenger of Agesilaus did indeed arrive in Memphis, in Egypt. I know because I was there at the time, for my studies, together with Plato. We often met a priest there, one Chonouphis. It was to him the Spartan ambassador was directed by the pharaoh. Chonouphis spent three days reading in some ancient books in which all sorts of mysterious systems of writing are explained. Then he wrote to the king, explaining everything in great detail. He told us, too, everything concerning the time period from which the tablet came and the text of the inscription. According to Chonouphis, the style of the script indicates the times of king Proteus, who ruled in Egypt at the time of the Trojan War, or just before it. It is said that Heracles, son of Alcmene, learned this type of script when he was in Egypt and that he brought it back with him to Greece. The text of the tablet was a set of commandments, ordering Greeks to hold games in honor of the Muses, and to live in harmony and peace with each other, competing only in love of wisdom and seeking justice through rational argument rather than not arms. This is what Chonouphis reported and we were thoroughly convinced.”

The commandments which Chonouphis deciphered were lofty, exemplary and edifying. It is therefore not surprising that the philosophers Simmias and Plato enthusiastically endorsed them and accepted the inscription as deciphered. Greeks respected very greatly the wisdom of Egyptian priests and there was a widely held belief that all important skills and all religion originated in the land of the pyramids. Besides, how could one prove to Chonouphis that he was making it all up and that in fact he had not the first clue as to the contents of the tablet? After all, the symbols did appear, at first glance, to be similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

But the truth was quite different from the way the Egyptian priest presented it. The script had nothing to do with Egypt. It had a different origin, unknown to anyone at the time, and wrapped in a dark and ancient mystery. The Spartans dug up Alcmene’s tomb after they occupied Thebes and Haliartus, that is to say, not earlier than 382 B.C.; but by then the script on the tablet had been forgotten for eight centuries. It had been lost around the twelfth century B.C. along with the great civilization which had created it.


Today's commentary consists of just one sentence:
What else could one ever expect of a priest?


In the sala

A day so happy (to get the erudite allusion out of the way right off). I spent it in my sala, which is a steep tiled roof on four massive trunks and stands perched up on top of a small hillock, my garden's highest point. It has views towards distant mountains and a nearly constant easterly breeze. There I lay on my couch, sprawled oriental and decadent fashion, facing west, towards the hills, reading and listening to audio books by turns, dozing off, and staring at the flowering trees and the distant views and listening to the birds. I listened to Le Temps' first chapter some half a dozen times, falling asleep each time, and then waking and falling asleep again, until from the various bits heard and remembered, or sort-of remembered, I got a pretty good impression of what it is about, which is, of course, dozing off. Then I read in Kangxi's autobiography, so cleverly put together from fragments of his edicts by Spence, and was, as always, deeply moved by it: I have known and liked the man for so many years now and, always, the more I learned about him, the more I liked and admired him. Interesting, cultured and decent, men do on occasion arise within our species; odds are, of course, that we will never meet one in the flesh; but the invention of writing allows us to meet them in their words, at least; and when we read them, we know that such men are possible; and therefore that the species is not entirely a waste. There is a warm feeling about the heart. As I lay there on my couch, gradually the day's heat wore off, it leaned towards the evening, the sun set behind the hills without much ado, and darkness began to gather in the air. I lay there absolutely still, waiting for the night. At length the world turned black; a strange bird began to caw; and then I saw a flickering light approaching through the trees: it was my servant coming to collect me and take me home.


Seven Against Thebes (6)


Alcmene on the pyre.
From a crateros of Paestum (c.a. 350-325 B.C.)
, British Museum


The Spartans were still only looking for the tomb of Dirce, but they had not only found, but also dug up the grave of Alcmene, or so Pheidolaos had told the plotters while they stood before the gates of Simmias’ house. But there was no agreement regaring that tomb: whether it was the real tomb of Alcmene, or whether even Alcmene herself had been buried anywhere at all. Thebans themselves told her story as follows:

"Alcmene spent two different periods of her life in our town. She lived here as the wife of Amphitryon, in a house whose ruins still remain near one of the gates. Here she’d been seduced by Zeus, wearing the form of Amphitryon himself, and here she gave birth to her famous son, Heracles. Later, she returned to Thebes following her son's martyrdom and his ascent to Olympus. She died here at very senior age. On the day of her death, Zeus dispatched Hermes who placed in her tomb a heavy rock, raised the dead woman, and carried her off to the far West. There, in the Blissful Isles where there is no snow, no tempest, and where it does not even rain, and only a delicate breeze off the ocean stimulates the residents, Alcmene married Radamanthes; he had once ruled justly over Crete but now rules over the land of the dead. This is how Zeus rewarded the woman whom he had seduced all those years back, and whose son had saved the world from so many terrible trials. Meanwhile, the descendants of Alcmene, the Heraclids, came to her funeral from the distant Peloponnesus which they then ruled. They took her casket upon their shoulders, but as it seemed unusually heavy to them, they opened it and saw only a rock. They set it up in a grove, behind the city, and since that day we worship it as if it were divine."

But many Greeks denied this legend. They claimed that Zeus raised Alcmene to Olympus and that there she resided along with her demi-god son, Heracles.

The residents of Haliartus presented the matter yet differently. This town lies some three hours to the east of Thebes, on the shores of Lake Copais. The Haliartians claimed:

"Alcmene spent her old age in our town. It was here that Radamanthes married her. Exiled from his native Crete he lived among us under the assumed name of Aleus. We have a proof of these ancient connections with the distant island: both here and there the precious bush named styrax blooms. It yields a beautifully scented resin. It was Radamanthes who had brought it here. After many years’ of harmonious life with Alcmene, he reposed here, in a tomb near our city walls."

There was no way to reconcile all these tales; or to decide which one was true. But no one was surprised at it, since yet other localities claimed to possess the tomb of Alcmene. Besides, who would waste his time trying to determine the precise truth content of local tales? The business became important only thanks to certain political and military developments.

As you recall, the conversations of our plotters took place in December 379 B.C. Sixteen years earlier, in the autumn of 396 B.C., Spartans had suffered a painful defeat in a battle against Thebans at the foot of… Haliartus. There they left behind hundreds of their dead. In Sparta investigations began whose purpose was to establish the causes of the defeat: after all, until now it was Spartans who were the greatest military power of all Greece! Pride did not allow Spartans to admit that their defeat may have been brought on by the stupidity of their generals and their foolhardy certainty of their own invincibility. Surely, they argued, the cause of their defeat must lie deeper! It is simply unthinkable that it may have been caused by human hand! Finally, after much research, they have found this:

"Gods and heroes have been displeased by Sparta, because her kings, though they trace their descent from Heracles, failed, over all these centuries, to bring to the fatherland the ashes of the venerable mother of Heracles. This is why they have been dealt a painful defeat precisely at the foot of Haliartus, in the vicinity of Alcmene’s grave."

The Spartans decided to cure their century-old failure as soon as they seized control of the lands of Thebes and Haliartus.

In the year 382 B.C. two mutually-hateful men became the rulers of Thebes: Ismenias, who sided with democrats and Athens; and Leontiades, an oligarch and a conservative. Soon the latter found himself on the defensive. To save himself, he made a secret pact with a Spartan army which passed nearby, on its way north. There was a holiday in Thebes at the time in honor of Demeter; it was called Tesmophoria. Per ancient custom, on that day women ascended the castle hill, Cadmea, in order to perform rites at the goddess’ hilltop shrine while men left the castle so as not to interfere with the rites. Thus, all officers left Cadmea for a day, and even the guards on the walls and at the gates were removed. The Spartans entered the city at noon, when everyone took cover from the merciless midday sun and the streets were practically deserted. They marched calmly right through the middle of the city and seized the castle hill without opposition. As soon as this happened, Leontiades entered the council building at the main city square, where the terrified council members were already assembling. He said:

“The occupation of Cadmea by Spartans should be no cause for concern for anyone. Spartans arrive as friends. They have no hostile intentions towards anyone. Only the warmongers among us need to fear. As for me, I shall act according to the ancient precepts of our holy laws. They allow the polemarchos to arrest without court order any citizen accused of a crime for which the law demands the penalty of death. Rabble-rousing and inciting dangerous wars certainly belong to such crimes. This is why I hereby arrest Ismenias as an enemy of law and order!”

There were many among the councilmen, who – supposedly out of rational calculation, but in fact out of fear – immediately seconded Leontiades. Later, Ismenias was sent to Sparta and there sentenced to death while in Thebes, tyrants and Spartans began to rule. Archias took the place of Ismenias as polemarchos. All opposition was terrorized: who did not manage to flee, was imprisoned, sometimes killed. The largest number of exiles went to Athens.

Once Spartans fortified themselves in Thebes and Haliartus, they dug up Alcmene’s tomb. Its contents revealed that it did date to prehistorical times; the amphorae filled with petrified earth had probably contained ashes of the dead, or perhaps of sacrificial animals; but the true mystery lay in a bronze tablet covered with strange script whose signs looked to some to be Egyptian. This is why the Spartan king Agesilaus sent a copy of it for decipherment to Egypt. The two countries were at that time on good terms and often exchanged embassies.


The book's Polish readers in 1968 would have had no doubt how to interpret this story: Athens -- a democracy, was the US, the exiles -- the Polish government in London, Sparta was Russia and Leontiades and his ilk-- the Polish communist party.


A vignette written to celebrate my commencement of reading Le Temps Perdu

At daybreak I woke up remembering the rain.

It had woken me in the middle of the night: the patter on the roof, the murmur in the bamboo outside. Delighted and confused -- was I dreaming? -- I got up and walked out naked onto the terrace. It does not rain here in December. Ever. When God made the world, he had declared that there should be no rain in these parts until May. Yet, there it was, the rain: the surface of my pond, black, oily and glistening in the dim light of a single yellow lantern among the bamboos on the other side sprang growing circles where individual drops of rain fell upon it: here, there, here.

At daybreak I woke up remembering the rain. I walked out onto the terrace again, trying to ascertain whether I had dreamt it: there was dew on the trees, the ground was wet. Did it rain last night, or did I dream it?

I looked around. The sky was overcast and the air was humid. It's never humid this time of the year. There are not supposed to be any clouds in the sky. Have I woken up in a different part of the world from that in which I had gone to sleep? Was I dreaming still? I felt displaced. The experience was confusing but it was pleasant to be confused: I had been tired with my old reality, I had grown desperate thinking that it would never change. An unexpected tectonic shift in it would have been welcome; falling into a time-space anomaly like this would have been an answer to my prayers.

I search for clues to the mystery of where it is I had woken, I began to wonder through my garden, looking at the flowers and the trees, until I came upon my neighbor's hut. He was on his porch, making coffee.

Theo, I asked him, did it, or did it not rain last night? Nope, he said definitively.

By the pool I met Annette. Annette, I said, did it rain last night? Most certainly not, she said and dove in the pool.

Then, suddenly, I remembered something. Doubling back by Theo's house, I asked him: Theo, do you think it is possible that there might have been a dog drowning in my pond last night?

Wouldn't know anything about that, said Theo. But would you like some coffee?

I walked back home slowly.

There most definitely had been a drowning dog in my pond last night. I remembered it now. Her yelping disturbed my reading several times, until at last, taking my torch in hand, I headed out to see what the matter was. After some searching I discovered her, her eyes squinting in the beam of my flashlight, in the bushes on the other side of my pond. She lay exhausted half-way on the ground and half-way in the water. She must have come down to drink, slipped and fallen in; but as the bank is very steep and slippery here, she couldn't scramble out. She struggled and struggled and at last collapsed breathless, slowly slipping back into the water where she was going to drown. And now she lay there, yelping, resigned to death by water.

Laying my torch on the ground, I stripped, wrapped my arms in my jeans in case she should scratch or bite, stepped in the pond up to my waist, and lifted her up. She offered no resistance. She was as motionless as dead. I carried her to the garden gate and gently put her outside, on the road, in the moonlight shining through an opening in the clouds. She looked miserable, wet and trembling, and had the world's stupidest expression on her snout. Have you ever seen an embarrassed dog? As I locked the gate behind her, she looked at me, confused.

Yes, I now remembered that. It had happened last night. And then I went to sleep. And then I woke in the middle of the night: the patter of the rain on the roof had woken me, and its murmur in the bamboo. And then I went to sleep again. And then I woke uncertain whether any of that had happened or not.


Seven Against Thebes (5)

The Farnese Bull, Naples


In the year 1546, when Paul III, from the noble family of the Farnese, was Pope, accidentally a great discovery was made in Rome. In the vicinity of the Great Thermae (they had been built by Emperor Caracalla) a great sculpture was dug up from the ground, composed of several pieces of marble, broken up and scattered here and there, and much damaged. At one point, when the Thermae of Caracalla stood at the zenith of their glory, the sculpture had decorated one of the halls of the Thermae; or perhaps a nearby park. Though many fragments of it were missing, it was easy to guess what the great work represented:

Two young men, standing upon a rock, hold by the horns a great bull; at their feet a terrified woman sits, stretching out her arms in a gesture of supplication; a tiny shepherd who squats in the foreground, among some rocky crags, symbolizes that everything happens in the mountains, and, at the same time, through his tiny size, emphasizes, as it were, the terrifying power of all the main figures.

Scholars of ancient mythology had no doubt and declared immediately that the group represented Amphion and Zethus, tying, by the tips of her hair, the prosecutoress of their mother, Dirce, to the horns of the bull. Amphion is immediately recognized by the lyre at his feet. The vine and basket by the feet of Dirce represent the cult of Dionysius.

Soon after its discovery, Renaissance artists set out to restore the group. The results of their work must surely be recognized as overall successful, though it is possible that in some details the antique original looked somewhat different. And so Zethus, who towers above Dirce, pulls with both hands upon a rope tied to the horns of the bull; the ancient sculpture may have been more drastic: the young man’s left hand may have held the woman by the hair. After the missing details have been filled in, the statue graced for many years the Roman palace of the Farnese; hence has come its name, the Farnese Bull. Today, it is to be found in the Archeological Museum in Naples.

One antique author reports that just such a statue, though that one carved in single block of marble, was in the days of Emperor Augustus in the possession of a certain rich and famous aristocrat. His name was Asinius Pollio, and he was known for his historical interests. The same author informs us that the sculptural group was carved by two Greek sculptors living in Rhodes in the first century A.D., Apollonion and Tauriscos. The sculpture, discovered near the Thermae of Caracalla almost certainly is not the original work – it is made up of several blocks of marble; it is therefore no more than a copy, made in Rome, in the first century AD.

But the sculptors of Rhodes were not entirely original. We know that representations of the punishment of Dirce belonged to the favorite genres of painting and sculpture; this was all because of the popularity of Antiope of Euripides. Apollonius and Tauriscus created their work upon commission: someone very rich had wanted to glorify his estate by placing among his trees and artificial rocks that very group, full of primitive energy. But this billionaire did not enjoy his mythical Kithairon in the seclusion of his villa for long: Romans who loved nothing better than to pillage the treasures of Greek art, moved the sculpture to the capital of their state, where it fell in the possession of Asinius Pollio.

He showed this Rhodian creation with great pride to all visitors to his house. Among these visitors was a well known poet of his times, Propertius. It was this sculpture which suggested to him a subject for one of his great love poems. Propertius was in love with a great lady whom he called in his poems by the invented name of Cynthia. But – the poet admits it right off the bat in his poem – when he was but a mere sapling, someone else inducted him into the mysteries of physical love: Cynthia’s servant, Licinna. She did it out of pure sympathy; she didn’t even accept a gift! The poet says:

“Since that time, nearly three years have passed, and I have not exchanged with her more than ten words. Everything that connected me with Licinna, dear Cynthia, has been buried once and for all by my love for you! Since I have fallen in love with you, no woman has embraced my neck with her sweet embrace!”

But knowing well the hearts of women, Propertius immediately passes to the following warnings:

“Remember, Cynthia, the fate of Dirce! She cruelly punished the poor Antiope, suspecting – as groundlessly as you suspect me and Licinna – who was her friend! But what terrible fate has Dirce met at the hands of Antiope’s sons! Likewise, you, too, should not torment the poor Licinna, who – honestly – has not deserved her fate!”

Propertius himself did not seem to place much hope in the efficacy of these arguments, for he ends:

“Yet, there appears to be no way to calm a woman’s anger…”


Commentary on Seven Against Thebes (4)

(For those of you hungry for my wisdom and too impatient to read Krawczuk, I will from now on break out my commentary as a separate post following the chapter on which I am commenting).


Virtues of simplicity. Why scholars are boring. Hostility between
the productive and the idle. The importance of idleness for art.

When I told people that I was translating this book, explaining to them that it is a kind of miscellany of loose leaves -- almost Ming-style vignettes, if you will -- safety-pinned together by the story of Seven Against Thebes, some have suggested The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso as a comparable work.

It isn't.

There is something about Calasso which makes it, to my mind, unreadable. It is, for one thing, too dense. The style is certainly beautiful, but simply too ornate for discussion of weighty topics. Weighty topics are best discussed plainly, lest one lose his thread in the jungle of erudite oratory. Ornate style is best for simple things: love, for example; texts wherein the message is simple enough ("I love you, baby, yeah yeah yeah") not to get lost in the labyrinth of verbal pyrotechnics; indeed, so embarrassingly simple that rhetorical devices are necessary to obscure its simplicity. Krawczuk's style is simple, conversational; this allows him to address difficult points with ease. But Calasso's style is most of the time to beautiful for ease.

And, second, Calasso's book is -- well -- trivial: the points he makes -- I do not hesitate calling them philosophical, as any serious reflection seems to me philosophical, philosophy, being after all, the love of wisdom -- are cute enough but without any reference at all to the pressing questions of life: love, friendship, betrayal, death. Weird, this: his subject being the Greeks, for crying out-loud, with their famously big themes, I did not find a single sentence in Calasso's book which made me ponder life. All his points seemed -- well, irrelevant to life.

Calasso's work seems to me in this regard of a kind with a very great deal -- indeed, nearly all -- of acclaimed Anglosaxon scholarly writing -- and most of the ambitious best Anglo-Saxon blogging: erudite, well turned, witty, and -- eminently not worth reading; an intelligent man's equivalent of that great English virtue: small talk. I suppose Calasso's work is the sort Joe Campbell referred to as typical of all scholarly work: much verbiage and evidence building up and up and up to -- nothing. To a kind of mouse flitting furtively out one's lips: a small, trivial pseudo-point.

Why scholars should write this way is not clear. It could be that they are shackled by some sort of professional prejudice against saying something important; perhaps doing so is considered crass: a kind of making waves, or worse, an attempt to court cheap popularity. Or perhaps scholars think their job is not to tackle the big questions, for which there are no immediate answers, but little ones which can be answered -- perhaps in the false belief that a myriad small answers thrown up together on a big pile will eventually reach the big questions, like ten million tiny bricks piled up in a kind of epistemological tower of Babel eventually meant to reach heaven.

Or it could be that scholars are simply dull people. After all, it is a matter of temperament, is it not: it takes a certain kind of man to be able to live one's life entirely as an intellectual adventure, in libraries, books, debates and lectures -- no life-threatening situations, no ambitions of love or power, no disreputable gambles -- certainly no gun smuggling, God forbid -- no hunger for distant lands or unattainable women; indeed, talking to many scholars one gets the idea: apparently, no hunger of any kind at all. To us they seem to have... low levels of hunger for life in their blood. They are -- colorless, gray.


Having ripped into Calasso, I now need to slap Krawczuk, too. He, too, is a scholar (poor fellow can't help it) and suffers as a result from a professional perversion: he sees everything in the light of his own discipline. Not being a classicist, I do not understand -- though will henceforth try to find out -- the precise nature of the historical debate between bios practicos and bios theoreticos; but that debate, as Krawczuk presents it, seems to me to be between men of action on the one hand ("men of action" defined as "sweaty brawn") and effete brains -- in other words, scholars -- on the other.

But the original argument between Amphion and Zethus, as it is presented in the myth, is different from the one Krawczuk presents. It is the argument between men of action on the one hand -- by which a broader category is meant here, one including scholars, who, after all, do practical stuff -- teach, write books and opinion pieces, consult; and, on the other hand, good for nothing idlers. After all, there is nothing theoretical about wondering about the hills with one's lyre (or was it luth?). Amphion is not an intellectual, Monsieur Krawczuk, he is a lazy bone.

Perhaps it takes a lazy bone like me to recognize one, and perhaps it is my professional perversion to see the world in the light of my line of work. It is entirely possible that Aleksander Krawczuk, a teacher and an author of numerous books, has never experienced what I experience with great frequency, and thus cannot speak to it: the accusation that he is doing nothing, that he is wasting his gifts, denying them to the human race, not carrying his weight, not making a contribution. People who tell me this are irked that I spend my days reading books, visiting museums or attending performances, viewing my collection, thinking, and writing for my own consumption. They are full of suggestions as to what I could do instead: teach Polish several hours a week, says one; write a book, says another; sail around the world, says the third. (My friends are not racked by an excess of imagination).

This is how I see the debate between Zethus and Amphion. From where I sit (usually with a book in my lap), the debate seems irreconcilable because it arises out of basic misunderstanding: Zethus cannot imagine that anyone might be happy not working; Amphion simply cannot see what the big deal about working is.

Now, the interesting thing here is that Zethus tells Amphion to work, while Amphion is happy to leave Zethus alone. Why should this be? Is it possible that Zethus is not really happy in his productive life and views Amphion's with envy? Is it possible that he secretly wishes he could live such a life, but knows full well he can't, and therefore does the next best thing: tries to deny it to others?


It isn't a matter of economic necessity: after all Zethus could also not bother with the damn wall and live quite well (he did for years on the mountain, even though he also worked and worked). Equally, many of those who urge me to do something -- anything -- do not need to do a damn thing in their lives: either because they have independent means, or well-earning husbands who wouldn't mind them being idle, or are already retired; yet they work, sometimes for pithy wages, often stupid, unremarkable jobs. Why?

Partly, perhaps it is the matter of moral unease, as most would suggest: the bourgeois ethos united with the biblical notion that God has condemned us to work in the sweat of our brow and we better do as God says; partly, perhaps lack of autotelic imagination; but partly it is a quarrel between the hunter-gatherers and the agriculturalists. Switching from hunting and gathering to agriculture may well have been attended by a behavioral mutation; hunter-gatherers are glad to stop when they have obtained the day's food; but agriculturalists can't stop working as long as the sun is up. (It doesn't mean they actually like the work, only that they just can't stop). Now, an old tale says that my people are descended from Central Asian nomads who conquered (and then herded) a Central European settled folk. Certainly my ancestors had no problem doing nothing productive at all -- unless you consider an annual pillaging expedition into Crimea or Moldavia -- "work". So perhaps it is the nomad gene in me that makes me so easily content doing nothing productive at all?

But it isn't like us idle folk are of no value. For one thing -- the main thing, really -- we are the main driving force of culture: not only does an amazing amount of really good literature come out of us: from Tsurezuregusa to Gattopardo; but also no one but us has the time to consume art, to become expert connoisseurs and to guide, with our finely trained senses, those who laboriously produce for our pleasure. The qualitative change in artistic production in the twentieth century is perhaps best accounted for by the disappearance of a true leisure class. Just look at who buys the stuff at the auctions today: they are all working people. From the point of view of the art, it makes no difference whether the buyer is paid thirty-six thousand a year or thirty-six million a year; what matters is that he labors 70 hour weeks and as a result, has no time to look at art, and therefore, when it comes to evaluating it, is basically illiterate.

So, dear friends, the idle us, like the drone-bees, have a noble calling in life: we make it more interesting. Remember that before you tell any one of us to do something. We are doing something even when it seems we aren't.

Seven Against Thebes (4)


Antiope, Queen of Thebes, with her twins Amphion and Zethus
1535-45, Vincent Sellaer (1500-1589), The Louvre
(Thanks to Brian)


All the members of the Theban plot were educated men. They knew not only the myth of Dirce and Antiope, but also the famous play by Euripides concerning the fates of the two women. This play, entitled Antiope, was first staged in Athens about thirty years earlier, around the year 410 B.C. It immediately gained great admiration and henceforth it belonged to the best-read. It did not come down to our times in its entirety, but we know its plot quite well since various ancient authors took great pleasure in quoting from it; and besides, more recently a few fragments had been discovered among the papyri of Egypt.

To what did this play owe its tremendous success? Clearly, not the plot alone, since the ancient reader, perfectly familiar with the myth, knew in advance the course events would take. Rather, people praised the way the action was developed, and, above all its main intellectual motif, threading, as it was, through all the scenes: it was the great quarrel between Amphion and Zethus – a quarrel between the man of thought and the man of action concerning their ideas as to what was in life most valuable, and as to the most worthy, most appropriate attitude to life a worthy man should choose. Of course, putting in the mouths of his heroes long speeches concerning these things, Euripides was touching upon subjects which appealed not to the mythical times, but the times in which he himself lived. In Athens of his day one often heard arguments between those who recommended the life of intellectual speculation and artistic production and those who claimed that for the state and the society the only thing that mattered was practical works – that is, mainly – political and military action.

Here is the accusation which, in the play, Zethus lays before his brother:

“You take great care of immaterial things, but you ignore those things which should be the main object of all our efforts. Nature had given you man’s muscles, but you ignore them most unworthily. In this you act like a woman. Would you know how to carry a shield? Or how to throw a spear at its target? If a great danger threatens you and your beloved ones, you will find yourself lacking in courage and in the strength of your shoulder! Do not praise here all those skills which in the end only lead to this that a capable and brave person becomes weak and worthless. A man who takes pleasure only in singing, and who makes composing pretty verses his main object, will be of no use to his family and his state! I hate people who show no energy in their action and who are only wise in words. Hear out my good counsel, brother: cast away your useless lyre! Take a spear into your hand! If you wish to be known as a wise man, you must know how to drive the plough, how to drive the chariot, and how to win in combat. Leave these smart games to others, games which will never fill your barn, or the treasure house of our state!”

But Amphion answered him:

“You accuse me of weakness. You are mistaken because a nimble mind has a greater strength than the most muscular arm. It is the mind of man which rules cities; and that enriches its houses. And once war begins, it is the mind which brings victory. Thousands of powerful arms will not achieve that which one capable and cunning head will do. The crowd’s greatest misfortune is its stupidity. Look at athletes who only care for their bodies: how incapable they are of resisting true misfortune, how useless they are to the society! They are no more than slaves of a particular diet and a particular exercise regime! And the rich man, who rejects everything which might make his life more pleasant, does not deserve, in my opinion, to be considered fortunate; he is no more than a janitor, a mere guardian of his temporal goods. But such is the fate of the mortals: Neithher good fortune, nor bad, rule them entirely, but they mutually and restlessly yield to each other. And since happiness is so temporary, why should I not enjoy its gifts while pain still spares me? I like singing, and I like philosophizing, but the sort which does not touch upon the touchy business of politics. What sort of madness is this, to concern oneself, without any obvious need to, with this wild confusion of dark intrigue and dirty self-interest while one can live in peace and sweet pleasure? He who appreciates peace is a good friend, a worthy citizen; one can always rely on him. Do not praise a life full of adventure! I loathe as much a thoughtless guide as I do a leader of a state who is all too willing to tempt unknowable fate!”

The brothers exchanged such arguments, and the chorus, which listened in, dared side neither with Amphion nor with Zethus. It only went so far as to say that every topic, as long as smart and well-spoken men seize upon it, can be presented in two opposite but equally interesting ways. The poet himself, on the other hand, following the myth, gave the final victory to Amphion because the sound of his lyre moved even the stones in the end.

As we already said, it was not really the argument of Amphion and Zethus, but, through their mouths, of two young men living in the fifth century, in any of the cities of Greece: in Athens, Thebes, or Corinth. This argument about attitudes to life was in fact fought within the educational systems of the moment which had, as its object, to nurture both the student’s physical and mental capabilities. The palestra and the gymnasion were places for physical exercise, while the teachers of music and grammar inculcated the abilities of playing musical instruments, singing, and the knowledge of poetry and rhetoric. But this balance between the two goals of education remained only an unattained ideal. For most, physical abilities and the simple art of reading, writing and arithmetic were enough, and only as far as these last were needed for everyday life. These not-so-bright physical types looked with disdain upon their physically unfit colleagues, who, with the enthusiasm of fools, committed all their time to matters completely useless: they got excited by novelties of poetry, disputed various absurd ideas of philosophers, quite seriously debated the influence of music upon the intellect, and, instead of training upon the sands of the gymnasion, drew upon it weird geometrical figures!

And so, the myth of Antiope served Euripides only as a background, or perhaps we should say, a pretext, to show matters which in fact touched upon his own times. He was one of the first to touch this subject, a subject which in the subsequent centuries, philosophers, writers and poets would often take up: the conflict between two life ideals, the great quarrel between, as the Greeks said it, bios theoreticos and bios practicos.

When we read the charge and the defense today, twenty five centuries later, the arguments of both sides appear to us superficial and naïve. But we should take a gracious bow before this very beautiful scene of Antiope: it is the first clearly stated program of intellectual rebellion against the earthly, practical, narrow-minded horizons. It is from that moment on that the sacred worship of theory, though sometimes suppressed and sometimes ridiculed, begins to spread on our continent. We owe to her the glory and the tragedy of science of modern times.

One must observe here, by the way, with shame and sadness, that Zethus, the sworn enemy of bios theoreticos, would find numerous followers even today… But perhaps the future does not belong to them?


Seven Against Thebes (3)

Dirce's punishment - Roman wall painting in House of the Vettii, Pompeii.


When Antiope realized that she was pregnant, she fled from home. Even though she’d been impregnated by Zeus himself, she knew that her father, a ruthless, cruel man, would never forgive her. She was right: when her story broke out, he committed suicide. But prior to his death he had extracted from his brother, Lycus – who was at the time the ruler of Thebes – the promise that he would find and punish the girl.

Antiope sought refuge in Sicyon, a city on the shores of the Peloponnesus. The local king offered her protection, but Lycus broke into the city along with his men and carried her off. As they crossed the Kithairon on their way back, the girl was ceased by contractions; and there she gave birth to two boys, twins. But Lycus kept the promise given to this brother; he had the children abandoned in the mountain as food for wild animals.

Lycus had no mercy, but his wife, Dirce, treated the girl with great cruelty. The girl’s great beauty drove the queen to wild feats of envy. Dirce even suspected her husband of disloyalty; and he, so as not to give rise to any suspicion with any ill-considered act of generosity, allowed his wife to do whatever she liked. For many years Antiope was imprisoned in the dungeons of the Theban castle. She eventually managed to escape by miracle: one night, the chains slipped off her wrists and the doors of the dungeon opened by themselves. She ran off into the Kithairon and there found a poor hut and in it an old shepherd and his two sons.

The boys were twins, but of very different disposition. Amphion seemed calm and carefree while Zethus was secretive and introverted and worked ceaselessly: he hunted, ploughed the fields, chopped wood, gathered rocks with which to hold up the walls of the hut. The two brothers were attached to each other, but quarreled constantly. It was difficult for them to understand each other because both were happy – one running around in the mountains with song on his lips, the other content to see how well his work progressed. They also disagreed in the matter of the woman who sought refuge in their hut: Zethus would most gladly have chased her away, suspecting, as he was, that she was merely a runaway slave and that hiding her would only lead to trouble.

Then the Dionysian holidays came. At the time, Theban women celebrated them in a rather strange manner. They headed into Kithairon in a great throng and there, in the meadows, they danced to the mad beat of tympani and the piercing wailing of flutes. The night was filled with orgiastic yelling and singing, all over the mountain there wound processions with torches. Dirce was a passionate devotee of Dionysius. She, too, danced in the dark wilderness of Kithairon, singing and waving a burning tree branch. And when the night of divine madness passed, the queen descended from the mountain and stopped at a mountain hut to take rest. Here she came upon Antiope. In a sudden rush of hatred, she decided to murder the girl. She ordered the shepherd’s sons:

“This woman is my slave. She has committed many improprieties and that is why, to flee a just punishment, she ran away from the palace. But gods are just! Dionysius himself gave her into my hands. And you, too, are not entirely blameless. By what right are you hiding this criminal? I will beg the king for forgiveness on your behalf, but you must first mend your error. You must kill her right now, before my eyes!”

Shocked, the two brothers did not object, ready to fulfill the order they’d been given. But then the old shepherd spoke up. Slowly, over many days he’d put together everything Antiope had told him and compared it with everything he had earlier heard from the city folk. Now, the anger of Dirce, and the preparations for the murder of the defenseless woman revealed to him the horror of what was about to happen. He understood whose children the twins were, the twins whom he had found in the forest so many years ago.

Amphion and Zethus tied their mother’s persecutoress by her hair to the horns of a bull, and they drove the animal into a field of rocks. This is what Dirce had envisioned as a death for Antiope; now her own howling could be heard in the wild ravines where the mad animal dragged her bloody carcass.

The brothers then ambushed Lycus and either killed him, or forced him to flee (the story was told in several versions) and then they became the new rulers of Thebes. Zethus immediately spotted a golden opportunity for heavy labor: the city still had no walls! He immediately went to work. He carried huge boulders himself, in the sweat of his brow but also with great pleasure. But he constantly upbraided Amphion; for Amphion, instead of helping, spent whole days singing and playing a strange lyre, a gift which he had received from a mysterious stranger (it was later said that the stranger was Hermes, the messenger of gods). When eventually Amphion became fed up with his brother’s chiding, he went to the place where Zethus was piling up his rocks. But instead of helping him to lift the rocks, he struck the lyre and – a miracle took place, a miracle which Thebans were to tell for the rest of their history with pride: the rocks, like shepherded animals, moved and submissively followed the sound of the music. They rolled in a long line, slowly and heavily, but unceasingly: Amphion led them the way a shepherd leads his sheep. Ruled by him, the rocks laid themselves into a great wall, leaving only seven openings: in those openings seven gates took shape. This is how the great, massive walls of the city were formed, walls which could not be torn down by the hand of man because they were not built by the hand of man, but by divine music.

That was the version of the myth of Antiope and Dirce which was told most often. It might seem strange at first, but it is enough to think of its main motifs to see it in a different light:

A girl gives birth to twins, whose father is a god. The children are threatened by death, but they are saved by a shepherd who raises them. A cruel, jealous woman persecutes another, more pretty than herself. Estranged mother and children meet and recognize each other in the face of great danger.

How many myths of how many different peoples contain these very same elements! They are the favorite motifs of all fairy tales; they have been in circulation in near and far lands for millennia, sometimes borrowed, but sometimes arising spontaneously. So perhaps we should consider this Theban myth of twins a fairy-tale. Hardly anyone would seek a reflection of real historical events in it.

Yet, and this is different business altogether, there are in this myth other elements, strikingly original and unique to it: above all, the method of Dirce’s punishment. This figure seems especially tied up with Thebes. Somewhere near the city there was her tomb, though it was only known to the commanders of the cavalry. As we know from the conversation of the plotters of 379 B.C., the Spartans were eager to find it.

But did the tomb of Dirce actually exist? Many denied it. They said:

Because Dirce was a passionate follower of Dionysius, following her terrible death, gods sent Hermes to the city. He ordered the two brothers to collect the fragments of her body and to cremate them properly on a funeral pyre. It was then that Amphion received his magical lyre from Hermes. But the brothers did not bury her ashes, but threw them instead into a spring which runs at the western foot of the castle hill. Its water cascades down towards a stream in a gorge below; and this is why both the spring and the gorge are named after Dirce.

The stream had other sources, too. They lay somewhat to the south of the city, in a lovely, shady grove. There were three springs here, with crystal-clear water, very delicious to drink. Perhaps there, in that grove, we should seek the queen’s tomb? Or perhaps Dirce was simply the name of the water nymph, the protectress of the spring, and the stream, to whom, per ancient custom, sacrifices had once been made here?


Seven Against Thebes (2)


The oath of the original seven, Flaxman


These conversations took place on an overcast December day in the year – according to our calendar – 379 B.C. How have such lively echoes of their conversations managed to reach our ears?

The conversations given in the preceding chapter are based on the opening chapters of a story entitled On the Protective Spirit of Socrates (Περί του Σωκράτους δαιμονίου in Greek, De genio Socratis in Latin, sometimes rendered in English as On the Sign of Socrates). It was written by the Greek writer Plutarch around the year 100 A.D.

Of course, one immediately asks: A great deal of time passed between the year 379 B.C. and the year 100 A.D. – nearly five hundred years! How could Plutarch know in such great detail about the events of that day?

Well, Plutarch, it turns out, could have known a good deal about it. He was born, and he lived almost all of his life, in the small town of Cheronea. This town is only several hours’ journey away from Thebes and lies in the same country, Beotia. Plutarch was a great lover of history, and he researched the history of his own country, Beotia, especially well. He collected and studied ancient artifacts and had in his hands various documents, records and memoirs now lost. He found among them many relating to the events of 379 B.C. because what happened in Thebes that month had a big impact on the subsequent history of all Greece.

We must admit, however, that Plutarch took great liberties with his sources because his interests lay not so much in establishing what really happened but in presenting his own philosophical, religious and ethical views. This is how it was with The Protective Spirit of Socrates. There he put in the mouths of various characters certain secret, mystical teachings; the actual historical events were for him only a kind stage-set for his philosophical divagations. On the other hand, nearly all the persons mentioned in the story are historical and known to us from other sources. So perhaps their conversations are only partly fiction but partly based on some old materials? We shall never know.

Whenever we return in these pages to the day on which the Theban plotters awaited the arrival of the seven, our guide shall be Plutarch. Our guide but not our oracle: we shall treat his story with some liberty ourselves, taking care only to preserve the main outline of the plot and the conversations – we shall treat Plutarch just as he had treated his sources. Besides, Plutarch was not omniscient: we shall have to correct and round out some of his statements.

We have in fact already made a small correction when we said that there were seven plotters in the forest of Kithairon; because Plutarch says that there were not seven but twelve. But the historian Xenophon, a contemporary of the events, states with some emphasis that the number of the young men who had set out from Athens across the Kithairon against the city of Thebes was – indeed – seven.

Perhaps you will smile: it might seem but a small thing, an irrelevant little detail. But in truth matters stand differently. For if there were indeed seven of them, then, in the eyes of the contemporaries the matter took on a deeper meaning, a deeply symbolic significance. For it would not have been the first expedition of seven against Thebes, but – the third! True, the first two belonged to a very distant past; they had taken place a dozen centuries earlier; but they were famous all across Greece, and were to remain so for centuries, especially the first. They were told and retold by poets. The figures and actions of the seven leaders were acted out on stage. Sculptors and painters represented their various episodes in magnificent works of art. Moreover, some of the heroes of the first group of seven attained glory equal to gods: they had their own temples and their own priests, they revealed the future through oracles and received bloody sacrifices. At one time, only the Trojan War was more famous than the first expedition of seven against Thebes. Who knows, then? Perhaps Plutarch intentionally changed the number of the members of the expedition from seven to twelve in order not to remind his countrymen of the old, famous myths, so as to free himself to dedicate his time to other, different themes, which interested him more?

Someone might well say:

“It is all true. But the first expedition owed its fame, undying throughout classical antiquity, precisely to the fact that it was merely a myth! Its story, and its heroes, are no more than fiction; or at most a poetic transformation of ancient beliefs, symbols or rituals. So why compare it with the later one, of 379 B.C., which was historical and concrete?"

Yet, in antiquity, people thought otherwise. The first two expeditions against Thebes were considered historical facts; just as were the Trojan War, the expedition of the Argonauts, the somber fate of the ruling house of Mycenae, and the labors of Heracles who’d freed the world of monsters. Yes, people did admit that myths have added color to the stories; and they did argue as to the reliability of many details of the stories, since they were often told in different versions. But no one in antiquity doubted that in earlier times there had lived men who have performed miraculous works and who’d risen in stature way above their succeeding generations; men who had been close to gods.

Those times were called the Heroic Age. People pointed out castles which these heroes had built, meadows and mountains where they had fought, and tombs where they had been buried. And in elaborate genealogies, people named their descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren – down to the times well illumined by recorded history.

And thus, when, on a December day of the year 379 B.C. our group of plotters advanced towards the house of Simmias the philosopher, knowing that, in the forest of Kithairon their seven companions were already waiting, all would have realized that this was the third expedition of seven against Thebes; and all would have thought about the times of the two earlier ones, casting back their minds towards the Heroic Age.

What was it to them, that Heroic Age, and how did they feel about it?

They thought about it like all Greeks – with great respect. Their attitude to it was much like ours to antiquity: it was in their eyes a great, closed period, closed, but still alive thanks to literature, art and religion. And just as between us and the period of antiquity there lies a long period of darkness, known as the Middle Ages, so were the Greeks of antiquity cut off from their Heroic Age by a stretch of many centuries about which no one could say very much at all for certain because in it men had lived in poverty and stupidity following the fall of the heroes.

Yes, the Heroic Age had fallen; in fact, it had been destroyed. This happened – all Greeks agreed on this – as a result of a great migration of peoples known as the Return of the Heraclides. Later, Greek scholars calculated when that happened: by our reckoning it would have been the twelfth century B.C. Again, a similarity to the end of the period of antiquity suggests itself: a migration of peoples destroys centers of high civilization in Western Europe, dark clouds envelop the continent, but a memory of a brilliant past remains, like glowing coals in ashes, out of which a renaissance will one day take place.

But what shall we say about the Age of Heroes? Did it really occur? Are the myths really a reflection of great events, adventures, struggles of men of flesh and blood? Can we accept the first and second expeditions of seven against Thebes as the same kind of historical fact as the events of 379 B.C.? How do we find an answer to these questions?

We shall have to return to these questions time and again. For the moment, let us remember that we have left our plotters in front of the house of Simmias the philosopher, chatting about Alcmene, whose grave the Spartans had dug up, and Dirce, whose tomb they wanted to find. Both these women had lived during the Age of Heroes, at a minimum ten centuries earlier. Yet, when Theocritus mentioned their names, his interlocutors did not need any explanations, because the stories of the lives and deaths of these women belonged to the best known in Thebes, and, indeed, in the whole of Greece.



Perhaps the book's chief theme is this: our relationship to the glorious, mythical past: why we keep retelling same old stories over and over again, and what their antiquity means to us. I am not sufficiently cultural-anthropologically minded to think it matters what ancient stories we tell (presumably the replacement of Seven Against Thebes with, say, Star Wars, makes no real difference); and believe that all human groups tell some sort of ancient stories (certainly all groups which we have studied do) -- and always will. What interests me is the idea that if a group shares a story, that story enables a symbolic form of communication, such as took place in this case when the exiles heading for Thebes recruited the seventh volunteer in order to make their number exactly seven.

Another theme of the book is the loss of the past, the preservation of its memory, and the attempts to revive it: it is interesting, for example, to note certain repeating patterns: to note that the history of the Greek civilization presents us with two different Heroic Ages and two different Renaissances, for example, separated from each other by periods of downfall and forgetting. Histories of Mesopotamia and China present striking similarities: periods of war and chaos followed by painstaking attempts to dig up, catalog and revive the past. It is not our past, of course, and we have nothing to do with the men who went before us, but perhaps it gives us the illusion of immortality to pretend otherwise.



1. You may read the full text of the Plutarch essay here.


Seven Against Thebes (1)


Kithairon today

Odysseus reports what he has seen in the land of the dead:

While we exchanged such words, women began to approach, commanded by noble Persephone: all of them wives and daughters of heroes. A great crowd of them edged towards the black blood and I considered how best to speak to them. And in my heart I thought this way best: I drew my sword, which I had had at my side, and with it I prevented them from drinking all at once. Thus they had to approach one by one, and one by one each told me her story. This is how I got to know them all.

The first to arrive was Tyro…

Then I saw Antiope, daughter of Asopus, who had boasted that Zeus had had her in his arms, and who had born two sons, Amphion and Zethus. These were the first to found their capital in seven-gated Thebes. They ringed her with fortifications, for otherwise, though brave, they could not have defended her in the middle of the Theban plain.

Then I saw Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon, who had given birth to brave Heracles, the lion-hearted, having conceived him in Zeus’s arms…

The Odyssey, Book Nine  


There were several men in the room, but the messenger turned towards Charon, the host, because he knew him personally:

“They left Athens yesterday, as if going on a hunt. They even took hunting dogs with them. There are only seven of them, but they are the youngest. Now they are in the forest of Kithairon, near the border. They can’t stay in the mountains because it’s winter and bitterly cold. They will be here tonight. But they must know on which door to knock, at whose house. They can’t wander around the city.”

There was a moment of embarrassing silence. It was clear that no one was in a hurry to receive the seven men now trembling with cold among the crags of the mountain. All those gathered in the house of Charon had joined the plot of their own, free will, but it seemed that they realized only now that it was not child’s play, but serious business: life and death.

At length Charon broke the silence saying simply:

“Let them come to me.”

The messenger left the house at once and headed back for the mountain.

The range of Kithairon rises to the south of Thebes and is clearly visible from the city. The peak of the mountain is bare, but her steep, undulating slopes are covered with thick fir. Even walking without any particular haste one can reach its protective shadow in no more than three hours.

Charon and his guests also walked out into the street. Theocritus squeezed the hand of Caphisias and pointed with his gaze towards Charon, who walked in front of them. He said in a low voice:

“Just think: Charon is not a philosopher! He was certainly not as well educated as my brother Epaminondas. And yet he is willing to take all kinds of risks for the sake of our fatherland! This is how matters stand with Epaminondas: you’d think he has possessed all virtues and that he is head and shoulders above all common men; but our plot does not interest him at all and he is unwilling to risk his head. Perhaps he is waiting for an easier opportunity to show his mettle and to impress us with his learned courage!”

Caphisias was upset to hear this:

“You are all too eager, my dear Theocritus. We are acting as we have decided was best but Epaminondas was opposed to our plans from the first, and even now he repeats constantly: I would go with you only if you could find a way to free our fatherland without spilling the blood of our fellow countrymen. This he considers the central point: that no one has the right to kill anyone without a court decision, not even in the name of freedom. And there is some logic to this, no doubt. After all, we fight against tyrants because they violate the law, imprison their citizens at will, and persecute anyone who dares express his own opinion. They belittle laws and the public opinion; or, what is even more revolting, claim to be acting in their defense, using the good of the state as their excuse. Supposedly they know it best and only defend the society against the anarchy which must surely flow from any excess of personal freedom. Shall we then, we, the defenders of freedom, begin our work with the crime of resorting to the tyrants’ methods: violence, murder and lawlessness?

“Yet, most of us believe that nothing can be done without resorting to violence. And this is certain: after all it would be naïve in the extreme to think that the tyrant government will give up without a fight merely through philosophical argument! This is why Epaminondas is patiently awaiting that moment at which he will be able to aid us effectively but without violating his principles regarding the correct rules of political struggle.

“I have to admit, I myself have my doubts as to how matters will now develop. When things come to a head, we won’t be able to control our people. Yes, some will only attack our oppressors, but others? They are all hotheads! They won’t rest until they have bathed the whole city in blood and, while at it, they will probably deal with a few personal enemies, too!”

Speaking in this manner, they walked quickly through the winding streets towards the house of Simmias.

Simmias had only recently returned to his native Thebes, but he did not go out because he had gravely cut his thigh and was still bed-ridden. Instead, the young often gathered in his house to discuss philosophy: Simmias had once been the student of Socrates and Philolaus, had visited many countries, and had learned the customs and beliefs of many nations. He could talk about all these things most engagingly.

But the true purpose of these frequent and well-attended visits was altogether different. In order to disguise that purpose, members of the government were also sometimes invited, especially Archias himself. And so it sometimes happened that the arch-tyrant sat among the youth without realizing that he was in fact surrounded by plotters thirsting for his blood: he sat there very pleased to think that the young men around him seemed more fascinated by the subtle problems of philosophy than current political events.

As the walkers arrived at the foot of the castle hill -- Cadmea -- they noticed a few men descending down its slope towards them. Archias himself was among them; so was Lisandridas, the commander of the Spartan garrison; and Phillidas, the government secretary.

Abruptly, all conversations died.

Archias gestured to Theocritus and led him towards the Spartan commander. The three walked some way towards a small hill on which the temple of Amphion stood; there they stopped and began to discuss something with great animation. Meanwhile, the hearts of the others froze: has someone betrayed the plot? Perhaps Theocritus has betrayed them? Perhaps he is even now reporting that the seven have left Athens and are already in Kithairon?

Phillidias approached Caphisias and began to tease him:

“And how goes it with your gymnastics? Are you still practicing with the same enthusiasm?”

Then he pulled him aside and whispered:

“What’s with our friends? Will they keep their promise? Will they come?”

Phillidas, though he was very close to the government, was also part of the plot. For some time, early on, he even acted as a messenger between the Theban group and the Theban exiles in Athens, because on account of his office he was able to travel to Athens freely and meet all sorts of people without causing undue suspicion. This was important: the Theban government had its informers everywhere, even abroad. And it was in Athens, after all, that one of the most active members of the exiled opposition was murdered. Everyone guessed this was done on secret instructions of the Theban government, which had sent the killers in order to intimidate the other exiles.

Caphisias reported the truth as he knew it:

“Yes, they will soon be here.”

Phillidas was pleased:

“Which means that tonight's party at my house has been timed perfectly. Archias is supposed to attend. I’ll get him drunk and all will go smoothly.”

Caphisias beamed:

“Excellent! But you must also make sure that some other members of the government are present.”

Phillidas opened his arms in a gesture of helplessness:

“I’m afraid this will be difficult; maybe even impossible. Archias hopes (and I have been feeding this hope) that he will meet at my house a certain lady from a good home. This is why he does not want too many witnesses around – he wishes to hide the affair even from his own lieutenants. With those who do not come, we shall have to deal separately. We will surely find some way. After all, there is at most a dozen of them: all the others, even the most eager supporters and spies, will either flee or else keep mum, happy to be left alive.”

Caphisias sighed, because he expected many complications.Why , if Archias expected to meet a certain lady at the party, then it is will surely not be possible to stage a manly boozing party at Phillidas’s house. He said:

“Well, let it be, then, since we cannot do it otherwise. By the way, any idea what those two are chatting to Theocritus about?”

“Apparently there have been lately some evil omens... some inauspicious auguries touching upon Sparta... And since Theocritus is considered a great authority on auguries, I think they are consulting him.”

Meanwhile, the others parted and Theocritus rejoined his friends. Before he was able to reassure them with as much as a word, Pheidolaos approached. He greeted them and said:

“Simmias asks that you wait a little in front of his house before going in. He is talking to Leontiades. He’s hoping to change Amphiteos’ death penalty into exile. Personally, I have no hope: Leontiades is as ruthless as Archias himself; but we must try.”

Theocritus was pleased to see Pheidolaos. And, as the group walked slowly towards the philosopher’s house, he asked about something which seemed to interest him a great deal:

“Pheidolaos, you arrive in the nick of time, as if by appointment! You see, I was just thinking how much I’d like to hear about whatever it is that you have found in Alcmene’s tomb in Haliartus. I believe you were present when the tomb was opened and Alcmene’s remains moved to Sparta on the instructions of Agesilaus?”

But Pheidolaos denied it energetically:

“Of course I was not! And I was furious at my compatriots for having so readily, and so submissively, agreed to relinquish to the Spartans the remains of Alcmene! After all, Alcmene was the mother of Heracles! But my advice was ignored, of course. All the same, I do know what was found in the grave. Besides various stones, there were a small copper armband and two clay amphorae filled with what seemed to be earth petrified over the centuries. There was also a bronze tablet inscribed with many strange runes. They were totally indecipherable, though, once the tablet was cleaned, they stood out very clearly. They were odd in shape, foreign, as if Egyptian or some such. This is why King Agesilaus of Sparta had a copy made and sent to Egypt for decipherment. He asked the pharaoh to show it to his priests – thinking that maybe they could read it. But I think that Simmias could tell you more about it than I, since he was in Egypt at the time and he was in contact with various Egyptian priests. As for the opening of the grave itself, I’ll only add: I was right to oppose those unlawful Spartan demands. The residents of Haliartus bewail their former decision now after two great natural disasters befell them this year: first, crops failed; then Lake Copais, on whose shores the city stands, flooded over. These are most certainly not coincidences, but visible divine punishment for having allowed the tomb of Heracles’ mother to be dug up.”

Theocritus meditated for some moments and then said:

“But the Spartans themselves will not avoid divine retribution. They will be met with some great misfortune, this much follows clearly from the auguries. I have just heard about it from the commander of the garrison, Lisandridas. He is leaving for Haliartus just now. He will ritually close up the tomb of Alcmene and offer propitiatory sacrifices to her and to Aleus. Such were the orders of the Delphic oracle; we shall see whether that has any effect. (In fact, we do not know who this Aleus was, whose tomb was dug up along with Alcmene’s. Some say he came from Crete and that his real name was something else).

“Then, according to the same oracle, when he returns here, Lisandridas will have another task: he must find the tomb of Dirce. I do not think he will find it... No one in Thebes knows where it is. The place was known only to those holding the office of the commander of cavalry, since an ancient custom requires the hipparch to take his successor to Dirce’s tomb at night. They make sacrifices there, then cover up their tracks and walk off in different directions... But today, practically all those who had once held that office are abroad, having either been exiled, or fled of their own volition, wisely expecting that to happen which is inevitable with governments resting not on the confidence of their citizens but on the strength of foreign garrisons. Only two former commanders of cavalry remain in the city, but our rulers will not dare ask them, knowing full well what kind of reply they will get if they do. Thus, the present Theban government can be seen not to know Theban traditions... Some dozen men sit on Cadmea, guarded by the Spartan garrison, and pass amongst themselves the ancient insignia of power, the seal and the spear, but none of them have the least inkling about the true nature of the customary rituals which attend their investiture! Let us not even mention the tomb of Dirce!”



This book, published in early 1960's exemplifies much Polish writing on the antique, and as such lies in the ancient European tradition of illocution: not speaking about the current political situation directly, this being too risky, and sometimes outright verbotten; but writing ostensibly about the very ancient past, the glorious past of the antique -- a government approved topic for research and publishing because, apparently, it was so far removed from the current realities. But it was not: fourth century Thebes, ruled by a small clique of ruthless tyrants installed by a foreign power and supported by a foreign military contingent, seemed to any Polish reader a lot like post-war Poland. Few readers would have missed the parallels or failed to wonder whether, for example, Epaminondas' reservations about the permitted forms of opposition to tyranny were pertinent. Perhaps this explains Polish post-war preoccupation with the antique -- not merely the human capital invested in the research, but also the general popularity of the topic, the great number of non-fiction and fiction published on the topic, etc. and perhaps also explains why the interest in the antique has waned dramatically since independence.