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?


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