Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church
Hierocles at Thurii to Charidemus at Athens.
Know, my dearest Charidemus, that I am safely arrived at this place, but not without having encountered many dangers. It were too audacious to compare myself in any respect to Ulysses, yet I might say that Athené, who doubtless has a care for all true sons of her own city, has preserved me from the wrath of Poseidon. Certainly the God of the Sea, whom yet I have not consciously offended, seemed to do all that he could to destroy me. In the first place, as we were rounding Cape Malea, there came on a mist so thick that we could see, not indeed as far as a man can cast a stone, as Homer hath it, but as far, rather, as he can hurl a discus of the very heaviest. Old Bacis, who knows the place, and, indeed, all places on our coasts, as well as he knows the way from the wine jar to his mouth, was utterly perplexed. He had never seen such a thing, he said, in all the sixty years of his sea-faring. Twice our keel grazed the rocks underneath; twice did we find ourselves within two or three fathoms of the cliff. Had we not crept as slowly on as a tortoise, we had most certainly perished. The shipmaster was furious, for, feeding his passengers on contract, he makes more profit the quicker the voyage, and seemed more content that they, and he too, should be drowned than that he should open another jar of wine and cask of biscuit; but Bacis would have it so. Then the next day, the fog having cleared off, there sprang up a fine wind from the South, raising waves like mountains. The ship was deluged with water, which we bailed out, all of us with all our might, the said shipmaster excepted, for he, half-dead with sickness and fear, basely kept under. "Can you see land?" the fellow kept crying to Bacis. "The gods forbid!" the old man answered, "when the wind blows in this fashion, give me the open sea." Our last and worst danger was of another kind. 'Twas from a Carthaginian pirate ship, which we espied as we rounded Cape Malea. It was lying under shelter of the rocks on the west side, and had we not been taking a larger compass than is usual, must have caught us. As it was we had about five furlongs start, and even so escaped most narrowly. The scoundrels crowded on all the sail that they could, whereas old Bacis would not suffer a stitch more of canvas to be spread than he considered to be suitable for such weather, the wind being gusty and uncertain. The shipmaster tore his hair in his rage and fear, and I myself, who had sooner have been drowned than spend the rest of my days in an African leadmine, began to doubt. The pursuers came almost within a bow-shot. Indeed, a spent arrow fell at the old pilot's feet. I doubted whether he saw it, so intently was he looking seaward. I followed his eyes, and saw that he was watching the coming up of a squall. It seemed like a black patch moving over the sea. I noted—it is strange how clearly one sees these things at such times—how white the crests of the waves showed against it. The next moment it had struck our pursuers and capsized them. We, too, reeled under it, our leeward gunwale being within a finger's breadth of the water, but recovered ourselves. After that we had a speedy and prosperous voyage.
The history of this city of Thurii has been not unlike to the voyage which I have now described. It also has passed through serious dangers, and happily escaping them, is like to have peace and prosperity henceforth. First, we are well quit of the Sybarites. There are those who, whatever their experiences, can never either learn or forget anything, and these Sybarites were of this kind. It can scarcely be believed with what arrogance and folly they behaved themselves. Because they were descended from the inhabitants of the old city, they must keep to themselves, forsooth, all honours and privileges in the new. 'Twould be in any case an intolerable pretension; how much more so when we consider what manner of people these inhabitants of the old city are related to have been! The strangest stories are told of their ways of living, as for instance, that no noisy craft or industry, as of smiths or cobblers, were permitted in their city, lest haply their slumbers should be disturbed, nor was it lawful to keep a cock. Their streets were covered over lest haply they should be scorched by the sun, and they were wont to take three days to accomplish a single day's journey. They bestowed the highest honours of the state on those that furnished the most costly and luxurious entertainments, and at their public festivals they crowned the cooks that had invented a new dish. Well, to return to my story, the children and grandchildren of the men that had so distinguished themselves would have monopolized everything, priesthoods, magistracies and the like. And the women, as is the way with them, were even more arrogant than the men, forbidding, for instance, well-born Athenian maidens to walk in the procession of their own goddess. Something the other citizens would have willingly conceded to them, but their claims were beyond all endurance. In the end the matter was decided by arms, a pitched battle being fought in the street. The Sybarites were defeated, and driven out of the city, and settling themselves in a strong fortress hard by, were there set upon by the barbarians, and for the most part, slain. This cause of troubles being removed, another soon followed it; you will readily understand that the Crotonians, though they ventured not to resist the power of Athens, were ill pleased to see an old rival restored. But they also are now at peace with us, friendship being now easily made, when these same haughty Sybarites had been expelled from the city. Thurii, therefore, is now, as I have said, at rest. That it will always so remain I would not willingly affirm. Such is not the way in human affairs, and there are special causes from which trouble may arise hereafter. Never was there a city in with was so strange a mixture of men! Arcadians, Bœotiaus, men of Elis, dwellers in the Islands, and many others are to be found. We Athenians are but a few in a multitude. Nevertheless we shall be undisturbed in our pre-eminence, so long as Athens shall prosper. So much then for our affairs. And now for other matters. Know in the first place, that Herodotus is yet alive, but, I write it with much grief, feeble and sickly. Old he is not, not having reached his sixtieth year, but worn-out before his time, having suffered much in his travels, as I have learnt from him in many talks which I have had with him since I came to this place. And, indeed, he has travelled distances well nigh incredible, certainly such as no other man has achieved. You know how our cousin Timanthes was wont to boast of a journey to Susa and back when he went on an embassy to the Great King, and, indeed, there were not many men in Athens who had done as much. But this journey to Susa is one only, and that neither the longest or the most adventurous, of the travels of Herodotus. Among us again it is a notable thing even to set foot in Egypt, but he has traversed it in its length and breadth, and even penetrated to its border in the South, where it touches on the land of the Æthiopians. As for the other countries and cities which he has visited, they are almost past telling. There is scarcely a Greek city which he does not know, whether at home or abroad, and with the nearer barbarians, as those of Thrace and Macedonia, he has no small acquaintance. The Lesser Asia is well known to him from East to West and from North to South.
It must be confessed that for all these labours, and for the great sums of money which he has expended upon them he has as yet had but a small recompense, or, I might almost say, no recompense at all. Consider, for instance, what has befallen him in his own native city of Halicarnassus. It might have been expected that his fellow-countrymen would have been proud of a citizen so distinguished, all the more because, apart from his reputation as a traveller, he did them excellent service in the matter of the Tyrant Lygdamis. As all men know, the Halicarnasseans would scarcely have rid themselves of this oppressor but for the sagacious counsels of Herodotus. And how have they requited him? So far from paying him due honour, they made his life unbearable—this I have from the life of the man himself. And the way they did this was by ridicule of his tales of travel. His name passed among his countrymen into a very by-word for that which is foolish and incredible. Hence it is that he emigrated to this place, where he meets with less annoyance, it is true, but only because he is less known. So far as the Thuriotes have any acquaintance with him, they all, some five or six only excepted, think of him as a teller of idle tales.
"And you yourself," this I imagine to be the question which you will now put to me, "what think you of these said tales?" Let me answer first that men do not sufficiently distinguish between the various ways which he has of telling his tales. Of some, he says expressly that he does not believe them. 'Tis a common phrase with him, "So they talk, but to me, for one, it seems a thing incredible." There are others about which he pronounces no judgment. His readers may believe them or not, as they will; he does but tell again what has been told to him. Others, again, he relates of his own knowledge. Of these I will affirm so much and no more, that he has put down nothing but what he himself verily believes to be true. This much, however, must be conceded, that he is of a credulous temper, willing to accept the marvellous, and so especially liable to be deceived. Do you not remember what he writes of the temple of the Tyrian Hercules, how that he saw in it two pillars, one of fine gold, the other of emerald, which latter shone at night with a particular lustre? Of the bigness of these said pillars he does not inform us, but we may suppose that they are some cubits, say six or seven, in height. Now of the pillar of gold I need say nothing. Probably 'tis of some baser metal gilded, but that the priests affirmed it to be pure gold may readily be imagined. Nor can one distinguish between a thing of gold and a thing gilded, not being allowed either to examine a part or to weigh the whole. As for the emerald it is altogether beyond belief. An emerald is a precious stone, varying, indeed, in bigness, but not passing in size beyond certain limits. None have been ever heard of larger than the fruit of the nut-tree. 'Tis of the same order of things as the amethyst, the topaz, the chrysoprase, the pearl, though this last is affirmed by some to come from a certain shell-fish. What then was this pillar of emerald? Of glass, surely, and hollow, so that the priests, putting a lamp within, caused the nightly splendour of which our friend speaks. Not seldom, indeed, has he been deceived by those from whom he sought information—so, at least, it seems to me. The priests in Egypt, for example, told him many things of which, to say the least, there is no proof, and but little probability. Add to this a frequent cause of error, in this, that all things said on either side had to pass through the lips of an interpreter. It is well known how much a narrative is changed when it is told for a second time, though in all good faith. How much greater the change when this change is increased by diversities of language!
Nor must it be forgotten that things that seem incredible may yet be true. Our friend says that there are parts of Egypt in which it never rains, so that the falling of a few drops was considered a portent of evil, which, indeed, came to pass when the country was conquered by Cambyses and the Persians. This seems a marvellous thing to us, as it would seem a marvellous thing to these same Egyptians should one tell them that in Greece, at certain seasons of the year, water becomes solid so that a man may walk upon it.
Do you not remember, my Charidemus, the strange thing which our friend relates about the King, who caused to be brought before him certain Indians and Greeks. To the Greeks he said: "What would persuade you to devour the bodies of your fathers when they are dead?" At this the men cried out in horror, as well they might. Then he said to the Indians: "What think you of burying your fathers when they die?" But the burying seemed to them as detestable a practice as did devouring to the others. Yet who would have believed, without certain proof, that there are men who practice customs so strange? And there is, I verily believe, yet greater variety in nature than in the customs of men, so that nothing should seem incredible in the one or impossible in the other.
There are other notable persons in the city. Foremost among them, at least in his own esteem, is the Spartan Cleandridas. With us at Athens he is, as you know, in but ill repute, for though he did us a service, 'twas not for love but for gold. Of the Thurians he has deserved better, for he led their army, with much skill and judgment, according to all accounts, in the war that they carried on with Tarentum. He affects, I am told, luxurious ways beyond all the dwellers in the city. I understand that this is commonly the case with the Spartans, so soon as they get out of the reach of their strict discipline.
I admire more a young countryman of ours, Lysias by name, who has a great reputation for eloquence in this city, not ill-deserved, as far as I can judge, who have heard, as you know, the great Pericles himself. He teaches others to practise the art in which he himself excels, and it is my purpose when I receive the next instalment of my property to enrol myself among his pupils. At present I cannot by any means spare the ten minæ which is his customary fee.
More remarkable than any is the philosopher Empedocles, of Acragas in Sicily, who has done the colony the honour of paying it a visit. "Philosopher" do I call him? He would scarcely be content with the word. According to his own account, as there is nothing which he does not know, so there is nothing which he cannot do. If any region is plagued with epidemic diseases, as are many countries, for instance, with ague and fever, he can make them healthy; he can bring down rain when the land is suffering from drought; he can bring back the sun into the heavens when the harvests are suffering from superabundance of rain; he can cure diseases both of body and mind, and has remedies against old age and death; he can foretell the future and recover things that have been forgotten in the past. Such are his claims—I have heard them from his own mouth, as well as read them in the book of "Purifications" which he has written. You will doubtless ask me, "What think you of these things yourself?" Let me answer that I neither believe nor disbelieve. That the man has a marvellous presence, and a tongue so sweet and so persuasive that, at least while he is speaking, it is impossible to doubt, that he has wrought many marvellous cures, has foreseen things to come, or, at the least, guessed them with marvellous accuracy, that he has received signal honours from cities which he has benefited by his counsels—all these things are beyond question. More I cannot say.
I have had some interesting talk with a young stranger from one of the Italian towns. He was on his way to Sicily to buy corn, his people suffering, he told me, greatly from a scarcity of food. He had been shipwrecked, and after various adventures—a capture by robbers among them—had made his way to this place. There was this bond of union between us, I found, that his great-grandfather had taken part, some eighty years before, in the expelling of tyrants from his city—"Roma," he called it—even as did mine from our own Athens. But they do not seem to have had so much prosperity since that time as the gods have granted to us. Rather they have become weaker by the change, the more so as these tyrants were of the powerful Etruscan race, which thus became a most dangerous enemy. One of the strongest and most populous cities of these Etruscans is, he told me, no more than ten miles from their gates. This seems to me almost intolerable; it is as if we had an enemy always at Eleusis. Then again they are troubled by fierce dissensions between the nobles and the common people. These latter are not only shut out from their due share in the government of the state, but are weighed down by an almost intolerable weight of debt. Unhappily for them, they have never had a Solon among them, as wise as he was bold. I doubt whether a city threatened both within and without by so many dangers, can long survive. My young friend, however, who is a noble, but of the more liberal sort, has very large hopes for the future of his country. Anyhow, it is at too great distance to be a formidable rival to Thurii. I must confess that I am not so easy in mind about some of our nearer neighbours, the Lucanians, for instance, who already begin to threaten some of the smaller Greek cities in this region. I must cease, for the messenger who is to carry this to Athens waits. Farewell.