Month: January 2016

30. The Histories by Herodotus (c.455 BC)

30. The Histories by Herodotus (c.455 BC)

Content : Part encyclopaedia, part travel guide, part war chronicles, The Histories written by Herodotus around 455 BC is a rambling assortment of likely truth and undoubted imagination which finally culminates in the war between the Persian Empire and the Greeks, specifically Athens and Sparta. Along the way we witness numerous conflicts around the Eastern Mediterranean, and pictures of the various civilizations, including Persia, Sparta, Egypt, Ethiopia, Arabia, India, and numerous others.

The Histories have been divided into 9 chapters or ‘books’ with the final three describing the war between Xerxes’ Persian Empire forces and the Greeks, touching lightly on the Battle of Marathon in book 6 before the ultimate clash of armies at Thermopylae, and navies at Salamis, as depicted in Aeschylus’ The Persians, and the final defeat at Plataea.

My copy is the Penguin edition (ISBN 9780140449082) translated by Aubrey de Selincourt and revised by John Marincola, with helpful maps and numerous footnotes.
My thoughts: Herodotus was the first writer to attempt to record history putting men at the source of their own decisions without the continual presence of various Gods (although reliance on consulting the advice of the Oracles was a very significant strategy to reassure kings they were doing the right thing). Herodotus is called the Father of History but also the Father of Lies, as although he tries to separate his personally verified facts from hearsay, his natural history at least is very imaginative (dog-headed men, flying snakes migrating from Arabia to Egypt, hippos with horses’ manes and tails, crocodiles with ears and golden earrings, and cats leaping deliberately into house fires)

Herodotus treats many of the earlier Persian actions without rancour, particularly those of Cyrus and his successor Darius. Xerxes is not as favourably depicted, as demonstrated by his madness when his bridges spanning the Hellespont are destroyed by storm and he decides to have the river flogged with whips and branded with hot irons in retribution. (p.429)
When the two forces are about to meet, Herodotus makes much of the fact that it was Athens’ decision to stay firm and resist the invaders that saved Greece (and subsequently Europe) from Asiatic tyranny, despite Sparta providing considerable manpower and the generals to run both the sea and land campaigns, most notably Leonidas, King of Sparta and his famous 300 countrymen who stood and resisted the Persians at the Pass of Thermopylae.

Again the logic of reading the classics in chronological order is useful to me, as mention is made not only of the events in Homer’s Iliad, but also the works of Hesiod, Aesop, Sappho, Pindar and Aeschylus.

Favourite lines/passages:

“No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace – in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.”    Croesus, defeated King of Lydia  (p.41)
“Retreat is no longer possible for either of us ; if we do not inflict the wound, we shall assuredly receive it”     Xerxes, King of Persia commits his empire to the War (p. 421)

And what Monty Python fan could resist the description of the Indian tribe the Padaei, who live on raw meat, and especially eat any of their friends who fall ill, before the ‘meat’ can be ruined, despite the protestations of the sick person that they are not sick or feeling better. (p.215)

Diversions/digressions: I read the bulk of this book while on holidays in Hawaii, which is about as removed from the ancient Mediterranean as I can possibly imagine. As for diversions provided by the writing, there were so many different stories and claims made that it often diverted itself from the history it was reporting.

Personal rating: 7/10.

Next : The plays of the other two Greek tragedians, Sophocles and Euripides, starting with Antigone by Sophocles.



29. The Oresteia (458 BC), part 3. The Eumenides (The Furies) by Aeschylus

29. The Oresteia (458 BC), part 3. The Eumenides (The Furies) by Aeschylus

Plot : Following on immediately from the end of The Choephori, Orestes flees from the Furies to the Pythian temple of Apollo after killing his mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegithius. Apollo advises him to go Athens and plead his case to the goddess Athene. In what may be the first recorded court case heard in literature, Athene gathers twelve Athenian jurors, and Apollo and the Furies present their cases. Orestes is pardoned, and Athene placates the Furies from exacting their frustrations upon Athens by offering them a home and worship from her people.
My thoughts : Again, not a resounding success in my heart, despite the fascinating presence of the wingless black-garbed Furies. Apollo’s arguments are weak (“Zeus made me do it”, “Zeus is more right than Justice” and most controversial “Mothers are not true parents”) yet the human jury is deadlocked until Athene casts her deciding vote for Orestes. The anger and frustration of the Furies is quickly overcome by the bribes Athene offers, so the whole thing collapses in an unbelievable happy-ever-after.
Not sure if it is just the version I read, but in this last play there is evidence of development of the drama as staged : there are two distinct scenes – in previous plays there was change of scene but not scripted as in this case; and at one point there are more than two speaking actors on stage besides the Chorus (Athene, Apollo and Orestes)

Favourite lines/passages:
Athene in response to the Furies’ initial outburst

“You seek the form of Justice, more than to be just”

And her warning to keep the sanctity of the courtroom

“If you befoul a shining spring with an impure
And muddy dribble, you will come in vain to drink.”

And of course some great lines for the Chorus of Furies

“Come, swift avenging Furies,
O sword of Justice, fall!”


“The old is trampled by the new!
Curse on you younger gods who override the ancient laws and rob me of my due!
Now to appease the honour you reviled
Vengeance shall fester till my full heart pours
Over this land on every side
Anger for insult, poison for my pain ….
A sterile blight shall creep on plant and child
And pock the earth’s face with infectious sores.”

Personal rating : 5 /10
Next: The Histories, by Herodotus. This is quite a long work, and I am going away for two weeks’ holiday with this in my luggage.

28. The Oresteia (458 BC), part 2. The Choephori (The Libation Bearers) by Aeschylus

Plot : Following on from the events of Agamemnon, Orestes returns from exile to reunite with his sister Electra, and together they swear retribution on Aegithius and Clytemnestra. Orestes disguises himself as a stranger and once gaining entry to the palace, makes good his promise.
I should have mentioned in my last blog that my text for these plays is the Penguin collection, translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140449674)
My thoughts : The first two thirds of this play consists of the chance meeting of Orestes and Electra at Agamemnon’s gravesite, and a rather longwinded and repetitive string of wails and threats by them singly, together and in tandem with the Chorus. The play lifts in interest once Orestes reaches the palace and kills the pair, only to be driven away by avenging Furies that only he can see.
Much is made of Orestes’ acting in the name of Justice, particularly by the Chorus urging him to act as Apollo has foretold. Yet Orestes also knows that Apollo has given him two paths, and should he fail to kill the usurpers, he will face endless torment.

I am a little disappointed with The Oresteia so far compared with the preceding single plays, particularly considering the universal praise which it seems to attract. I’d be interested to hear other lay opinions on this.

Favourite lines/passages:
No favourite lines leapt out at me, although the final scene with Orestes fleeing from the Furies makes me interested in reading the final instalment.
“Like Gorgons with grey cloaks, and snakes coiled swarming around their bodies! Let me go! “

Personal rating : 4 /10
Next: The final play of the trilogy, The Eumenides (The Furies)


27. The Oresteia (458 BC), part 1. Agamemnon by Aeschylus

Plot : This trilogy of plays tell the story of the curse upon the House of Atreus, from the time of the return of King Agamemnon from the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Iliad. But the curse stretches back before current events to the earlier generation, where brothers Atreus and Thyestes quarrel over the throne of Argos. Thyestes seduces Atreus’ wife and in retribution and to secure the throne, Atreus kills two of Thyestes’ sons and feeds their flesh to Thyestes at a banquet. Thyestes dies in exile and his remaining son Aegithus awaits his chance for revenge.
Atreus’ sons Agamemnon, King of Argos, and Menelaus, King of Sparta marry sisters Clytemnestra and Helen. Prince Paris of Troy abducts Helen while a guest of Menelaus, and the kingly brothers gather a huge army and head off to retake Helen from the Trojans. But before they can set sail, their combined navies are becalmed and according to prophecy will not be able to leave harbour unless Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter Iphigenia.
After ten years of siege Troy is captured and Agamemnon returns to Argos with the prophetess Cassandra as his prisoner. But Queen Clytemnestra has taken Aegithus as her lover and together they plot Agamemnon’s death.
My thoughts : This first play is quite long (1,673 lines, compared to the 1,040 and 1,070 of the others on the trilogy), and I found many of the early speeches, particularly those of the Chorus and Clytemnestra overladen and slow. But as Agamemnon steps into his house to unknowingly meet his doom, the drama and tension build up to the double tragedy.
It is difficult to sympathise with either side as they both have blood on their hands. There is no doubt Clytemnestra is a “vile plotting she-hound …. a raging shark of hell”, spouting hypocrisy and lies without the smallest ounce of regret, and taking great delight in her murderous act. But then, her daughter was betrayed and killed by Agamemnon, so are her actions justifiable? Are her actions Justice or Revenge?

The most tragic figure is Cassandra, ‘gifted’ by Apollo with the power of prophecy yet cursed to be disbelieved or misunderstood by all, paraded captive through the streets of Argos, her home and her family destroyed, and her life as a slave only a prelude to her own death. Her powers warn her of Agamemnon’s fate and the history of bloodshed hanging over the family, and her speech as she beholds the bloody fate of the Thyestes’ children are the most effective and horror-laden of the play.
Again, the deaths of Agamemnon and Cassandra happens off stage, and the doors open to a blood-spattered Clytemnestra standing jubilant over their bodies, bloodied dagger still in hand. Now her speeches are more powerful and resounding, as she boasts and celebrates her revenge for the murder of Iphigenia. Considering the play is named Agamemnon, he is the least powerful character, and brings more to the story as a corpse than a king. Aegithius hides and plots, leaving Clytemnestra to do the actual murder yet appearing from the shadows to claim his share of the Argive throne.
But the story is not yet told, for Agamemnon’s son Orestes is still travelling overseas and on his return, more blood is likely to be shed.
Favourite lines/passages:
Avoiding all the blood and horror of the second half, I’ ll settle for Aeschylus’ description of Helen

“And so to Troy there came
One in whose presence shone
Beauty no thought can name.
A still enchantment of sweet summer calm,
A rarity for wealth to dote upon,
Glances whose gentle fire,
Bestowed both wound and balm,
A flower to melt man’s heart with wonder and desire.”

Well, even Aphrodite claimed Helen was the most beautiful mortal woman alive!

Personal rating : 6 /10
Kimmy the Lit-Terrier’s rating : She sat with her head down throughout so I guess that’s only a 1/5
Next: The second play of the trilogy, The Choephori (or , The Libation Bearers)