Category: 3rd century BC

151. The Dhammapada (Third Century BC)

151. The Dhammapada (Third Century BC)

The Dhammapada may be defined as the Buddhist Path to Perfection, or Nirvana, as depicted by a collection of 423 short homilies.  Although most are straightforward, I am sure at least some carry more meaning the longer they are thought over, or are not as easy to live by as they first sound. Perhaps the best example of what I am trying to say is the story related by the editor in the Introduction.

“It is said that once a man of arms undertook a long journey to see a holy follower of Buddha, and asked if the message of Buddha could be taught to him.

The answer was ‘Do not what is evil. Do what is good. Keep your mind pure. This is the teaching of Buddha.’

‘Is this all?’ asked the man of arms. ‘Every child of five knows this!’

‘It may be so, but few men of eighty can practice it’,  he was told.               page 21-22

There is naturally a similarity with the teachings of Christ in how Buddha asks us to deal with others to encourage a safe and harmonious society. However more strongly presented are the themes of self-improvement, including watchfulness, self-control, moderation, truth and harmony.

Key tenets include:

  • Hate can only be overcome by love.
  • Since our thoughts build our future, thoughts free of the feelings of hurt and defeat will be free of hate.
  • Freedom from desires provides joy. Transient pleasures, passions and cravings lead to sorrows, for to want but not obtain these pleasures causes sorrow.
  • Think not of the faults of others, but of your own failings
  • Life is dear to all creatures therefore man should not kill or cause to kill.

Rather than providing further inadequate summary here after my brief first exposure to this religion, I have copied out a greater number of quotes below than is my usual practice  –  not necessarily representative of the whole but those which resonated with me as I read.  The Penguin copy I read (ISBN 0140443847) was only about ninety pages, and a third of that was the introduction by Juan Mascaro, in which he makes many links to Christianity and other spiritual literatures.

Favourite lines/passages:

The mind is fickle and flighty, it flies after fancies wherever it likes; it is difficult indeed to restrain. But it is a great good to control the mind; a mind self-controlled is a source of great joy.

As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.

Better than a thousand useless words is one single word that gives peace.

Neither in the sky, nor deep in the ocean, nor in a mountain-cave, nor anywhere, can a man be free from the evil he has done.

How can there be laughter, how can there be pleasure, when the whole world is burning? When you are in deep darkness, will you not ask for a lamp?

It is easy to do what is wrong, to do what is bad for oneself; but very difficult to do what is right, to do what is good for oneself.

Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Nirvana is the greatest joy.

Speak the truth, yield not to anger, give what you can to him that asks : these three steps lead you to the gods.  

In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it.  Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control,  even as a wild elephant is controlled by its trainer.

Personal rating:  As a pleasurable experience to read : 6/10.

 Next : From Buddhism to Hinduism. The Manusmriti (Laws of Manu)


135. Miles Gloriosus (The Swaggering Solider) by Plautus (c.206 BC)

135. Miles Gloriosus (The Swaggering Solider) by Plautus (c.206 BC)

Plot:  A self-adoring braggart Pyrgopolynices has abducted young Philocomasium and taken her back to his house. Her lover’s slave Palaestrio plots a scheme to free her and turn the tables on the arrogant soldier.

My copy is the Penguin Classic The Pot of Gold and other plays, translated by E. F. Watling (ISBN 0140441492)

My thoughts:  This started as a comedy of mistaken identity with Philocomasium pretending to be her own twin sister, and I expected lots of popping in and out of doors, but Plautus seems to have changed his mind halfway through and made it all about the ego of the braggart leading to his downfall. Read quickly and still enjoyable.

Plautus (full names Titus Maccius Plautus) succeeded Livius Andronicus as the pre-eminent comic playwright in early Roman literature. The names Maccius (a comic character type) and Plautus (flat-footed or flat-eared) are nicknames he inherited or adopted. Twenty of his 130 plays have survived.

Personal rating: 6/10

Also around that year: The Romans start to get the upper hand, defeating the Carthaginians in Italy (207 BC) and driving them from Spain under the leadership of Scipio (206 BC)

Next :  Mercator by Plautus (c.204 BC?)

134. Asinaria (The Comedy of Asses) by Plautus (c.212 BC)

134. Asinaria (The Comedy of Asses) by Plautus (c.212 BC)

Plot:   Young Argyrippus is in love with Philaenium, the girl next door who is being rented out to suitors for a year at a time by her mother Cleareta. Argyrippus’ father, Demaenetus, is eager to buy his son’s affection by finding the money to further his son’s desires, and instructs his slaves Libanus and Leonida to swindle someone to get the money, which they do by intercepting a payment for some asses. On delivering the money and seeing Philaenium, Demaenetus wants to enjoy a fling with her too, but will his wife Artemona catch him in the act?

It was difficult to find a satisfactory print copy of this play. Penguin has two volumes of Plautus’ plays covering nine of the twenty extant plays but not this one, while the only complete works I could find in print (published by Johns Hopkins UP in 1995) has the characters speaking like American gangsters;  so its back to Project Gutenberg for a text translated by Paul Nixon (published 1916, Harvard University Press)

A word on the order of reading Plautus. I used my slightly rusty research librarian skills to find a scholarly article (The Dating of Plautus’ Plays, by W. B. Sedgwick, Classical Quarterly, 24(2), 1930) and will be trusting to this. Those assigned to his early period (Asinaria, Miles Gloriosus, Mercator, Poenulus, Cistellaria and Stichus) will take me nicely up to the beginning of the second century BC, where a small and intimate Roman orgy is planned to celebrate. Get your togas dry cleaned now.

My thoughts:  So I have finally reached Ancient Rome! Anyone having seen “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” or Frankie Howerd’s “Up Pompeii” will immediately recognise Plautus’ style. Conniving slaves, clueless young lovers, lecherous old men and their shrewish wives should all sound familiar.

If Plautus has been used as source material for 20th century comedy, it is perhaps fitting that he himself ‘borrowed’ many of his stories from Greek plays. For instance, Asinaria is a rewrite of the now-lost Onagos by the Greek playwright Demophilus, a fact cheerfully acknowledged at the start.

Perhaps not the best constructed of plays, but a bit of fun nonetheless. The two slaves banter and threaten each other even while conning their master’s victim out of his money, and the young girl’s mother is rudely businesslike in her demands for more money as she pimps her own daughter out to the highest bidder. The father shifts from a solicitous, if weak, loving father to an old lech who wants his own way with his son’s lover, and the wife comes in like an avenging harpy to snatch him away, leaving the two young lovers to enjoy their rather tawdry affair.

The two asses are not just the source of money but describes the antics of the two slaves, and perhaps equally the son and girlfriend, or the married couple.

Not sophisticated or polished, but promising of better to come.

Favourite lines/passages:

Leonida has a cunning plan to share with his fellow-slave Libanus:

“But if he’s ready to take part with me and pounce on this opportunity that’s turned up, he’ll be my partner in hatching the biggest, joy-stuffedest jubilee that ever was for his masters, son and father both, yes, and put the pair of ’em under obligations to the pair of us for life, too, chained tight by our services”        Lines 280-284

The Trader explains his reluctance to part with the payment for the asses to an unknown slave

“Man is no man, but a wolf, to a stranger.”    Line 496

Diversions and digressions:  It wouldn’t be amiss to watch a few old episodes of Up Pompeii.

Personal rating: 5/10

Also in that year: China has its first Emperor Shih Huang-ti (221 BC) and the Great Wall of China is built. Rome fights Carthage in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), with Carthaginian general Hannibal crossing the Alps to invade Italy (218 BC) inflicting several defeats on the Romans over the next three years. The Greek allies of Rome prevent the Macedonians from assisting Hannibal.

Next :  I will read lots of Plautus since there are twenty plays to enjoy, the next being Miles Gloriosus (The Swaggering Soldier). If Plautus is not your cup of tea (or amphora of wine), it may  be best to check back in October.

133. The Constellation Myths of Eratosthenes (c. 220 BC) and Hyginus (c.24 BC)

133. The Constellation Myths of Eratosthenes (c. 220 BC) and Hyginus (c.24 BC)

Plot:   ‘Eratosthenes’ and Hyginus’ descriptions of the astral myths, or catasterismi, used to describe how figures or items from mythological stories became enshrined in the Heavens, and are often ‘tacked on’ to the original myths.

My version is the Oxford University Press volume Constellation Myths, containing both Aratus’ Phaenomena and Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi, (with Hyginus’ expanded version of the myths from his Poetical Astronomy), translated by Robin Hard (ISBN 9780198716983)

My thoughts: Although Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) is often claimed to be the author of the Catasterismi, there is some doubt. The original is lost to posterity, so we only have some sets of fragments (one known as the Vatican fragments) which seem to be annotations to the original text by Aratus (see post #130). Hyginus came along roughly two hundred years later and expanded on Eratosthenes’ notes.  Hence reading about each constellation is quite repetitive as you read Eratosthenes’ version/s, then Hyginus’, then the modern editor’s commentary on both.  Still there is far more mythological than astronomical detail so the volume is a wealth of information and treasure for myth lovers, including variations to the stories and alternate stories for many of the astral myths. The inclusion of an illustration of each separate constellation would have been nice, as the two hemisphere maps provided are small and crowded and not much use beyond the slightest of aesthetics.

Interesting tidbits include:

  • Perseus slew Medusa while she slept, not by watching her reflection in his shiny shield as she stalked him through the catacombs  (thanks, Hollywood!!)
  • The modern medical symbol of the caduceus (two snakes entwined around a staff) actually originally represented peace, as the story tells of Hermes placing his wand between two fighting serpents.
  • Speaking of medicine, the great healer Asclepios was such a good doctor he could raise the dead, so Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt for rivalling the power of the Gods.
  • Scorpio is so large that the stars representing its claws are actually the sign for Libra (the Scales). Mythic Orion the Hunter (one of the most famous constellations) was killed by a giant scorpion, so night sky observers will see that Orion sets as Scorpio rises, perpetually in pursuit.
  • Apparently centaurs never used bows, so Sagittarius (the Archer) cannot be a centaur.
  • The Greek gods were attacked by the monstrous Typhon in Egypt and turned into animals to escape, including an ibis (Hermes), a cat (Artemis) and a goat (Pan). This story might be a way of adopting Egyptian art into Greek mythology. The zodiac sign for Capricorn (half-goat, half-fish) may have been Pan trying to swim away.
  • One of the explanations of Aquarius (The Water Bearer) is that he is the Demon of the Nile, regulating its crucial flow of water.

Eratosthenes (whether the author of the Catasterismi or not) was a polymath in his own right, devising a way to measure the circumference of the Earth as well as writing on geography, mathematics, philosophy and literature. Sadly, he is reputed to have starved himself to death when he went blind and could no longer read or observe things around him.

Diversions and digressions:

Gigantomachy : the war between the Giants and the Olympian Gods, (not to be confused with the Titanomachy which was the war between the Titans and the Olympians)

Personal rating:  6/10

Kimmy’s rating:  Liked the stories about Canus Minor. 3 out of 4 paws.

Also in that year: Between 245 and 220 BC, Rome’s rule extends to Sicily, Sardinia,  Corsica and North Italy, and Roman literature can be recognised. Carthaginian forces invade Spain but are beaten back from Sicily by the Romans. Elsewhere, Macedonia takes control of Sparta, and Buddhism spreads to Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Next :  The start of Latin literature (finally) with the early plays of Plautus. Hail Rome!!!!

132. The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (c.245 BC)

132. The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (c.245 BC)

Plot:  Jason, the rightful heir to the throne of Thessaly, forms a league of Ancient Greek superheroes to help him retrieve the Golden Fleece; fighting harpies, giant snakes, and fire-breathing bulls along the way.

My version was the Penguin Classic The Voyage of Argo,  translated by E. V. Rieu (ISBN 0140440852) which includes a detailed map of their journey throughout the Mediterranean and a useful glossary. The verse retelling also published by Penguin was tempting too, and I may very well buy myself copies of both editions.

My thoughts:  I had been looking forward to reading this as the 1963 Ray Harryhausen movie Jason and The Argonauts is one of my favourite childhood memories. I am pleased to say that the book was very enjoyable, although the “foul murder” of Apsyrtus by Jason and Medea took some of the heroic shine off. There is also a wealth of information about other Greek myths, weaving through the story as background, including Hercules’ twelve labours, and Perseus slaying Medusa, which brings the whole mythic world together in a satisfying way.

To focus the reader on Jason as the hero, the tale does not say much about the other Argonauts except Heracles (who leaves the story about a quarter in) but they really were sprinkled with superheroes. Most were related in some way to the Gods, who left plenty of their genetic stock lying around. Besides Heracles’ strength, we have Orpheus who could charm the very rocks and trees with his music, Tiphys who could read the waves and winds, Lynceus who could see further than anyone (including underground), Periclymenus who could shapeshift in battle, Euphemus who could run so fast he could speed across water, and the twins Zetes and Calais who could fly with wings on their ankles. Few of these powers were used in the tale, as they also had Hera, Athene,  Aphrodite, Haephestus, Aeolus, Triton and Apollo on their side, and relied heavily on the magic of the witchette Medea.

Apart from various tribes who they managed to get on the wrong side of, the Argonauts also had to face the Clashing Rocks, the Harpies, the Stymphalian Birds, the fire-breathing bulls of King Aeetes, the earthborne army of warriors (beautifully realised as skeletons in the movie) and the giant snake guardian of the Fleece, and the bronze giant Talos. Quite an adventure! Of course things don’t bode well for Medea later (see Euripides’ play Medea) but she eventually marries Achilles in the Underworld.

The only fault is that Apollonius ends his story quite abruptly with a promise that the Argonauts safely arrived home but no mention of Jason’s welcome bearing the Fleece.

Some of the many dangers faced by Jason in the movie version

Apollonius had two attempts at writing this tale. The poor reception of the first version, along with his feud with Callimachus, drove him to leave Alexandria and resettle in Rhodes. His redrafting of his epic was apparently much better received, allowing him to eventually return to Alexandria and gain the role of Librarian at the Great Library.

Favourite lines/passages:

Once more the Rocks met face to face with a resounding crash, flinging a great cloud of spray into the air. The sea gave a terrific roar and the broad sky rang again. Caverns underneath the crags bellowed as the sea came surging in. A great wave broke against the cliffs and the white foam swept high above them. Argo was spun round as the flood reached her.

But the dove got through, unscathed but for the tips of her tail-feathers, which were nipped off by the Rocks. The oarsmen gave a cry of triumph and Tiphys shouted at them to row with all their might, for the Rocks were opening again. So they rowed on full of dread, till the backwash, overtaking them, thrust Argo in between the Rocks. Then the fears of all were turned to panic. Sheer destruction hung above their heads.                                                                                                                    page 88-89

Diversions and digressions:  Just HAVE to rewatch that movie 🙂 

Personal rating:  A delightful read with equal doses of poetic description and myth-laden action. 9/10. Will definitely re-read.

Kimmy’s rating:   Lots to creatures to bark at here. 4 paws.

 Also around 245 BC:  Ptomley III of Egypt defeats Seleucus II of Syria in the Third Syrian War (246-241 BC). Parchment starts to be used as writing material in Pergamum, in Asia Minor.

Next :  The Constellation Myths (Catasterismi) of Eratosthenes


131. The Hymns and Epigrams of Callimachus (c. 250 BC)

131. The Hymns and Epigrams of Callimachus (c. 250 BC)

My version is the Loeb Classical Library edition (no. 129) Callimachus, Lycophron and Aratus, translated by A. W. and G. R. Mair (ISBN 0674991435)

My thoughts:

It seems that the six degrees of separation theory can be applied as far back as Ancient Greece. Just as there were direct personal links connecting Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Menander and Theophrastus; likewise, my last four Greeks are connected. Aratus and Callimachus were students together under Praxiphanes, and Callimachus later taught both Apollonius and Eratosthenes. The work of Eratosthenes has only survived as annotations in Aratus’ work, while Callimachus and Apollonius became bitter enemies on both a personal and professional level over their disagreement on the merits of their respective writing styles : Apollonius in favour of the longer Homeric epic while Callimachus liked a brief polished style. The fact that Ptomley II awarded the Chief Librarian post at the Library of Alexandria to Apollonius over Callimachus would surely have added fuel to the pyre. After Apollonius, the Librarian post was given to Eratosthenes.

On to Callimachus’ work. It is believed he wrote 800 pieces, from which only six hymns and 64 epigrams survive intact. The hymns are not startling great prose but do provide extra details on the backgrounds of Zeus, Apollo, Artemis and Demeter. However the most intriguing hymn was addressed not to a God, but to the Isle of Delos, birthplace of Apollo, which was the only piece of land brave enough to allow Leto to rest and give birth, risking the enmity of Hera. It then became the custom of passing mariners to land on Delos and pay their respects by running in a circle around the altar and biting the trunk of the sacred olive tree with their hands bound behind their backs, to provide amusement for Apollo. Ah, the days before television and the Internet!

The hymn to Demeter was interesting too. I always think of Demeter as a relatively placid goddess, not warring or plotting like Ares, Aphrodite, Poseidon and Apollo. But in Callimachus’ last hymn, we see her in full vengeance mode. King Erysichthon of Thessaly wanted to cut down the trees in Demeter’s sacred grove to build a grand banqueting hall. Despite her warnings, he persists and she loses her temper and curses him with never-ending hunger. He eats all the food in his palace, his livestock, then his racehorses and even his cat, but nothing eases his hunger pangs – he is reduced to sitting at the crossroads and begging passersby for morsels. The story is retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Erysichthon finally eats himself.

The epigrams are brief two or three-line dedications at shrines or inscriptions on tombstones. Of particular fun was several marking the grave of Timon, who hated people and must have given instructions to have nettles and stakes planted around his remains to deter casual visitors. Also the step-son who was killed when the tombstone of his step-mother toppled over and struck him. It seems step-mothers have had a bad rap for a while.

Diversions and digressions:  Despite missing out on the top job at the Library of Alexandria, it seems that Callimachus was the first library cataloguer, creating a list of the authors of all the works held, so he can’t have been all bad.

Personal rating: 5/10 for content, but only 3 for style.

Also around that year:  Rome defeats Carthage in the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC).  Will read about this in coming months in Polybius’ Histories.

Next :  Jason goes in search of the Golden Fleece in The Argonautica, by Apollonius of Rhodes.


130. Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 270 BC)

130. Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 270 BC)

Plot: Aratus describes the constellations visible in the Northern Hemisphere sky, their physical and rotational relationships to each other as a way of determining the time, month and season (particularly with regard to agricultural and maritime ventures)  and various other signs of foretelling the weather, including animal behaviour.

My version is the Oxford University Press volume Constellation Myths, containing both Aratus’ Phaenomena and Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi, translated by Robin Hard (ISBN 9780198716983)

My thoughts:  Aratus and Eratosthenes were not even on my radar until a recent and timely post on the excellent On Bookes blog.

Constellation myths are used to describe how figures or items from mythological stories became enshrined in the Heavens, and are often ‘tacked on’ to the myths. Sometimes Zeus or another god will commemorate some mortal by creating their image in the stars, and other times the myth actually suggests the hero is changed into the constellation. Either way, Aratus assumes the reader is up on all their mythological stories and spends the bulk of his poem describing the spatial arrangement of the various constellations.

I have always found it hard to see the various figures depicted without the helpful drawing and join-the-dots efforts of more imaginative people. My favourite part is therefore the third section which describes the way to predict weather by the look of the sun and the moon, and the behaviour of birds and animals – much more my forte. Signs of bad weather include boisterous play from lambs, butting each other, springing up with all four feet in the air, and eating grass all the way home; cattle licking their front hooves, lone wolves howling, and mice squeaking louder than usual and dancing around. (You have been warned – ignore these signs at your peril)

His poem was actually used as a textbook in schools of the Ancient World, and accordingly survived the passage of the years. His successor Eratosthenes (more on him next week) did not survive as well, except as annotated copies of Aratus.

Diversions and digressions:

Catasterize : to set someone or something in the sky as a constellation (a real word – I kid you not!)

Personal rating:  4.

Kimmy’s rating: Kimmy sat politely in my lap and did not display any signs of approaching inclement weather, neither howling nor digging at the ground.

The sanity in between:  Murder on the Links, Agatha Christie’s second Poirot novel. Arrrgh, will I never solve one of her mysteries?!!

Next :  The poetry of Callimachus (305-240 BC), followed byThe Argonautica (Voyage of the Argo) by Apollonius of Rhodes, and finally, the companion to today’s post, Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi (Constellation Myths) to finish the literature of the Ancient Greeks.