Timotheos and the Persians

FOR a dead language Greek betrays a shameless vivacity. Not content with putting forth new shoots and fruits, — and Athens to-day is said to turn out more books and periodicals per capita than any other community on the globe, — the old trunk must needs revive at the roots. Dead, it may be, in the snap judgments of a little hour ; yet the Philistine woodman may well be warned to spare this sacred olive, whose very stump gives promise of immortal aftergrowth.

The voluminous literature of contemporary Greece does not concern us here ; but the “ bursting forth of genius from the dust ” is brought home to us once more in the recovery of Timotheos. It is hardly six years since we were welcoming back a far sweeter singer in Bacchylides; yet few may remember how this new lead was opened well-nigh fifty years ago by the finding of Alkman’s maiden-song, — a song that admits us to the very dance of that Laconian herd of girls, with the radiant Hagesichora and Agido at their head. Since then every mummy-case is become a possible casket of hid treasure for the Hellenist, for even the embalmed crocodile is often wrapped in old Greek texts ; and to such safekeeping we are already indebted for not a few precious works long lost to the world, — among them considerable volumes of Aristotle, Bacchylides, and Herondas, and important fragments of Archiloclios, Sappho, and Menander.

The earliest and latest of these finds come from the same neighborhood, that of old Memphis; and each restores an else lost form of Greek melic, — the parthenion, all the more precious because of Alkman’s unchallenged mastery in that kind, and the nome in which Timotheos won his chief laurels.

This last recovery we owe to a German spade, as we owe its editio princess to that prince of German humanists, von Wilamowitz-Möllendorf. While conducting excavations in February, 1902, at Abousir (ancient Busiris, a suburb of Memphis), Ludwig Borchardt struck an old Egyptian mummy-case tenanted (at second hand) by a stalwart Greek, whose well-kept anatomy shows once more how fully the Greeks in the Nile country had adopted Egyptian burial customs. From lesions in the skull it would seem that this strapping Greek had come to a violent end; and, indeed, he may have fought and fallen in that Egyptian campaign of Agesilaus and Chabrias (circa 358 B. C.). For his last long campaign in the undiscovered country, his outfit is slight enough, — chiefly, an empty leather purse, a pair of sandals, and a poet! Happily, in this instance, the poet had signed his work ; and no sooner was the papyrus unrolled than it was seen to be the long lost PERSIANS of Timotheos, and that in a copy well-nigh old enough to have come from the author’s own hand.1

A volume that Demosthenes and Aristotle might have thumbed must stir even a sluggish imagination. And, quite apart from that, Wilamowitz is not without warrant, in holding that these two hundred and fifty verses of Timotheos are historically worth a hundredfold more than as many new verses of Pindar or Sophocles, no matter how inferior in intrinsic value. On the other hand, some good Hellenists — regarding the Pindaric rule that “ each ungodded thing is none the worse for being quenched in silence ” — might be glad to give our poet another millennial lease of sleep. Certainly, no Hellenic god in his sober spells could have taken pure delight in a performance so un-Hellenic as The Persians, — as un-Hellenic, at first blush, as the “ Artimis by Ephesus,” on whom our sputtering Phrygian relies. Still, as no artist can pass quite unheeded that outlandish alabaster-bronze Diana of the Ephesians in the Naples Museum, so no student of literature can quite shut his eyes to a work, however unclassical, of this master-singer of his time.

In that conviction, I have had the temerity — in the face of the editor princeps, who declares it untranslatable — to undertake a transcript of The Persians, and, indeed, to try to hit off “ the very turn of each phrase in as Greek a fashion as English will bear.” How much of that fashion English will bear, now that the man in the street is our schoolmaster, it may not be easy to measure. Certainly, were he to-day asked for glosses on his great Pindaric ode, Gray could hardly plead again “too much respect for the understanding of his readers to take such a liberty.” At all events, the present reader will hardly resent the liberty taken in some slight prolegomena, intended mainly to clear his way through a jungle of metaphor, and to set him in touch with the old singer and his audience.

If Timotheos was “the detestation of the old Athens, the darling of the new,” we must remember that he was not Athenian born. “ The town that nursed him,” as he tells us in The Persians, was Miletus ; and Milesian manners — Ionian crossed with Carian on the distaff side from the very start — would have somewhat of an Oriental cast even when the place ceased for a while to be a Persian outpost under the Peace of Kallias, concluded about the time of the poet’s birth (circa 450 B. C.). And we know what strange fruits its proper breeding could yield, — fruits which Athens was even then proving, with no great relish, in the person of Aspasia.

To the young Milesian sane fifth-century Athens would be but a slow old town ; and, when he bestirred him to set the pace anew, no wonder she detested him. In The Persians, indeed, the apology for his art may impress the reader as a bit abject, but then he is pleading to a Spartan bench. Contrast this frank avowal (Fragment 12), doubtless flung in the face of Athenian censors, who hardly went with Euripides in hailing Timotheos as the poet of the future : —

“ Nay, I sing no more the old songs,
For our new ones are the better.
Newly Zeus our king now reigneth,
But of old was Kronos ruler.
Get thee gone, then, thou antique Muse.”

Of the new Muse’s quality, the extant fragments — some thirty lines all told — had left us in small doubt. Notably, the first from the Hymn to Artemis, which Ephesian taste rated at a thousand gold pieces, and the Ephesian budget provided for accordingly, but which must have set Athenian teeth on edge. Its sole fragment is just a string of epithets,

θυιάδα ϕoιβάδα μαινάδα λυσσάδα

(as who should say, —

antical frantical mantical rant-ical!),

singularly suggestive of the Naples enormity ; and we can but sympathize with lank old Kinesias, — something of a “ song-twister ” himself, — who, on the poet’s repeating them at Athens, rose in the theatre and sang out, “ May you get a daughter of your own like that! ”

In one instance, happily, we can confront the new Muse with the old, and measure the celestial diameter that divides them ; for we have the Milesian’s “Wine of Ismaros ” and its Homeric original. Here is the good old vintage (Odyssey ix, 208 f.) : —

“ Oft as they drank that red wine honey-sweet,
One cup he ’d fill and then on twenty parts of water
Pour it, and a sweet smell from the mixer smelled
And marvellous. Then, truly, ’t were no pleasure to refrain.”

And here is the Milesian brew (Fragment 3) : —

“ He filled one ivy-cup of the dark
ambrosial drop, with foam a-bubbling,
and that on twenty measures poured and blended
Bacchus’ blood with Nymphs’ fresh-flowing tears.”

Shades of Byron and his “ Chinese nymph of tears, green tea! ” The ratio is Homeric, but the bouquet is fled ; and for honest wine and water who could choose this drench of blood and tears !

From these bits we get a fair foretaste of the longer poem. Timotheos is nothing if not metaphorical. He cannot call a spade a spade. It is no plain javelin, but Ares himself, whose ether-borne body we see shot from men’s hands, and lighting on limbs (of ships?), where it still quivers; the sword is a cutthroat minister (“ ye murthering ministers ”); and hors de combat is orphaned of battles. His ships have no gunwales and rowlocks, but mouths and teeth, — which are, to be sure, the children of the mouth ; no oars, but hands or feet, — now fir-tree hands, and now long - neck - floating mountaingrown feet; no hulls, but limbs ; no ram, but an iron skull or a side-assailing flash. They are not simply stripped of their oars, they are “ disglorified,” and, in lieu of keeling over, they just “ toss up their manes.” Quite the caper, this, for a sea-horse, and even Pindar sings “ swift Argo’s bridle,” and makes Viking Poseidon Master of the Horse (ἵππαρχoς), as he was, in fact, the primal Horseman; or it may be a concession to the “ emerald-haired sea,” which swallows many a wretch from “ Mysia’s tree-maned glens ” before the “ ship-drops ” incarnadine it. As these ship-drops may be either flying brands or spurts of blood, my “ ships’ red rain ” follows the poet in leaving the reader his choice. The bay of Salamis is “ Amphitrite’s fish-enwreathèd marble-girt bosom ; ” and to one who has watched the play of a glancing school of many-tinted fishes that were no bad posy for the sea-dame’s breast. From his throne on Ægaleos the Great King “ hems in with errant eyes ” these floating plains (one thinks of the Lotus-Eaters’ “ wandering fields of barren foam ”), — that is to say, he sweeps the battle scene with imperious glance. But he has already “built a solid roof o’er floating Helle,” and “ yoked down her haughty neck in a hemp-bound collar,” — both variations on the familiar bridge of boats. Yet this protean sea fairly outdoes herself, when upon the Phrygian landlubber she rains “ a foaming flood unbacchic,” and plumps into — not his stomach, but — his bread-basket (τρόϕιμoν ἄγγoς). But this sea-water cure is sui generis ; and we can almost hear the roar of the groundlings, to whom, here and again flagrantly in the broken Greek of the Kelainæan, the poet is playing.

Still, there are redeeming touches: “ the woven beauty of the limbs; ” “ Fire’s lurid sprite with its fierce body burning up ” the flower of Persia’s youth; and “ the Mountain-Mother’s dark-leaf-kirtled queenly knees” and “fair-elbowed arms.” There we can yet see, as the wretched suppliant saw in his mind’s eye, the sculptured form of his far-away Phrygian goddess, with her embroidered drapery, like that of the kindred Mistress of Lykasoura now in the Athens Museum, and her bare forearms gleaming white, as we know them in many an old Greek marble.

But we must not anticipate too much, needful as these glosses are to the apprehension of a poet who has so far abused the coining privilege and overworked the metaphor that the “ dressing ” bids fair to oust the dinner. Still, we may not forget that these multiple Massilian compounds, with their ringing numbers, were addressed not so much to the understanding as to the ear. It is no longer, as in the great Lyric Age, “ music married to immortal verse,” but verse harnessed in the triumphal car of music. The Queen of the Lyre is become its creature, the poet lost in the composer ; and The Persians is an opera. But only its bare words have come down to us; for the old Greek who fell on sleep at Busiris was no singer, and so had not provided himself with the score. Justly to appreciate it, we must put ourselves in the place of its first hearers : we must take our seats in the great gathering of the twelve Ionian cities at Poseidon’s sacred grove on the north slope of Mount Mykale in or about the year 396 before Christ.2

On this bold headland one vividly recalls that well-aimed blow at Persian power delivered here not so many years past, and one may even fancy that the Milesian singer in his new Persians is to celebrate that day and this scene. But not so. It is the scene and day of Salamis, already immortalized by a greater singer in a greater Persians, — by a poet who was there, and who is telling the story to his comrades in the Athenian theatre, whose upper benches, at least, look out on the strait where he and they pulled stroke for stroke, and fought shoulder to shoulder, only eight years before. If there be on Mykale to-day a centenarian who was in that fight and at that play, and who is looking for somewhat to stir his old Athenian blood, he is doomed to sore disillusion. For Athens the times are out of joint, and Sparta is in the saddle, — ay, in the front seats here at the Panionia. Even the Persian has more to do him reverence now than the City, — the Persian who in three short years is again to sit as satrap in Miletus itself, while Konon restores the Long Walls with the King’s gold. And so in all our opera, a thinly veiled plea for an aggressive Eastern policy under Sparta’s lead, we do not catch the name of Athens. But then it is all a story without a name, — even Salamis and Xerxes are nameless ; and, indeed, the only persons named in the body of the piece are deities. How unlike our Æschylus’s bristling bead-roll of Iranian grandees, his stately muster of the streams and isles of Hellas !

As the musician-poet enters in his singing robes, with the garland on his brow, and, smiting the lyre, leads off in the noble hexameter, —

“ Liberty’s great and glorious jewel for Hellas achieving,” —

our old Athenian may well think of Themistocles, but all eyes are upon Agesilaus,3 as they are again when he portrays the strenuous Spartan’s very features in the line, —

“ Revere ye spear-embattled Valor’s helpmate, Modesty; ”

and again, upon this ringing challenge,— “ Ares is lord, but Hellas dreads not Gold.” For this Spartan Agamemnon of a new Iliad has turned the tables on the Persian, and satraps are learning to cool their heels on his doorsteps ; while herds of Asiatics, spoil of his triumphant raids, are stripped and paraded in their soft, white limbs for athletic Greeks to crow over, and then — particularly the Phrygians — driven off to glut Ionian slave marts.

Timotheos has caught the cue ; and, having once set his battle in array, he passes to a series of scenes well chosen to heighten Hellenic scorn without too far outraging Hellenic taste.

There is, to begin with, the Phrygian landlubber afloat and — with all comic circumstance — swallowing the sea, which takes his tongue-lashing, and then swallows him in turn. Then the shivering wretches on the rocks, the pathos of whose appeal to their far-off fatherland and the Phrygian goddess strikes a true tragic note. Again, to split the ears of the groundlings, another Phrygian, haled by the hair of his head, grovels at his captor’s knees, and in painfully broken Greek sues for life, in which suit a chorus of Asiatics join, as in a fugue. And, finally, we look upon the utter rout, and listen to the Great King’s simple and not undignified lament.

If we have not perused a battle history, we have witnessed a battle drama; and we feel how fully the poet must have placed the scenes before his own eyes, and acted the parts in his own mind, before he could bring them, thus throbbing, home to us. He does not stay to celebrate the victory ; but, with brief allusion to trophy, pæan, and dance, he drops the theme. Indeed, to compare slight things with sublime, he has just touched the theme “ in points of light,” as the Theban singer signals us from peak to peak in his Quest of the Golden Fleece.4

It remains to seal the performance with the poet’s apology addressed to the Spartan who has flouted him and his muse, but who should now be mollified by the subtle flattery of his new song. It is a rather pedestrian “ Progress of Poesy : ” first, Orpheus ; next, your own Terpander; now, Timotheos, — come not to pervert, but to perfect. And then, with his best bow to mother Miletus and the Panionian community, invoking on their heads Apollo’s gift of Peace, with her mate Good Government, the singer quits the thymele (not Dionysos’ altar, here, but Poseidon’s), leaving us content with the sweet and insinuating music of his eleven strings, even if somewhat surfeited with his superfine metaphors and his coarse fun. All but our old Athenian : now that he has assisted at the great Persians and the small, he must be taking the true measure of his century as he muses grimly on the descent from Æschylus to Timotheos ; from Salamis to Ægospotami; from that

“Radiant, violet-crownèd, exalted in song,
Bulwark of Hellas, glorious Athens,
City of walls divine,”

to the flute-girl frolic in which the starved and stricken City has but lately seen those walls pulled down. And it is a son of Miletus, her eldest and best loved daughter, who can sing the song of Salamis without once remembering that Athens was! Between this lyre and those flutes our veteran surely has his fill of a music fit “ to untune the sky.”

But it is high time to let the poet speak for himself, albeit in broken numbers. With all the resources of free coinage, wherein German asks little or no odds of Greek, Wilamowitz pronounces The Persians untranslatable; and the reader may presently agree with him. But what follows is Timotheos unadulterated, with his metaphors gone mad, his long, loose-jointed epithets, his dithyrambic diction, — half riddle, half jargon, — in short, treading his own measure, so far as I dare let him, without leaving the reader quite in the dark. Something has been sacrificed to keep the prevailing iambic movement, while quite neglecting the lyric variations ; for the transcript makes no claim to be anything but modulated prose, and the lining is merely for convenience in referring to the Greek text.

Of the first half of the poem, we have only the three random lines already quoted which it may be well to reset in their probable connection. The first column of the papyrus yields hardly one complete word, to say nothing of connected sense. In the second, though somewhat mutilated, the drift is clear. The battle is on, the ram is rampant. We get a glimpse of ships, “ with cornicelanced frame of teeth set round for the feet,” — that is to say, red gunwales, with white rowlocks for the oars ; and of rams, “ with arched heads beset, that sweep aside the fir-tree hands.” And now, from verse 8 of the editio princeps, we may take the plunge with the poet.


Liberty’s great and glorious jewel for Hellas achieving . . .

(The overture would align the great antagonists, Greek and Barbarian, and must have sounded a note of genuine national feeling. Then comes the contrast with Eastern swagger or Athenian hybris:)

Revere ye spear-embattled Valor’s helpmate, Modesty !

(And, now that the King’s gold is again opening Greek city-gates, this defiance :)

Ares is lord, but Hellas dreads not Gold.

And oft as thence was dealt the unforewarnèd blow,
10 thwart-breaking, all rushed upon the foemau front to front.
And if upon the sides the lightning leapt,
with sweep of quick-stroke pine the ships bore back again.
And some, with timbers riven all apart,
laid bare their linen-girthèd ribs ;
some, ’neath the plunging leaden shaft,
tossed up their manes and sank ;
and some on beam-ends lay,
20 of all their bravery shorn by the iron skull.
Now, like to Fire, man-quelling Ares loop-enleashèd
shot from hands and fell on limbs,
through all his ether - coursing frame a-quiver still.
The hard-packed murderous leaden bolts
sped on their course, and on sped pitchy balls
on galling ox-goads set and all aflame with fire.
And life innumerous was sacrificed
30 to slender feathery bronze-tipt flights from bow-string tense. And, lo ! the emerald-tressèd sea
in furrows ’neath the ships’ red rain incarnadined ;
and shriek and shout commingled rose.
And now anear the ships’ array
barbaric, pell-mell, bore down again
in Amphitrite’s fish-enwreathèd bosom
marble-girt; where, sooth to say,
40 a Phrygian landsman,
lord of demense a day’s run round,
plowing with his legs the showery plain
and paddling with his hands, an islesman floated now,
lashed by winds and billow-buffeted,
still vainly seeking thoroughfare.
(But there is no thoroughfare; and the next 25 lines are in as desperate case as the spent swimmer who meets us again as soon as the text closes up in Column III.)
70 ... When here the winds went down,
there in upon him rained
a foaming flood unbacchic
and down his gullet poured ;
but when the upheaved
brine surged o’er his lips,
in shrill-pitched
voice and frenzied
mood of mind
thus, loathful, on that ruin of his life,
80 the sea, he railed
and gnashed his teeth
in mimic wise :
“ Erewhile, bold brute,
thy furious neck thou got’st
yoked down in linen-lashèd bond ;
and now my master, mine,
shall rouse thee up
with mountain-gendered pines
and hem in thy fields of flood with errant eyes —
90 thou oestrus-maddened ancient hate and fickle leman
of the whelming wind ! ”
He said, with spent breath strangling,
and the loathly gorge outcast,
withal upbelching
at the mouth the deep-sea brine.
Anon, in flight back sped the Persian host barbaric in hot haste.
And swirl on swirl of galleys crashed;
100 and out of hand they flung
the long lithe-plying highland
feet o’ the ship, while from ship’s mouth,
outleapt its marble-gleaming
offspring in the shock. As sown with stars, with bodies now
bereft of life and breath
the deep sea swarmed
and laden were the shores.
Or on the sea cliffs
110 stranded, naked-freezing,
with cry and moan and trickling tear,
breast-beating wailers
urged the mournful plaint
and called, the while, upon their fatherland :
“ O Mysia’s tree-maned glens,
rescue me hence, where we by blasts
are borne; else nevermore
shall earth receive my frame,
now that my hand hath touched the oldnymph-
breeding grot untrodden
. . . goal deeper than the sea.
O, have me hence, where once o’er
Helle’s flood a solid roof —
a pathway fur and firm —
my master builded me. Else Tmolos
I had not quitted, — nay, nor Sardes’ Lydian town,
nor come to ward this Hellene Ares off.
130 And now how shall we win — of refuge all forlorn —
a refuge sweet from doom ?
She that fares to Ilion sole deliverer from woes might prove,
if haply at the Mountain-Mother’s
dark-leaf-kirtled queenly knees ’t were mine to fall
and I might clasp her fair white arms.
Deliver, golden-tressèd goddess
Mother, I implore,
140 my life, mine own — of refuge all forlorn ;
for that right now
and here with cutthroat minister of steel
they shall make way with me,
or wave-dissolving ship-destroying
blasts, with nightly freezing Boreas leagued,
to pieces dash me. For round about
the billow wild hath broken all
the woven beauty of my limbs
and I shall lie here, pitiful,
150 for carrion crew of birds to batten on.”
So made they moan and wept.
But oft as iron-hafted Hellene
took and haled
some denizen of many-flocked Kelainai —
now orphaned of the fight —
by the hair he’d clutch and hale him;
while round about his knees the wretch
would twine and supplicate, Hellenic speech with
Asian intertwining and shrilly
160 shattering his lips close seal,
the while he hunted out Ionian utterance :
“I — thee — me — how — and what to do ?
Never would I come back again!
Even now my master ’t was
that hither fetched me here.
Henceforth, no more, O sire,
no more to battle back here am I coming
but to home I keep.
I — thee — hither — nay — I
170 yonder by Sardis, by Sousa,
by Agbatana abiding.
Artimis, my great god,
by Ephesus shall guard me.”
Now, when back-faring flight
they took, swift faring,
straightway two-edged darts
from out their hands they flung,
and face by nail was torn,
and Persian robe fine-spun
180 about the breast they rent,
and tense attunèd was
the Asian wail.
And then with many a groan and blow on breast
the King’s whole muster fell
on panic fear, envisaging the doom to come.
And as the King beheld
that motley host urge on
the backward faring flight,
then on his knees he fell and marred his flesh
190 and in the flood - tide of his troubles spake :
“ Alas ! the ruin of my house
and scorching ships of Hellas —
ye that utterly destroyed my mated prime
of youth — full many a man ;
and our ships . . .
shall bear them home again no more,
but Fire’s lurid sprite
with its fierce body burn them up,
while groans and anguish
200 wait on Persia’s land.
O heavy lot
that into Hellas led me !
Nay, go — no more delay — yoke ye here
the four-horse chariot,
and the uncounted treasure
hear ye yonder on the wains, and fire the tents,
and may they get
no comfort of our wealth ”
210 And so they raised their trophy, Zeus’
holiest shrine; Paian
hailed they loud, Iëian king;
and in full choir beat time
with flying feet.
O thou, who dost exalt the golden lyre’s
new-fashioned strain,
come helper to my hymns,
Iëian Paian.
For Sparta’s mighty leader-folk,
220 high-born, longeval,
yet swelling in youth’s bloom,
with fiery blame upflaring
doth vex and drive me out —
for that with new-spun hymns
I put the elder Muse to shame.
But none, or young or old
or my co-eval,
from any hymns would I bar out.
Only the ancient-Muse-debasers —
230 them I ward away, manglers of song
that quite outstrain
the shrill-loud-lungèd heralds’ cry.
First, the shell of varied note
our Orpheus fathered,
Kalliope’s Pierian son.
And next with ten chords
Terpander yoked the Muse —
him Aiolian Lesbos bred,
240 Antissa’s boast.
And last Timotheos
ushers in his lyre
with measured rhythm of eleven beats,
thus opening a many-hymnèd store
of the Muses garnered.
The town that nursed him is Miletus,
that graces our twelve-castled commonwealth —
prime offshoot of the Achaian stock.
And now, far-darting Pythian, come
250 with blessing to this holy town;
and aye to this inviolate commonwealth send Peace
that blooms as Order’s mate.

J. Irving Manatt.

  1. The papyrus measures some 42 inches in length, divided into five columns of about 26 lines each, and is written in clear-cut capitals, such as mark the lapidary inscriptions of the fourth century, — thus confirming the other archæological data, which fix the interment about 350 B. C., and so make this by far the oldest Greek book yet known to us. Strictly speaking, it is but half a book. The papyrus had been cut clean in two, leaving uo margin, not to say fly-leaf, for our first column; and Wilamowitz judges from the text that more than half the whole poem is missing. Apparently, a stingy heir grudged our mummied Greek a full libretto ; and, inasmuch as the roll always opened from the title-column, it is the first part (possibly including other pieces) that is lopped off, — leaving us, luckily, the poet’s seal and signature.
  2. Such, with good reason, Wilamowitz takes to be the time, place, and occasion of bringing out the piece.
  3. Anyway, it was so with Philopœmen some two centuries later, when, at the head of the stalwart, well set-up men whom he had recently led to victory at Mantinea (207 B. C.), he entered the theatre at Nemea just as Pylades, the first kitharoides of the age, was singing the same verse. We owe to Polybius this proof that the Persians held the stage so long.
  4. Pindar’s Fourth Pythian.