Silenus in the Rose Garden


THREE brothers once fled from Argos to Illyria. Thence they crossed to upper Macedonia and, after sundry adventures, took up their abode in the Gardens of Midas. One of these brothers was destined to found the line of the Kings of Macedonia. He fulfilled his destiny, and we hear of him no more. So much we read in Herodotus. But what of the Gardens of Midas? Our curiosity is whetted, and, as usual, the historian does not leave us unsatisfied. ‘In these gardens,’ he says, ‘there are wild roses, so sweet that no others can equal them, and with blossoms that have as many as sixty petals apiece. It was here, so say the Macedonians, that Silenus was made a prisoner. Above the garden stands a mountain, called Bermius, that is so cold that none can reach the top.'

So much and no more, but enough to arouse, to satisfy, and again to arouse our interest. Midas the Phrygian in Macedonia — roses growing near snow mountains — Silenus a prisoner in a rose garden. One wants more. There is something more than the usual outlines of Greek mythology here.

The Rose Garden of Midas is not far to seek. The description of Herodotus fixes it in a region that is to-day one vast garden of fruit trees and flowers, though its wild roses of sixty petals are no more. At the foot of the spurs of snow-covered Bermius three of these orchard valleys run up from the marshy plain of the Haliacmon to the rock. Verria, Naoussa, and Vodena live upon and tend these luxuriant gardens. Each or all of these valleys can be the Gardens of Midas.

Nowhere in Greece have I seen such luxuriance and wealth of fruit and flower. The parched valleys of Attica and the Peloponnese are a desert in comparison. Wild pear and cherry, oak, plane, and poplar shut in the distant scenery, and everywhere is the sound of flowing water. The honey and wine of Naoussa are the most fragrant, though perhaps the least known, in Greece. The fruits of Verria and Vodena are flavored and rich.

Midas captured Silenus in these gardens, says our historian. Plutarch tells more of the tale. Midas organized a proper battue and hunted the wretched creature; at last he caught him. He might have kept him and tried to tame him; he might have exhibited him, like the traditional mermaid, in a bottle. But he did none of these things — he was a Greek, I presume, and an inquisitive one at that. He plied the poor hunted thing with questions, and the first was a curious piece of pedantry. ‘What is the best thing mankind can have?’ he asked. Even so, perhaps, would the local schoolmaster harry the captured mermaid. ‘At first,’ says Plutarch, ‘the Silenus said naught, but remained stubbornly silent.’ This was at least what Midas might have expected. A Silenus, if our records tell us aright, spent most of his days in quiet but persevering drunkenness, so that his only means of locomotion was athwart the back of an intelligent mule, and his only luggage a cup and wine skin. But nothing would restrain the insatiable Midas, and he insisted upon an answer to his absurd questions. I cannot admire his character, for he seems to have been a gross pedant. He finally goaded the Silenus into speech, and the result was surprising. ‘Ephemeral seedling of laborious and evil fortune,’ blurted out the victim, ‘why do you force me to tell you what it is not good for you to hear? Life is least grievous if it is passed in ignorance of the evils that surround us. Man can in no way have the best of all things nor share in the essence of what is finest. The best thing for men and women alike were that they had not been born . . . better not to have appeared at all than to have spent their time in living and dying.’

I cannot help feeling that Midas got what he deserved. Vulgarly speaking, the Silenus was ‘one up.’ I wish we were told that Midas let the Silenus go, but unfortunately the story ends before so happy a conclusion. Yet we can comfort ourselves with the thought that perhaps the Silenus, who was neither man nor woman, but ‘ the son of a nymph and greater than mortality, for he was deathless,’had his own ‘greatest good’ and that Midas never learned what it was.


From the records of Ælian we get a more cheerful account of this famous conversation. ‘Great and varied was their discourse,’ we learn, and among other things Silenus gave Midas a marvelous account of a strange land. ‘Europe, Asia, and Africa,’ he said, ‘are merely islands round which flows the Ocean. The mainland is far beyond this world that we know.’ Everything on this mainland was double the size of the things we know, men and beasts. There were two cities there, one called Machimon and one Eusebe; the former was inhabited by men who spent their whole time in fighting, and the latter by people whose life was calm, wealthy, and prosperous. Gold and silver were more abundant in both cities than iron with us, and the warriors of Machimon were proof against steel. Once they sent an expedition to the ‘islands’ and got as far as the famous land of the Hyperboreans, who, they had heard, were the happiest of the ‘islanders.’ But they scorned their happiness and considered it vastly inferior to their own, and so returned home again.

In short, we might call them ‘ SuperHyperboreans.’

Perhaps Plutarch records the beginning and Ælian the end of this notable dialogue. One might almost reconstruct it. Midas triumphant, comfortable, and complacent, seated in his chair surrounded by his numerous beaters. Silenus glowering, untamable, and somewhat heated, badgered and pestered by the potentate, bound lest he should escape back again to his wild roses. At last the outburst, and Midas is silenced. Then, as Silenus cools down and Midas becomes less curious, the conversation is resumed on a more ‘amicable basis.’ Silenus — good, kindly creature that he is — returns to the original question, slightly contrite, perhaps, that he had snubbed the eager Midas so severely. Midas, on his side, too, is contrite — who would not be who captured the wildest of wild things? 1 can imagine a cup of wine, the rich dark wine of Naoussa, passing between them. ‘Perhaps I was unduly passionate,’ says Silenus. ‘There is little enough of happiness for men in this part of the world; but you should go elsewhere. I could show you a place where you can spend your whole life in happiness, active or passive — in the chivalry of perpetual war or the luxury of uninterrupted peace.’ Then followed the story of Machimon and Eusebe. More cups of Naoussa wine were passed, and finally an intelligent mule was sent for, Silenus placed upon it, and given back once more to his wild roses.

This version of the ‘Dialogue of a Rose Garden’ is, I admit, purely synthetic and possibly arbitrary. Other versions existed in antiquity. One was that the capture took place in Phrygia and Angora, the home of Midas, and that Midas cunningly effected the capture by mixing wine with the spring from which the Silenus was accustomed to drink. The Silenus, overcome by the wine, fell asleep and was captured. He was not released until he had answered the king’s innumerable questions.

But I prefer to think of the capture and the resultant dialogue as having taken place in the gardens below Mount Bermius. Herodotus states this plainly, and he is our best and oldest authority.


Macedonia is the home of sileni and roses. They occur on every page of our records, early and late. From the Vardar to the Nestus River, the fifthcentury coins of the mountain tribes show sileni or satyrs indulging in every variety of outrageous conduct. Their behavior toward the local nymphs seems, judging from the coins, to have varied from gentle flirtation to complete abduction — and it can never be said of the nymph that she ‘doth protest too much.’ In fact, her protests are purely nominal, and in some cases her behavior encouraging. But the sileni are not always mischievous. Sometimes we see them at rest. The coins of Mende in Chalcidice show us the Silenus and his faithful mule returning from an escapade.

There was one tribe that held the peaks of Mount Pangæus called the Satrae, which may not unreasonably have given the name of Satyr to Silenus. However this may be, they stand in history as an example of an indigenous tribe that was never subdued by either Persian, Thracian, Macedonian, Greek, or Roman. Even as early as Herodotus’s day they were notorious for their independence. ‘The Satrae were subject to no man as far as we know, but down to our own day they alone of all the Thracians are free, for they dwell on high mountains covered with woods of all kinds and snow-clad, and they are keenly warlike.’ Among these Satrae was a priestly caste called the Bessi, who guarded the cave oracle of Dionysus on Pangæus. They were ‘called brigands by brigands,’ says Strabo. In the fourth century of our era, Bishop Niketas of Dacia attempted the conversion of these wild men. Record of his work is preserved in a congratulatory ode written to him by his friend Paulinus: —

Hard were their lands and hard those Bessi bold,
Cold were their snows, their hearts than snow more cold;
Sheep in the fold, from roaming now they cease, Thy fold of peace.
They who were wont with sweat and manual toil
To delve their sordid ore from out the soil
Now for their wealth, with inward joy untold, Garner Heaven’s fold.
There where of old they prowled like savage beasts,
Now is the joyous site of angel feast.
The brigands’ cave is now a hiding place For men of grace.

All Macedonia, then, from Bermius and the Rose Garden of Midas to the banks of the great Nestus, held these wild men of the mountains, satyrs or sileni, call them which we will.

Curiously enough, where we find sileni, there, too, are roses. The connection between the two, if any there be, is obscure, but on Mount Pangæus, the Holy Mountain of the sileni, there were roses as fine as those of the Gardens of Midas. ‘Of roses,’ says Theophrastus, ‘there are many kinds. Most have five petals or twelve, but some there are that have a hundred. They grow round Philippi. The people there get them from Pangæus, where they grow in great quantities.’ Practically the same story, in fact, as that of the roses from below Mount Bermius, except that the latter had only sixty petals.

To-day there are few enough roses in the marshy plain of Philippi, and the gaunt ruins of the Roman town are covered with little verdure and with but few flowers. But some memory of the flowers still seems to linger on the sides of Pangæus, for there is a village on its southern slopes called Rodoleivos — the ‘Rose Meadow.’ It may be a mere chance coincidence too that the only place in Europe where attar of roses is made is quite near this part of Macedonia at Kazanlik, across the Bulgarian frontier. There the roses are grown by the acre as crops, and the scent of them is blown for miles around.

The profusion of roses in and round Pangæus may, perhaps, account for the popularity in Roman times at Philippi of the old Roman festival of Rosalia, the ‘Rose Days.’

This festival has a long and interesting history. It is essentially Italian and seems to have flourished in the plains and gardens of Campania. In those same parts it still survives as the Feste l’Inghirlandate at Naples, celebrating the translation of Saint Januarius, and at Capua as the Feast of Saint Stephen. In old Byzantium, in the Middle Ages, it was called the Dies Rosarum, and a festival survives to-day at Parga in Epirus called the Rozalia or Rousalia.

It was a festival of remembrance of the dead, and the tombs of the dead were decked with roses. It was a true pagan rite, for there was no question of praying for the souls of the departed or sacrificing to the dead. It was merely a remembrance of dead friends and relatives; the first week of May was the time of the festival, a time of the year when the dead would most wish to be thought of just because it was a time when life was most full and luxuriant. Perhaps it is for this reason that in many countries to-day no marriages take place during the month of May. It is a mensis nefastus, a month that belongs to the dead. Other similar Italian festivals belong to other seasons of the year. Thus the Days of Violets precede the Rosalia by a month. This festival celebrates the beginning of spring, as the Rosalia celebrates the beginning of summer. Less joyful is the festival of Brumalia, which, held early in November, announces the approach of winter. But Greece does not seem to have adopted it. The Romans from Campania, on the other hand, found that the plains round Pangæus were not uncongenial soil for their own festivals. Even in appearance the two regions are not greatly dissimilar.


Such is the substance of a large number of inscriptions found in and near Philippi. The festival was without doubt a Roman one, brought by the Roman colonists who recolonized Philippi after the battle of Actium, but in the meadows at the foot of Pangæus it found good soil and struck root. Long before the Romans came, there were the hundred-petaled roses of the satyrs. The early coins of Pangæus all bear a symbol that is nothing more or less than a rose — the far-famed rose of the mountain. This rose in turn came to be the symbol of the gold of Pangæus, of the wealth of the Bessi and Satrae, who, says Strabo, were in the habit of finding nuggets of gold in the very ground that they ploughed. No wonder that Athens, in the dawn of her history, sent her citizens to settle on the coast at the foot of Pangæus, and so draw upon the wealth of this Northern Eldorado. The town of Crenides that later became the Roman Philippi was the centre from which these resources were tapped. Then it was situated in a fertile plain; to-day the same plain is a fever-stricken swamp. Above it towers Pangæus, snow-capped and rugged, reflected in the many waters. Among its peaks lie hidden the old mines of the satyrs, and the mysterious cave sanctuary of the Bessi. Neither the one nor the other has yet been found, and the villagers, even if they know, will not tell, for, they say, ghosts walk on the peaks of the mountain.

If Silenus and the roses have gone alike from Bermius and from Pangæus, yet the gold and silver still remain. In the plain of Xanthi, west of Philippi, I bought from a peasant a gold ornament of exquisite workmanship, upon which had been worked with infinite cunning two satyrs’ heads and a many-petaled rose. At Drama itself, just below Pangæus, I bought a small piece of silver work, equally finely executed, showing Dionysus and a mænad. Who knows what else is to be found in this unexplored region which in ancient times was the borderland of the civilized world and the home of all that was strange, mysterious, and picturesque in legend?