The Magazine

Classical Muzak

What’s a Grecian urn? The answer may surprise you.

Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By A.E. STALLINGS
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A collection of wacky facts, bizarre nuggets of history, anecdotes, lists, jokes, rumors, and gossip, all organized into such chapters as “Food and Drink,” “Women,” “Animals,” “Mathematics,” “Athens,” “Sparta,” “Prophecy,” and so on, A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities embraces the weirdness that was ancient Greece.  

Man on rooster, by Epiktetos

Man on rooster, by Epiktetos

The Bothmer Purchase Fund, Schimmel Foundation Inc., Christos G. Bastis Gifts / the Metropolitan museum of art

Too often we think of the great men (and women) of ancient Greece as statues in pure white Parian marble, forgetting that in its heyday the Parthenon was bedizened in a riot of colors loud enough to stand up to the famous Attic light. In this corrective volume, we not only catch a glimpse of Greeks as they were, we hear their voices (Aristotle was said to be a stammerer) and smell them, too (Euripides evidently suffered from halitosis). 

Many of our own stories, jokes, and anecdotes seem to have Greek prototypes. St. Francis famously tamed a wolf that had been ravaging the city of Gubbio, making it swear that if it were fed daily it would desist from harassing the people. Compare this to a story about 6th-century b.c. philosopher Pythagoras: “Pythagoras captured the she-bear that was ravaging the Daunian region. He stroked her for a long time and fed her by hand with barley cakes and fruit.” Pythagoras goes even further than St. Francis, since he convinces the she-bear not only to cease attacking people but to go vegetarian. (The Pythagoreans abstained from meat, believing in the transmigration of souls. Pythagoras is also supposed to have stopped someone from beating a dog in public, claiming the unfortunate cur was the reincarnation of one of his dear friends.)  

Readers will be familiar with the ancient philosophical conundrum about the chicken and the egg, as well as the standard tripartite joke setup of “A scholar, a bald man, and a barber were traveling together .  .  .” Speaking of barbers, it is hard not to appreciate the laconic reply of King Archelaus of Sparta when asked how he wanted his hair cut: “In silence.”

The ancient Olympics, as with modern sporting events, were often roiled with scandals: Towns tried to buy athletes from each other; bribery and cheating were rife; and attending them wasn’t always a pleasant affair. “Don’t you suffer in the heat? Don’t you get crushed by the crowds?” And “the least successful athletes, those who have never won any victories, suddenly call themselves trainers.” Sites such as Delphi relied on tourism in ancient times as well as in the crisis-struck present. Even the insatiably curious Plutarch finds the tour guides tedious: “The guides were going through their usual patter, ignoring us when we begged them to cut their stories short and not to read out every single inscription.” J. C. McKeown adds, clearly from experience, that “some guides at Delphi are still like this.”

Ancient correspondence preserved on papyri speaks to us with surprising directness over the millennia. There are worries about paying contractors: “I, Horion, send greetings to my lord brother Macarius. Deliver to the men working on my behalf six jars of local wine. That is, six jars only. I, Horion, have signed for only six jars.” And letters that bristle with familial irritation: “I’ve written to you a thousand times telling you to cut down the vines. And yet today I received another letter from you asking what I wish should happen. My reply is: cut them down, cut them down, cut them down, cut them down, cut them down, cut them down!”  

Mediterranean countries concerned about the aftermath of a euro exit would recognize the sentiment here:  

Our divinely fortunate rulers have decreed that the value of the Italian coinage should be halved. So make haste to spend on my behalf all the Italian money you have, buying goods of any sort, whatever the asking price may be.

Anyone who retains childhood trauma from a cruel schoolteacher will shudder at Cicero’s observation that “When Dionysius the tyrant of Syracuse was sent into exile, he taught children in Corinth, for he was quite incapable of living without exerting power.” College administrators would probably agree that “There are three types of student: .  .  . The golden student pays and learns, the silver student pays but does not learn, the bronze student learns but does not pay.” And Quintillian’s remark that “there are some things that it is to a teacher’s credit not to know” would make a fine riposte to stump-the-lecturer trivia questions.