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.

Very rarely, one feels the lack of an anecdote. We get plenty of scuttlebutt about Euripides, but not, as far as I can tell, the rumor that he changed the ending of Medea to make her a murderess because of a 15-talent bribe from the Corinthians (who had previously gotten the blame for the death of her children). But like Herodotus, I digress. In truth, the only criticism I have is that an index would have made this volume even more invaluable: Vaguely remembering an anecdote about Socrates’ friends having to make way for a herd of muddy pigs, does one look for it under the chapter heading “Philosophers,” “Athens,” or “Animals”? Should a charm against inebriation (uttering line 8.170 of the Iliad three times before imbibing) be under “Religion, Superstition, and Magic” or “Food and Drink”? (Regardless, it is ineffectual, by my own experiment.)

Even while being entertained, one cannot help but pick up bits of information. There is a useful list of theater terms, for instance. And I had not realized that the ancient Greek word for rooster, alector, comes from the word for bed, lektron, plus a privative “a”—thus the term “getter-out-of-bed.” Or that the modern Greek word for wine, krasi (the ancient word is oinos), comes from kernao (“I mix”), since wine was nearly always drunk with water. Even in modern Greece it is pretty common to mix wine with soda water, and one of the refreshing things about this unassuming volume, besides that it wears its learning so breezily, is its apparent familiarity with present-day Greece and Greek.  

Some chapters are, by the nature of their subject matter, more somber and serious. There are lively, if dark, anecdotes in the chapter on Alexander the Great. For example, Alexander agreed to give his personal paparazzo of a poet, Choerilus, a gold coin for every good verse and a punch for every bad one; the poet ended up beaten to death, giving a new meaning to the phrase “poetry slam.” But the number of horrors Alexander visited on enemies and friends alike (after the fall of Tyre, which he had besieged for seven months, he was still so furious he crucified a further 2,000 Tyrians for good measure) leaves one thinking that a better title for him might have been Alexander the Terrible.

This book could have been arranged so as merely to shock and titillate (we do learn, for instance, that the residents of Lesbos invented fellatio), and the chapter entitled “Sex” will not disappoint. But there is an appealing elbow-patched old-fashionedness to McKeown’s voice and style, as with his occasional gentle, teacherly corrections: “[I]t is strictly speaking incorrect to refer in the plural to the ‘protagonists’ in a play, novel, or movie.” (“Protagonist” means “first performer.”) Or, of “thespian,” that it is a “rather pretentious term for ‘actor.’ ” 

A dash of “Attic salt” seasons the whole volume, especially in asides: When quoting from Aelian’s Miscellaneous History—“In the year of the ninety-first Olympic Games, when Exaenetus of Acragas won the foot race”—McKeown adds, “i.e., 416 b.c.; a modern writer might have said, ‘In the year that the Athenians killed all the adult male inhabitants of Melos and enslaved all the women and children.’ ” No Athenian apologist he! At the start of the chapter on “Women,” McKeown observes wryly that “this chapter might almost better have been entitled ‘Misogyny.’ ” The unshowy and conversational translations throughout appear to be McKeown’s own.

This reviewer is also relieved that the author has stuck with the traditional and perfectly workable “b.c.” in dates, and not the ungainly if politically correct “b.c.e.,” or “Before the Common Era” (the Common Era coincidentally starting around the time of the birth of Christ). It’s the sort of book destined to end up in one of the two most honored places for any favorite volume: the nightstand, or an arm’s-length away from the porcelain throne. It’s the perfect graduation present for a budding classicist, or for anyone of your acquaintance who loves history, mythology, ancient literature, archaeology, drama, philosophy, or the more humane letters.  

What English teacher wouldn’t want on his or her door the following quotation from Socrates? “If I had taken Prodicus’ 50-drachma course on etymology, I could have told you straightaway the whole truth about words. But I didn’t, I took only the one drachma course.”

A. E. Stallings, poet and translator, is the author, most recently, of Olives: Poems