Last May Cheri, a charming blogger from California, went to Greece for a seminar on Alcibiades. I hence posted on her blog a few hasty notes on this key figure of Greek history, in case they were of any help.
Here is the text (edited a bit.)
Tragedy of Unreason
“Alcibiades to me is the golden dude of classical Greece, loved (and hated) by the Athenians immensely, a figure that shows both the splendour and the weaknesses of Athens in her golden time, the 5th century BCE. The Athenians, who were teaching the world to use reason efficiently, also knew they were capable of the utmost unreason, and were laughing at that while watching the comedies of Aristophanes.
This whole thing, the fall of Athens, smells in fact of tragedy, of irrationality. The facts are known if you have read Thucydides. It pains me that one of the most brilliant pupils of Socrates, like the most perfumed flower in the most beautiful garden, proved poisonous. Alcibiades’ mentor had always tried to bring to measure and to purity of reason a totally unprincipled, self-centred and often ‘going off the rails’ pupil.
In this the Greeks remind me of the Germans a bit. Both incredibly deep and terribly rational and irrational at the same time. And in fact Nietzsche figured Greek irrationality out not by chance, and, again not by chance in the years of the fall of Athens the Bacchae by Euripides were on stage.
Alcibiades was beautiful and gifted in everything – even as an athlete in Olympia – but, when he once met a teacher on the street and asked him if he had any works by Homer, and having the teacher said “No, I haven’t”, he punched him on the nose and knocked him down. This was Alcibiades. Charming and crazy.
There are many characters in this tragedy, the annihilation of classical Greece, where the extreme quarrelsomeness and disunity of the Greeks stands out, within and without their cities, even in moments of extreme danger. Among such characters are Sparta, Athens, Socrates, Nicias, Syracuse, Alcibiades, Sophocles, Euripides etc.
According to Thucydides and Plutarch, Alcibiades had conceived an unimaginable plan for defeating Sparta. By conquering Syracuse first, in Sicily, and Carthage, Libya and Greek South Italy afterwards, he intended to get back to Greece with the immense resources thus accumulated and crush the Spartans.
Syracuse was as powerful as Athens and possibly bigger, the biggest Greek city of the Mediterranean.
Ancient Greeks’ New World
It is to be noted that Greek South Italy – I’m certainly not saying this because I am Italian – was considered by mainland Greece as America has always been considered by Europeans: a myth, a land of promise, of unlimited resources. Greece was smaller and much less fertile. Therefore many Athenians, young and old, were day dreaming together with their golden boy, they were day dreaming about a marvellous and more prosperous future. A bit like Alexander who, one century later, will dream (and will set out) eastwards, instead of westwards, in order to conquer new lands.
Before the departure for Sicily, The Trojan Women by Euripides was first performed in 415 BCE. In this work the prophetess Cassandra (see Karen Tiegren above as Cassandra) condemns the Greeks for going to war against Troy. We perceive Euripides’ disgust vis-à-vis the Athenian hubris of the moment. Also Thucydides considers the Sicilian expedition as an act of arrogance and as an example of a folk, the Athenians, misguided by their emotions.
We have to consider that the sublime Parthenon that you people are now admiring was considered by many Athenians as an act of arrogance or hubris. Many much preferred the old temple of Athena at the Acropolis – see below –, a simpler and more sober shrine. Of course the Parthenon is fantastic but the mixed emotions of the Athenians during their greatest century are interesting.
We know of the plague that hit Athens during the war. Thucydides considered it as a metaphor of the ruin that will destroy the wonderful culture created by Pericles and those around him.
This terrible Peloponnesian war and the changes it provoked are well expressed by the Oedipus the King by Sophocles, first performed in 429. A great king, optimist, intoxicated by his success and capable of solving riddles ends up a blind, desperate wretch who has too late understood the nature of the horrible forces he cannot control.
Nicias, one of Alcibiades’s rivals, was a general and owner of a big portion of the silver mines around Attica’s Mt. Laurium, a sort of lager and one of the chief sources of revenue for Athens.
Sparta Won but Left Nothing
Sparta disliked all that Athens represented. Sparta was the winner and Athens the loser. The Spartans were very admired in antiquity but have not left anything of value in my view (but we must recognize that they voted against the total erasure of Athens). Athens left us a wonderful culture and a model for future democracies; Sparta was instead a model for all future regimes based on racism and eugenics (such as the Nazi).
The Spartans were a minority of war lords brutally ruling a totally enslaved majority of Helots.
But they were rational and prudent. And had charm too. It is known they combed their long hair for quite a time before engaging in battle. When their enemies saw the Spartans combing, it was time for quaking.”
I’ve always found Giovanni Boccaccio‘s Decameron philosophically inspiring. Incidentally, this masterpiece works also as a signal, possibly, that at the end of the Middle Ages some freer sexual mores were surfacing back from antiquity.
Following this boccaccescaispirazione I have given a sudden twist to a peaceful conversation with dear-to-me blog buds and made a ‘licentious’ story out of it (after asking them for permission.)
The original conversation is basically untouched.
Only from the ‘Amanda, Drinks and Bears’ section onward things get ehm weird a bit (due to MoR’s fancy only, not my buds’, please bear in mind.)
Licentious here means not lascivious but it refers to the original Latin meaning of licentia, ie ‘behaviour with some freedom’.
So here’s the story, at the end of which you will read an invitation from MoR.
[Minors are requested not to read any further]
In The Solitude of a Canadian Cottage …
Three blogger buds, Giulia, Paul and Giorgio (MoR,) finally decide to really meet (in their minds) and to spend their New Year’s eve in an unpretentious cottage in Canada. After placid conversation and toasting Amanda & a family of polar bears join the party.
It is to be said that it is exceptional, these kind of bears venturing South like that in desperate search for food. But let us not digress since after the bears arrive things get a bit out of hand.
The cottage is cosy and warm though isolated up North. It had been previously inhabited by Latin-Americans. The outside temperature is -20° C ( or -4 F). The three friends are conversing placidly in front of a fireplace.
Giulia. Yes Paul, Happy New Year to us. Thanks for a wonderful friendship.
Paul. Blogging is a strange thing. In a way it replaces the letter writing of yesteryears; however those letters were exchanged between two individuals, a blog is a wide open public thing. Yet on short order there develops a relationship between bloggers quite akin to genuine friendship, and international to boot.
When I began blogging last spring little did I figure that I would develop a link with a NYorker, a Roman and a Laval guy that I never met, and probably never will meet. Still I have the impression that I know them and can be quite close to them…despite some differences whether political, cultural or social.
Yes Giulia, it is wonderful.
Happy New Year.
Giorgio. Paul, Giulia, I’m back from Sicily, which literally blew my mind … [He stands up]
Happy New Year to the dear Canadian sage plus witty companion of so many discussions.
Happy New Year to our generous Giulia sharing her warmth and intelligence with so many of us.
And Happy New Year to the exuberant, unpredictable Commish, the dear Laval brat!
[They toast, also to absent Commish’s health]
Paul. MoR, Glad you enjoyed Sicily and escaped Etna’s wrath.
Retired Soldier to Retired Soldier
Giorgio. I heard in fact some tremblement de terre but had faith the Sicilian gods would spare the only person who basically hasn’t forgotten them (outside Sicily.)
Paul. I’m currently reading a book titled Le Christ Païen by Tom Harpur. It traces the parallels between Christian and Pagan beliefs. Astonishing.
Giorgio. I have checked in the French wiki. Donc, un prêtre anglican qui thinks l’existence de Jésus n’est pas evident. Merci. Could be useful. In Sicily I have visited Catania and most of all Siracusa. Toutes les deux, hanno la loro santa patrona, che è come una dea, like a goddess. The devotion people have for these two saints is beyond imagination. Catania has Sant’Agata, Syracuse Santa Lucia, deity of light also for the Northern Europeans, being so sun-starved and all. I have collected stuff for 20 posts but I’ll make 2 out of it, lest I lose all my readers.
Giulia, Paul, I’m getting at ease with my retirement, and also have to thank my blog for it, but most of all, the people I have met.
Paul. Retirement is a great period for doing all we always wanted to but never could do. It is not the end of our productive life, it’s the beginning of another kind of productivity and creativity, providing we do not let go.
Onward retired soldiers.
Giorgio. Ah ah ah. Yes Paul, onward, retired soldier to retired soldier. You made me laugh.
Paul. Laughing is excellent for one’s health.
Giulia. Good to see you are promoting laughter. Add a strong drink now and then, wonderful meals as often as one can, and life is as good as it can be when our wings are tired, our resources limited, and, our prospects for adventure, stuff we just dream about.
Good to see also that the weather is not getting you down, Paul.
Canadian Yearly Cycle
Paul. Weather wise we Canadians are tough hombres. You see it keeps our hoping capacity at it’s peak all year round. In winter we hope for spring’s balmy weather, then we wait for summer and it’s blissful farniente, while sweating away we hope for autumn foliage and it’s splendours followed by hoping winter will not be too harsh, and the cycle resumes.
Of course, in winter hot toddy and Rhum keep us happy, in summer a nice cold beer does it and all year round good wine and food are staples of a happy Canuck’s life.
It is said we are boring…and I am happy with that.
Giorgio. Weather wise Canadians: nice concept and depiction of the yearly psychological cycle, one of your gems, Paul. Canuck? You guys teach me so many words! And yes, I’d love more cold weather to be able to drink A LOT MORE than I can in Rome.
Amanda, Drinks and Bears
Amanda [suddenly knocking at the window from outside]. Yikes on all levels! Double yikes!
Paul. [He turns around and smiles at Amanda, but doesn’t notice the bears and especially Amanda being an object of curiosity to them.] Alcohol and cold do not mix well. You, briefly, feel a bit warmer after a stiff shot of Scotch or Gin, but it soon vanishes and you feel even colder…so another shot, when you have had one too many you feel sleepy…and you freeze to death if outside and alone.
Besides, cold slows your metabolism. Better stay in Rome, you’ll live longer.
Giorgio. I had heard about this alcohol thing [weird shrieks from outside. Nobody notices]. Paul, this conversation, it is so beautiful. It is good in this moment I’m about to change my life.
[They then pass to explore the differences between Scotch and Jamaican Rhum, with no objection to salt-rimmed margarita glasses. They sip this and that. Conversation quietly unfolds.]
Amanda is still outside. She desperately tries to knock at the window again, but the bears don’t let her. They grab her merrily and start dancing the Ring a Ring o’ Roses with her.
Other shrieks (plus groans) finally catch the attention of the people within who, looking out the window, much to their surprise realise Amanda is now actually fighting against the bears. She is so brave that the two men feel inclined to go back to their alcohol experiments.
NO. They have to rise up (Giulia’s unwavering idea) and exit the cottage with guns and sleeping bullets in them (Paul’s idea) just to make the darn bears fall asleep a bit.
After the shooting occurs not without difficulty they are though afraid the poor bears would die in the cold so dead asleep and fluffy they are. They so drag them into the house and up to the fireplace (MoR’s idea, he’s so proud to say.)
Now the group is composed of Giulia, Amanda, Paul, Giorgio and the bears, who by the way wake up.
“They first wanted to eat us up – Paul and Giorgio later told the people in a pub close by (1200 mi.) – but then they realised we are good people, so they accepted our meat and, the all of us, we chanted, we talked and drank and we all had lovely conversation together.” The people in the pub were now staring at them.
“Oh we got high (we were already.) Oh we got soo high. And we made the ladies happy. And after the ladies the bears. And the bears made the ladies happy, and a big party began where much joy was exchanged during the entire night.”
The bears in the end were cheerful but also a bit surprised. They hadn’t thought about this new form of entertainment. So the voice spread among their population and a big migration southward began, not entirely unnoticed by satellites and TV.
The Canadians, both the men and the women, were starting to feel awkward.
Now the invitation.
MoR is inviting willing readers
to bring in a comment to this post
with his/her original ‘licentious’ story to share, for some innocent fun.
You can also contribute anonymously. The stories, also very short (1-2-3 liners) and not necessarily in the style of Boccaccio will be accepted (in English or French, Italian and German) only if compliant with the following rules:
No vulgarity, crudity of language or situation.
Humour is requested but not required
(although it makes things lighter.)
No ‘pleasure and sin’ morbidity.
Sunlit sex, pls, with a gentle touch, and
(on sweet ladies’ request)
Love, divine Tormentor,
Applies here too.
Friends of the Man of Roma! Whatthe heck are you waiting for? 🙂
The ancient Greco-Romans had a totally different attitude toward sex (so pls the minor or the puritanical shouldn’t read further.)
Suffice it to have a look at these statues, both beautiful and erotic, to intuitively grasp a sensuality that was open and entirely different from the Western manners of today.
The beauty and natural perfection of these bodies convey in fact the idea – a very simpleidea, this very gifted Greek student I recently met would say – that sex wasn’t perceived as lewd or licentious; it was felt instead as one of the joys of life.
It is so simple: as simple (and beautiful)
as a Greek temple.
Sex was actually enjoyed naturally though in ways most contemporary folks wouldn’t even imagine, especially when we consider thatthese statues were somehow linked to rituals and religion.
We can admire above the perfect classical beauty of Venus Kallipygos, while, below, the statue of a Satyr (which a Roman female friend of mine chose among a set and assured me:‘it’sa pretty good erotic sample.’ Well, I couldn’t but yield to her superior discernment.)
Venus was the Goddess of love (both carnal and spiritual) while a Satyr was a Dionysian creature lover of wine, women and boys, and ready for every physical pleasure. Child satyrs existed also (which appears a sad thing to us, nowadays) and took part in Bacchanalian/Dionysian religious rituals, usually (or sometimes) involving orgies too.
At this point I’m sure every reader cannot but agree that the Greco-Romans had a VERY different attitude toward sex. No doubt about that. An ENTIRELY different attitude indeed.
If we could forget that these are classical statues, if we could regard them just as they appear to us and out of their context, we’d surely see them as pornographic.
According to the Wikipedia:
“the concept of pornography as understood today did not exist until the Victorian era. …When large scale excavations of Pompeii were undertaken in the 1860s, much of the erotic art of the Romans came to light, shocking the Victorians who saw themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Roman Empire. They did not know what to do with the frank depictions of sexuality, and endeavored to hide them away ….. The moveable objects were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples, Italy.”
[For more on these Pompeii erotic artifacts: this post of ours; two other posts, 1 and 2, from Ancient Digger, the former showing a video on the erotic artifacts, the latter discussing Roman sexuality & erotic art; a BBC program on the secret museum. Further readings are listed at the bottom of the page]
Shocking Roman Sexuality
I do not quite agree with Wikipedia on how and when the modern concept of pornography was conceived, seeming this to me a totally Anglo-Saxon centred observation, forgetful of how history can be ancient [a stupid – and not true – thing to say, october 6, 2019].
I might be wrong (or right) but who the hell cares, chissenefrega, this whole Victorian thing being incredibly funny.
I can see these prudish Victorians feeling themselves as the heirs of the Romans (which actually they were, at least in my view) who much to their horror found out how perverted the Romans had been (at least in their view), while together with the Italians they were uncovering all these sexy statues and frescoes.
I am imagining their shocked pale faces and am especially fantasizing about their shamefully and hastily helping the Neapolitans to hide somewhere the abominable truth.
The Neapolitans, incidentally, were at that time probably laughing at them a bit too, being of course much less disturbed by all those “frank depictions of sexuality” (try to guess why, dear reader … ).
Getting back to the Ancients, this Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks is uncovering herself and looking back (and down) in order to evaluate her perfect behind.
The reason is again very simple (and very erotic, I’ll confess.) All originated from a buttock contest between two gorgeous sisters.
For which reason, who knows, this statue dedicated to Venus-Aphrodite might exactly represent both the winner and her behind. I mean – it’s sheer historical interest, of course – there’s a chance we are looking at her real ass (not at usual idealized hindquarters according to Greek aesthetics.)
And, the self-evaluation of her buttocks – pretty sure of that – was even more obvious than it appears today since statues were mostly painted in full colour, therefore the direction of her gaze was probably more evident, her pupils being painted.
This cult of Venus-Aphrodite with beautiful buttocks appeared in Greek Syracuse (Sicily, Italy,) according to some ancient author, since this is where the sisters apparently lived.
Again, needless to say, it would be inconceivable nowadays to dedicate a sanctuary, a holy place, to a goddess because of a girl’s hot butttocks (read in the Wikipedia the whole peculiar story of the two lovely sisters.)
Venus was the goddess of beauty, fertility and love.
The Roman Venus was born around Lavinium, according to Strabo. If true it was not by chance since Aeneas, the great Roman ancestor and son of Venus, landed in that area and founded the town after the name of Lavinia, his wife. The Romans by the way were children of Venus and of Mars, the God of War: love and war – a weird mix, isn’t it.
This I am thinking while strolling between the Colosseum, to my left, and the temple of Venus and Roma, to my right, between these symbols of life and death. How multihued the Romans were.
The Greek Aphrodite was instead born in Cyprus – where the Greek student comes from, although I do not believe in signs, like Brasilian Coelho does.
Young couples gathered close to the Venus temples for petting, necking and even coupling (green areas with temples where common in Rome.) People were probably discreet but what is interesting is that their loving felt somehow enhanced, even sanctified, by the presence of the Goddess, which is again unimaginable today despite our so-called sexual freedom.
Think of a today’s scenario where men and women flock near a Catholic or an Anglican, or a Lutheran church, in spring time, or in any time, for petting and all. I mean, even the mere thought could offend a true Christian.
Of course I do ask for pardon though please it’d also be nice if religious people did some effort as well. We are not here to offend religion(s) nor to make a porn site out this blog (which could make us richer though not necessarily happier.) We are here to talk about the Western roots. Now it turns these ancient Greeks & Romans had entirely different sexual mores.
Is it good? Is it bad? Hard to say. We somehow prefer the ancient customs though it is our personal opinion. That is, we love to think Sex to equal Beauty, love and sex to be a sublime joy that shouldn’t be necessarily related to reproduction (like ALL Popes tried endlessly to teach us.)
An Oppressive Revolution
OK, one might say. If these are our Western roots, what the hell has then happened? Why had we to undergo such an oppressive revolution which turned one of the joys of life into something indecent?
Was it because of the Victorians? Because of the Muslims? Was it because of the Christian priests and Fathers?
Perhaps the Victorians had later some influence on India, a country were the Kama Sutra was written, the first great text about love and sexual intercourse – beautiful, poetic and scientific – and the Victorians arrived with their not entirely positive influence in this field of human life …
As for the West I am sure the answer is to be found during the times when the Roman Empire turned into a Christian Roman Empire, hence from Emperor Constantine onward (4th century AD.)
Not immediately though. It took some time, it surely took some time before we became totally repressed.
The Christians were mainly responsible, in my opinion, for this change of attitude (and for atrocities committed against non-Christians soon after Christianity took over), but it’d be fair to add that numerous pagans had already become a bit more puritanical as a reaction to the excesses of the previous ages.
One last thing. Are anywhere to be found survivals of such ancient freer attitude towards sex?
I believe so. We have said (Braudel had said) that great civilisations do not die. Plus we had entitled this post Permanences III (but changed its title later.)
Ok. Let’s not spoil what is next in the Sex and the city (of Rome) series.
A Roman Invoking Venus
1) with this Roman copy of Castor and Pollux, or Dioscuri (youths of Zeus) by Praxiteles, Madrid (see below) – also enthusiastically approved by my female friend;
2) with Lucretius’ initial prayer to Venus.
Lucretius is a great Roman poet. From his verses one can get a good feel of how a real Ancient Roman felt about Venus.
So it is a pretty good conclusion for this Sex and the Romans num. 1 post.
If you are lucky enough to appreciate these verses you’ll live a unique experience, a real time-machine experience. This also classics offer, a time-machine experience.
Try to read these words attentively. You might penetrate the mysteries of a lost, arcane – though still living, still living – world …
“Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since ’tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose
For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
Peerless in every grace at every hour-
Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm. Lull to a timely rest
O’er sea and land the savage works of war,
For thou alone hast power with public peace
To aid mortality; since he who rules
The savage works of battle, puissant Mars,
How often to thy bosom flings his strength
O’ermastered by the eternal wound of love-
And there, with eyes and full throat backward thrown,
Gazing, my Goddess, open-mouthed at thee,
Pastures on love his greedy sight, his breath
Hanging upon thy lips. Him thus reclined
Fill with thy holy body, round, above!
Pour from those lips soft syllables to win
Peace for the Romans, glorious Lady, peace!.”
Of The Nature of Things [De Rerum Natura]
by Lucretius [Titus Lucretius Carus]
(Initial invocation to Venus)