In ancient Greece, a man wearing earrings could be accused of being weak or—gods forbid—of being womanly. The wearing of earrings was often associated with the Anatolian region of Lydia, which was long characterized by the Greeks as a place made soft by luxury. Herodotus summed up the Greek view of Lydia in this quote on Cyrus the Great’s pacification of the Lydians: “let the Lydians be pardoned; and lay on them this command, that they may not revolt or be dangerous to you; send, I say, and forbid them to possess weapons of war, and command them to wear tunics under their cloaks and buskins on their feet, and to teach their sons lyre-playing and song and dance and huckstering. Then, O king, you will soon see them turned to women instead of men; and thus you need not fear lest they revolt.” (The Histories, Book I, section 155).
This Greek disapproval of earrings, and prejudice against Lydians, reappeared in Xenophon’s Anabasis Kyrou (Upcountry March/Expedition of Cyrus), in which he documented the experiences of a Greek mercenary army, called the Ten Thousand, that was caught up in an ill-fated rebellion of Cyrus the Younger of Persia. By book III, section 1 of that text, the Greek mercenaries found themselves in dire straits—Cyrus the Younger was slain, the Greek mercenary generals had been arrested or executed, and angry Persian satraps were stalking the Greeks like vultures. The mercenary army, stranded deep in Persian territory without their chief generals, camped with an uncertain future awaiting them in the morning. Yet, although the generals were gone or dead, many of their second-in-commands and company commanders were still alive and with the army. Fortunately for the rest of the Ten Thousand, around 100 of these surviving mercenary officers convened to decide what the mercenary company should do next.
Xenophon was one of the men present and he would later take command of the mercenary army’s rear guard. According to Xenophon, there was a man named Apollonides at the officer meeting, who argued that the mercenaries should surrender to the Persians. Xenophon claimed that he personally rebuffed Apollonides’ opinion by referencing the recent executions of the mercenary generals and called Apollonides an oaf and a fool, not qualified for any military position except that of baggage handler. According to Xenophon, another officer at the meeting took a much more personal jab at Apollonides. This second attack involved both earrings and Lydia. A certain Agasias of Stymphalus reportedly proclaimed before the gathered officers, “ he [Apollonides] doesn’t belong in Boeotia or anywhere in Greece: he has both ears pierced, Lydian-style—I’ve seen them.’ This was true, [stated Xenophon] and they evicted the man from their company” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book III, section 1).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting from the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus in Pompeii, Italy, executed in the Second Style and depicting the Greco-Roman goddess Venus Aphrodite, c. 1st century BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
- Anabasis Kyrou (The Expedition/ Upcountry March of Cyrus) by Xenophon and translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.