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The Drowning Of Julius Avitus

Julius Avitus was a young man who lived around the late 1st century in the Roman Empire. He was evidently an aspiring writer, but in the meantime he mainly focused on climbing the social ladder of Roman society. This meant embarking on a series of increasingly prestigious appointments in the Roman government and military. Julius Avitus achieved the political magistrate rank of quaestor, and with the position came a stationing overseas. Although the term of a quaestor did not last long, the young man apparently decided to bring his literary works with him overseas. Although he had not quite made a name for himself in the literary world, a buzz was nevertheless rising over his potential talents and hopes were high that Julius Avitus would one day publish applauded works. After serving out his term as quaestor, the hopeful writer and statesman packed his belongings back onto a ship and set sail for home. The voyage, however, ended in tragedy. What exactly happened on Julius Avitus’ journey home is unfortunately unknown, but it is clear that the young man perished at sea. As told by the prolific letter-writing lawyer and statesman, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), “it is tragic that Julius Avitus should have died, and died at sea on his way home from the province where he had been quaestor…think of his ardent love of literature and all he read and wrote: all of which has died with him, leaving nothing for posterity” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 5.21). Although there is no clarification on whether he fell overboard or if the ship sank, the statement that Julius Avitus’ writings were also lost at sea seems to point to a shipwreck being the culprit. He was survived by his mother, a brother and several sisters.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Historical Subject with Men and a Boy Near a Ship, by William Hamilton (c. 1751–1801), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).

 

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Cadmus Slaying The Dragon, By Hendrick Goltzius (c. 1558 – 1617)

This artwork, from the German-Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius (c. 1558 – 1617), re-creates a tale from the life of the ancient Greek mythical hero, Cadmus. Following his unsuccessful first mission to rescue the kidnapped princess, Europa, from the clutches of the mighty god Zeus, Cadmus found new purpose in an expedition handed to him by the Oracle of Delphi. As ordered by the oracle, Cadmus was to follow a restless cow until the long-wandering beast finally slumped to the ground, and it was there that Cadmus was meant to build the city of Thebes. Yet, there was a problem—unbeknownst to Cadmus and his followers, the cow had led them to the lair of a monstrous serpent or dragon. Cadmus’ companions learned of this too late, for when they left camp to fetch water, they were gobbled up by this killer beast. Noticing their absence, Cadmus went to check on his ill-fated friends. Following the tracks of his missing comrades, he made his way into the den of the dragon, setting up the scene that is depicted in Hendrick Goltzius’ illustration. Cadmus’ clash with the serpent was vividly described by the Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17CE):

“Wondering what had delayed his companions, the hero Cadmus
decided to track them down. To shield his body, he donned
the skin of a lion. For weapons he took his iron-tipped spear,
his javelin and, more important than all, the courage to wield them.
Striding into the wood, he encountered a welter of corpses,
above them the huge-backed monster gloating in grisly triumph,

At last our hero was able to thrust it into his gullet;
then moving in close, he pressed on it hard, until his retreating
prey backed into an oak and his neck was nailed to the trunk.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.51-92).

It is this scene of Cadmus fighting the dragon that Hendrick Goltzius captured in his artwork. Cadmus, as Ovid described, can be seen in the act of stabbing the dragon in the throat with a spear, pushing the beast back from the nearby bodies of its victims. After Cadmus slew the dragon, the goddess Athena appeared and told him to take the beast’s teeth and sow them into the earth. This resulted in the birth of beings called the Spartoi (the “Sown”), who began fighting among themselves. As the story goes, the five survivors of the deathmatch became the founders of noble families in the city of Thebes that Cadmus founded.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

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Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 1313-1375)

“Consider for a moment the principles of things, and you will see that we are all of one flesh and that our souls were created by a single Maker, who gave the same capacities and powers and faculties to each.”

  • The Decameron (Fourth Day, First Story) by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by G. H. McWilliam. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

The Tale Of King Pan Geng’s Forceful Move Of His Capital From Yan To Yin

Pan Geng was a king of the ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty whose reign was traditionally dated (but with a large margin of error) to between 1401 and 1374 BCE. During his reign, Pan Geng decided to move his realm’s seat of power from the then capital of Yan (approximately modern Qufu, Shandong) to a new location at Yin (around modern Anyang, Henan). Although the Shang Dynasty had successfully moved its capital a few times before in its long history, Pan Geng soon found out that his people were not eager to move again. As the story goes, so few people wanted to follow the king to Yin that it put Pan Geng’s ambition of building and populating the new capital city into jeopardy. The sluggish and resistant public attitude to moving the capital to Yin was so great that Pan Geng reportedly had to resort to dramatic measures to get his way. First, the king used the classic tried-and-true persuasive measure of proclaiming that the move to Yin was the will of Heaven. The tale was preserved in the Shang Shu, a text variously translated as The Book of Documents or The Most Venerable Book, which has its origins in the days before Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE). Claiming to quote Pan Geng, the Shang Shu stated, “I asked diviners for a divination. The reply has come and it says that this new place is a good place to settle” (Shang Shu, chapter 18). To the annoyance of the king, this timely claim of Heaven’s support was not as convincing he had hoped. Therefore, the king ultimately resorted to the threat of violence in order to get people to move. The Shang Shu recorded Pan Geng as menacingly addressing his people with the following words: “Indeed, you need to understand clearly that I will not be diverted from my plans.  Do not be so foolish as to stand in the way of this Great Plan…if anyone continues to be stubborn or to rebel, disregarding my orders without fear—indeed using every opportunity to plan treason—then I will cut off their noses. I will utterly destroy them. I will wipe out their lineage and none will be allowed into the new city” (Shang Shu, chapter 19). Through such means, King Pan Geng had his way and successfully moved to Yin. As a result of the relocation, Pan Geng’s descendants were alternatively known as the Yin Dynasty.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Scene of a procession, by an unidentified artist from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).

 

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The Arming Of Erminia, Attributed To Gaspare Diziani (c. 1689-1767)

This artwork, painted by the Italian artist Gaspare Diziani (c. 1689-1767), was inspired by a curious poem called Gerusalemme liberata, written by the Italian poet, Torquato Tasso (c. 1544-1595). Tasso’s poem, which translates as The Liberation of Jerusalem, is a fictitious tale that is set in the times of the First Crusade (c. 1095/1096-1099). Despite the deceptive name of the poem, the Gerusalemme liberata more closely resembles ancient epic poems such as the Iliad and the Aeneid than an actual account of the First Crusade. It features a mixture of purely fictional characters and some historical figures set in unhistorical episodes. From magic and monsters, to duels, and digressions into chivalric tales of star-crossed lovers, Torquato Tasso was quite inventive in his fantastical rendition of the First Crusade. That brings us to the subject of the painting—Erminia.

As Torquato Tasso tells it in his fictional poem, Erminia was a refugee who fled from the Crusader armies and found sanctuary in the then-unconquered city of Jerusalem. While she was being driven from her home, only one crusader was kind to her. This crusader was Tancred (a historical figure spliced into this fictional plot), and his kindness caused Erminia to fall in love with him. During the siege of Jerusalem, the two were on opposite sides of the wall, but Erminia watched Tancred’s actions with interest. When she eventually saw that Tancred was injured during a duel, she was compelled to slip out of Jerusalem’s defenses to treat her beloved crusader’s wounds. To do this, she stole a suit of armor and a horse, and was able to bluff her way out of the gates. It is this scene of Erminia equipping herself in armor for her mission to save Tancred that Gaspare Diziani re-creates in his painting.

Of course, venturing into the camp of the besieging army was no easy feat and Erminia ultimately was not able to reach Tancred at that time. Instead, she was discovered by Crusader scouts and was chased away, leading armored Erminia to stumble upon a community of shepherds, who were understandably shocked and startled by her appearance. Nevertheless, after recovering from the surprise, the shepherds let Erminia hide in their community.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

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Nauplios—An Ancient Greek Human Trafficker Of Myth

An intriguing character named Nauplios appeared from time to time in the tales of mythology about the gods and early hero-kings of the ancient Greek world. He was reportedly a son of the sea god Poseidon, and therefore—like father, like son—Nauplios, too, had a great affinity for the sea. As demigods go, however, Nauplios appeared to be more human than most, for no visible godly abilities or characteristics ever seemed to manifest in him, except for perhaps an extremely long lifespan. Even when it came to his father’s domain of the sea, Nauplios did not use magic or supernatural vehicles in his travels. Instead, he used a common ship, just like any other human. Nauplios’ lack of godly powers, nevertheless, was made up for by his impressive seamanship and knowledge of navigation. In terms of sea combat, he could usually outmaneuver any ships he came across, and in regards to the geography of the Mediterranean, he seemed to know how to chart his way to any port city that was accessible from the sea. These battle skills and navigational talents would prove useful for Nauplios’ eventual infamous career as a pirate and a human trafficker.

As Nauplios usually appeared as a side character, often hired by one tyrannical king or another to make people disappear to a distant country, the character of Nauplios was never really given a detailed description. On the man’s parentage and piracy (or at least general villainy), the mythographer known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st and 2nd century) briefly wrote, “Amymone bore a son, Nauplios, to Poseidon. This Nauplios lived to a great age, sailing the seas, and using beacon fires to draw those who came across him to their death” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.1.5). During his voyages, and between his attacks on fellow seafarers, Nauplios often looked for people that he could capture or buy and later sell. As was hinted at earlier, kings of coastal city-states were a frequent source for Nauplios’ human merchandise, and strangely enough, the people that these kings sold to Nauplios were often their own daughters. This was the case for the tales of King Aleos of Tegea and King Catreus of Crete.

Nauplios was contacted by King Aleos of Tegea after the king was enraged at his daughter, Auge, who had become pregnant after an encounter with the famous hero, Heracles. In one telling of the story recorded by Hecataeus (c. 6th century BCE), Auge and Heracles fell in love and had an affair. Yet, unfortunately for Auge, later writers such as Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st and 2nd century CE) and Pausanias (c. 2nd century CE) usually followed a different varint of the tale that claimed Auge’s encounter with Heracles was anything but consensual. Diodorus Siculus wrote that Heracles “had done violence to her” (Library, 4.33), whereas Pausanius claimed Auge was “outraged by Heracles” (Description of Greece, 8.47.4). Apollodorus more bluntly stated that Heracles “debauched” or “raped” the princess (Library, 2.7.4). Whatever the case, once Heracles was done with his unheroic deed, he promptly hit the road to continue on with his adventures, leaving Auge alone to face the wrath of her father, who was furious regardless of how his daughter had become pregnant. The unreasonable king, after discovering his daughter’s pregnancy, apparently considered having the princess executed, but he eventually settled on selling Auge to the trafficker, Nauplios, who happened to be nearby while the drama was ongoing. On this, Apollodorus wrote, “As for Auge, her father handed her over to Nauplios, son of Poseidon, to sell in foreign parts, and Nauplios gave her to Teuthras, king of Teuthrania, who made her his wife” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.7.4).

As for King Catreus of Crete’s similar incident of selling his daughters to Nauplios, his reasoning was vastly different from King Aleos’ own motivations of anger and retribution. Instead, Catreus’ decision was a desperate bid for self-preservation. As it happened, King Catreus was one of the many ancient Greek mythological figures whose story was told in the recurring motif that was framed around a father who was fated to be killed by one of his own children. Like others destined to meet this fate, Catreus was given forewarning of his doom in the form of a prophesy, and this knowledge propelled Catreus to separate himself from his children at all costs. As the stories go, King Catreus had at least four children—three daughters, named Aerope, Clymene and Apemosnyne, as well as a son named Althaimenes. The last two, Apemosnye and Althaimenes, were said to have willingly sailed off to Rhodes in hopes of thwarting the prophesy. The other children, Aerope and Clymene, were evidently clingy and refused to leave Crete of their own volition. It was the continuing presence of these potentially dangerous daughters that eventually caused King Catreus to contact the human trafficker, Nauplios. The ensuing transaction was described by the aforementioned Apollodorus, who wrote, “Catreus gave Aerope and Clymene to Nauplios, to be sold in foreign lands. Pleisthenes [or Atreus] married one of the sisters, Aerope, and fathered two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaos, while Nauplios married Clymene and became the father of Oiax and Palamedes” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.2.2).

As the quote conveyed, Nauplios decided not to sell Clymene, but instead married her and they raised a family. Clymene, however, was not the only woman in Nauplios’ long life. He was also said to have married at least two other women, named Philyra and Hesione. The chronology of these marriages, like the chronology of Nauplios’ life in general, is vague and difficult to place on a timeline. It has also been suggested that instead of there being just one incredibly long-lived demigod named Nauplios, there may have instead been a family of successive seafarers, each named Nauplios, who carried on their family trade of piracy and human trafficking for generations. Whatever the case, if an ancient Greek figure of myth wanted to buy or sell a human being, at the top of their list of contacts would have been a sailor named Nauplios, who was descended from Poseidon. As for how Nauplios may have eventually died, according to the scholar Apollodorus (who preferred the narrative of Nauplios being a single long-lived individual), the incredibly old seafarer ultimately met his death in a shipwreck.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture attribution: (Scene on a fan, dated circa second quarter of the 19th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).

 

Sources:

  • Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).

Ægir’s Feast, By Constantin Hansen (c. 1804 – 1880)

This painting, by the Danish artist Constantin Hansen (c. 1804 – 1880), was inspired by a character named Ægir or Hler from a text known as the Prose Edda, written by the prolific Icelandic poet, author, mythographer, historian and chieftain, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241). In the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson effectively delivered massive amounts of concise information about Norse mythology through the use of a question-and-answer format, in which the Norse gods, themselves, responded to thoughtful inquiries that were asked by wise travelers who wandered into the realms of the gods. Ægir, featured in this painting, was Snorri’s vehicle for the question-and-answer framework in the second half (known as the Skaldskaparmal) of the Prose Edda, whereas a different character named King Gylfi was the one asking questions in the text’s first half (known as the Gylfaginning).

In the opening of the Skaldskaparmal section of the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson gave a description of Ægir, saying, “A man was named Ægir or Hler. He lived on the island now called Hlesey, and was greatly skilled in magic. He set off on a trip to Asgard” (Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal, chapter 1). The Norse gods, collectively called the Æsir, welcomed the magician and hosted a feast for his benefit. Most of the greatest names of the Norse mythological universe were there at the feast, including the gods Odin, Thor, Njord, Frey, Tyr, Heimdall, Bragi, Vidar, Vali, Ull, Hoenir, Forseti and Loki, as well as the goddesses, Frigg, Freyja, Gerfjun, Idunn, Gerd, Sigyn, Fulla and Nanna. Snorri Sturluson wrote, “The Æsir then went to their feast…To Ægir it seemed that everything he saw around him was noble. Magnificent shields hung on all the wallboards. Strong mead was served and the drinking was heavy” (Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal, chapter 1). As Ægir and the gods partied into the night, he began asking questions and requesting to hear stories of the gods’ exploits and adventures. Bragi, the skald of the gods, was more than happy to answer these questions. Nevertheless, Bragi could not sate Ægir’s curiosity in the time limit of a single banquet, so the gods decided to schedule another feast where they could continue the storytelling. This time, they suggested that Ægir’s family (including a wife, Ran, and nine children) be the hosts. Snorri Sturluson described the second feast:

“Ægir, as mentioned previously, came as a guest to Asgard, and when he was ready to return home he invited Odin and all the gods to visit him in three months. Odin, Njord, Frey, Tyr, Bragi, Vidar and Loki went on this journey, and with them were the goddesses Frigg, Freyja, Gerfun, Skadi, Idunn and Sif. Thor was not among them. He had gone to the east to kill trolls. When the gods had taken their seats, Ægir commanded that gleaming gold be brought in and placed on the floor of the hall. It lit up the hall, shining like fire, and was used for light at his feast…Ran was the name of Ægir’s wife and they had nine daughters. At the feast everything, the food, the ale and necessary tableware, served itself” (Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal, chapter 6).

It is this magical feast thrown by the family of the impressive magician, Ægir, that inspired Constantin Hansen’s painting. When the party got into full swing, Ægir and Bragi continued their conversation, resuming the question-and-answer storytelling of the Prose Edda. Outside of their chat, however, the party was becoming quite raucous. Loki, particularly, was characteristically acting out, shouting insults at all of his fellow Norse deities and he even ended up killing a slave named Fimafeng. Yet, this behavior from the mischievous god did not stop Bragi from telling his stories to Ægir.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (c. 1712-1778)

“Not one of you is so ignorant as not to know that, when the laws lose their force and those who defend them their authority, security and liberty are universally impossible.”

  • From the Dedication to the Republic of Geneva in On the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (c. 1712-1778). The quoted edition was translated and published by the Great Books Foundation (Chicago, Illinois, 1949).

Emperor Jing’s Massacre Of The Xian And Zhou Families

During his time in power, Emperor Jing of Han Dynasty China (r. 157-141 BCE) became increasingly worried about the strength and influence of the Xian clan in Ji’nan and the Zhou clan of the Chen region. The emperor’s fears were understandable, as his reign had been challenged by a large (but unsuccessful) rebellion of seven kings in 154 BCE, and such an experience would have naturally made the emperor more wary of potential threats. Despite the emperor’s fears, the Xian and Zhou clans did not have enough quickly-accessible might to put up any resistance whatsoever against Emperor Wen when he decided to launch a ruthless campaign against them to preemptively prune their clans from the political landscape. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) described the emperor’s brutal oppression, stating, “the Xian family of Ji’nan and Zhou Yong of Chen were both noted for their great power and influence. When Emperor Jing heard of this, he sent an envoy to execute all the members of their group” (Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, Shi Ji 124). Perhaps this purge was controversial, for Sima Qian (who precariously lived during the reign of Emperor Jing’s son), decided to not mention the incident in his official annals of Emperor Jing’s reign (Shi Ji 11). He instead snuck the tale into later chapters such as the one quoted above (Shi Ji 124), which was devoted to wandering knight figures in ancient China.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Admonishing in Chains, traditionally attributed to Yan Liben (ca. 600-674), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Smithsonian Institute).

 

Sources:

  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Alexander The Great On His Sickbed, By Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (c. 1783 – 1853)

This painting, by the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (c. 1783 – 1853), depicts a specific tale about Alexander the Great that was said to have occurred around the year 333 BCE. As the story goes, Alexander fell terribly ill that year and his life rested in the hands of his physicians. Among the healers in the king’s entourage, an honorable man named Philip of Acarnania was bold enough to develop a medicine that he swore would heal Alexander of his illness. While the sickly king deliberated whether or not to take the mysterious potion, a letter from one of his generals arrived, warning Alexander the Great that the healer’s medicine might be poisoned. This event, and what happened next, was recorded by the Greek-Roman historian Arrian (c. 90-173):

“About this time Alexander had a bout of sickness. The cause of it, according to Aristobulus’ account, was exhaustion, but others say that he plunged into the river Cydnus for a swim…the result was that Alexander was seized by a convulsion, followed by high fever and sleepless nights. All his doctors but one despaired of his life; but Philip of Acarnania, who attended him and was not only a trusted physician but a good soldier as well, proposed to give him purgative. Alexander consented to take it, and just as Philip was preparing the draught, Alexander was handed a note from Parmenio. ‘Beware of Philip,’ the note read; ‘I am informed that he has been bribed by Darius to poison you.’ Alexander read the warning, and with the paper still in his hand took the cup of medicine and then passed the note to Philip. Philip read it, and while he was reading Alexander swallowed the dose. It was immediately clear that there was nothing wrong with Philip’s medicine” (Anabasis of Alexander, 2.4).

The consequential life-and-death scene of Alexander choosing to trust his own instincts about Philip instead of listening to the dubious intelligence report mailed in by Parmenio is what Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg re-creates in the painting. Philip of Acarnania can be seen beginning to read the general’s warning as Alexander looks over his cup of medicine to gauge the doctor’s reaction for signs of innocence or guilt. Satisfied with the physician’s demeanor, Alexander took the medicine and his instincts were validated by a subsequent quick recovery. Philip of Acarnania and his medical techniques were said to have elevated Alexander the Great to a functioning state within three days, at which point the king was able to resume leading his military in the field.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

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