Memorial Day Texts

(This is a rewrite of a previous Memorial Day post.)

1. Simonides’ epitaph on the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae:

ὦ ξεῖν᾿, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
    κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων πειθόμενοι νομίμοις.

Stranger, tell the Lacedemonians that we lie here, obedient to their laws/customs.

The epitaph appeals to the passerby to deliver the message because these men died and were buried far from Sparta: with no post offices or telephones in the ancient world, epitaphs for those who died away from home were often in the form “If you are ever in the town of X, tell Y the son of Z that his son is buried here, far from home”. The only way to send the message was to have it ‘hitchhike’ with someone who happened to be headed in the right direction. In this case, specific names are unnecessary.

Simonides was one of the greatest Greek poets, though little of his work survives — just enough to show us what we’re missing. He was particularly known for his elegies, epitaphs, and threnodies — all the gloomier genres — which were simple and moving. His epitaphs were written for the actual monuments, not as literary exercises. This is Simonides XXIIb in the Oxford Classical Text of Epigrammata Graeca and (with commentary) Further Greek Epigrams, both edited by D. L. Page. The meter is elegiac couplet. Other sources give the last two words as ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι, “obedient to their words”. However, whether he said that the Spartans were “obedient to the words” (= commands) of their kings or “obedient to the customs” of their country, it means that they were willing to follow orders without question even when there was no chance of survival. The word I have translated “obedient to” also means “persuaded by” — a nice example of small-d democracy in the very structure of the Greek language. The movie Go Tell The Spartans takes its title from Simonides’ epitaph, either directly or (perhaps through Cicero) indirectly.

2. Cicero’s paraphrase, from Tusculan Disputations 1.101:

Dic, hospes, Spartae, nos te hic vidisse iacentes
    dum sanctis patriae legibus obsequimur.

Stranger, tell Sparta that you saw us lying here, as we obey the sacred laws of our fatherland.

3. A. E. Housman, More Poems XXXVI:

Here dead we lie because we did not choose
    To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
    But young men think it is, and we were young.

The first two lines are a paraphrase of Simonides, generalized for all nations. The last two are Housman’s own addition, though the thought is very pagan and very Greek. Housman’s little poem achieves an impressive degree of Simonidean simplicity. Every word but two is monosyllabic, and even the exceptions hardly count, since ‘nothing’ was originally ‘no thing’ and ‘because’ originally (I think) ‘by cause’. It’s odd that a professional Latinist should write such a thoroughly unLatin poem: just about every word is pure Anglo-Saxon.

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One Response to Memorial Day Texts

  1. Richard Rawles says:

    Thanks for this great post! It makes no difference to the interest and quality of the poem, of course, but the w xein’, aggellein… epigram is certainly not by Simonides. The passage of Herodotus where it is quoted (with the alternative wording of the last line) attributes a *different* epigram to Simonides (the one for Megistias), and not this one: Herodotus, therefore, had no idea that this was by Simonides (and in context, he would certainly have said so if it was what he believed). It’s no surprise that later sources say that it was: they may have misunderstood Herodotus in the same way as some modern scholars, and in any case the unfortunate fact is that later ancient sources, when they do not know the authorship of a Persian wars epigram, regularly attribute it to Simonides…
    (Btw, it’s no surprise to find Housman showing as a considerably better poet than Cicero ;-) )
    All the best,
    Richard

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