Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

GIS report 20/02/2015: tyrannical infertility and partying with the Ptolemies

In my best efforts to be the Cicero to Graham’s Hybrida, the Caesar to his Bibulus, the Pompey to his Crassus, I am uploading this GIS report almost grotesquely early. Read on for dynasties, drinking and destruction, sex and slaughter, propaganda and psychoanalysis, and all sorts of alliterative delights. (Content note: rape, murder, incest.)

Daniel Unruh was the first to speak this week with a paper entitled ‘Loaves in a Cold Oven: Tyrants and Sterility in Herodotus’ Histories’. This was not, as it turned out, a discussion of some long-forgotten ancient culinary scandal, a Hellenistic #bingate, but something far more disturbing (if such a thought can be fathomed). Dan drew together a series of Herodotean anecdotes regarding tyrants who variously committed necrophilia (the ‘loaves in a cold oven’ of the title), killed, dismembered and/or cooked their own and others’ children, married and/or killed their sisters and daughters, sent young boys to be castrated en masse, and, perhaps most remarkable in its vagueness, slept with their wives “in an abnormal way” (oὐ κατὰ νόμον). He added to these explicit examples two more metaphorical ones: Thrasyboulos walking in a field of corn, cutting down and discarding the “best and the tallest of the crop”, and Hippias losing a tooth on the beach and being unable to recover it – perhaps an inversion of Cadmus’ fruitful sowing of the dragon’s teeth at Thebes.

I decided to go with Cadmus sowing dragon’s teeth, rather than an image more directly relating to Dan’s talk, in the interests of keeping this blog safe for work…

In each case, this commonplace of characterisation links tyranny not only with excess and transgression but more specifically with sterility, infertility and the frustration of growth and reproduction. Dan connected this theme with a wider trope in Greek sources, whereby the bounty of a land is directly correlated to the piety and justice of its ruler. He adduced examples from Homer, Hesiod, and tragedy: Nestor giving judgments surrounded by his many sons, Alcinous’ wealth of children and rich land, the just king on the Shield of Achilles, Odysseus’ praise of Penelope as like a wise ruler whose land is plenteous and people happy – or, conversely, Hector in battle like a flood sent by the gods upon an unjust king. He concluded that Herodotus wields this trope for a political point: Herodotean tyrants, lacking the virtue necessary to uphold fertility, end up wantonly preventing their and their people’s future fertility. Indeed, the point is hammered home when all these tyrannical dynasties die off within a few generations, in contrast with Sparta, whose self-governing community lives on.

Subsequent discussion covered the exemption of the notoriously incestuous gods from this scheme; the precise symbolic, psychoanalytic, and narrative potentialities of Hippias’ tooth; the erotics of sneezing; and Stephen Harrison’s sudden distressing realisation that he knew nothing about ancient Greek pillows.

We then heard from Max Leventhal, erstwhile co-consul of last term’s GIS – alas, not now enjoying a leisurely proconsulship in luxurious, sunnier climes, but instead still with his nose firmly to the grindstone in the faculty library. In his paper, ‘Ptolemies at the Symposium – at Home and Abroad’, Max departed from his usual literary preoccupations, and turned to historical and material evidence for the Alexandrian dynasty’s propagandist use of the symposium. He briefly retraced Alexander’s own well-known connection with symposia and Dionysus and the political use to which this connection was put – a topic touched upon by Stephen’s GIS paper last term. Moving on to the Ptolemies, he discussed the historical record of the Ptolemaia Festival under Ptolemy II Philadelphus. This element of the Ptolemaic ruler-cult involved a procession leading tableaux of the life of Dionysus into the city, followed by a giant statue of Alexander, followed by a statue of the ruler’s father, Ptolemy I Soter. It also featured the erection of a semi-permanent pavilion within the royal complex, which seems to have employed symposiastic imagery in combination with various arts – elements drawn from tragedy, comedy and satyr plays, and representational tapestries and sculpture.

Max discussed the ways in which the procession and the pavilion used this sort of kitsch cultural eclecticism to bring symposiastic elements into ritual and cultural space, explicitly triangulating Alexandrian legacy, symposiastic practice, and the Ptolemies’ own political systems. He then looked at how this propagandist move might have travelled further afield, as far as we can unravel this from other mentions and objects. First, a fragment of Middle Comedy: Alexis fr.246 K.-A., which mentions toasts drunk to Ptolemy, his sister, and Concord. How might this Ptolemaic symposium – linked to Alexander, too, given that Alexander apparently toasted Concord – have been received in Athens?

The ‘Cup of the Ptolemies’ – image lifted from wikipedia

Max connected this to a subset of wine jars found across the Greek world, made from Egyptian materials and depicting Ptolemaic queens (in guise of goddesses) pouring out libations at altars, and often with explicitly symposiastic inscriptions. How might these have functioned as ritual, symposiastic, or casual household objects, especially outside of Alexandria? Max admitted that it was difficult to know how best to answer these questions, but concluded that the Ptolemies successfully enhanced their political presence in the Hellenistic mind in relation to symposiastic contexts and resonances. Indeed, this association lingered: the first-century BC ‘Cup of the Ptolemies’, which later found its way into Charlemagne’s possession, depicts Dionysiac and symposiastic themes interwoven with elements reminiscent of the pavilion in the Ptolemaia Festival.

Join us next week at the usual time and place for Silvia Piepoli on bilingual language teaching in antiquity, and Valeria Pace on hearing gendered voices in Homer!

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