The student challenges the teacher

Two ancient orators are the protagonists of a curious anecdote which illustrates the misleading power of words. They are considered the first creators of the τέχναι ῥητορικαί, i.e. the ‘theoretical and practical manuals of oratory’. They are Corax and Teisias: according to tradition, they were a teacher and his disciple.

The scene is set in Syracuse, in the first half of the 5th century BC.

Corax, a prestigious and famous teacher, has a sort of ‘private school’ attended by boys who want to learn the rudiments of rhetoric. One day, an intelligent and penniless boy called Teisias shows up: he wants to learn the secrets of speaking effectively and persuasively.

Greek Theatre of Syracuse: Sophocles, Antigone 2005

The enthusiasm of the boy moves Corax, who decides to accept him as a disciple for free, on condition that Teisias pays him the fees as soon as he wins his first trial, thus proving that he has become a skilful orator able to earn a living.

Time passes, lessons are over, but Teisias keeps postponing the day of his first trial. Corax gets annoyed, considering his student to be perfectly able to juggle with the art he was taught.

However, Teisias stubbornly keeps postponing his first trial and Corax eventually summons him:


 ‘If I will win the trial, you will have to pay me in the light of the verdict; if you will be the winner, you will have to pay me in the light of our agreement, as you will have managed to win your first trial. In any case, my dear Teisias, you will have to pay’.

But the student does not give up:

‘No, dear teacher. If I win the trial, I will not pay you in the light of the verdict; if you will be the winner, I will not pay you in the light of our agreements, as I will not have won my first trial yet. In any case, I will not pay you, my dear teacher’.

The anecdote is reported by multiple sources, mostly from ancient rhetorical treatises, such as the one by the anonymous author of the Prolegomena in artem rhetoricam (XIV 26, 11).

Τισίας δέ τῖ μαθεῖν καὶ αὐτὸς ἐθέλων τὴν ῥητορικὴν καὶ ἰδών, ὡς πολλοὺς εἰσπράττεται μισθοὺς ὁ Κόραξ τῆς διδασκαλίας, προσῆλθε πρῶτον τῷ Κόρακι προσδιαλεγόμενος αὐτῷ ταῦτα ὡς “Μαθεῖν ἐθέλω τὴν ῥητορικήν, καὶ νῦν μὲν μισθοὺς οὐκ ἔχω, μαθὼν δὲ ἀποτίσω διπλοῦς τοὺς μισθούς.” Κόραξ δὲ φιλανθρώπως φερόμενος ὑπέσχετο καὶ ἐδίδαξε τὸν Τισίαν τὴν ῥητορικήν. Μαθὼν τοίνυν ὁ Τισίας τὰ τῆς τέχνης ἀγνωμονεῖν ἐπειρᾶτο τὸν διδάσκαλον καί φησι πρὸς αὐτὸν · “Ὦ Κόραξ, λέξον ἡμῖν τὸν ὅρον τῆς ῥητορικῆς.” Ὃ δέ φησι «Ῥητορική ἐστι πειθοῦς δημιουργός». Λαβὼν τοίνυν τὸν ὅρον ὁ Τισίας πειρᾶται συλλογίζεσθαι τὸν διδάσκαλον καί φησιν ὅτι “Δικάζομαί σοι περὶ τῶν μισθῶν, καὶ εἰ μὲν πείσω μὴ δοῦναί με μισθούς, ὡς πείσας οὐκ ἔδωκα, εἰ δὲ μὴ ἰσχύσω πεῖσαι, πάλιν οὐκ ἔδωκα, οὐ γὰρ ἐδιδάχθην παρὰ σοῦ τὸ πείθειν. ” Ὁ δὲ Κόραξ ἀντέστρεψεν αὐτὸν ὅτι “Δικάζομαι κἀγώ, καὶ εἰ μὲν πείσω λαβεῖν με μισθούς, ὡς πείσας ἔλαβον, εἰ δὲ μὴ πείσω λαβεῖν με, καὶ πάλιν ὀφείλω λαβεῖν μισθούς, ἐπειδὴ τηλικούτους ἐξέθρεψα μαθητάς, ὥστε τῶν διδασκάλων ἐπικρατεῖν.” Τότε οἱ παρεστηκότες ἐπεβόησαν λέγοντες “κακοῦ κόρακος κακὸν ᾠόν” ἀντὶ τοῦ “δεινοῦ διδασκάλου δεινότερος ὁ μαθητής.

Woman is fickle: a journey through an ancient topos

The topos of the fickle woman is well attested in ancient popular misogyny and returns from time to time in several contexts.

Our journey starts from Semonides of Amorgos, the author of the famous iambic poem (fr. 7) against women in which the poet compares women to different types of animals (or natural elements) characterised by specific flaws.

After having emphasised women’s changeability (ὀργὴν δ ἄλλοτ ἀλλοίην ἔχει ‘her mood changes from one moment to the next’, v. 11), Semonides associates the unreliability of women with the unpredictability of the sea (fr. 7, 39-42):

ὥσπερ θάλασσα πολλάκις μὲν ἀτρεμὴς
ἕστηκ’, ἀπήμων, χάρμα ναύτηισιν μέγα,
θέρεος ἐν ὥρηι, πολλάκις δὲ μαίνεται
βαρυκτύποισι κύμασιν φορεομένη.
ταύτηι μάλιστ’ ἔοικε τοιαύτη γυνὴ
ὀργήν· φυὴν δὲ πόντος ἀλλοίην ἔχει.


Just as the smooth unrippled sea at times

stands still, a joy to mariners in summer,

and then at times is wild with pounding waves

This woman’s temperament is just like that.

In this context, the term ὀργή is interesting for its double meaning of ‘temperament’, ‘natural attitude’ (7, 11) and of ‘wrath’ (7, 42).

The woman, then, is fickle like the sea and terrible in her wrath like the stormy sea.


Sleep and Death: beyond the Greek world

Latin literature too offers some examples of the close relationship between sleep and death also in Latin literature. In his Tusculanae Disputationes (1.92), Cicero repudiates the fear of death by recalling the Epicurean perspective: death does not concern he who is alive (for he is alive is not affected by death) nor he who has already died (for he can no longer perceive death). Cicero draws a parallel between the perception of death and the perception of sleep (cf. Lucr. De rerum natura3.919-30).

They who make the least of death consider it as having a great resemblance to sleep; as if any one would choose to live ninety years on condition that, at the expiration of sixty, he should sleep out the remainder […] You look on sleep as an image of death, and you take that on you daily; and have you, then, any doubt that there is no sensation in death, when you see there is none in sleep, which is its near resemblance?

In the sixth book of the Aeneid, Virgil recounts Aeneas’ descent to the Underworld, and among the infernal figures Virgil mentions (v. 278) (more…)

Sleep and Death

The association between sleep and death is one of the most consolidated topoi of the literature of all time: Homer praises the power of Hypnos, Thanatos’s brother, in the episode called Διὸς ἀπάτη (‘the deception of Zeus’), when Hera aims to distract his royal husband from the duties of war and to divert him from supporting the Trojans (Il.14.231-7):

There she met Sleep, the brother of Death;

and she clasped him by the hand, and spake and addressed him:

“Sleep, lord of all gods and of all men,

if ever thou didst hearken to word of mine,

so do thou even now obey, and I will owe thee thanks all my days.

Lull me to sleep the bright eyes of Zeus beneath his brows,

so soon as I shall have lain me by his side in love. (transl. Murray)

Hypnos and Thanatos are entrusted with the task of shipping Sarpedon’s body to Lycia so that he may receive his funeral honors (Il. 16.677-83):  (more…)

« Know thyself »

La morte di Socrate (J. Louis David 1787)

The death of Socrates (J. Louis David, 1787)

The motto γνῶθι σ(ε)αυτόν (“know thyself”) was one of the maxims inscribed on the pediment of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, along with μηδὲν ἄγαν (“nothing in excess”), inviting mankind to exercise moderation in life. It was through these maxims that Apollo’s oracle – one could think of it as one of the “mass-media” of ancient times – invited men to self-investigation, prompting them to discover that the essence of one’s life is not to be searched for in the world outside, but instead within ourselves.

This emphasis on the inner life and on the importance of knowing oneself will become a core element of the philosophy of Socrates, whose Protagoras (343a-b) traces the history of the Delphic inscription back to the Greek Seven Sages:

Such men were Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene, Solon of our city, Cleobulus of Lindus, Myson of Chen, and, last of the traditional seven, Chilon of Sparta. All these were enthusiasts, lovers and disciples of the Spartan culture; and you can recognize that character in their wisdom by the short, memorable sayings that fell from each of them: they assembled together and dedicated these as the first-fruits of their lore to Apollo in his Delphic temple, inscribing there those maxims which are on every tongue—“Know thyself” and “Nothing overmuch.(μηδὲν ἄγαν)”.(Translation by W. R. M. Lamb)


Being young in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greek poleis laws and customs varied and so it did the ‘path’ that young people had to make to become a citizen.

If we consider the two most representative models, i.e. the Athenians and the Spartans, we notice that the educational processes were already distinguished in their name: while the Athenian program was universally known as παιδεία (paideia), Spartans rather called it ἀγωγή (agōgē).

The παιδεία consisted of physical, cultural and psychological education aimed at achieving the individual’s harmonious participation to society through the assimilation of the Athenian ethos.

At the centre of παιδεία is the παῖς (pais), who concludes its education with a two-year period of ephebeia, preparing itself for the military tasks of the hoplite: the future citizen must share the ideology of the polis and take on his duties towards the community as a counterpart to those rights he would enjoy.


The flow that regulates life

It is always a pleasure and a great privilege to introduce my students to Archilochus. We have been focusing on the very famous fr. 128 West, written in catalectic trochaic tetrameters: one must face the storms of life and be able to rise again, confronting fiercely the enemies and any hardship that may come our way.

θυμὲ κυκώμενε...Θυμέ, θύμ’, ἀμηχάνοισι κήδεσιν κυκώμενε,
ἀναδύεο· μένων δ’ ἀλέξεο προσβαλὼν ἐναντίον
στέρνον, ἐνδόκοισιν ἐχθρῶν πλησίον κατασταθεὶς
ἀσϕαλέως· καὶ μήτε νικέων ἀμϕάδην ἀγάλλεο,
μηδὲ νικηθεὶς ἐν οἴκῳ καταπεσὼν ὀδύρεο,
ἀλλὰ χαρτοῖσίν τε χαῖρε καὶ κακοῖσιν ἀσχάλα
μὴ λίην, γίνωσκε δ’ οἷος ῥυσμὸς ἀνθρώπους ἔχει.

Let us try our hand at translating this fascinating text. All translations from Archilochus are loosely based on Douglas E. Gerber’s LOEB translation.

My heart, my heart, shaken by unrelenting woes

The apostrophe to the heart reminds us of Odysseus, who, having returned incognito to Ithaca, silently fumes at the sight of his young servants in cahoots with Penelope’s suitors τέτλαθι δὲ κραδίη, καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο ποτ᾽ ἔτλης, “Endure, my heart, you have suffered even more biting torments” (Odissey XX, 18). It is worth noting Archilochus’ use of the verb κυκάω (κυκώμενε “shaken”), which is etymologically linked with κῦμα, the wave of the sea to hint once again at the metaphor of life as a (potentially tempestuous) sea-voyage. (more…)

Music of Ancient Greece

The album “Musique de la Grèce Antique” has been published some decades ago but still stimulates curiosity and interest. The album results from the pioneering researches of Gregorio Paniaguaand his ensemble, the Atrium Musicae of Madrid. Even if musicological studies have since then progressed, the original spirit of this recording is still worthy of consideration.

While we can admire many extraordinary literary and architectural examples of ancient Greek culture, as for ancient music we have only scattered fragments that miraculously survived on papyrus and later documents.

The album gathers for the first time the rare Greek musical fragments, including the only one that dates back to imperial Rome (four damaged bars belonging to a work of Terence).

The album offers an overview of the music practiced in Greece on the most disparate occasions, being (the music) an essential part of everyone’s daily life. Luckily, musical theory has not suffered the same destiny, for we have received numerous treaties (in Greek, Latin or Arabic).

Greek music used two systems of notation: the instrumental notation, composed of fifteen different signs which probably derived from an archaic alphabet, and the vocal notation, which was formed, by contrast, by the twenty-four letters of the Ionic alphabet. (more…)