Lucian of Samosata

Heracles, an Introductory Lecture

1. Our Heracles is known among the Gauls under the local name of Ogmius; and the appearance he presents in their pictures is truly grotesque. They make him out as old as old can be: the few hairs he has left (he is quite bald in front) are dead white, and his skin is wrinkled and tanned as black as any old salt’s. You would take him for some infernal deity, for Charon or Iapetus,— anyone rather than Heracles. Such as he is, however, he has all the proper attributes of that God: the lion’s-skin hangs over his shoulders, his right hand grasps the club, his left the strung bow, and a quiver is slung at his side; nothing is wanting to the Heraclean equipment.

2. Now I thought at first that this was just a cut at the Greek Gods; that in taking these liberties with the personal appearance of Heracles, the Gauls were merely exacting pictorial vengeance for his invasion of their territory; for in his search after the herds of Geryon he had overrun and plundered most of the peoples of the West.

3. However, I have yet to mention the most remarkable feature in the portrait. This ancient Heracles drags after him a vast crowd of men, all of whom are fastened by the ears with thin chains composed of gold and amber, and looking more like beautiful necklaces than anything else. From this flimsy bondage they make no attempt to escape, though escape must be easy. There is not the slightest show of resistance: instead of planting their heels in the ground and dragging back, they follow with joyful alacrity, singing their captor’s praises the while; and from the eagerness with which they hurry after him to prevent the chains from tightening, one would say that release is the last thing they desire. Nor will I conceal from you what struck me as the most curious circumstance of all. Heracles’s right hand is occupied with the club, and his left with the bow: how is he to hold the ends of the chains? The painter solves the difficulty by boring a hole in the tip of the God’s tongue, and making that the means of attachment; his head is turned round, and he regards his followers with a smiling countenance.

4. For a long time I stood staring at this in amazement: I knew not what to make of it, and was beginning to feel somewhat nettled, when I was addressed in admirable Greek by a Gaul who stood at my side, and who besides possessing a scholarly acquaintance with the Gallic mythology, proved to be not unfamiliar with our own. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I see this picture puzzles you: let me solve the riddle. We Gauls connect eloquence not with Hermes, as you do, but with the mightier Heracles. Nor need it surprise you to see him represented as an old man. It is the prerogative of eloquence, that it reaches perfection in old age; at least if we may believe your poets, who tell us that Youth is the sport of every random gust, whereas old age Hath that to say that passes youthful wit. Thus we find that from Nestor’s lips honey is distilled; and that the words of the Trojan counsellors are compared to the lily, which, if I have not forgotten my Greek, is the name of a flower.

5. Hence, if you will consider the relation that exists between tongue and ear, you will find nothing more natural than the way in which our Heracles, who is Eloquence personified, draws men along with their ears tied to his tongue. Nor is any slight intended by the hole bored through that member: I recollect a passage in one of your comic poets in which we are told that There is a hole in every glib tongue’s tip.

6. Indeed, we refer the achievements of the original Heracles, from first to last, to his wisdom and persuasive eloquence. His shafts, as I take it, are no other than his words; swift, keen-pointed, true-aimed to do deadly execution on the soul.’ And in conclusion he reminded me of our own phrase, ‘winged words.’

7. Now while I was debating within myself the advisability of appearing before you, and of submitting myself for a second time to the verdict of this enormous jury, old as I am, and long unused to lecturing, the thought of this Heracles portrait came to my relief. I had been afraid that some of you would consider it a piece of youthful audacity inexcusable in one of my years. ‘Thy force,’ some Homeric youth might remark with crushing effect, ‘is spent; dull age hath borne thee down’; and he might add, in playful allusion to my gouty toes, Slow are thy steeds, and weakness waits upon thee. But the thought of having that venerable hero to keep me in countenance emboldens me to risk everything: I am no older than he.

8. Good-bye, then, to bodily perfections, to strength and speed and beauty; Love, when he sees my grey beard, is welcome to fly past, as the poet of Teos has it, with rush of gilded wings; ’tis all one to Hippoclides. Old age is Wisdom’s youth, the day of her glorious flower: let her draw whom she can by the ears; let her shoot her bolts freely; no fear now lest the supply run short. There is the old man’s comfort, on the strength of which he ventures to drag down his boat, which has long lain high and dry, provision her as best he may, and once more put out to sea. Never did I stand in more need of a generous breeze, to fill my sails and speed me on my way: may the Gods dispose you to contribute thereto; so shall I not be found wanting, and of me, as of Odysseus, it shall be said, How stout a thigh lurked ‘neath the old man’s rags!

Zeuxis and Antiochus

8. So said Zeuxis, not in the best of tempers. Antiochus Soter had a somewhat similar experience about his battle with the Galatians. If you will allow me, I propose to give you an account of that event also. These people were good fighters, and on this occasion in great force; they were drawn up in a serried phalanx, the first rank, which consisted of steel-clad warriors, being supported by men of the ordinary heavy-armed type to the depth of four-and-twenty; twenty thousand cavalry held the flanks; and there were eighty scythed, and twice that number of ordinary war chariots ready to burst forth from the centre. These dispositions filled Antiochus with apprehension, and he thought the task was too hard for him. His own preparations had been hurried, on no great scale, and inadequate to the occasion; he had brought quite a small force, mostly of skirmishers and light-armed troops; more than half his men were without defensive armour. He was disposed to negotiate and find some honourable composition.

9. Theodotas of Rhodes, however, a brave and skilful officer, put him in heart again. Antiochus had sixteen elephants; Theodotas advised him to conceal these as well as he could for the present, not letting their superior height betray them; when the signal for battle was given, the shock just at hand, the enemy’s cavalry charging, and their phalanx opening to give free passage to the chariots, then would be the time for the elephants. A section of four was to meet the cavalry on each flank, and the remaining eight to engage the chariot squadron. ‘By this means,’ he concluded, ‘the horses will be frightened, and there will be a stampede into the Galatian infantry.’ His anticipations were realized, thus:

10. Neither the Galatians nor their horses had ever seen an elephant, and they were so taken aback by the strange sight that, long before the beasts came to close quarters, the mere sound of their trumpeting, the sight of their gleaming tusks relieved against dark bodies, and minatory waving trunks, was enough; before they were within bow-shot, the enemy broke and ran in utter disorder; the infantry were spitted on each other’s spears, and trampled by the cavalry who came scurrying on to them. The chariots, turning in like manner upon their own friends, whirled about among them by no means harmlessly; it was a Homeric scene of ‘rumbling tumbling cars’; when once the horses shied at those formidable elephants, off went the drivers, and ‘the lordless chariots rattled on,’ their scythes maiming and carving any of their late masters whom they came within reach of; and, in that chaos, many were the victims. Next came the elephants, trampling, tossing, tearing, goring; and a very complete victory they had made of it for Antiochus.

11. The carnage was great, and all the Galatians were either killed or captured, with the exception of a quite small band which got off to the mountains; Antiochus’s Macedonians sang the Paean, gathered round, and garlanded him with acclamations on the glorious victory. But the King — so the story goes — was in tears; ‘My men,’ he said, ‘we have more reason for shame; saved by those sixteen brutes! if their strangeness had not produced the panic, where should we have been?’ And on the trophy he would have nothing carved except just an elephant.

12. Gentlemen, de me fabula; are my resources like those of Antiochus — quite unfit for battle on the whole, but including some elephants, some queer impositions, some jugglery, in fact? That is what all the praise I hear points at. The things I really relied upon seem to be of little account; the mere fact that my picture is of a female Centaur exercises fascination; it passes for a novelty and a marvel, as indeed it is. The rest of Zeuxis’s pains is thrown away, I suppose. But ah, no, not thrown away —; you are connoisseurs, and judge by the rules of art. I only hope the show may be worthy of the spectators.

Alexander, the Oracle-Monger, the False Prophet,Alexander

9. The next things to be settled were, first the theatre of operations, and secondly the plan of campaign. Cocconas favoured Chalcedon, as a mercantile centre convenient both for Thrace and Bithynia, and accessible enough for the province of Asia, Galatia, and tribes still further east. Alexander, on the other hand, preferred his native place, urging very truly that an enterprise like theirs required congenial soil to give it a start, in the shape of ‘fat-heads’ and simpletons; that was a fair description, he said, of the Paphlagonians beyond Abonoteichos; they were mostly superstitious and well-to-do; one had only to go there with someone to play the flute, the tambourine, or the cymbals, set the proverbial mantic sieve a-spinning, and there they would all be gaping as if he were a God from heaven.

18. By degrees Bithynia, Galatia, Thrace, came flocking in, everyone who had been present doubtless reporting that he had beheld the birth of the God, and had touched him after his marvellous development in size and in expression. Next came pictures and models, bronze or silver images, and the God acquired a name. By divine command, metrically expressed, he was to be known as Glycon. For Alexander had delivered the line:

Glycon is my name,
man’s light,
son’s son (grandson) to Zeus.

30. So things went within the borders of Ionia, Cilicia, Paphlagonia, and Galatia. When the fame of the oracle travelled to Italy and entered Rome, the only question was, who should be first; those who did not come in person sent messages, the powerful and respected being the keenest of all. First and foremost among these was Rutilianus; he was in most respects an excellent person, and had filled many high offices in Rome; but he suffered from religious mania, holding the most extraordinary beliefs on that matter; show him a bit of stone smeared with unguents or crowned with flowers, and he would incontinently fall down and worship, and linger about it praying and asking for blessings. The reports about our oracle early induced him to throw up the appointment he then held, and fly to Abonoteichos; he actually did send messenger upon messenger. His envoys were ignorant servants, easily taken in. They came back having really seen certain things, relating others which they probably thought they had seen and heard, and yet others which they deliberately invented to curry favour with their master. So they inflamed the poor old man and drove him into confirmed madness.

44. On one occasion, indeed, an Epicurean got himself into great trouble by daring to expose him before a great gathering. He came up and addressed him in a loud voice. ‘Alexander, it was you who induced So-and-so the Paphlagonian to bring his slaves before the governor of Galatia, charged with the murder of his son who was being educated in Alexandria. Well, the young man is alive, and has come back, to find that the slaves had been cast to the beasts by your machinations.’ What had happened was this. The lad had sailed up the Nile, gone on to a Red Sea port, found a vessel starting for India, and been persuaded to make the voyage. He being long overdue, the unfortunate slaves supposed that he had either perished in the Nile or fallen a victim to some of the pirates who infested it at that time; so they came home to report his disappearance. Then followed the oracle, the sentence, and finally the young man’s return with the story of his absence.

The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1905.