A flute girl plays at a Symposium

Lysander sailed into Piraeus, the exiles returned, and the walls were pulled down among scenes of great enthusiasm and to the music of flute girls. It was thought that this day was the beginning of the freedom for Greece…. Xenophon from “Hellenica”.

So ended the great Pelopennesian War between Athens and Sparta and their various allies, on April 25th 404 BC.  And there Xenophon paints a very interesting picture.  The walls in question were the long walls which linked Athens to the port of Piraeus.  The power of Athens was the sea, and access to the sea.  Admiral Lysander wanted to break that power forever.

Tearing down those walls “with enthusiasm” is understandable.  Without the long walls Athens could be severed from the sea by a competent land army like the Spartans.

The presence of the flute girls adds a rich and complex symbolism to the event.

I have heard people refer to the flute girls, the aulêtrides as prostitutes.  To do so is simply wrong.  Their role in Greek Society is far more nuanced and complex.  Athens had a formalised and taxed system of prostitution, introduced by the great lawmaker Solon.

At the bottom of the Athenian sex worker industry were the brothel prostitutes.  Called pornai they were generally barbarian slaves, the property of pimps, working under tight control, with no rights.

Marginally above the pornai you had street prostitutes who were ostensibly self-employed but in reality probably operated like modern street hookers.  They had some right of refusal and more freedom than the brothel prostitutes.

At the very top of the sex worker industry were the hetairai who were the equivalent of Japanese Geisha, courtesans or “escorts”.  The hetairai had long term and often exclusive arrangements with wealthy men.  They were expected to be cultured and somewhat educated.  There are references to relationships where the intellectual companionship was more important than the sexual contract.

Between the high level and very expensive hetairai and the low level street and brothel pornai was the shadowy world of temple prostitution, flute and harp girls.

When looking at the sex industry from a modern western perspective it can be difficult to conceptualise the role of sexuality in Greek religion.  Temples of Dionysus, Demeter and Aphrodite had sex workers who participated in rites.  But while there is widespread lurid speculation about these rites there is very little actually documented about them.  Dionysian rites involved intentional drunkenness as a path to attaining catharsis, and may also, in the manner of drunken people everywhere, have involved consenting sexual activity.  Whether actual Dionysian temple prostitutes participated in such activities is unknown.

I suspect the situation in the temples of Demeter and Aphrodite were entirely different.  The eleusinian rites of the temple of Demeter lasted until Christianity attained supremacy in the Roman Empire.  Every senior Roman of note appears to have participated, but again the rites themselves are undocumented.  There is great speculation that they involved low level rites of drunkenness and sex, and the higher mysteries.  These higher mysteries may also have involved an ancient form of LSD derived from ergot, a mould that grows naturally on wheat.

Activities in these temples likely involved issues such as contraception, child birth and fertility.  The problem of male infertility is easily remedied by a visit from a fertile “deity”.  The economics of prostitution depends upon avoiding conception, or having knowledge of abortion practices.  To this day these are issues that society struggles with from an ethical perspective.

But back to the flute girls!  Solon’s laws included a structure for the management, appointment and control of fee structures for Flute and Lyre players.  These “entertainers” were assigned to attend symposiums.

Today a symposium is a conference, often with academic connotations.  In Ancient Greece the symposium was an event that took place after a banquet.  It could range from an intellectual debate to a debauched party.  Several writers refer to the importance of ejecting the flute girls from a symposium if you wanted a serious debate.  This gives the impression that the flute girls acted in the role of party facilitators.

When the girls played their instruments it called a halt to “serious” conversation and signalled a relaxation phase of the night.  The image of the girl above is taken from a Krater, a large urn that was used to mix the wine and water for a night of drinking.

The flute girls were paid to attend the symposium and play music.  This did not mean they were necessarily prostitutes, although many of them were.  They clearly had the right to pick and choose their situation, and negotiate any “extras”.  They probably bribed the city officials to be selected for the better quality of symposium with the wealthier clients.

In his play Wasps Aristophanes character Philoclean abducts a flute girl from a party and tries to persuade her to have sex.  This is not the act of someone who has power to simply take or pay for a prostitute.  High status flute girls probably had more in common with courtesans like actresses or performers such as Nell Gwyn, Lily Langtry, Mata Hari or Lola Montez.  The luckiest might attain hetairai status.

While the pornai are clearly used for sex, the flute girl brings a skill set to the table which makes her role and presence more nuanced.   In the image on the Krater above she is fully clothed and the men appear to be listening to the music, waving arms in time.   The music may have had an important set of roles.  As already alluded to it served a boundary function moving the night from sober debate into relaxation.  The music itself, if loud enough, may have precluded further debate.  Music is a pathway to abandonment and a road to catharsis, especially when combined with wine.

For the ancient Greeks the balance between logic and emotion might be shifted through the use of music.  Many ancient Greek writers questioned the place of music education in the classroom because the school should be devoted to the mind and not the heart.

So Lysander probably hired the flute and lyre players to attend the destruction of the long walls.  These days it is difficult to decode his motivations, but it was not simply the provision of base prostitution to his soldiers.  Pornoi would have sufficed for that.

Did he want to signal a boundary, to mark an end to the pain of decades of war and a move to a happier time of relaxation?  Were there specific religious rites attendant upon the destruction of the walls?  Did the music serve a role in the appeasement of the Gods?  Or was he trying to appease the Athenians with “bread and circuses”?

Trophy, triumph, memorial.

India Gate

India Gate is a memorial arch in New Delhi, designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the premier British Architect of his day.  Today is the birthday of Lutyens who was born in 1869.  The Arch was ostensibly a memorial to the Indian soldiers who gave their lives for the British Empire in World War 1 and in the Third Ango-Afghan War in 1919.

It was the Ancient Greeks who gave us the tradition of the battlefield trophy.  At the end of a battle the victorious soldiers would erect a tropaion.  The earliest were simply votive offerings to thank the Gods for victory and to honour the dead.  Armour and arms were stacked or hung from a nearby tree.

Later the practice became more formalised.  A “tree” was erected on the battlefield at the point where the phalanx was turned, where the battle was won.  It was decorated with armaments and a dedication plaque was carved in stone.

Later again the temporary trophies on the sites of significant victories were marked permanently with a stone carved trophy.

It was the Romans who brought the Tropaeum home.  It was also the Romans who invented the arch.  Victorious generals were more interested in impressing the voters than in leaving a mark on some distant battlefield.  So they erected their trophy in the city where everyone could see it.  Over the years various different memorials were used but the most famous are the triumphal arches in the Roman forum the Arch of Titus, the arch of Semptimius Severus and the Arch of Constantine.

The Romans also introduced the practice of building triumphal arches in their colony cities, as a raw display of the power of Rome.  On the one hand it is a display of the wealth and stability of Empire, but on the other it is a dire warning of what happens to those who rebel.

Napoleon famously copied the Roman practice with his Arc de Triomph de l’Étoile.  Laid down at the height of his power in 1810 it was not completed until after his death.  His ashes passed under it in 1840 on the way to their final resting place.

The foundation stone for the India Gate arch was laid down in 1921 by a Britain which was fighting a war in Ireland to hold the Empire together.  They were trying to sell the continuation of Empire to an Indian Population who were actively campaigning for independence.  By the time the India Gate was completed in 1931 India was demanding Dominion status.

Today the arch is one of the great tourist attractions of New Delhi.  It serves as an interesting hybrid of the original concept of the battlefield trophy.  Built by the British as an imperial memorial but now symbolising the triumph of the freedom and independence of the Indian nation.

On the Acropolis at Athens was erected a Bronze Chariot and steeds.
The inscription read (Herodotus 5.77):

The sons of Athens
having subdued in the work of war
the peoples of Boeotia and Chalcis,
quenched their arrogance
in sorrowful iron bondage.

These statues of the horses of their foes,
they dedicated to Pallas as a tithe of the ransom.



Image result for boulevard anspach caryatids

The matronly women supporting the portch of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens are the model for most of the Caryatids we know.  Stautesque, strong, solid pillars of the community.  Nothing flighty about these ladies.

There is some debate around the origin of the Caryatid.  In some theories they represent women from the Greek town of Carie near Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum in Turkey).  The town sided with the Persians and when the town fell the women became captives.

Another theory is that they represent dancers in a religious rite to celebrate Artemis.

Whatever the truth in reality generations of matronly women were condemned to a fate similar to Atlas, who supported the sky.  These ladies were fated to bear great stones on their heads.

The giant Caryatids of Winkel Van Sinkel (1839) in Utrecht are nicknamed “The English Whores” or the “Fallen English Women”.  Cast in England they broke the crane offloading them from the ship on which they were transported.

Until the arrival of Auguste Rodin, born November 12th 1840.  Rodin was the sculptor who did to materials what the impressionists were doing to paint, and light, and colour.  Rodin smashed convention.

To my mind his greatest success was with the Fallen Caryatid, exhibited in 1886.  Gone is the solid older woman.  Here is a beautiful young girl.  She has collapsed beneath the weight of the stone.  But it takes no more than a glance to know that it is not the physical weight that overcomes her.  She carries an emotional weight, her despair may be with the world at large or a matter of the heart.  Is this why the role of the Caryatid was heretofore entrusted to older women, matrons done with the emotional rollercoaster of youth?

In that torture of emotions we write our own stories, as Robert Heinlein did in the quote below.  That engagement, our personal investment in an object, is the mark of great art.

Image result for rodin caryatids

This poor little caryatid has fallen under the load. She’s a good girl—look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, not blaming anyone, not even the gods . . . and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it. But she’s more than good art denouncing bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who ever shouldered a load too heavy. But not alone women—this symbol means every man and woman who ever sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, Ben, and victory.”

“ ‘Victory’?”

Victory in defeat, there is none higher. She didn’t give up, Ben; she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She’s a father working while cancer eats away his insides, to bring home one more pay check. She’s a twelve-year-old trying to mother her brothers and sisters because mama had to go to Heaven. She’s a switchboard operator sticking to her post while smoke chokes her and fire cuts off her escape. She’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t make it but never quit. Come. Salute as you pass…”

Robert Heinlein ; Stranger in a Strange Land



What’s the point?


There are suicide bombs in downtown Kabul. Shootings and stabbings in Jerusalem.  Twin bombings and 97 dead at a peace rally in Ankara.  Suicide bombings in Chad and Cameroon.

So much for the Arab spring.  The green shoots of hope have turned into the flames of torment and destruction.  Innocents on all sides die as the men of violence drive the dialogue.  But what is the dialogue?

What are the aims, the goals, the dreams?  Are we just seeing a random outpouring of violence by dissatisfied young Muslim men seeking adventure or is there a guiding hand behind all of this?

From where I am sitting the whole thing just seems pointless.

When The Assault Was Intended To The City; by John Milton

Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms,
Whose chance on these defenceless doors may seize,
If ever deed of honour did thee please,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms,
He can requite thee, for he knows the charms
That call Fame on such gentle acts as these,
And he can spread thy Name o’er Lands and Seas,
What ever clime the Suns bright circle warms.
Lift not thy spear against the Muses Bower,
The great Emathian Conqueror bid spare
The house of Pindarus, when Temple and Tower
Went to the ground: And the repeated air
Of sad Electra’s Poet had the power
To save the Athenian Walls from ruin bare.

Tall tales and Marathons

John Treacy (IRL) Silver in LA Olympic Marathon, 1984

John Treacy (IRL) Silver in LA Olympic Marathon, 1984

The battle of Marathon was fought between a greek army and the Persians on this day in 490 BC.

In the days leading up to the battle the Athenian and Plataean Hoplites had the Persians pinned in a holding action on the Plain of Marathon.  The lightly armed Persians did not want to go toe to toe with the Greek heavy infantry.  The outnumbered Greeks for their part had no wish to go on the offensive.  They were happy to remain in stalemate while they sent runners to seek more reinforcements.

One of their runners was Pheidippides.  His mission was to run  to Sparta, 140 miles away.  In heroic manner he completed the journey in two days.  The Spartans said they were in the middle of a “religious festival” and couldn’t come until it was over.

For some reason (perhaps concerned that reinforcements would arrive) the Persians decided to bring the Greeks to battle.  The Persian army favoured the use of ranged weapons, archery, slinging and javelins.  They prepared to engage the Greeks from a distance.  For their part the Greeks had little interest in being shot at as they marched into battle.  For the first time in history they decided to mount a charge on foot.  The Persians were taken by surprise.  Their lightly armed infantry was decimated.  The wings collapsed and the Greeks began to envelop the centre of the Persian line.  The Persian withdrawal turned into a race for the ships and quickly became a rout.

After the battle the Athenians were concerned for their city.  They had left Athens defenseless to bring as many troops as possible to battle in Marathon.  As the Persian fleet set sail for Athens the Hoplites made for home in haste.  They covered the 25 mile distance in rapid time.  When the Persian fleet saw the Athenian army arrive overland they turned away from the City.  Victory was complete for the Athenians.

Over time the stories of Pheidippides run and the forced march of the Athenian army became confused.  From the confusion was born the concept of the Marathon  race.  When the first modern Olympic games was staged in Athens in 1896 the idea of a Marathon race was proposed and accepted.  It has become one of the enduring pillars of the Olympic ideal, the ultimate distance race and a cauldron of legends.

Running ; by Raymond A. Foss

She was running this morning
early Sunday morning
while we drove by on the way to church
black top, black shorts,
once white running shoes
toned features,
purposeful face,
black bands on her biceps
hair bouncing in the breeze
It seemed she was arguing
with herself, the way her head
jerked from side to side,
her face grimaced
with the footfalls down the hill,
off the bridge, like she was debating
and losing the point
propelled on, downward
by gravity, by the flow of the sidewalk,
as she was running this morning
Whatever joy led her to the work,
catching the beauty of the morning,
freedom from other cares,
they were lost, in the puffing,
the contorting, the hurtling
down the hill by the river
Running was the only thing,
the only thing left.



Sept 22nd 480 BC the allied fleet of the southern Greek city states defeated the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis. It was an unlikely victory, and one that stopped the Persian invasion in its tracks.
Up to this point the Greeks were in full retreat. Glorious as the 300 Spartans under Leonidas were at Thermopylae the Greeks were defeated on both land and sea.

Athens lay next in the path of the enormous army under Xerxes. When the Athenians consulted the oracle at Delphi they were advised, in highly vague terms as usual, to retreat behind their wooden walls. Athenian power came from their fleet, so they believed that this meant they should abandon the marble city and sail away. The Persians sacked Athens on the 21st of Sept. Next day the two sides fought a naval engagement; the battle of Salamis.

The victory by the Greek allies (half the fleet was Athenian) severely damaged the ability of the Persians to maintain their invasion. The Persians had no fleet themselves. They relied upon the fleets of the Asian greek states under their vasselage as well as the Phonecians. The clash at Salamis did little numerical damage to the Persian fleet, but it was a tactical disaster. The ships they lost were the “fast ships”. These were the bronze beaked war triremes. They served a similar role in ancient fleets to Destroyers on convoy duty during the Atlantic war in WW2. They protected the slow moving cargo vessels from enemy attack.

Once the Greeks had eliminated the Persian triremes, the sea was open to them. Capturing Persian transports was like shooting fish in a barrel. Also, the Triremes carried the best and the brightest of the strategists, navigators, rowing crews and sailors. The Persians were unable to replace these ships and men in the time needed to complete their invasion.

It is perhaps no surprise that Xerxes took this opportunity to remove himself from the campaign, and returned to Persia leaving Mardonius in charge.

According to the history books the Greeks did not immediately attack the Persian land army, because “an eclipse of the sun” occurred and was taken as a bad omen. They bided their time over the winter. What a lot of tosh. The Greek armies had been badly mauled in their defense of Attica. The respite accorded by the victory at Salamis gave them a much needed opportunity to rest, regroup and rearm. In the meantime the Greek navy undoubtedly went to work on the Persian supply fleet. Grain ships bound for Mardonius captured and brought to Greek armies.

As a result Mardonius had to retreat far north to Thessaly where he was in relatively friendly territory, and could secure supply routes from Persia. The following Summer he marched south again and met the allies at Platea. Where Salamis was a battle dictated by the Athenian sailors, Platea was dictated by the Spartan Hoplites. In a world where battles were fought by men banging shields, singing paeans and roaring defiance the Spartans stood apart. They marched in silence, a disciplined phalanx of red cloaked warriors, bringing death to their foe. Platea was the high watermark of the Spartan military system.
Platea was only made possible by Salamis. So it is the Battle of Salamis that goes down in history as the battle that saved Greek Independence, Greek Civilization and hence Western Civilzation. If the Greeks had not won at Salamis the world today would be a different place.

The Battle of Salamis; by Aeschylus

The night was passing, and the Grecian host
By no means sought to issue forth unseen.
But when indeed the day with her white steeds
Held all the earth, resplendent to behold,
First from the Greeks the loud-resounding din
Of song triumphant came; and shrill at once
Echo responded from the island rock.
Then upon all barbarians terror fell,
Thus disappointed; for not as for flight
The Hellenes sang the holy pæan then,
But setting forth to battle valiantly.
The bugle with its note inflamed them all;
And straightway with the dip of plashing oars
They smote the deep sea water at command,
And quickly all were plainly to be seen.
Their right wing first in orderly array
Led on, and second all the armament
Followed them forth; and meanwhile there was heard
A mighty shout: “Come, O ye sons of Greeks,
Make free your country, make your children free,
Your wives, and fanes of your ancestral gods,
And your sires’ tombs! For all we now contend!”
And from our side the rush of Persian speech
Replied. No longer might the crisis wait.
At once ship smote on ship with brazen beak;
A vessel of the Greeks began the attack,
Crushing the stem of a Phoenician ship.
Each on a different vessel turned its prow.
At first the current of the Persian host
Withstood; but when within the strait the throng
Of ships was gathered, and they could not aid
Each other, but by their own brazen bows
Were struck, they shattered all our naval host.
The Grecian vessels not unskillfully
Were smiting round about; the hulls of ships
Were overset; the sea was hid from sight,
Covered with wreckage and the death of men;
The reefs and headlands were with corpses filled,
And in disordered flight each ship was rowed,
As many as were of the Persian host.
But they, like tunnies or some shoal of fish,
With broken oars and fragments of the wrecks
Struck us and clove us; and at once a cry
Of lamentation filled the briny sea,
Till the black darkness’ eye did rescue us.
The number of our griefs, not though ten days
I talked together, could I fully tell;
But this know well, that never in one day
Perished so great a multitude of men.