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Timotheus: "The Persians"

Timotheus was an innovative musician who lived in the late 5th century B.C. He played a lyre with eleven strings, whereas the tradional Greek lyre had seven strings. This annoyed conservative music-lovers, especially at Sparta.

According to Satyrus, in his Life of Euripides, "When Timotheus was suffering from unpopularity in Greece because of his musical innovations, and in the depths of despair had actually made up his mind to take his own life, it it said that Euripides alone took the opposite line, and not only laughed at the audiences, but realising how great an exponent of his art Timotheus was, consoled him with the most comforting arguments possible, and went so far as to compose for him the prelude to The Persians, his victory with which put an end to Timotheus' unpopularity."

This "nome" describes the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the battle of Salamis. It has been translated by J.M.Edmonds, who attempted to match the idiosyncratic Greek of Timotheus with some equally idiosyncratic English. Because of the unusual language, and frequent gaps in the text, the meaning is uncertain at some points.



[ The beginning of the poem is lost. Four lines are quoted by later authors: ]

Fashioning for Greece the great and glorious ornament of freedom

Worship honour, the helpmate of battling valour

Ares is king; Greece fears no gold

And they hastened forward with their floating chariots bronze-empointed

* * *

[1] But neighboured by furious plashing of inter-rhythmic oars, ships against ships graved the smooth sea that is daughter of Phorcus. They had put upon their feet cornices of spearhead-like teeth, and speeding forward a-row with heads bent, swept off the foeman's pinewood arms. But if there went from them so unerring a blow as to rend his thwarts, at that spot all the crew would fall upon the enemy. Or if the daylight rushed against their sides, they plied their myriad plashing pine-laths afresh upon a slanting course. As for their victims, while, disparting their bodies this way and that, they sought to inweave their sides with hemp, some they charged and overthrew with renewed thunderbolts, others sank headlong, stripped of their glorious honour by the iron.

[20] Meanwhile the thong-bound cornel-shafted arrow-point that is forged in the fire, was let fly from the hand. and whirred its hurtling quill to fall among men's limbs ; and in solid mass sped murderous hurlstones, and coils tarred and flaming upon ox-flaying splints of wood; while thronging life went to the sacrifice beneath the spread-winged bronze-head snakes that are notched upon the bowstring till the furrow of the emerald-tressed sea grew red with the drippings of Ares, and all was mingled pain and shrieking.

[35] Backward and forth with ours went the barbarian navy in the shining folds of the fish-wreathed bosom of Amphitrite. There now one from the plain of Hermus, a lord of the land of couriers, his legs ploughing, his arms beating the rainy tract, floated amid the buffets of the waves an islander. At last, when each and all of the ways that he sought only proved him trapped, forspent and gasping hard he called upon the divine Sea-Father saying:

* * *   [ about 20 lines lost ]

[60] And as often as the breath failed him, there would break in upon him a spumy rain unblent with Bacchus and pour into the channel of his meat; and whenever the back-thrown brine seethed over from his mouth, with accents hoarse and wits distraught, in impotent anger gnashing his teeth he would storm and rage at the sea that was the despoiler of his life, saying: 'Already for all thy arrogance hast thou had thy turbulent neck bound in a hempen fetter, and now my king, mine, shall muddy thy depths with mountain-born pines and shut up thy floating plains within wandering coasts, thou frenzied thing of olden hate, faithful minion of the billow-coursing gale.' So spake he all fordone with panting, and cast forth an awful foam as his mouth spued back the deep-drawn brine.

[86] And now the barbarian host went back in flight pell-mell. With necks outstretched flew the ships, till this shoal or that brake every one, and they lost from their hands their vessel's mountain feet, and the white-shining children of their mouth leapt forth as they dashed one against another; and the sea was shingled over with swarming bodies reft of the sunlight by failure of breath, and with the same were the shores heavy laden; while others sat stark and naked on the island-beaches, and with cries and floods of tears, wailing and beating their breasts, were whelmed in mournful lamentation, and called upon the land of their fathers, saying : 'Ho, ye tree-tressed dells of Mysia, save me out of this place to whence the winds did bring us; else never shall the dust receive my body. For on the one side yawns the dire cavern of Heaven, father of Nymphs and heavy to the arm, and over against it the deeper gulf of the tempestuous sea. Take me, I pray you, where I would my master [Xerxes] had never built over the floating Helle [Hellespont] that roof of far but final traverse. For never then should I have left Tmolus and the Lydian city of Sardis, to come and fend off the Greek war god [Ares]. But now alas! where is to be found a sweet and secure refuge from death? Troy straits alone would assuage my woe, if I might but fall before the mighty black-flower-robed knees of the Mountain-Mother and clasp the fingers of those lovely arms. O gold-tressed Mother-Goddess save and deliver this trammelled life of mine, of mine, or some weapon-skilly wight will carry me off with his cut-throat steel forthwith, or else the ship-wrecker North-winds that march a-row over the billows will make an end of me with their night-freezing blast; for the wild wave has torn from off me all the woven covering of my limbs and there I shall lie for a pitiable banquet to the carrion-eating tribes of birds.'

[139] Such were their weeping lamentations. And whenever some dweller in the pasture-lands of Celaenae, bereft now of battle, was seized by an iron-haft Greek who lifted up his head by the hair, then writhing and clasping the foeman's knees he would thus inweave the Greek and Asian tongues, marring the clear-cut seal-stamp of his mouth with tracking down the Ionian speech : 'I me to thee how? and what to do? me come again nohow; and now brung me here this way my master ; no more, father, me no more come this way again to fight, but me not move; me not to you this way, me that way unto Sardis, unto Susa, home Ecbatana. My great God, Artemis, over to Ephesus will protect.'

[162] And when their hotfoot backward flight was finished, forthwith they cast the twin-cheeked javelins down, tore their faces with their nails, and rent the fine-woven Persian robe about their breasts. High-pitched now was the gamut of their Oriental dirge, and all the royal concourse rang with manifold-mourning terror when they saw what was to be. The king also, when he beheld his routed host go backward in confusion, fell on his knees and laid hands upon himself in the storm of his misfortune saying : 'Woe for the razing of homes! and alas for you, you desolating Greek ships that have destroyed a populous generation of young men, and have so done that our ships that should have carried them back home shall burn in the flaming might of furious fire, and the pains of lamentation be upon the land of Persia. O ill hap that led me to Greece! But ho! come quickly, yoke me my chariot and four and you bring out my countless wealth to the wagons, and burn my pavilions that it profit them not of my riches.'

[196] As for the others the while, they set them up trophies to be a most holy place of Zeus, and hymned the great healing-god [Paean] men cry to, beating the ground pat to the tune in the high stepped dance.

[202] But O great healer to whom we cry, exalter of a new-made Muse of the lute of gold, come thou to aid these lays of mine. For the great and noble and long-lived guide of Sparta city, that people that teems with blossoms of youth, dings me and drives me with the flare of censure, for that I dishonour the ancient music with poems young. Yet do I keep no man, be he young or old or my own compeer, from these my songs; it is the debauchers of the olden music, them keep I off, the tune- torturers who shriek as long, and shrill as loud, as any common crier. In the beginning did Orpheus son of Calliope beget the motley-musicked shell on Mount Pieria; and after him came the great Terpander, born of Aeolian Lesbos at Antissa, and yoked the Muse unto poems ten; and lo! now Timotheus opens the Muses' rich and cloistered treasure-house of song and gives the lyre new life with times and measures of eleven strings, nursling he of Miletus, the town of a twelve-walled people [the Ionians] that is chief among the Achaeans.

[237] But to this city I pray thee come, thou Far-darting Pythian with the gifts of prosperity and a peace abounding in orderliness for an untroubled people.


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