Stories, stories, stories.
I have always wondered this: General Marcellus, what did you do with the soldier who killed Archimedes?
If you don’t know, the story is that at the end of the 2nd century BC, when the Siege of Syracuse ended (part of the Punic Wars), Marcellus recognized the importance of the greatest scientist & mathematician of antiquity and gave orders that he be saved. But one soldier found a recalcitrant old man contemplating what he had drawn in the dust. ‘Do not disturb my circles,’ said the old man, refusing orders to move. Whereupon the soldier slaughtered him.
This is one of those incidents from antiquity that I take far too personally. I mean, is it very horrible that I fantasize executing that soldier?
The ‘supposed tomb of Archimedes’ was among the ruins we visited in the Ortygia section of Syracuse. It’s sort of a bunch of crumbling tombic holes. I didn’t pay it much attention, being distracted by bored, hot and foot-sore kids, but it came back to me afterwards. Where the actual, real site is: who knows. Cicero, 137 years later, made a point of locating & cleaning up the tomb (it was already lost, but he found the stone sphere and the cylinder of the same height and diameter that were Archimedes’ grave markers).
Cicero was a genius writer, lawyer, and orator, and an occasionally unpleasant person who skewered his enemies, most notably Mark Anthony, in his writings. When Cicero was assassinated, Mark Anthony ordered his hands cut off and nailed to a door at the Roman forum. Fulvia, Mark Anthony’s wife (Cicero had given her a bit of a rough ride), took the severed head, pulled forward the tongue, and stuck pins in it. (Now that really is taking something personally.) This is an image I can’t shake. (So now I give it to you!)
And now, via another weird connection, I am thinking of severed heads. We have several pots of basil, some of them stone, by the kitchen at the villa. They are wide, deep, round pots. In Keats’ poem ‘Isabella: or, The Pot of Basil’, the heroine’s lover is murdered by her jealous brothers, whereupon she finds the grave, severs the head, and reburies it in a pot of basil. (This, as part of her slide into madness, of course.)
And so she ever fed it with thin tears,
Whence thick, and green, and beautiful it grew,
So that it smelt more balmy than its peers
Of Basil-tufts in Florence; for it drew
Nurture besides, and life, from human fears,
From the fast-mouldering head there shut from view;
So that the jewel, safely casketed,
Came forth, and in perfumed leafits spread.
‘Transire suum pectus mundoque potiri,’ said Archimedes, which translates as ‘Rise above oneself and grasp the world’, which is pithy and brilliant and captures my daily struggle with my human condition in 7 words. I’m not sure how that relates to the victimized Isabella; maybe madness was her method of ‘rising above herself’, but any which way you look at it, she certainly acted in the face of a wretched fate. On the other hand, Fulvia I would point to and say, You failed, bitch, but since I fantasize executing an unknown Roman soldier, I’m not one to talk.
In Ortygia we saw the Roman forum, dating I think from the period of Archimedes’ murder, but it was mostly weeds, 3 or 4 columns, and the authentic smell of donkey dung. Close to the Greek theatre, however, we found a 100-foot high granite pillar, whereupon Tad exclaimed, ‘Ha, it’s the Stone of Farewell.’
‘Yes, baby,’ said I, ‘just stand still & lemme take the pic.’