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Jaume Pòrtulas

DEATH AND THE LIBRARIAN

The last days of the life of Demetrius, son of Phanostratos born in Phaleron (the old port of Athens, quiet and sleepy, so close, and so different, to noisy Piraeus), were as those of many people much less important than he. They were days of longing and of bitterness, an unspoken bitterness that at times cut him like a knife. Above all, they were days of loathing. Fortunately for Demetrius, it could not be said that they were excessively long — a long decline in expectation of a lingering death. Nor were they debased by the loathsome infirmities of old age, nor by that poverty which Demetrius, from his distant youth of adolescent ambitions, had always been fearful of. But since falling from grace, King Ptolemy - the second of that name, grandson of the commander Lagos, an obscure Macedonian official; Ptolomy who the sycophantic Alexandrians called ‘Philadelphus’ because he married his sister, an abhorrent Egyptian incest, unseemly for a Greek, inappropriate even for a Macedonian ruler with any sense… since Ptolemy II had thrown him out of Alexandria, Demetrius Phalereus was consumed by bitterness and loathing. King Ptolemy had cast him out of Alexandria, out of the magnificent palace still under construction, the unfinished Mouseion with the embryonic library that Demetrius had assembled and organised thanks to his knowledge acquired in the Lyceum of Athens, and to the savoir-faire learned under Theophrastus and from the old Aristotle…. From the vague information that has come to us (information from people with little or no knowledge of places or events; a lack of knowledge which does not prevent them feigning a fictitious and illusory authenticity), King Ptolemy had the learned librarian and advisor taken in disgrace to the district of Busiris. There he was installed, closely watched, in a country house not far from an insignificant village (at least, that’s what Demetrius thought) which the people there called ‘Ammon’s Town’, and which the few Greeks unfortunate enough to end up there grandly renamed ‘Diospolis’. Half lying in the portico of the house, Demetrius could contemplate the wide river which constrained the view, the fertile strip, the wilting, sunburned Egyptian peasants tirelessly working - as they did before the arrival of the Greeks and Persians, Macedonians and Jews; before even the Pharaohs built the pyramids and other stone trumpery. From his portico, while observing all this activity, Demetrius fell victim to despondency – that silently distressing state that the Greeks used to call athumia, a state of mind that the poets have described so often and which has also been the object of the analyses of philosophers and thinkers. That despair that at times traps the tragic heroes or dynasts of the myths, an unfortunate and dangerous state that more than once has ended in suicide.

But Demetrius Phalereus was by no means a tragic hero, nor a Lydian or Persian dynast but an Athenian Greek. He had had a varied life, eventful, full of ups and downs, a life that now, if he so wished, half lying in the portico of that Nilotic country house, could be remembered at length. He could remember his childhood and adolescence, ever close to the gentle waters of the bay of Phaleron, part of a family of few means that kept body and soul together any way they could. Years later, when he and his brother Himeraeus entered politics, when they truly plunged into the tempestuous life of Athens – scandals and assemblies, votes and intrigues, hostile cities and rival kings; and recently, regime changes and summary executions; and war, always war – popular scandal mongering branded them both as being of uncertain origin, the disreputable sons of slaves. This was common gossip of little importance, which all knew to be without substance and which no one took seriously. Far more malicious was the insinuation of an author of comedies, that the adolescent Demetrius had been worthy of the attention of a certain demagogue, famous for his ability to assess the ‘merit’ of boys with potential. For Demetrius these libels – because they were false: who could know this better than him – were of no consequence. He was enough of an Athenian to know that the authors of comedies, from the days of Aristophanes, have been supporters of that silly idea that the best way to enter politics is to become the whore of the leader of a party, a general or a demagogue. However false these insinuations were, Demetrius was able to take his revenge when his moment of glory also arrived. Another author of comedies related (and the joke was much circulated) that when Demetrius, promoted by his Macedonian patrons to the governorship of Athens, after one of those heavy meals at the Pritaneum, in company which could not exactly be called political… that when he went out to for a stroll, to take the air and aid his digestion, the soft eyed Athenian ephebes elbowed their way into his path via the Street of Tripods in order for him to see them, to attract his attention. This also was not true, thought Demetrius, and moreover, with a steady ephebe, the beautiful Diognis, and his three or four occasional concubines, how could he have managed it? But it gave him some satisfaction (although only in a certain sense) that these impressive accusations compensated for the squalid slanders of his early days.

Demetrius’ real initiation into politics did not come about in the bedroom, but thanks to the affair of Harpalus and his treasure stolen from the king Alexander. Demetrius could play no significant part in this succession of scandals since he was relatively young, and, frankly, a nobody. In those days — he remembered now with nostalgia in his nilotic solitude — he was only one (of those young Athenians seduced by the prestige of the Lyceum, that so brilliant and innovative centre of study, recently founded by the great Aristotle. The youths that frequented the Lyceum, of Athens and elsewhere, received a more than superficial education in philosophy. That same Demetrius often gloried in his sound philosophical grounding; dedicating to the Muses all the leisure time which his irregular life allowed, and yet now, in his old age, when he dismissed the gossip concerning his old sex life, he couldn’t help getting angry with those who branded him ‘a politician among the philosophers, a philosopher among politicians’. Besides, he didn’t learn only philosophy at the Lyceum. In that house of high scholarship, subsidized in one way or another by Macedonian gold— or so Athenian public opinion firmly believed — there was a general conviction that the ideology of the city was old fashioned and that new times demanded new politics. Between the average Athenians, jealous of the privileges which guaranteed them democracy, and the institution founded by Aristotle — a metic, son of the physician of the court of Pella, and uncle of a future official of Alexander — there could not be good feeling.

Demetrius became a fascinated observer of the scandalous events surrounding Harpalus and his gold, and it is certain that he drew lessons for the future from it. The presence in the city of a great personage from the court of Alexander, and the huge treasure he brought from Babylon had a sensational impact on the already naturally turbulent public life of Athens. What was to be done with that troublesome guest, wanted by the rulers of the world, and fabulously wealthy? Even before the international complications of the matter became clear, half the Athenian orators and politicians, from the meddlesome Demades to the seemingly impregnable Demosthenes, had allowed themselves to become corrupted. The consequences were the usual ones in such cases: many trials, some found guilty, exile, some assassinated – among those the very same Harpalus, little missed by anyone, in hiding on Crete; and the disappearance, regretted by all, of a good part of the treasure.

The subsequent years were dizzying ones. Demetrius, now exiled and old, had to make an effort to recall the details; the string of violent deaths, of atrocities and torture, remained intact in his memory. The death of Alexander in Babylon not only left an enormous corpse whose stench could fill the whole world, as Demades, that blunt imbecile, said; it also gave many Athenians the hope that the yoke of Antipater, that coarse and brutal soldier, who Alexander left behind him as a lieutenant general and viceroy of Greece, would be shaken off. From the first Demetrius thought that this desire to get out from under the Macedonian yoke was senseless. As it turned out, the war with Antipater was very hard for Athens. At first it seemed that the Athenians and their allies would achieve victory; but at the moment of truth the old general, after receiving reinforcements from Asia, crushed them. The conditions of peace were even more burdensome and were accompanied by a brutal repression in which many Athenians exhibited a surprising fervour for the Macedonian cause. In his old age, even though Demetrius knew all too well that he too had the dubious reputation of a collaborator, he could not recall without revulsion, indignation and anger the accounts of the suicide of the old and cornered Demosthenes at Calauria, at the altar of Poseidon, gnawing on the stem of his reed pen (did it indeed contain a concealed poison, or was it the famed poison of his own writing?); or the way Hyperides’ tongue had been cut out — cut out by Antipater himself, according to those relishing gruesome details—, while poor old Hyperides was still alive… The most poignant memory was that of his brother Himeraeus. Less discreet than Demetrius, Himeraeus had listened to the patriotic sirens, and they had sunk him (he too wanted to be in politics!). Condemned to death by the Athenians after the defeat, a fugitive, Himeraeus was pursued by Archias, a mercenary paid by Antipater — a foreigner who in his youth had been a mediocre tragic actor. The Athenians started to call him the ‘bounty hunter’. He caught Himeraeus (and some highly significant others) in a cul-de-sac at Aegina. They were executed at Cleonae, where Antipater then had his residence. When, from the inactivity and boredom of his exile by the Nile, Demetrius now recalled those days, he did not direct his most passionate hatred and contempt at those that, a few years later, were his own enemies, those that had successfully sent him from Athens. They did what they did, that which he expected of them; they even did it with certain courteousness. The real hatred and contempt he reserved for those before, against those meddlers that had negotiated the peace with the viceroy Antipater, the inevitable and shameful peace, and exploited it. The brazen Demades, for example, that enthusiastic defender of the war. He travelled with the army and even became a prisoner on the battlefield — in a less than heroic manner, as Demetrius came to understand. A little later, that same Demades personally brokered the peace talks with Antipater. And not content with that, before the Athenian assembly, he even dared to propose the decree of banishment and death against Hyperides and Demosthenes. Clearly so much duplicity was of little benefit to him. He was the man of the moment, but was immediately displaced by Phocion. Demades continued to play his game of bluff and double bluff. Against Antipater, he wanted to play the dubious card of Perdiccas, the supreme commander of the dead Alexander. Perdiccas, as regent from distant Babylon, strove to keep control of this unruly and makeshift empire. A letter from Demades to Perdiccas (a letter containing coarse and ingenious insults against Antipater; the last thing an Athenian orator lost was his ready tongue, if it was not cut out of him) was intercepted at an unfortunate moment when Demades was ambassador in the court of Antipater. The son of Antipater, general Cassander (he quickly became the protector of Demetrius, who nevertheless knew him well enough to know what he was capable of) personally assaulted Demades, accusing him, at the top of his voice, of monstrous ingratitude. If the story was true (it was not completely verifiable, but seemed pretty reliable), the end was chilling. Under the eyes of Demades, tied up like a parcel, Cassander killed his son, only an infant, and then shouted to the servants to remove the disgraced Demades and execute him. A comic life and a tragic end — thought Demetrius, torn between the horror of the affair and dismissing it with a shrug of the shoulders.

The lot of Phocion the dunce, who remained the only decision maker in the place — in the very limited measure that the Macedonians still allowed Athenians to make decisions — was not very different. Phocion, an old man who had been general of the Athenians more than forty times: a man, truly, for all seasons. Incorruptible, he was; fools were pleased to call him ‘Phocion the Good’. With the Macedonian lances behind him, Phocion showed his true colours. He allowed the establishment of a permanent garrison at Munichia at Piraeus; and reformed the Athenian constitution, in doing so exiling half the citizens. These had all the freedom in the world to roam Greece as beggars; and even Antipater, fearing possible rebellion, settled some of them and gave them land to plough — albeit far from Attica. Demetrius, who, only a little later, was forced by circumstances — as he always said — ultimately to conduct very similar politics, took careful note of these excesses and took care not to repeat them. If a Macedonian garrison at Munichia was pretty much inevitable (and, in the end, it really wasn’t that bad), keeping in line with his masters, he at least saw to it that it was not too much of a burden, and that the Macedonian presence was not too visible in the city. With respect to limiting the rights of the citizens this was, clearly, a necessary measure. Didn’t all the great philosophers also advocate this: Plato, Aristole and that same Theophrastus so valued by Demetrius? But in order not to tear apart the body of the mother country, only the undesirables needed to be eliminated, those of little import who never really settle anywhere, the irredeemably poor. Conventions have to be respected so as not to gratuitously anger the Athenians. It was better to direct their rage against the more ostentatious debauchery of the private life of their leader. The good citizens of Athens, always obsessed by the morality of their rulers, are thus more occupied speaking ill of the man in charge, and forget other matters.

Thanks to these wise principals, the protectorate of Demetrius over Athens, once obtained with the indispensable acquiescence of Cassander (according to his enemies and critics, Cassander was in fact behind the whole thing), lasted nearly ten years, ten smoothly running years, very different to the four miserable, disruptive and frightful years of ‘Phocion the Good’. In truth, for both Demetrius and Phocion, when their hour came, the curtain had to come down; and it is also true that, for one as for the other, the hour arrived for the same reason; dissention between their Macedonian masters. Phocion was trapped between Cassander and another aspirant to the regency. For Demetrius it was the expulsion from the government (and from Athens) by a namesake, another Demetrius, later named ‘The Besieger’ (he besieged cities but did not always conquer them), a mortal enemy of Cassander. But in the end (Demetrius allowed himself to think), when the hour arrived to give up power, he had maintained a balanced, easygoing style of government, for which he was rewarded. At the downfall of ‘Phocion the Good’, an enraged Athenian assembly gathered illegally at the theatre (among them many exiles, fugitive slaves and even women, according to what was said later by citizens of good standing), and they condemned him to death, among insults, obscenities and blasphemies. The populace hated him so much that they even obliged him to pay the executioner who prepared the hemlock from his own pocket: twelve drachmas. In contrast, the eviction of Demetrius Phalereus seemed almost peaceful. When the fleet of the other Demetrius appeared on the horizon, even when it entered Piraeus, no one paid any attention. Afterwards some said that they thought that it was the fleet of another Macedonian ruler allied to Demetrius. All Athens went down to the port; and the future besieger gave them a speech guaranteeing the liberty of the Athenians, and, while he was at it, extended this promise to all Greeks. The Phalerian, trapped up in the city with a few supporters, decided that even if the other Demetrius had no intention of keeping any of his promises, which seemed very probable, there was nothing he could do but welcome him; above all because his fleet was now in the port. A dialogue between the camps of the two Demetriuses followed; in the end everyone arrived at the conclusion that an honourable exile (to Thebes in Boeotia, for example) was the ideal solution for everyone, above all for the great man of Phaleron.

Demetrius lived in Thebes for ten years, until the death of his protector Cassander frustrated his last reasonable hope of a return to Athens. At Thebes he began a second life which ended abruptly many years later, at a country house by the Nile in Egypt. This second life was mainly devoted to reminiscence and reflection and also to writing and scholarship. For the first years, the sting of public life still pricked him, and he composed a vindictive volume arguing the case for his decennium in power, a long and tedious volume that few people read. He also composed many other things, in particular a tract ‘On Fortune’ which, in spite of a certain accumulation of platitudes (or perhaps because of them), enjoyed some success. Above all he read the ancient poets, Homer especially. When he was still in power in Athens Demetrius promoted rhapsodic recitations of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the theatre: an innovation which ruffled the feathers of the purists, but which the general public found delightful. Now, in exile, reduced to isolation and inactivity, he always thought that the poets, and Homer in particular, helped him more in reconciling himself to his fate than the reasonable philosophical principles he was taught at the Lyceum. The poets even helped him to better understand those bloody Macedonians with which he was frequently obliged to deal. Cassander, for example. Some suggested that the brutal elimination of Demades and his son (if this had really happened as people said) reflected a too literal reading of Euripides at his most cruel. And, since the death of Alexander, no other Macedonian leader had been as enthusiastic about the Homeric poems as Cassander. He practically knew them by heart; some of his courtiers, between teasing and sycophancy, even claimed that he had copied them from the first word to the last, written in his own hand, and had produced a rather personal version of the text.

It was this love of many Macedonian rulers for Greek poetry and culture that brought about the penultimate twist of fate for Demetrius. On the bank of the Nile, at the city of Alexandria, the most shrewd and cunning of the Conqueror’s marshals, Ptolemy, son of Lagos, was building a secure personal power base, which quickly became a great kingdom. Dazzled by all he had seen, both in Greece and in the Orient, Ptolemy wanted his capital to have completely new central archives and cultural centres. The more knowledge the better — all the worlds’ knowledge, if possible, assembled in one place. He wanted something different, on a grander scale, equal to the times. To begin with he wanted to gather an immense collection of books. For years Ptolemy had maintained contacts with the Lyceum, the main scholastic centre of the period. He had tried to lure more than one of its scholars to Alexandria to be head of these ambitious projects. But, up until then, the offers and promises of the sovereign had borne little fruit. In the end Ptolemy extended the invitation to Demetrius Phalereus, old alumnus of the Lyceum, who had been wasting away at Thebes. And Demetrius, saddened at never again returning to Athens, accepted the royal invitation with enthusiasm.

Demetrius was more or less happy in Alexandria, at least for the first few years. Ptolemy was a truly great man, very different (Demetrius thought now, drowsily in the solitude of his portico on the banks of the Nile) from his contemptible son and successor Philadelphus the incestuous. Self-taught of course (unlike other Macedonian boys closer to Alexander, he did not have the privilege of attending the famous lessons of Aristotle); but he had an extensive knowledge, not just of war, but also of the world and of men. He also had an immense curiosity. With the generous funding put at his disposal, Demetrius began to build a great collection of books. He was convinced that the fame of this collection would survive him, him and his master. Soon, passing through the rooms and colonnades of Ptolemy’s palace, still incomplete, and contemplating the walls, the niches and the shelves (which he called by their technical name, bibliothekai), on which scrolls and boxes of scrolls had begun to accumulate, Demetrius almost felt the satisfaction of ownership. He felt even happier when his assistants reported certain gossip that had begun to circulate. Even common, ignorant people referred to the collection of books with considerable admiration. It was said to Demetrius that those subjects of Ptolemy who didn’t have the good fortune to be either Greeks or Macedonians moved heaven and earth so their national chronicles could one day succeed in forming part of that prestigious collection (translated into Greek, of course!). Demetrius smiled.

In the end the old temptation to interfere in the business and decisions of great men returned and the game was up — that was finally the end of it. The role of court adviser was very much to the liking of Demetrius. Encouraged by the favour that Ptolemy had shown him, he dared to give unsolicited advice on the delicate matter of the succession to the throne. The sovereign confined himself to listening to the suggestions of his librarian with a smile of contempt. Ultimately his choice did not coincide with that of the librarian. The designated successor was not Demetrius’ candidate, but a younger stepbrother of his, more scheming and certainly more capable — the future Philadelphus, who, until that moment had not make his partiality for his own sister known. The new heir took the intervention of Demetrius very badly. Given a share of the power of the throne by his father, he had no difficulty in stripping the headstrong adviser of all his duties, and when, at the death of the first Ptolemy, Ptolemy II became the absolute ruler, he confined Demetrius Phalereus to that country house by the Nile that so depressed him.

* * * * *

Surrendering himself to memories and daydreams, recalling his turbulent life, Demetrius dozed in his portico. He finally fell asleep, the sleep of an old man, light and restless. Abruptly, painfully, he awoke with a shooting pain in his right hand, which he had left hanging indolently. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was the little asp, with yellowish grey scales and a horned nose slithering along the portico, four paces distant. However unfamiliar Demetrius was with the flora and fauna of this country (and that also included all those native to it who couldn’t speak Greek), he knew well enough that if this beastie bit you, you had only half an hour of life left to you, more or less. Demetrius experienced a moment of panic, followed by a slight confusion of mind, and an infinite weariness. He couldn’t make the effort to move, nor to call out to anyone, and fell into a stupor. In an instant, another thought, half waking, like a hammer blow: this death, accidental and ridiculous, would not have come without the will of Ptolemy II. Although memory and reason quickly departed, Demetrius had time to remember many Greek politicians and thinkers, all eliminated by the Macedonian dynasts: the execution of Himeraeus(8), and Hyperides’ tongue being cut out, Demosthenes’ poison and the theatrical torment of Demades. And the pseudo-Socratic end of the ludicrous Phocion. And, at the beginning, Callisthenes of Olynthus, nephew of the great Aristotle, executed by direct order of Alexander. And… and… It was most unfair that the Macedonians always got their way. But this moment of irritation also didn’t last long “When they remember the creator of the Great Library” — he thought still, now in his death agonies — “they will probably imagine he committed suicide”. And he sank down into that great indifference.

Credits

author Jaume Pòrtulas
illustrations by Carlos Ruiz and Josep Alcaraz
design and programation Jordi Colomer
traduction to aranes Ma José Fernández Anglada
traduction to spanish Ernest Riera
traduction to english Waltraud Ball
voices Lluis Freixes (catalan), Ma José Fernández Anglada (aranes), Javier Nieto (spanish) and Luna Sindín (english)
thanks Catalunya Ràdio
Catalunya Ràdio
Ràdio Salt
Ràdio Salt

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