Wisdom is neither easily found, nor painlessly acquired. If we seek it out, it is likely to present itself to the prospector in a way that conceals its true utility. In the same way that precious metals and gems are distributed unevenly and clandestinely among geologic sediments, so is wisdom often submerged in quantities of intervening irrelevancies, or cloaked in a sheen of protective coloration. For wisdom—prudentia—knows that only the truly worthy will bring to bear pickaxe, shovel, and grindstone to extract, refine, and polish her secret ores for all the world to see.
We will consider several anecdotes from the pages of the military historian Polyaenus’s forgotten Strategemata. How Diocles the Median gained power is described in VII.1. The Medes were an ancient people who inhabited what is today northwest Iran. They were, we are told, a semi-nomadic people, with few settled habitations, national laws, or codified administrative procedures. Diocles was imbued with a sense of justice and order, and detested this state of affairs: so with a single-minded energy, he set out to change it.
Diocles conducted himself with decorum and composure, and soon became known as a local man of distinction. It was not long before he became a kind of local “village judge,” dispensing rulings and mediating disputes among families and individuals. As his reputation grew in prominence, more and more people sought him out to resolve their problems. He was, as Polyaenus says, “a most just and upright judge.” Yet all judges have to make rulings, and these rulings on occasion will anger one party or another. Eventually there are going to be disgruntled litigants. Diocles obtained personal guards to protect him from the potential harms that his rulings might provoke.
But Diocles went one step beyond this. Under the cover of night, he and his guards scattered stones in and around his property. These he later showed to other Medians in authority, while claiming that the stones had been thrown at his residence by angry former litigants. The apparent evidence of this harassment of a beloved judge very much angered the Medians. They fretted over Diocles’s security, and he did nothing to calm their fears except to suggest that he be assigned more guards. This they did. They even went a step further; they provided him a fortified residence, and “directed that his table…be supplied from the sacred revenues.”
Diocles continued to increase the number of guards around himself. And when his power seemed adequate, he appointed himself king. So did Diocles, using a combination of personal ability and fraud, gain power over his countrymen. It seems to me that there are many such examples in history; for men are never either all one thing, or all another. They are a blend of favorable and unfavorable traits. In any case, we can agree that this anecdote suggests that not every man who portrays himself as a victim, may in fact be a victim. He may in fact be employing a fraudulent victimization as part of a scheme to gain power.
We will now describe the anecdote of Agnon, which is found in VI.53. Agnon, says Polyaenus, was a Greek who conceived an idea of establishing an Attic colony at a place along the Strymon River called the “Nine Ways.” We do not know the origin of this name, for Polyaenus is silent on the matter. But an old tradition stood in the way of Agnon’s plans. This tradition was a verse of prophecy, which ran a follows:
Athenians, why of late attempt to raise
The structure proud, and colonize Nine Ways?
Vain the attempt, unauthorized by Heaven,
Dire the decree, that rigid Fate hath given
Against the deed: till from the silent tomb
At Troy the stubble of the old Rhesus come
To join its parent soil. Then, then proceed
And Fate shall give the act a glorious meed.
[Trans. by R. Shepherd]
We should note that “meed” is an archaic word meaning “a deserved share or reward.” Agnon and his men interpreted these lines to mean that, if they brought back the bones of Rhesus, then they would succeed in their enterprise. Rhesus was a mythical Thracian king who fought on the Trojan side in the Trojan War; he is mentioned in the Iliad (X.430—503).
Agnon went to Troy with a team of men to steal Rhesus’s remains from his sepulcher. They were able to ransack the tomb, and to conceal the bones within a purple robe. They carried their morbid burden to the river Strymon, but the barbarians inhabiting the area would not let Agnon’s team cross. Agnon did not have the power to make the barbarians comply with force, so he made a truce with them for three days. The barbarians then retired to their residences, while Agnon and his men remained inactive by the river.
But at night Agnon crossed the river with his party, and buried the bones on the opposite side. He then fortified and dug in, erecting palisades and a fosse (i.e., a ditch). His habit was to rest during the day and work by night. After three days, the barbarians returned, and were enraged to discover that Agnon had apparently violated the truce terms. He had, they claimed indignantly, been working when he should have been doing nothing. Agnon shook his head, and replied, “Not at all. The terms of the truce were that I would remain inactive for three days. There was no agreement on my remaining inactive at night. This was supposed origin, Polyaenus says, of the city built on the Nine Ways, which was later named Amphipolis.
It may be of some interest to the reader that this same ancient city was the site of an important archaeological discovery in 2012. A large tomb (the so-called “Kasta Tomb”) was unearthed, whose apparent details suggest a person of high stature, possibly a king or a noble. Archaeologists are not certain who the tomb was intended for, but one theory is that it was built for the mother of Alexander the Great, Olympias. So ironic it is that a city founded on the bones of Rhesus is now revived in the modern era with the discovery of new bones!
We will relate one final anecdote from Polyaenus (VI.50) here. King Croesus was besieging the city of Ephesus, and its fall seemed imminent. The city was then ruled by a clever man named Pindar. Knowing Croesus’s veneration of the goddess Diana (i.e., Greek goddess Artemis), Pindar ordered a extremely long rope to be strung around the walls and gates of the city, which was then tied to the pillars of the Temple of Diana. This was Pindar’s way of consecrating all of Ephesus to the goddess. When word of this ruse was brought to Croesus, he laughed out loud, for he was actually a reasonable and good-humored man. Without hesitation, he ordered the city to be spared, and not violated in any way, since it was now a “sanctuary city” under Diana’s protection. He allowed the Ephesians to keep their sovereignty, and concluded an alliance with them. This was how Pindar contrived to save his city from destruction.
Explore the new translation of two works from the great Roman historian, Sallust: