The reckless pursuit of advantage and material gain inevitably leads the unwise to ruin. It is a truth antique with age, yet fleeting in historical memory. Two compelling tales buried in the forgotten pages of the historian Polyaenus (VIII.42—43) remind us of the lesson’s permanence. We now resurrect them for our amusement and edification.
A Greek ruler named Cnopus desired to capture the Ionian colony at Erythrae. This colony was one of the twelve Ionian cities of Asia Minor; its alternate name was Litri. Cnopus, to ensure the success of his military plans, first consulted an oracle. It told him to place the expedition in the hands of a Thessalian priestess of the goddess Hecate. Despite the strangeness of this command, Cnopus dutifully complied. He sent a delegation to Thessaly and informed them of the oracle’s pronouncement. They agreed to provide him with a priestess named Chrysame.
Chrysame quietly made her preparations for the expedition. She possessed a great knowledge of herbs and medicines, as well as the behavior of animals. To accompany the expedition, she chose a large, strong, magnificent bull; she had his horns gilt with gold leaf, and arranged for garlands of flowers and gold-embroidered ribbons to be draped over his rippling frame. But this was not all. Chrysame ordered the bull to be kept in a special stall, and for a certain medicinal herb to be mixed with his fodder. This herb the bull consumed for many days.
Now this plant was known to the priestess as a drug that would induce madness and erratic behavior. It was so strong, we are old, that it would affect not only the bull, but anyone who consumed the animal’s flesh. Eventually the expedition to Erythrae sailed. Within sight of the enemy, Chrysame had an altar erected on an open plain, as if she were preparing to sacrifice the bull. The army of Erythrae could see the beautiful animal bedecked in gold, ribbons, and garlands, and they were much impressed.
But the bull, having been fed this drug for many days, was neither placid nor controllable. As Chrysame intended, it broke loose from its handlers, and charged out into the open plain in full sight of the Erythraeans. It tore at the ground, and tried to tilt its horns at anything it could see. All of this the Erythraeans considered a good omen for them. They believed this golden bull’s escape from sacrifice was some sort of divine signal. So they captured the bull, brought it back to their habitations, and sacrificed it for themselves amid much celebration. The bull’s meat was passed around and consumed with great relish. The gold-laced ribbons and the golden horns were prominently displayed, and hailed as precious gifts.
The entire army was soon gripped by madness. Chrysame’s potion had done its work. The soldiers were unable to control themselves, and the city was defenseless. When word of this found its way back to her scouts, she advised Cnopus to attack the Erythraeans at that moment. This he did. The Erythraeans were totally destroyed, and their city fell under foreign control.
The next tale may be called the Gold of Pythopolis. There was once a leader named Pythes who presided over the city of Pythopolis. This city was an ancient colony of Athens; it was located in the region of Mysia in northwest Asia Minor. When gold was discovered within his domains, Pythes ordered that its excavation and refinement should take precedence over all other tasks. Such was his lust for gold, and so lacking in good sense was his judgment, that soon the city’s regular activities came to be neglected. People began to fear for public order. The planting of crops was haphazard; public sanitation was forgotten; education was suspended; and the daily tasks of commerce and security became uncertain.
Some women of Pythopolis pressed Pythes’s wife to use her influence with her husband, and convince him to change his disastrous policies. His gold fever was ruining the city, and if something were not done, many people would die. Pythes’s wife contrived a stratagem to impress on him the seriousness of the situation. She ordered some goldsmiths to fashion fish, fruits, loaves of bread, and viands out of metallic gold. When Pythes arrived at his home one day, he asked for his supper. His wife arranged a golden table before him, on which were arranged his golden “foods.”
Pythes at first assumed this was a joke. He admired the workmanship of the golden articles, but soon ordered them to be replaced with real food. Yet his wife only brought out more golden facsimiles of real victuals. Pythes became enraged and demanded to know the meaning of this charade. “You do not understand,” said his wife, “that food is now difficult to procure. All efforts are being made to chase gold, but no effort is being exerted towards those things that will ensure our survival as a community. You have plundered the earth for riches, but now lack the means to live.” It is said that Pythes could not bring himself to answer. He ordered the hunt for gold to cease, and for the people to return to their regular activities. Yet the damage was done, and it took several years for Pythopolis to recover.
Great is the power of the evil that attempts to draw us away from the obligations of life, and seduce us with material enticements. This mentality, once adopted, leads inevitably to one destination, and no other. There is no relief and no escape from its consequences. It is as Virgil (Aen. VI.438) says:
Fate blocks the way,
And the bitter waters of the wretched swamp
[Fas obstat, tristisque palus inamabilis undae adligat...]
Read more on similar subjects in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: