Samuel Johnson makes the following comment in his Lives of the Poets when discussing the life of the seventeenth-century poet John Gay:
Below are listed my favorite films of the past twenty years. These are the movies that have most influenced me, or have left the most enduring impression on my mind. They are presented in no rigid order of hierarchy, except for the first title, The Lives of Others, which for me towers over every other film as a cherished work of cinematic art.
Pliny’s Natural History (XXV.47) contains a passage that discusses hellebore, a medicinal plant that in ancient times was used to treat insanity. One variety of hellebore, he says, is called melampodion, a name acquired from a shepherd named Melampus, who noticed that the plant had a purgative effect on his female goats (capras purgari pasto illo animadvertentem) once they had eaten it. This milk, we are told, cured “the daughters of Proetus of madness.” Pliny even describes a detailed ritual supposedly used to collect the plant. But who were the daughters of Proetus? What story is being referenced?
The writer and scholar Yamut Ibn Al-Muzarra’ (يموت ابن المزرع) was a native of Basra, Iraq. In the words of his biographer Ibn Khallikan, he was known as “an accomplished literary scholar, and well-versed in history.” His name (Yamut) was a source of some consternation for him as a young man, for it is the third-person active form of the Arabic verb “to die” (مات). He apparently never fulfilled his obligation of visiting the sick in hospitals, for fear that his name would bring misfortune upon patients confined to bed. “The name,” he said, “which l received from my father has been a great annoyance to me. So when I go to visit the sick and am asked my name, I answer, ‘The son of Al-Muzarra,’ and suppress my real name.”
Ibn Sabir Al-Manjaniki’s full name was Abu Yusuf Ibn Sabir Ibn Hauthara Al-Manjaniki; we note it here for completeness, and will not repeat it again. He was also known in some circles by the surname Najm Al-Din, which means “star of religion.” He was born in Baghdad in January 1159, and spent his early life there. He is nearly unique in having achieved enduring fame in two completely separate disciplines: military engineering and poetry.
The birthdate of the philologist and grammarian Yacub Ibn Al-Sikkit (ابو يوسف يعقوب ابن السكيت) is not known with certainty, but 800 A.D. is a reliable estimate. His father enjoyed notoriety and prestige in court circles, and may have conferred on his son some access to the corridors of power. The sobriquet “Al-Sikkit” was given to him because of his taciturnity, for the Arabic verb sakata (سكت) means “to be silent.” However, as the reader will soon discover, he was evidently not silent enough.
One of Herodotus’s charms is that he is always willing to share a good tale. Some of these stories he apparently believes; others strike him as dubious. Either way, he considers them imporant, and dutifully records their details. “Those who find such things credible,” he warns us, “must make what use of them they will of the stories of the Egyptians. My own responsibility, however, as it has been throughout my writing of this entire narrative, is simply to record whatever I may be told by my sources [II.123].”
We all know that the ability to think on one’s feet is an important skill. There may even be times when this ability makes the difference between survival and execution. The amusing anecdote that follows appears in Ibn Khallikan’s biographical sketch (IV.200) of a government official and administrator (مولى) named Yazid Ibn Abi Muslim, who served under an Umayyad governor of Iraq named Al-Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf (c. 661—714 A.D.).
The Latin poet Claudian lived from about 370 to 404 A.D. He was born in Egypt but as an adult associated himself with the imperial court at Rome. One of his more famous works is the unfinished epic “The Rape of Proserpina” (De Raptu Proserpinae). The poem contains a short prologue which I have translated as follows:Continue reading