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The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1905.
This letter contains a curious account of a very extraordinary character, who figured in the time of Lucian and is supported by the concurrent testimony of several contemporary authors, both Christian and Pagan. The singularity of this impostor's exit, with the circumstances attending it must naturally, indeed, have attracted universal notice, and may serve withal to convince us that there is nothing, however absurd, or unaccountable, which ambition cannot dictate, and the love of fame render men capable of performing.
- Based on Francklin
LUCIAN to CRONIUS. Greeting.
Poor dear Peregrine--or Proteus, as he loved to call himself,--has quite come up to his namesake in Homer. We have seen him under many shapes: countless have been his transformations for glory's sake; and now--’tis his last appearance--we see him in the shape of fire. So vast was his ambition. Yes, Cronius; all that is left of the best of men is a handful of ashes. It's just like Empedocles; only with a difference. That philosopher would fain have sneaked into his crater unobserved: not so our high-souled friend. He bides his time till all Greece is mustered in full force--constructs a pyre of the largest dimensions--and jumps on top in the eyes of all the world, having briefly addressed the nation a few days before on the subject of his daring enterprise!
Well, the first thing I did when I got to Elis was to take a turn in the gymnasium, listening the while to the discordant yells of some Cynic or other;--the usual platitudes, you know;--ringing commendations of Virtue--indiscriminate slaughter of characters--finally, a peroration on the subject of Proteus. I must try and give you the exact words, as far as I can remember them; you will recognize the true Cynic yell, I'll be bound; you have heard it before.
'Proteus,' he cried, 'Proteus vain-glorious? Who dares name the word? Earth! Sun! Seas! Rivers! God of our fathers, Heracles! Was it for this that he suffered bondage in Syria? that he forgave his country a debt of a million odd? that he was cast out of Rome,--he whose brilliance exceeds the Sun, fit rival of the Lord of Olympus? ’Tis his good will to depart from life by fire, and they call it vain-glory! What other end had Heracles? ’Twas the thunderbolt, methinks, that slew Asclepius, Dionysus 1? ’Twas in the crater that Empedocles sought death?'
Theagenes (our friend with the lungs) had got thus far, when I asked one of the bystanders what all this meant about 'fire,' and what Heracles and Empedocles had got to do with Proteus?--'Proteus,' he replied, 'will shortly cremate himself, at the Olympic games.'--'But how,' I asked, 'and why?' He did his best to explain, but the Cynic went on bawling, and it was quite out of the question to attend to anything else. I waited on to the end. It was one torrent of wild panegyric on Proteus. The sage of Sinope, Antisthenes his master,--nay, Socrates himself--none of them were so much as to be compared with him. Zeus was invited to contend for the preeminence. Subsequently however it seemed advisable to leave the two on some sort of equality.
Well, after him, up jumped somebody else, before the crowd had time to disperse; pouring his libation upon the glowing embers of the previous sacrifice. He commenced operations with a loud guffaw--there was no doubting its sincerity--after which he addressed us as follows. 'Theagenes (Heaven forgive him!) concluded his vile rant with the tears of Heraclitus: I, on the other hand, propose to begin with the laughs of Democritus.'
'To begin then, this piece of perfect workmanship, straight from Nature's mould, this type of true proportion, had barely come of age, when he was caught in adultery; in Armenia this was; he received a brisk drubbing for his pains, and finally made a jump of it from the roof, and so got off. His next exploit was the corruption of a handsome boy. This would have brought him before the Governor, by rights; but the parents were poor, and he bought them off to the tune of a hundred and twenty pounds. But perhaps it is hardly worth while mentioning trifles of this kind. Our clay, you see, is yet unwrought : the "perfect workmanship" is still to come.
It was now that he came across the priests and scribes of the Christians, in Palestine, and picked up their queer creed. I can tell you, he pretty soon convinced them of his superiority; prophet, elder, ruler of the Synagogue--he was everything at once; expounded their books, commented on them, wrote books himself. They took him for a God, accepted his laws, and declared him their president. The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day,--the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. Well, the end of it was that Proteus was arrested and thrown into prison.
'To return, however, to Peregrine. The governor of Syria perceived his mental warp: "he must make a name, though he die for it:" now philosophy was the governor's hobby; he discharged him--wouldn't hear of his being punished--and Peregrine returned to Armenia. He found it too hot to hold him. He was threatened from all quarters with prosecutions for parricide. Then again, the greater part of his property had disappeared in his absence: nothing was left but the land, which might be worth a matter of four thousand pounds. The whole estate, as the old man left it, would come perhaps to eight thousand. Theagenes was talking nonsense when he said a million odd. Why, the whole city, with its five nearest neighbours thrown in, men, cattle, and goods of every description , would never fetch that sum.
'Proteus now set out again on his wanderings. The Christians were meat and drink to him; under their protection he lacked nothing, and this luxurious state of things went on for some time. At last he got into trouble even with them; I suppose they caught him partaking of some of their forbidden meats. They would have nothing more to do with him, and he thought the best way out of his difficulties would be, to change his mind about that property, and try and get it back. He accordingly sent in a petition to the emperor, suing for its restitution. But as the people of Parium sent up a deputation to remonstrate, nothing came of it all; he was told that as he had been under no compulsion in making his dispositions, he must abide by them.
'Pilgrimage number three, to Egypt, to see Agathobulus. Here he went through a most interesting course of discipline: shaved half his head bare; anointed his face with mud; grossly exposed himself before a large concourse of spectators, as a practical illustration of "Stoic indifference"; received castigation
with a birch rod; administered the same; and mystified the public with a number of still more extravagant follies. Thus prepared, he took ship to Italy, and was scarcely on dry land again when he began abusing everybody, especially the Emperor, on whose indulgence and good nature he knew that he could safely rely. The Emperor, as you may suppose, was not greatly concerned at his invectives; and it was his theory that no one in the garb of philosophy should be called to account for his words, least of all a specialist in scandal. Proteus's reputation throve upon neglect. The crack-brained philosopher became the cynosure of unsophisticated eyes; and he grew at last to be so unbearable that the city prefect judiciously expelled him: "we do not require philosophers of your school," he explained. Even this made for his notoriety: he was in every one's mouth as the philosopher who was banished for being too outspoken, and saying what he thought. He took rank with Musonius, Dion, Epictetus, and others who have been in the same predicament.
'Finally, Proteus arrives in Greece; and what does he do there? He makes himself offensive in Elis; he instigates Greece to revolt against Rome; he finds a man of enlarged views and established character 1, a public benefactor in general, and in particular the originator of the water-supply to Olympia, which saved that great assembly from perishing of thirst--and he has nothing but hard words for him; "Greece is demoralized," he cries; "the spectators of the games should have done without water, ay, and died if need be,"--and so many of them would have done, from the violence of the epidemics then raging in consequence of the drought. And all the time Proteus was drinking of that very water! At this there was a general rush to stone him, which pretty nearly succeeded; it was all our magnanimous friend could do, for
But I suppose what runs in his mind is the imposing spectacle of a man being burnt alive in the holy place, in which ordinary mortality may not so much as be buried. There was another man, once on a time, who wanted to be famous. I dare say you have heard of him. When he found there was no other way, he set fire to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
'Besides, if Heracles really ever did anything so stupendous at all, he was driven to it by frenzy; he was being consumed alive by the Centaur's blood,--so the play tells us. But what point is there in Proteus's throwing himself into the fire? Ah, of course: he wants to set an example of fortitude, like the Brahmins, to whom Theagenes thought it necessary to corn-pare him. Well, I suppose there may be fools and empty-headed enthusiasts in India as elsewhere? Anyhow, he might stick to his models. The Brahmins never jump straight into the fire: Onesicritus, Alexander's pilot, saw Calanus burn himself, and according to him, when the pyre has been got ready, they stand quietly roasting in front of it, and when they do get on top, there they sit, smouldering away in a dignified manner, never budging an inch. I see nothing so great in Proteus's just jumping in and being swallowed by the flames. As likely as not he would jump out when he was half done; only, as I understand, he is taking care to have the pyre in a good deep hole.
'Some say that he is beginning to think better of it; that he reports certain dreams, to the effect that Zeus will not suffer the holy place to be profaned. Let him be easy on that score. I dare swear that not a God of them will have any objection to a rogue's dying a rogue's death. To be sure, he won't easily get out of it now. His Cynic friends egg him on and thrust him pyre-wards; they keep his ambition aglow; there shall be no flinching, if they can help it! If Proteus would take a couple of them with him in the fatal leap, it would be the first good action he has ever performed.
'Not even "Proteus" will serve now, they were saying: he has changed his name to Phoenix; that Indian bird being credited with bringing a prolonged existence to an end upon a pyre. He tells strange tales too, and quotes oracles--guaranteed old--to the effect that he is to be a guardian spirit of the night.
What time the noblest of the Cynic host
Within the Thunderer's court shall light a fire,
And leap into its midst, and thence ascend
To great Olympus--then shall all mankind,
Who eat the furrow's fruit, give honour due
To the Night-wanderer. His seat shall be
Hard by Hephaestus and lord Heracles.
That 's the oracle that Theagenes says he heard from the Sibyl. Now I'll give him one of Bacis's on the same subject. Bacis speaks very much to the point as follows:
What time the Cynic many-named shall leap,
Stirred in his heart with mad desire for fame,
Into hot fire--then shall the Fox-dogs all,
His followers, go hence as went the Wolf.
And him that shuns Hephaestus' fiery might
Th’ Achaeans all shall straightway slay with stones;
Lest, cool in courage, he essay warm words,
Stuffing with gold of usury his scrip;
For in fair Patrae he hath thrice five talents.
What say you, friends? Can Bacis turn an oracle too, as well as the Sibyl? Apparently it is time for the esteemed followers of Proteus to select their spots for "evaporation," as they call burning.'
A universal shout from the audience greeted this conclusion: 'Away with them to the fire! ’tis all they are good for.' The orator descended, beaming.
But Nestor marked the uproar--
The shouts no sooner reached Theagenes's ears, than he was back on the platform, bawling out all manner of scandal against the last speaker (I don't know what this capital fellow was called). However, I left Theagenes there, bursting with indignation, and went off to see the games, as I heard the stewards were already on the course. So much for Elis.
On our arrival at Olympia, we found the vestibule full of people, all talking about Proteus. Some were inveighing against him, others commended his purpose; and most of them had come to blows about it when, just after the Heralds' contest, in came Proteus himself, with a multitudinous escort, and gave us a speech, all about himself;--the life he had lived, the risks he had run, the trials he had undergone in the cause of philosophy. He had a great deal to say, but I heard very little of it; there was such a crowd. Presently I began to think I should be squeezed to death in the crush (I saw this actually happen to several people), so off I went, having had enough of this sophist in love with death, and his anticipatory epitaph. Thus much I heard, however. Upon a golden life he desired to set a golden crown.
Conceive my amusement! Pity it was impossible to feel for such morbid vanity: among all who have ever been afflicted with this scourge, Proteus stands pre-eminent. However, he had a fine following, and drank his fill of notoriety, as he gazed on the host of his admirers; poor man! he forgot that criminals on the way to the cross, or in the executioner's hands, have a greater escort by far.
And now the games were over. They were the best I had ever; seen, though this makes my fourth visit to Olympia. In the general rush of departure, I got left behind, finding it impossible to procure a conveyance.
After repeated postponements, Proteus had finally announced a late hour of the night for his exhibition. Accordingly, at about midnight I got up (I had found lodgings with a friend), and set out for Harpine; for here was the pyre, just two miles and a half from Olympia, going East along the racecourse. We found on arrival that the pyre had been placed in a hole, about six feet deep. To ensure speedy ignition, it had been composed chiefly of pine-torches, with brushwood stuffed in between.
As soon as the moon had risen--for her presence too was required at the glorious spectacle--Proteus advanced, in his usual costume, accompanied by the chiefs of the Cynics; conspicuous among them came the pride of Patrae, torch in hand; nobly qualified for the part he was to play. Proteus too had his torch. They drew near to the pyre, and kindled it at several points; as it contained nothing but torches and brushwood, a fine blaze was the result. Then Proteus--are you attending, Cronius?--Proteus threw aside his scrip, and cloak, and club--' his club of Heracles--and stood before us in scrupulously unclean linen. He demanded frankincense, to throw upon the fire; being supplied he first threw it on, then, turning to the South (another tragic touch, this of the South), he exclaimed: 'Gods of my mother, Gods of my father, receive me with favour.' And with these words he leapt into the pyre. There was nothing more to be seen, however; the towering mass of flames enveloped him completely.
Again, sweet sir, you smile over the conclusion of my tragedy. As for me, I saw nothing much in his appealing to his mother's Gods, but when he included his father's in the invocation, I laughed outright; it reminded me of the parricide story. The Cynics stood dry-eyed about the pyre, gazing upon the flames in silent manifestation of their grief. At last, when I was half dead with suppressed laughter, I addressed them. 'Intelligent sirs,' I said, 'let us go away. No pleasure is to be derived from seeing an old man roasted, and there is a horrible smell of burning. Are you waiting for some painter to come along and take a sketch of you, to match the pictures of Socrates in prison, with his companions at his side?' They were very angry and abusive at first, and some took to their sticks: but when I threatened to pick a few of them up and throw them on to the fire to keep their master company, they quieted down and peace was restored.
Curious reflections were running in my mind, Cronius, as I made my way back. 'How strange a thing is this same ambition!' I said to myself; '’tis the one irresistible passion; irresistible to the noblest of mankind, as we account them,--how much more to such as Proteus, whose wild, foolish life
may well end upon the pyre!' At this point I met a number of people coming out to assist at the spectacle, thinking to find Proteus still alive; for among the various rumours of the preceding day, one had been, that before entering the fire he was to greet the rising sun, which to be sure is said to be the Brahmin practice. Most of them turned back when I told them that all was over; all but those enthusiasts who could not rest without seeing the identical spot, and snatching some relic from the flames. After this, you may be sure, my work was cut out for me: I had to tell them all about it, and to undergo a minute cross-examination from everybody. If it was some one I liked the look of, I confined myself to plain prose, as in the present narrative: but for the benefit of the curious simple, I put in a few dramatic touches on my own account. No sooner had Proteus thrown himself upon the kindled pyre, than there was a tremendous earthquake, I informed them; the ground rumbled beneath us; and a vulture flew out from the midst of the flames, and away into the sky, exclaiming in human accents
'I rise from Earth, I seek Olympus.'
They listened with amazement and shuddering reverence. 'Did the vulture fly East or West?' they wanted to know. I answered whichever came uppermost.
On getting back to Olympia, I stopped to listen to an old man who was giving an account of these proceedings; a credible witness, if ever there was one, to judge by his long beard and dignified appearance in general. He told us, among other things, that only a short time before, just after the cremation, Proteus had appeared to him in white raiment; and that he had now left him walking with serene countenance in the Colonnade of Echoes, crowned with olive; and on the top of all this he brought in the vulture, solemnly swore that he had seen it himself flying away from the pyre,--my own vulture, which I had but just let fly, as a satire on crass stupidity!
Only think what work we shall have with him hereafter! Significant bees will settle on the spot; grasshoppers beyond calculation will chirrup; crows will perch there, as over Hesiod's grave,--and all the rest of it. As for statues, several, I know, are to be put up at once, by Elis and other places, to which, I understand, he had sent letters. These letters, they say, were dispatched to almost all cities of any importance: they contain certain exhortations and schemes of reform, as it were a legacy. Certain of his followers were specially appointed by him for this service: Couriers to the Grave and Grand Deputies of the Shades were to be their titles.
Such was the end of this misguided man; one who, to give his character in a word, never to his last day suffered his gaze to rest on Truth; whose words, whose actions had but one aim,--notoriety and vulgar applause. ’Twas the love of applause that drove him to the pyre, where applause could no longer reach his ears, nor gratify his vanity.
One anecdote, and I have done; it will keep you in amusement for some time to come. I told you long ago, on my return from Syria, how I had come on the same ship with him from Troas, and what airs he put on during the voyage, and about the handsome youth whom he converted to Cynicism, by way of having an Alcibiades all of his own, and how he woke up one night in mid-ocean to find a storm breaking on us, and a heavy sea rolling, and how the superb philosopher, for whom Death had no terrors, was found wailing among the women.
So much for Alexander. I myself, not so long ago, saw Proteus with some irritant rubbed on his eyes to purge them of rheum. Evidently we are to infer that there is no admission for blear eyes in the kingdom of Aeacus. ’Twas as if a man on the way to be crucified were to concern himself about a sprained finger. Think if Democritus had seen all this! How would he have taken it? The laughing philosopher might have done justice to Proteus. I doubt, indeed, whether he ever had such a good excuse for his mirth.
Be that as it may, you, my friend, shall have your laugh; especially when you hear Proteus's name mentioned with admiration.