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Cercidas of Megalopolis

Aelian, Varia Historia XIII.22

Chap. XX. Of one who died chearfully through willingness to see some of the dead. A Megalipolite of Arcadia named Cercidas, dying, said to his friends that he parted with his life willingly, for that he hoped to converse with Pythagoras of the Wise ; with Hecataeus of the Historians ; with Olympus of the Musicians ; and with Homer of the Poets, and as soon as he had said this, died.

History of Cynicism, Dudley: Cercidas

The connexion between Antigonus Gonatas and Bion shows the Cynic in contact with the man of affairs ; but what, if any, political result came of their relationship we lack evidence to decide. In Cercidas of Megalopolis, however, we have a man of Cynic leanings who played a very prominent part in the politics of his own city, and a not inconsiderable role on a larger stage. Cercidas is one of those figures whose personality has become definite in the light of the evidence of papyri.

Two Megalopolitan statesmen of that name were known, one of whom lived in the fourth century, and was denounced by Demosthenes for having betrayed his country to the Macedonians, the other the friend of Aratus who helped to bring about the alliance between Antigonus Doson and the Achaean League. Which of these was the aristos nomothetes kai meliambon poietes of Stephanus of Byzantium was uncertain; Meineke and Gerhard inclined to regard him as the older man. That the writer of meliambic poems had Cynic leanings was an inference from the fragment in praise of Diogenes of Sinope, preserved by Diogenes Laertius. Then in 1906 came the discovery of an Oxyrhynchus papyrus, containing seven fragments, described as Kerkida kunos meliamboi, the meliambic poems of Cercidas the Cynic. Hunt showed that the chronological evidence indicated the latter half of the third century as the date of their author: Powell that the Cercidas of that date was the more likely to be described as nomothetes. The poems are, moreover, marked by obvious Cynic sentiments, in some cases of peculiar relevance to current political events. All the evidence, then, points to the conclusion that the Cynic meliambic poet was also the friend of Aratus; we thus have a phenomenon unique at this period of history a Cynic politician.

We first hear of Cercidas in the year 225. It would here be irrelevant to narrate the events which brought Aratus and Cleomenes of Sparta face to face as rivals for the headship of the Achaean League and supremacy in the Peloponnese. Suffice it to say that the war between Sparta and the Achaean League had at first found Aratus half-hearted, and the driving force on the Achaean side had come from Sparta's old enemies, Megalopolis and Argos. But by 225 Cleomenes' policy and his resources were obvious, and Aratus could be indifferent no longer. The year before Cleomenes had offered to come to terms with the League, the condition being that he should be made strategos for life; had not a haemorrhage prevented him from attending the League Council at Lerna, his terms would probably have been accepted. As it was, Aratus secured their rejection, but his position, the work of years of skilful, patient, and unscrupulous intrigue, was now really desperate. Luck had been on his side at Lerna; but the troops of the Achaean League were no match for Spartans under a Cleomenes, as was shown at Hecatombaeon; throughout the Peloponnese the masses were ready to rise for Cleomenes and revolution; there was the threat of an alliance between Sparta and the Aetolians. Help could only come from one quarter; Aratus, who had won his ascendancy by driving the Macedonians out of the Peloponnese, must bring them back again to retain it. The story of the negotiations which brought Macedon into the war, and the campaigns leading up to the decisive battle of Sellasia, are of absorbing interest, heightened by the good fortune that we have accounts written from opposite standpoints. The pro-Spartan history of Phylarchus seems to have been Plutarch's chief source for his Life of Cleomenes; while Aratus' own memoirs are generally conceded to have been followed in the account of Polybius. Certainly the ingenious piece of special pleading with which the negotiations with Antigonus are justified is not unworthy of that politician.

Perceiving the Achaean League to be in desperate straits . . . [says Polybius (or Aratus)], and knowing that Antigonus was a man of energy, and of sense, and moreover of some pretensions to honour; but knowing full well that kings always measure their friends and foes by the sole standard of expediency . . . Aratus determined to come to terms with the said monarch, pointing out to him what would be the most likely result of the political situation. . . . And he had to act in a very overt way, on many occasions being compelled to do and say things in public which were quite contrary to his real intentions, so as to keep his designs hidden by creating the exact opposite impression. Hence some things he has not written about even in his Memoirs.

What masterpieces of dissimulation are thus withheld we can but speculate: but what is revealed is disingenuous enough.

The Macedonian had to be approached: but how to do it? The obvious answer was through Megalopolis, ever since her foundation anti-Laconian, and as a corollary the ally of whatever Northern power wished to curb the influence of Sparta in the Peloponnese. The Megalopolitans had borne the brunt of the war against Cleomenes, so an appeal would come well from them, and Aratus had family friends there, Cercidas and Nicophanes, who would be well qualified to make it. So, on the suggestion of Aratus, Cercidas and Nicophanes proposed to the Megalopolitans that envoys should be appointed to seek the alliance of Antigonus, if they could first get the permission of the League. (No doubt it was a principle of the Achaean League that any alteration of foreign policy by one of its members must be with the consent of the League Council, but clearly this move suited Aratus well. He could sound the opinions of the Council on a Macedonian alliance, and if they were unfavourable, the odium would rest on Megalopolis.) The embassy was approved by the Megalopolitans, and in due course by the League Council, and Cercidas and Nicophanes went to the court of Antigonus. “To him they said very little about the affairs of their own city, but spoke as Aratus instructed them”, that is, they urged on the King the advantages of an alliance between Macedon and the Achaean League at that particular moment. Aratus would see that good terms were offered: he would also tell the King just when his help was required. Antigonus recognized that Aratus' summary of the political situation was true, and perhaps he, too, rejoiced at the prospect of alliance with one whose sole standard was expediency. At all events, he gave the envoys to understand that help from him could be looked for when needed. Nicophanes seems to have played the leading part in this embassy. Cercidas may have been chosen because he stood well at the Macedonian Court through his kinship with the pro-Macedonian Cercidas of the time of Demosthenes. The envoys then returned to Megalopolis, and in the spring of 224 reported their mission to the League. Megalopolis, they said, had obtained the goodwill of Antigonus, whose aid they could now count on. Thereupon Aratus, who had private information from Nicophanes of the King's attitude, rose to his feet. He was delighted to hear of the King's sympathy, but would it not be more honourable if they could win the war by themselves? Macedon should only be brought in as a last resort. It was a masterly stroke: secure in the knowledge that Antigonus would come in when he gave the word, Aratus had covered his tracks from every one but the King and his friends, the envoys of Megalopolis; the latter, if they had any sense of humour, must have found the Council of 224 very satisfying. But, as Aratus doubtless expected, the League soon proved quite incapable of resisting Cleomenes by itself; the duress of events forced Aratus to sacrifice his quixotic sense of honour for his country's good. Antigonus was called in. But the troubles of Megalopolis were not over; in 223 Cleomenes captured the city, though most of the citizens succeeded in escaping to Messene. What then happened is not quite clear, apparently Cleomenes offered to spare the city if the inhabitants would return as his allies. The terms were rejected, it is said at the instance of the young Philopoemen, and Cleomenes razed the city to the ground. Cercidas would seem to have been amongst those who escaped to Messene, for we next hear of him as commanding the thousand Megalopolitans, exiles who fought on the Achaean side at Sellasia. But the honours of that day were not to be with the higher officers among the Megalopolitans, but with Philopoemen, who saw the psychological moment to attack, and seized it in the face of their orders. Sellasia was decisive, Cleomenes fled into exile; Aratus returned to the headship of the Archaean League; and the inhabitants of Megalopolis to their ruined city. Over the refounding and rebuilding of the city there was much dispute and bitterness, and a reform party proposed to reduce the city to a size which could more easily be defended, and to provide for additional citizens by dividing up a third of the land of existing landowners. They met with strenuous opposition, and Antigonus appointed Prytanis, an eminent member of the Peripatetic school, as nomothetes. The code he proposed caused violent controversy, and the dispute was not settled till 217, through the mediation of Aratus. It seems highly probable that this was the occasion on which Cercidas distinguished himself as nomothetes.

There had been nothing of the Cynic cosmopolitanism about Cercidas' conduct in standing so resolutely by his country in her misfortunes, and in being so concerned about the right ordering of her own political affairs. Not for him the indifference of Crates, asked by Alexander if he favoured the restoration of Thebes after her fall, Why should it be restored? Perhaps another Alexander would destroy it again? Cercidas had been a citizen of Megalopolis, not the fellow-citizen of Diogenes in the kosmos. But in one very remarkable fragment we see how his Cynic leanings influenced his political views.

“(Why does not God) choose out Xenon, that greedy cormorant of the well-lined purse, the child of licentiousness, and make him the child of poverty, giving to us who deserve it the silver that now runs to waste? What could prevent it (ask God that question, since it is easy for him to bring about whatever his mind resolves) that the man who ruins wealth by pouring out what he has or the filthy-dross-stained usurer, should be drained of their swine-befouled wealth, and the money now wasted given to him that has but his daily bread, and dips his cup at the common bowl? Has Justice then the sight of a mole, does Phaethon squint with a single pupil, is the vision dimmed of Themis the bright? How can one hold them for gods that lack eyes to see and ears to hear? Yet men say that the dread king, lord of the lightning, sits in mid-olympus holding the scales of justice, and never nods. So says Homer in the Iliad. “He doth incline the scale to the mighty of valour, when the day of fate is at hand / Why then does the impartial balancer never incline to me?” But the Brygians, dregs of humanity (yet I dread to say it), see how far they swing down in their favour the scales of Zeus! What lords, then, what sons of Ouranos shall a man find, that he may have justice? For Zeus, father of us all, verily is a father to some, to others but a step-father. Best leave the problem to astrologers; I think for them it will be a light task to solve. But for us, let us have a care for Paean, and for Sharing she is indeed a goddess and Retribution that walketh the earth. While the godhead blows a favourable wind astern, hold her in honour ; but though mortals fare well, yet shall a sudden wind blow vaunted wealth and proud fortune away. Who then shall vomit them back to you from the deep?”

Can we date this remarkable outburst against social inequality? Tarn thinks it emanates from the period when the reforms of Cleomenes were arousing the oppressed classes throughout the Peloponnese. Cercidas, he says, “is actually found preaching philanthropy and exhorting his fellows” (i.e. the governing classes) to heal the sick and give to the poor while they had time, otherwise the social revolution might be upon them and their wealth taken away. But this seems to miss the bitterness of the passage: Cercidas does not speak of himself as one of the governing classes, but rather as one oppressed by the unequal distribution of wealth. “Why not give to us the wealth that flows on useless expense?” and again, “Why does the impartial balancer never incline the scales to me?”.

We know from Polybios that social distress was particularly rife in Megalopolis about the time of the refounding of the city after its destruction by Cleomenes, and I suggest that it is to these years that we must assign the poem. Polybius says that there was a party which proposed to force men of property to contribute a third of their land to make up the numbers of new citizens required; and it is significant that the poem twice refers to the division of superfluous wealth for redistribution amongst the poor. The bitterness of the reference to Xeno harmonizes well with the “disputes, jealousies, and mutual hatreds”, which Polybius says were rife amongst the Megalopolitans. If we accept Knox's attractive suggestion that ta d' eschata brugia muson are the Macedonians, the nature of the allusion (axiomai de then legein) is understandable. Cercidas, who had played a leading part in securing the Macedonian alliance, could hardly complain if its results were unsatisfactory. That Antigonus would do little for the reforming party is likely enough, as Tarn says, Macedonia was always the bulwark of law and order and the existing state of affairs. The Peripatetics, too, were always more or less dependent on Macedonian protection, and it is likely that the code of Prytanis, which caused so much dispute, unduly favoured the wealthy. On this interpretation, the poem is not a warning to the governing classes to mend their ways while there is time, but a call to the party of reform not to wait for the vengeance of Heaven to strike the rich, but to act themselves under the inspiration of a new triad of deities, Paean and Sharing, and Nemesis. The tone in which the false deities of popular belief are assailed is essentially Cynic, as is the attack on luxury. The three deities are especially interesting. As Hunt well observes, the Cynics had a particular reverence for doctors, they themselves were iatroi of men's souls, so the reference to Paean is readily intelligible, it implies healing both physically and spiritually. What of Sharing (metadios)? Cercidas was an enthusiast on the old poets, and doubtless knew the line of Hesiod, “Giving (Dos) is a good wench, but Thieving a bad one, the bringer of Death”. Metado; would be a very suitable deity for a party whose programme included land-distribution, and one can understand the commendation theos gar auta Nemesis kata gan is thus not named as a threat to the wealthy that Cleomenes and the Spartans will be upon them, but perhaps a reminder to the party of reform that they have to fulfil on earth the functions assigned to Zeus in heaven. As for the wealthy, at present the winds blow fair, but let them beware a sudden squall.

The other fragments of Cercidas can be more briefly dealt with. Powell fragment 5 amplifies the saying of Euripides that Love has two breezes (dissa pneumata pneis Eros) to enforce the Cynic maxim that the sexual instincts should be gratified with as little trouble as possible. One should avoid the grande affaire “against whomsoever Aphrodite's son loosens his left jaw, rousing the whirlwinds and hurricanes of passion, their voyage is ever beset with unending turmoils of waves.” The wise man will not embark on such a stormy voyage when a calmer passage may be had. “Take Aphrodite that walks the market-place, she brings not repentance. She's there whenever you like, whenever you want her, nothing to fear or fret over. For an obol you may lie with her, and think yourself son-in-law to Tyndarus.” Fiske deals very fully with the conception of “Venus parabilis” in the literature of Epicureans, and with the obvious imitations of this passage of Cercidas in Lucilius, and more especially in Horace, Satire II. He suggests with some probability that Cercidas' simile of the stormy and the calm voyages of love is influenced by Epicurus' contrast of the tempest of the soul (cheimon tes psuches), and the calm of the soul (galene).

Another fragment, much mutilated, appears to be an attack on music as an enervating influence. Apollo is the god of “races who dwell in the shade, of mortals benumbed by pleasure, avoiding toil”. The offsprings of “the lofty-tragic- goddess (Music)” are “the Phrygian eunuch with puffed cheeks and the Lydian harlot”. Cynic parallels are readily found. Diogenes would marvel that “musicians should tune the strings of the lyre, while leaving discordant the disposition of their souls”, and Bion “in general made sport of music and geometry” we have as a sample his attack on Archytas “born of the strings, happy in his conceit, skilled beyond all men to awake the bass note of discord”.

Powell fragments 8 and 9 are joined by Knox; the general sense is clear enough, the Stoics of Cercidas' time are attacked as having degenerated from the standard of Zeno. The text is in very bad condition, particularly fragment 9, so that there are many doubtful readings. Knox's restoration of fragment 9, lines 1-7, suggests an attack on the preoccupation of the Stoics with dialectic, and their neglect of discipline. “Pettifogging lawyers they, babbling pitiful nonsense, and whetting well their pointed tongues, no habit of discipline blunteth, nor fatigue, its bitter edge.” Fragment 8 explicitly alludes to “Sphaerus” as one of these degenerates; this is almost certainly Sphaerus of Bosporus, the philosophic adviser of Cleomenes of Sparta. In the list of his writings given by Diogenes Laertius are works on Similars, on Definitions, on Contradictory Statements, on Predicates, on Ambiguous terms, and a Handbook of Dialectic in two volumes, besides treatises on “physical” subjects, such as the sense-organs, and minimal parts (peri elachiston). All such occupations would come within the sphere of tuphos; to the Cynic. Throughout the two fragments is evidence that the erotic practices of Sphaerus and his associates are unfavourably contrasted with the “the love of a Zeno”.

Fragment 2 quotes an animal proverb. “Remember what the wrinkled tortoise said, 'Truly home is dearest and best'.” Whether these lines can be linked on to fragment 5, as Knox suggests, is highly doubtful. The tortoise “happy in its thick shell” might well typify the Cynic apatheia; Gerhard quotes Plutarch for the tortoise as a symbol of oikouria and siope, and suggests that its affection for its home typifies Diogenes' attachment to his tub! But perhaps we are here dealing not with that sagacious animal, but with the other tortoise who rashly desired to quit his lowly station and see the wonders of the upper air, and who came to a bad end. The animal is thus warning us from the wisdom of experience, against the folly of memphimoiria.

Fragment 1 is the encomium of Diogenes quoted in Diogenes Laertius, hailing him as rightly named the offspring of Zeus, and the Heavenly Dog. Fragment 3 apparently assails those addicted to tuphos. “How can they see wisdom standing close at hand . . . men whose heart with mud is filled, and with lees whose stain may not be washed away?”

Cercidas was the inventor of the meliambic measure; from a statement in Athenaeus it appears that he wrote iambics also. Knox maintains with great force that the iambic verses contained in two second-century papyri, Londinensis 155, and Heidelberg Pap. 310, form part of a moral anthology compiled by Cercidas. The Cynic sympathies of the author at least of the Heidelberg fragment are unmistakable, and it is likely enough that some such anthology, which would fulfil the same use as a collection of chreia, would be compiled by a Cynic. The ideas underlying these fragments, and the parallels throughout Greek literature, are fully discussed by Gerhard; their spirit is akin to that of the diatribes of Teles, together with which they will be briefly considered.

There is no evidence to decide how long Cercidas lived after the nomothesia of 217; Powell fragment 7 is his address to his soul when on the threshold of old age. It is the declaration of a man who had enjoyed his life, and certainly Cercidas had had a full one. He had been in contact with great political figures of the day, had negotiated with Antigonus Doson, and seen from the inside the subtle workings of the policy of Aratus, he had been present on that July day at Sellasia when Sparta fought one of her greatest battles and suffered, in effect, her final defeat. Of all this there is no direct mention; his thoughts are on the delights of literature, and of the frugal life.

“Oft will a man unwillingly close his eyes in surrender, though not beaten; but thou didst have an unshakeable heart within thy breast, and one unconquered by all the cares that attend fleshwasting luxury. No good thing ever escaped thee, ever within thy affections were all the cublings of the Muses. Thou hast been a hunter, my soul, of all the Pierian maids, and a most keen tracker. But now are a few white hairs round the fringes of thy cheeks. . . .”

“Thou wast a hunter, my soul, of the Pierian maids” . . . whether it refers to his own works, to his enthusiasm for literature in general, or more narrowly to his industry as an anthologist, it is an odd reversal of the epitaph of Aeschylus, who says nothing of his glory as a tragedian, but only that he fought at Marathon. Yet here is no reference to Sellasia. Cercidas' devotion to literature passed into tradition. He ordered Books I and II of the Iliad to be buried with him we are told; and Aelian 3 describes how

“A man from Megalopolis in Arcadia, Cercidas by name, being about to die, told his sorrowing kinsmen that he gladly departed this life, for, he said, he had hopes of meeting Pythagoras amongst the philosophers, of the historians Hecataeus, of musicians, Olympus, and of poets Homer. So saying, he gave up the ghost.”

In the Apology, Socrates declared himself ready to meet a hundred deaths, if he might meet Orpheus and Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer.

The name of Cercidas was gratefully remembered by his fellow-citizens; and in Stephanus of Byzantium the notice under Megalopolis reads, “that is where Cercidas came from, that excellent lawgiver and meliambic poet”. Gregory Nazianzen refers to him as philtatos and his verses were echoed by Lucilius and Horace. In the years after 240 Megalopolis produced a succession of noteworthy men, the far-seeing tyrant Lydiades, Philopoemen “the last of the Greeks”, and the historian Polybius. To their company one must admit Cercidas, “aristos nomothetes kai melnimbion poietes

A History of Cynicism: A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Century AD
By Donald Dudley
Methuen and Co Ltd London
First Edition in 1937

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