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From Alciphron, Literally and Completely Translated From the Greek, with Introduction and Notes, Athens: Privately Printed for the Athenian Society; 1896; pp. v-xvii.



ALCIPHRON was a Greek sophist, and one of the most eminent of the Greek epistolographers. We have no direct information of any kind respecting his life or the age in which he lived. Some assign him to the fifth century A.D.; others, to the period between Lucian and Aristaenetus (170-350 A.D.); while others again are of opinion that he lived before Lucian. The only circumstance that suggests anything in regard to the period at which he lived is the fact that, amongst the letters of Aristaenetus, there are two which passed between Lucian and Alciphron; and, as Aristaenetus is generally trustworthy, vi we may infer that Alciphron was a contemporary of Lucian, which is not incompatible with the opinion, true or false, that he imitated him.

It cannot be proved that Alciphron, any more than Aristaenetus, was a real name. It is probable that there was a well-known sophist of that name in the second century A.D., but it does not follow that he wrote the letters.

The letters, as we have them, are divided into three books. Their object is to delineate the characters of certain classes of persons by introducing them as expressing their peculiar sentiments and opinions upon subject with which they are familiar. For this purpose Alciphron chose country people, fishermen, parasites, and courtesans. All are made to express themselves in most elegant and graceful language, even where the vii subjects are low and obscene. The characters are thus to some extent raised above the ordinary standard, without any great violence being done to the truth of the reality. The form of these letters is very beautiful, and the language in which they are written is the purest Attic. The scene is, with few exceptions, Athens and its neighbourhood; the time, some period after the reign of Alexander the Great, as is clear from the letters of the second book. The New Attic comedy was the chief source from which Alciphron derived his material, and the letters contain much valuable information in regard to the characters and manners he describes, and the private life of the Athenians. We come across some remarkably modern touches, as the thimble-rigger at the fair and the claquers at the theatre. Alciphron perhaps imitated viii Lucian in style; but the spirit in which he treats his subjects is very different, and far more refined.

In the great majority of cases the names in the headings of the letters, which seem very clumsy in an English dress, are fictitious, and are purposely coined to express some characteristic of the persons between whom they are supposed to pass.

In the volume of “Lucian” in this series some account has been given of the courtesans of Athens. It will here be interesting to describe briefly another curious class of personages, the parasites — a word which has had a remarkable history.

Originally, amongst the Greeks, the parasites were persons who held special functions. They had a right, like the priests, to a certain portion of the sacrificial victims, and their particular duty was to look after the storage and keep of the sacred ix corn, hence their name. They enjoyed an honourable position, and the Athenians resigned to them even the management of the temples, which gave them rank next to the priests.

Soon, after the example of Apollo, the richest citizens looked out for witty table-companions, to amuse them with jests, and flatter them in proportion to their importance and liberality. By degrees, however, these parasites, lending themselves to ridicule, fell into discredit and contempt. The name, diverted from its etymological signification, was applied to every haunter of the tables of the rich, to every sponger for a free meal, to every shameless flatterer who, in order to satisfy the needs of his stomach, consented to divert the company and patiently endure the insults which it pleased the master of the house to heap upon him.

At first this was by no means x the case with all parasites. Gaiety, audacity, liveliness, good humour, a knowledge of the culinary art, and sometimes even a certain amount of independence lent an additional charm to the members of the profession. One of the most famous of parasites was Philoxenus of Leucas, of whom we read in Athenaeus. It was his practice, whether at home or abroad, after he had been to the bath, to go round the houses of the principal citizens, followed by boys carrying in a basket oil, vinegar, fish-sauce, and other condiments. After he had made his choice, Philoxenus, who was a great gourmand, entered without ceremony, took his seat at table, and did honour to the repast before him. One day, at Ephesus, finding that there was nothing left in the market, he asked the reason. Being told that everything had been bought up xi for a wedding festival, he washed and dressed himself, and deliberately walked to the house of the bridegroom, by whom he was well received. He took his seat at table, ate, drank, sang an epithalamium or marriage-song, and delighted the guests. “I hope you will dine here to-morrow,” said the host. “Yes,” answered Philoxenus, “if you lay violent hands upon the market as you have done to-day.” “I wish I had a crane’s neck,” he sometimes exclaimed; “then I should be able to relish the flavour of the food for a longer time.” Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, who knew that he was very fond of fish, invited him to dinner, and, while an enormous mullet was set before himself, sent his guest a very small one. Without being in the least disconcerted, Philoxenus took up the small fry, pretended to speak xii to it, and put it close to his ear, as if to hear its reply. “Well,” said Dionysius, somewhat annoyed, “what is the matter?” “I was asking him certain information about the sea which interests me; but he has been caught too young: this is his excuse for having nothing to tell me. The fish in front of you, on the contrary, is old enough to satisfy my curiosity.” Dionysius, pleased with the rejoinder, sent on to him his own fish. To perpetuate his memory, Philoxenus composed a “Manual of Gastronomy,” which was held in great repute.

Philoxenus, it must be admitted, was a very favourable specimen of his class. As a rule the parasites were among the most abject and worthless of men. “Selected for their profligacy, their impudence, or their wit, they were admitted to the tables of the wealthy, to promote licentious xiii mirth. This being the case, it does not seem at all unnatural that we should at the same time find them the friends and companions of the courtesans. Such characters could not but be mutually necessary to each other. The courtesan solicited the acquaintance of the parasite, that she might the more easily obtain and carry on intrigues with the rich and dissipated. The parasite was assiduous in his attention to the courtesan, as procuring through her means more easy access to his patrons, and was probably rewarded by them both, for the gratification which he obtained of the vices of the one and the avarice of the other.”

The name parasite first assumed a dishonourable signification in the works of the writers of the Middle and New Comedy. The first who so used it is said to have been Alexis. xiv In the latter comedians they are stock characters, whose chief object was to get a dinner without paying for it. They are divided into different classes. There were the �����������������ἱ, or jesters, who, in order to secure an invitation, not only endeavoured to amuse, but endured the grossest insults, and personal ill-treatment (cf. Book III., Letters, 6, 7, 49). They had notebooks, in which they kept a collection of jokes ready for use. The ���������, or flatterers, endeavoured to get invitations by playing upon the vanity of their prospective patrons. The ��������������ἱ, or “officious” parasites, tried to curry favour by services of the lowest and most degrading character, which are detailed in the sixth book of Athenaeus. They haunted the markets, wrestling-schools, baths, and other public places in search of patrons.


The Romans also had their parasites. As the stern rigour of the Republic relaxed and degenerated into the splendour and dissipation of a despotic government, the Roman parasites became less respectable and more profligate. But it does not appear that in the most licentious ages of the Empire they ever equalled in meanness or in vice those worthless characters described in such lively colours by Athenaeus, Alciphron, and the comic poets of Greece. Frequent allusions to them are found in Horace, Juvenal, Plautus, and particularly in Terence.

The latinized forms of the names of Greek gods and goddesses (such as Jupiter for Zeus) have been preserved in the translation as being more familiar, although, strictly speaking, they cannot be regarded as correct.








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