Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Herodotus

Those who would detect his lies and fictions would need many books – Plutarch, The Malice of Herodotus


HERODOTUS
Call me Father of Lies. They all did, back then,
And yet all of these things are true. Example:
Croesus, visiting Delphi, hears the future:

ORACLE
O King, you will destroy a mighty empire.

HERODOTUS
He thrills, works to prepare his case: invasion.
I imagine him, standing behind a mic,
Upright, uniform shining, rows of medals,
Roaring jets on the airstrip behind him.

CROESUS
They have weapons en masse, and steel! They have gold,
More gold! My wealth is a proverb. You should have some.

HERODOTUS
They cheer, bundle inside their transports, laughing.
Unease rides as a passenger, pointing out
Omens: see, outside the hatch, a lion-sized ant.
Dog-faced bedouins, semi-automatic
Rifles raised to the heavens, fire a salvo,
Bullets barking a warning, howling, yapping.

CROESUS
I saw, blurred in the haze, a phoenix dying
And reborn from its ashes, shrieking hoarsely.
I said, it is a sign that we shall triumph.
Our ambitions returned to ashes, stay there.
They were ready for us. They lurked in dusty
Corners, leapt out, destroyed themselves and my men.

HERODOTUS
As when Nitokris, Queen of Egypt, wiped out
The assassins of her beloved Pharaoh.
She arranged a great feast and set the charges
Over dinner, an accusation of murder
And a taint in the wine, a taste of fury.

NITOKRIS
Know this: he was my husband, he my brother,
He the sun in the scarab's claws, the morning,
And I Nitokris, incomplete without him.
I shall die in the flames, revenged, beside you.

HERODOTUS
A rush for the door, a hand at a throat.
One man draws a revolver, one pulls a knife.
She smiles, presses the button. No one escapes.
Meanwhile, Croesus in chains before the Great King
Sees reprisals begin and realises now
What the Oracle said, what he has destroyed.
He stares into the camera, chooses his words.

CROESUS
I remembered how Solon came from Athens.
I displayed to him all my wealth in the vaults;
I said, I am the happiest of men! But
Solon told me the tale of Cleobis and
Biton, brothers of Athens.

SOLON
Having made their
Parents proud with a feat of filial duty,
They died suddenly, happy and still perfect.
They died and they never disappointed.

CROESUS
I seethed at the insult, and I despised him.
Now I see what he meant. The bad times have come.
Oh, we value the Golden Age when it's gone!
O King? You will destroy a mighty empire.

HERODOTUS
Newsmen seize on a soundbite, play it, screen it
Everywhere on the rolling news, a headline
Made to justify war – a new invasion.
It won't work. In a year it will be done with;
This greatest of war machines is beaten
By a handful of Greeks who barely even
Try to talk to each other without squabbling:
Spartans, fishermen, slaves, long-distance runners.
The King loses his mind. He has the sea flogged,
And cries out to his gods. He won't understand
The sole purpose of God: to end all good things.

Call me Father of Lies. You can, if you like,
And perhaps you will say this didn't happen.
Yes. But all of these things are true. That is all.

(Author's note: This poem is written in elegiac hendecasyllables, a metre used by, among others, Theocritus and Catullus. It deals with Europe's first writer of the first long-form work of historiography. I wrote it in late 2011, and it was a major part of my 2012 annus mirabilis, so I have fond memories of it.)

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