|Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia, 1861. |
Artist: Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Image credit: Wikipedia
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Insights into Greek-Persian relations and Perceptions of Zoroastrianism
The selected passages below show some short but remarkable insights into Greek-Persian relations, the Persian principles and the method of educating a prince which includes an early education in Zoroastrianism.
The Setting - Socrates Lies in Wait
The scene in this dialogue of Plato is a meeting and discussion between Socrates and Alcibiades. Socrates has been lying in wait for the aspiring and ambitious youth who is about to enter on public life. Alcibiades has an inordinate opinion of himself, and an extravagant ambition as well. The relation between them is that of a lover and his beloved, Socrates being the older lover and Alcibiades his beloved. In the dialogue, Socrates, 'who knows what is in man,' astonishes Alcibiades with a revelation of the latter's designs.
The conversation which ensues is about politics and justice. But it contains some interesting insights into Greek-Persian relations and Greek perceptions of Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism as well.
Introspection & Self-Knowledge
Jowett in his introduction notes, "But he (Alcibiades) is not too old to learn, and may still arrive at the truth, if he is willing to be cross-examined by Socrates. He must know himself; that is to say, not his body, or the things of the body, but his mind, or truer self. The physician knows the body, and the tradesman knows his own business, but they do not necessarily know themselves. Self-knowledge can be obtained only by looking into the mind and virtue of the soul, which is the diviner part of a man, as we see our own image in another’s eye. And if we do not know ourselves, we cannot know what belongs to ourselves or belongs to others, and are unfit to take a part in political affairs. Both for the sake of the individual and of the state, we ought to aim at justice and temperance, not at wealth or power. The evil and unjust should have no power,--they should be the slaves of better men than themselves. None but the virtuous are deserving of freedom."
Start of the Dialogue
(Translation W.R.M. Lamb)
SOCRATES: Son of Cleinias, I think it must surprise you that I, the first of all your lovers, am the only one of them who has not given up his suit and thrown you over, and whereas they have all pestered you with their conversation I have not spoken one word to you for so many years. The cause of this has been nothing human, but a certain spiritual opposition, of whose power you shall be informed at some later time. However, it now opposes me no longer...
In the first place, you say to yourself that you are the fairest and tallest of the citizens, and this every one who has eyes may see to be true; in the second place, that you are among the noblest of them, highly connected both on the father’s and the mother’s side, and sprung from one of the most distinguished families in your own state, which is the greatest in Hellas, and having many friends and kinsmen of the best sort, who can assist you when in need; and there is one potent relative, who is more to you than all the rest, Pericles the son of Xanthippus, whom your father left guardian of you, and of your brother, and who can do as he pleases not only in this city, but in all Hellas, and among many and mighty barbarous nations. Moreover, you are rich; but I must say that you value yourself least of all upon your possessions. And all these things have lifted you up; you have overcome your lovers, and they have acknowledged that you were too much for them.
[It would appear that establishing lineage to the gods and demi-gods was essential to standing in Greek society. The wealthy and powerful all claimed this connection.]
Portion Relating to Persians & Zoroastrianism
(Translation Benjamin Jowett)
|Map of the Spartan and Athenian sides and strategies during the|
Peloponnesian War. Image credit: Wikipedia
SOCRATES: Why, you surely know that our city goes to war now and then with the Lacedaemonians1 and with the Great King2?
1 Lacedaemonia, also known as Laconia, is situated in the south of Greece at the southern part of the Peloponnese peninsula. It is also known as Sparta. The Athenians had been engaged in a war with Sparta called the Peloponnesian war (431 to 404 BCE). For the main part, the Spartans were allied with the Persians. The word "laconic", meaning to speak in a terse, concise way, is derived from Laconia. A person of few words is said to be laconic. Similarly, to be spartan means to be austere, stern, disciplined, frugal, simple, and courageous.
2 The Great King refers to the Persian emperor. The Persians were for the main part allies of the Spartans/Lacedaemonians during the Peloponnesian wars.]
ALCIBIADES: True enough.
SOCRATES: And if you meant to be the ruler of this city, would you not be right in considering that the Lacedaemonian and Persian king were your true rivals?
ALCIBIADES: I believe that you are right.
SOCRATES: Oh no, my friend, I am quite wrong, and I think that you ought rather to turn your attention to Midias the quail-breeder and others like him, who manage our politics; in whom, as the women would remark, you may still see the slaves3 cut of hair, cropping out in their minds as well as on their pates (heads)4; and they come with their barbarous lingo5 to flatter us and not to rule us. To these, I say, you should look, and then you need not trouble yourself about your own fitness to contend in such a noble arena: there is no reason why you should either learn what has to be learned, or practise what has to be practised, and only when thoroughly prepared enter on a political career.
3 Slaves in Athens were largely natives of western Asia. and had thick, close hair, very different from the wavy locks of the Greeks.
4 W.R.M. Lamb: "showing in their minds through their lack of culture."
5 W.R.M. Lamb: "outlandish speech"]
Prepare Yourself for Politics - Know Yourself & Your Enemies
ALCIBIADES: There, I think, Socrates, that you are right; I do not suppose, however, that the Spartan generals or the Great King are really different from anybody else.
SOCRATES: But, my dear friend, do consider what you are saying.
ALCIBIADES: What am I to consider?
SOCRATES: In the first place, will you be more likely to take care of yourself, if you are in a wholesome fear and dread of them, or if you are not?
ALCIBIADES: Clearly, if I have such a fear of them.
SOCRATES: And do you think that you will sustain any injury if you take care of yourself?
ALCIBIADES: No, I shall be greatly benefited.
SOCRATES: And this is one very important respect in which that notion of yours is bad.
SOCRATES: In the next place, consider that what you say is probably false.
ALCIBIADES: How so?
Breeding & Lineage
SOCRATES: Let me ask you whether better natures are likely to be found in noble races or not in noble races?
ALCIBIADES: Clearly in noble races.
SOCRATES: Are not those who are well born and well bred most likely to be perfect in virtue?
SOCRATES: Then let us compare our antecedents with those of the Lacedaemonian and Persian kings; are they inferior to us in descent? Have we not heard that the former are sprung from Heracles6, and the latter from Achaemenes, and that the race of Heracles and the race of Achaemenes go back to Perseus7, son of Zeus?
6 Known to the Romans and the modern world as as Hercules, Heracles was the greatest of cultural mythic demigod Greek heroes. Said to have more brawn than brain, he is claimed as a one-time king of Argos (to the north of Sparta and on the eastern Peloponnese peninsula), and further claimed as ancestor to the royal clans of Heracleidae. As a god, he was the son of Zeus, and both great-grandson and half-brother of Perseus. While his name means 'of Hera' (Hera being the wife of supreme god Zeus) he was hated by Hera for being the illicit and illegitimate son born of an affair (one of many) Zeus had with a mortal woman Alcmene - whom Zeus seduced after disguising himself as her husband. This is the backdrop to what Socrates calls "noble race" "well born and well bred most likely to be perfect in virtue". Nevertheless, what is of interest here is that Plato (or some Greek writer at any rate) through Socrates describes a common origin for the Greeks and the Persians: "that the race of Heracles and the race of Achaemenes (both) go back to Perseus," Perseus being credited in Greek mythology as a 'grandfather' of the Persian 'race'. Heracles was a Perseid.
Perseus, Perses & Persians
7 Here we have Plato ascribing the 'race' (sic) of the Persians to Perseus. Given that the word 'Persians' is a Western corruption of Parsi - named after a place Pars/Parsa and not a eponymous people - and given that there is no such myth of origins even remotely close amongst the Persians/Iranians, we can only conclude that this Greek myth came into being after the rise of the Persians as a power and because of what the Greeks perceived to be their ancient connections with the Persians. Regardless of the veracity of the myth, the sentiment contained is one of common origins and the Greek connection of the name Persian to Perseus.
In Greek mythology, Perseus, son of Zeus and the maiden Danae, is the legendary founder of the state of Mycenae (located about 90 km south-west of Athens, in the north-eastern Peloponnese), and Mycenae's Perseid dynasty. Mycenae was the dominant Greek city-state in the second millennium BCE, and a centre of Greek civilization. Perseus was also the most virtuous and chivalrous of all the Greek gods.
Perseus slew Medusa, a woman with hair made of snakes, and who turned everyone who looked at her into stone. Perseus used her decapitated head as a weapon and turned Atlas to stone when the latter gazed at Medusa's head. This created the Atlas Mountains that run along Africa's north-western coast from today's Morocco, through Algeria to Tunisia. Then when flying over Ethiopia, he rescued a beautiful woman chained to a rock. She was Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus, the king of Ethiopia, and he took her as his wife. While they continued to live in Ethiopia, their first son Perses was born. When Perseus and Andromeda traveled back to Greece, they left the infant Perses with his grandparents. Since Cepheus had no other heir, Perses inherited his kingdom. The boy's descendants would travel east and rule Persia, the land that was named after Perses.
Perseus' son Perses is therefore credited as being the eponymous ancestor of the Persians in Greek mythology. Plato identifies Perses with Achaemenes, the eponymous ancestor of the Achaemenians and founder of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty that founded the Persian Empire. According to Hellanicus, Perses was the author of civilization in the district of Persia called Artaea.
Perseus is associated by some writers with Mithra, an angel in Zoroastrianism and a pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Iranian asura deity. Perses is also the name of a Titan god, the gods of the pre-Olympian Golden Age.
Heracles was a fourth generation descendant of Perseus. His descendants were called the The Heraclides.]
ALCIBIADES: Why, so does mine go back to Eurysaces8, and he to Zeus!
8 According to Plutarch in Alcibiades 1.1 (see references below): "The family of Alcibiades, it is thought, may be traced back to Eurysaces, the son of Aias, as its founder; and on his mother's side he was an Alcmaeonid, being the son of Deinomache, the daughter of Megacles. His father, Cleinias, fitted out a trireme at his own cost and fought it gloriously at Artemisium."
In Greek mythology, Eurysaces was the son of the Ajax, known as the 'bulwark of the Mycenaeans', and the former-princess captive-slave girl Tecmessa. Tecmessa was the daughter of Teuthras, king of Teleutas, king of Phrygia, a former enemy. During the Trojan War, Ajax kills Tecmessa's father and takes her captive. Ajax in turn was the son of Telamon, a grandson of Zeus and Periboea. Eurysaces was named after his father's famous shield. According to an Athenian tradition, Eurysaces' son or brother, Philaeus, surrendered the island of Salamis to the Athenians, in order to become Athenian citizens and in exchange for Attica, the region surrounding Athens. Eurysaces had inherited Salamis (the largest Greek island in the Saronic Gulf, about 2 km off the coast from Piraeus and about 16 km west of Athens) from his grandfather. The Athenians honoured Eurysaces and his father Ajax with an altar and thereafter venerated them.]
Futility of Notions of Superiority
SOCRATES: And mine, noble Alcibiades, to Daedalus8, and he to Hephaestus, son of Zeus. But, for all that, we are far inferior to them. For they are descended ‘from Zeus,’ through a line of kings-either kings of Argos and Lacedaemon, or kings of Persia, a country which the descendants of Achaemenes have always possessed, besides being at various times sovereigns of Asia9, as they now are; whereas, we and our fathers were but private persons. How ridiculous would you be thought if you were to make a display of your ancestors and of Salamis the island of Eurysaces, or of Aegina, the habitation of the still more ancient Aeacus, before Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes. You should consider how inferior we are to them both in the derivation of our birth and in other particulars. Did you never observe how great is the property of the Spartan kings? And their wives are under the guardianship of the Ephori, who are public officers and watch over them, in order to preserve as far as possible the purity of the Heracleid blood.
Virtuosity of Persian Queen
Integrity of the Persian Royal Line
SOCRATES: Still greater is the difference among the Persians; for no one entertains a suspicion that the father of a prince of Persia can be any one but the king. Such is the awe which invests the person of the queen, that any other guard is needless. And when the heir of the kingdom is born, all the subjects of the king feast; and the day of his birth is for ever afterwards kept as a holiday and time of sacrifice by all Asia; whereas, when you and I were born, Alcibiades, as the comic poet says, the neighbours hardly knew of the important event.
SOCRATES: After the birth of the royal child, he is tended, not by a good-for-nothing woman-nurse, but by the best of the royal eunuchs, who are charged with the care of him, and especially with the fashioning and right formation of his limbs, in order that he may be as shapely as possible; which being their calling, they are held in great honour.
The Upbringing of a Persian Prince
The Four Tutors10
SOCRATES: And when the young prince is seven years old he is put upon a horse and taken to the riding-masters, and begins to go out hunting.
And at fourteen years of age11 he is handed over to the royal schoolmasters, as they are termed: these are four chosen men, reputed to be the best among the Persians of a certain age; and one of them is the wisest, another the justest, a third the most temperate, and a fourth the most valiant.
- The first instructs him in the magianism of Zoroaster12, the son of Oromasus, which is the worship of the Gods, and teaches him also the duties of his royal office;
- the second, who is the justest, teaches him always to speak the truth;
- the third, or most temperate, forbids him to allow any pleasure to be lord over him, that he may be accustomed to be a freeman and king indeed,--lord of himself first, and not a slave;
- the (fourth) most valiant trains him to be bold and fearless, telling him that if he fears he is to deem himself a slave;
...whereas Pericles gave you, Alcibiades, for a tutor Zopyrus the Thracian, a slave of his who was past all other work. I might enlarge on the nurture and education of your rivals, but that would be tedious; and what I have said is a sufficient sample of what remains to be said. I have only to remark, by way of contrast, that no one cares about your birth or nurture or education, or, I may say, about that of any other Athenian, unless he has a lover who looks after him.
Wealth & Property of the Spartans
SOCRATES: And if you cast an eye on the wealth, the luxury, the garments with their flowing trains, the anointings with myrrh, the multitudes of attendants, and all the other bravery of the Persians, you will be ashamed when you discern your own inferiority; or if you look at the temperance and orderliness and ease and grace and magnanimity and courage and endurance and love of toil and desire of glory and ambition of the Lacedaemonians-in all these respects you will see that you are but a child in comparison of them. Even in the matter of wealth, if you value yourself upon that, I must reveal to you how you stand; for if you form an estimate of the wealth of the Lacedaemonians, you will see that our possessions fall far short of theirs. For no one here can compete with them either in the extent and fertility of their own and the Messenian territory, or in the number of their slaves, and especially of the Helots, or of their horses, or of the animals which feed on the Messenian pastures. But I have said enough of this: and as to gold and silver, there is more of them in Lacedaemon than in all the rest of Hellas, for during many generations gold has been always flowing in to them from the whole Hellenic world, and often from the barbarian also, and never going out, as in the fable of Aesop the fox said to the lion, ‘The prints of the feet of those going in are distinct enough;’ but who ever saw the trace of money going out of Lacedaemon? And therefore you may safely infer that the inhabitants are the richest of the Hellenes in gold and silver, and that their kings are the richest of them, for they have a larger share of these things, and they have also a tribute paid to them which is very considerable.
Wealth & Property of the Persians
SOCRATES: Yet the Spartan wealth, though great in comparison of the wealth of the other Hellenes, is as nothing in comparison of that of the Persians and their kings. Why, I have been informed by a credible person who went up to the king (at Susa), that he passed through a large tract of excellent land, extending for nearly a day’s journey, which the people of the country called the queen’s girdle, and another, which they called her veil; and several other fair and fertile districts, which were reserved for the adornment of the queen, and are named after her several habiliments.
The Value of Education & Wisdom
SOCRATES: Now, I cannot help thinking to myself, What if some one were to go to Amestris, the wife of Xerxes and mother of Artaxerxes, and say to her, There is a certain Dinomache, whose whole wardrobe is not worth fifty minae-and that will be more than the value-and she has a son who is possessed of a three-hundred acre patch at Erchiae, and he has a mind to go to war with your son-would she not wonder to what this Alcibiades trusts for success in the conflict? ‘He must rely,’ she would say to herself, ‘upon his training and wisdom-these are the things which Hellenes value.’ And if she heard that this Alcibiades who is making the attempt is not as yet twenty years old, and is wholly uneducated, and when his lover tells him that he ought to get education and training first, and then go and fight the king, he refuses, and says that he is well enough as he is, would she not be amazed, and ask ‘On what, then, does the youth rely?’ And if we replied: He relies on his beauty, and stature, and birth, and mental endowments, she would think that we were mad, Alcibiades, when she compared the advantages which you possess with those of her own people. And I believe that even Lampido, the daughter of Leotychides, the wife of Archidamus and mother of Agis, all of whom were kings, would have the same feeling; if, in your present uneducated state, you were to turn your thoughts against her son, she too would be equally astonished. But how disgraceful, that we should not have as high a notion of what is required in us as our enemies’ wives and mothers have of the qualities which are required in their assailants!
SOCRATES: O my friend, be persuaded by me, and hear the Delphian inscription, ‘Know thyself’-not the men whom you think, but these kings are our rivals, and we can only overcome them by pains and skill. And if you fail in the required qualities, you will fail also in becoming renowned among Hellenes and Barbarians, which you seem to desire more than any other man ever desired anything.
8 Socrates' father, Sophroniscus, was a sculptor, and Daedalus was the legendary inventor of sculpture.
9 This could be reference to the historical and legendary Iranian-Aryan empire which the Persians, an Iranian-Aryan kingdoms, assumed by gaining ascendancy over the others.
10 Compare this with the upbriging of Cyrus the Great in Xenophon's Cyropaedia.
11 Fourteen being the traditional Zoroastrian rite of passage to the age of reason.
12 A confirmation that the Achaemenian kings of Persia were Zoroastrian and brought up as Zoroastrian, that being the first instruction they received as a child.]
Socrates having demonstrated to Alcibiades his ill-preparedness to assume public office, offers to be Alcibiades' tutor.
» Previous page: Alcibiades, Plato and Some Amazing Insights. Part 1 The Historical Alcibiades
Additional Pages on Greek-Persian relations and influence:
» Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi
» Zoroastrian-Persian Influence on Greek Philosophy and Sciences
» Similarities in Greek & Persian-Iranian Cuisine
» Full text of Plato's Alcibiades I, translated by Benjamin Jowett at ancienttexts.org
» Full text of Plato's Alcibiades I & II, translated by W.R.M. Lamb at Perseus
» Plutarch, The Life of Alcibiades in Plutarch's Lives at Perseus, translated by Bernadotte Perrin
» Plutarch, The Life of Alcibiades in The Parallel Lives at Thayer
» Andocides, Against Alcibiades in Minor Attic Orators, translated by by K. J. Maidment at Perseus