Sparta Falls and Rises at Thermopylae

Spartan Warrior at Thermopylae

Ever since I first read Lawrence Durrell’s Justine many years ago, I have been in love with the poems of Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), a Greek poet resident in Alexandria, Egypt. Here is one of his most famous early poems:


Honour to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do,
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honour is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.

And who is Ephialtes? According to the History of Herodotus, he is a Greek who betrayed his homeland to the Persians by showing them a trail by which they could surprise Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. He expected to be rewarded by his new masters, but that fell apart when they lost the Battle of Salamis.

“In the month of Athyr …”

Mummy Portrait of Deceased

Early Christian Mummy Portrait of Deceased

One of my favorite poets of the last century was Constantine P. Cavafy, who lived most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt. I have just finished reading E. M. Forster’s Pharos and Pharillon: A Novelist’s Sketchbook of Alexandria Through the Ages, which ends which a chapter on “The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy.”

In it, he talks about meeting Cavafy in the street and having a marvelous conversation with him:

It is delivered with equal ease in Greek, English, or French. And despite its intellectual richness and human outlook, despite the matured charity of its judgments, one feels that it too stands at a slight angle to the universe: it is the sentence of a poet.

What a wonderful line! “It too stands at a slight angle to the universe.”

The Poet

The Poet

In his book, Forster quotes (and, I suspect, translated) this fragmentary funerary poem of a young man who died one November (“Athyr”), probably not unlike the mummy facial covering illustrated above:

It is hard to read . . . on the ancient stone.
“Lord Jesus Christ” … I make out the word “Soul”,
“In the month of Athyr … Lucius fell asleep.”
His age is mentioned … “He lived years …”—
The letters KZ show … that he fell asleep young,
In the damaged part I see the words … “Him … Alexandrian”.
Then came three lines … much mutilated.
But I can read a few words … perhaps “our tears” and “sorrows”.
And again: “Tears” … and: “for us his friends mourning”.
I think Lucius … was much bloved.
In the month of Athyr … Lucius fell asleep ….

In case you have never heard of Cavafy before, he was a major inspiration for Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.