--from the Peony Archives
What should have been one of the greatest homecomings in ancient times, instead ended in cold-blooded murder when the King's wife stabbed him to death that evening in the bath.
How did it come to that? You ask.
Even Odysseus-- the reluctant hero-- finally in the end made it safely home to his loving wife and son, didn't he?
And, hadn't the Greeks won the war after their rightful sack of Troy?
Why did she do it?
The chorus, too, demands an answer.
And, so in a series of stunning speeches, which would be the envy of any Washington speech writer, the queen lays out her case. Her husband-- the King-- has killed their beloved daughter, and for that he must die. That he had brought a concubine home with him from Troy and that she and her lover were already happily ruling the Kingdom ensconced in the castle were reasons as well. But Clytemnestra-- make no doubt about it-- is clear about her reasons: he killed their daughter and for that he must die.
So, she sets him up.
In what is one of the most famous homecoming scenes in all history-- Clytemnestra gives her husband Agamemnon the "red carpet treatment."
Laying out the family's priceless reddish-purple color tapestries, she urges him:
"Walk across, my Lord."
He tells her he will not. For that is the kind of arrogance that Persian Kings show-- believing themselves to be as all-mighty as the gods.
"We are democrats," he responds.
And when she continues begging him to glide across the sea of blood-red tapestries, he retorts:
"These are heirlooms, how can we soil our family heirlooms?"
In the end, exhausted perhaps from the trip, he allows himself to be persuaded and across he walks-- to his death. For this show of arrogance is the all-important piece of evidence that Clytemnestra will need as "reason" of the need she had to get rid of him; for most Athenians would have agreed that an all-powerful monarch in the style seen in Persia was something to be avoided at all costs.
In the translator's introduction, it is stated that "puffed up with ego, Agamemnon walks across the tapestries." (many of you will be more familiar with the translator's brother from his Chongqing days)
Dreyfus, though, is upset-- and it's worse than Heidegger's translator.
"Is Lattimore totally oblivious?" Asks Dreyfus, "Where did Agamemnon show any indication of being puffed up? Didn't he try in vain to argue with his wife till he just became exhausted and walked across to please her?"
Dreyfus has a point.
Judge for yourself:
Daughter of Leda, guardian of my home,
your speech was, like my absence, far too long.
Praise that's due to us should come from others.
Then it's worthwhile. All those things you said—
don't puff me up with such female honours,
or grovel there before me babbling tributes,
like some barbarian. Don't invite envy
to cross my path by strewing it with cloth.
That's how we honour gods, not human beings.
For a mortal man to place his foot like this
on rich embroidery is, in my view,
not without some risk. So I'm telling you
honour me as a man, not as a god.
My fame proclaims itself. It doesn't need
foot mats made out of such embroideries.
Not even to think of doing something bad
is god's greatest gift. When a man's life ends
in great prosperity, only then can we declare
that he's a happy man. Thus, if I act,
in every circumstance, as I ought to now,
there's nothing I need fear.
They debated back and forth. In the end, though, the King gave up and treaded upon the "sea of blood." Scholars continue to argue about exactly why he did finally acquiesce and walk across the tapestries.
But what of "these red tapestries dyed in the sea?"
In the translation above, the English word "cloth" is used, and that is probably a safe translation. I think Lattimore uses the word "carpet" but that doesn't quite seem right, does it? For carpets are made to be walked across. Even the heirloom rugs which one finds hanging in a millionaire's yurt could also probably be walked on without causing too much damage. Dreyfus, I think, prefers calling them tapestries, and that works, I think.
The walls of medieval castles were covered in tapestries of fantastic quality-- in fact, I think I read somewhere that tapestries were among the most costly heirlooms of Medieval Europe.
I have also seen the above translated as robes-- which is perhaps my personal favorite translation. The other day, I was having tea with a friend who had taken out several of her beautiful kimono to air them in the dry autumn weather. Silk brocades with golden threads were only to be out done by the most exquisite embroidery on the thinnest, most delicate silk I have ever seen. It was a splendid fortune in textiles, amassed by a woman who in her youth had been very successful in Osaka's water trade.
Dreyfus says, "It would have been like as if Clytemnestra had taken a dozen Monet paintings down from the walls, and laying them down, had said: Walk across my Lord." Textiles more costly than the finest oil paintings....
My tea teacher as well had warned me to never waste money on jewelry if you can buy textiles.
In the ancient world-- almost no matter where you look-- people who could, spent vast amounts of money on such textiles. And, before the invention of money, cloth formed a large bulk of things which were traded across borders. Indeed, it was the silk trade which was to give its name to the most legendary overland trade routes in history!
Agamemnon's robes were most probably woven from wool. The Persians were known for their exquisite dyed cloth in this material. Still, textile scholars remind us that the silk trade, while it took off in Han or Roman Empire times, actually goes back much further. In 1983 the New York Times ran an article about strips of woven silk found on an Egyptian mummy from 1000BC. Scientific studies showed this silk to be Chinese. Silk was also found in 7th century BC graves in Germany and 5th century BC graves in Greece. This latter date corresponding to Aeschylus' play.
It is not outside the realm of possibility that Agememnon's robes or tapestries were made of woven silk.
More than the material, however, it is their color which intrigues. Many will know that these robes, "the blood red color of the sea," were dyed from the pigments gotten from mollusks-- thousands upon of sea creatures. This was the "purple" dyed linen of the Arc of the Covenant that was later to be the color of the robes of the greatest Roman emperors and the color of Cleopatra's "fragrant sails." Indeed, Cleopatra was said to have dwelled within a world of fragrant incense and a cloud of costly purple.
The color purple has long been associated with emperors and queens. While we say "purple" the term actually encompassed a large spectrum of colors from light pink to very dark fuchsia-- with the most sought after color being a shimmering dark red (sometimes referred to as the color of blood). The most refined-- and therefore the most sought after-- shade was this precise shimmering shade of blood, in fact.
The Phoenicians built their fortunes on trade in the dye-- and indeed, the color is known to us today as Tyrian purple. Based on the coast of Lebanon, the ancient mariners of the Mediterranean delivered cloth dyed in this purple of the sea throughout the ancient world. They say it would take 10,000 dead mollusks to dye one robe the coveted color.
It was smelly business too-- as dying inevitably is. But so lucrative was it that many peoples gave it a shot. No one, however, achieved as beautiful a shade of purple as the Phoenicians (who are believed to have used two species of mollusks: —the Purpura pelagia or Murex trunculus, and the Purfura lapillus or Buccinum lapillus).
Victoria Finlay tries to track down the color in her book, Color: A Natural History of the Palette, and it is really the only failed adventure in the book. The species have been hunted to the point of extinction and while she did get a glimpse of the huge ancient vats that were once used to make the luxerious dyes (wisely located downwind of the ancient city of Tyre), she is unable to find much of anything else in Lebanon and so travels to the New World where the Central American Indians continue to dye cloth in a similar color gotten from mollusks of a different species. (See this Post for more about her travels into Blue).
I would love to see cloth dyed this color. I cannot even really imagine what murax silk would have looked like, but it is something I would very much like to see.
Anyway, the Phonecians and their trading...I have been thinking a lot lately about the silk road. In particular, I am-- as many here will know-- interested in the way the silk road is held up today as a symbol of something worth emulating for today's times.
For example, we see scholars in Europe (UNESCO scholars) discussing silk road exchanges as "two way streets" where, perhaps in contrast to monoculturalization or super-power monologues of today, silk road influence worked more like a true dialog. (And, how much of this is being romanticized is not really the point as the interesting thing is not the historical accuracy, but rather what contemporary phenomenon it is being contrasted with)
In history books as well, there is a stress on the manner in which trade led the way for these exchanges. And, sometimes when I read, while I feel that there is an implied contrast at how things occur in today's world, I am left with questions.
Aren't international exchanges even today based on trade? Or has the financial world changed to such an extent that two-way trade doesn't really exist any longer?
But, we know that huge trade imbalances existed during Roman times. Pliny (I seem to recall) took pains to complain about Roman trade deficits with India. Purple silk was banned in part for this reason in ancient Rome (being reserved for the emperor). But, if it is not contemporary trade imbalances, what then is being implied?
Decades ago, "finance" was generally understood as financing something other than finance itself; that is, stocks and bonds and money were tied to the production and circulation of goods and services, which were for the most part tangible, or "real" in economic parlance. Beginning with at least the oil crisis of the 1970s, finance has been transformed, now stunningly overshadowing the "real" economy. Left academics have coined the term "Financialization" to get at these changes. How big has finance become? That is a difficult question but think about this kind of statement (from the above linked Wikipedia page):
Thus, [in 2006] derivatives trading – mostly futures contracts on interest rates, foreign currencies, Treasury bonds, etc had reached a level of $1,200 trillion, $1.2 quadrillion, a year. By comparison, U.S. GDP in 2006 was $12.456 trillion.
Indeed, this week "trillion" has become a common reference. How big is the market in credit default swaps? We hear reports in the tens of trillions. Government action valued in the hundreds of billions seems puny by comparison. Welcome to the world of financialization.
Sam asks, what would Mencius think? I think it's a good question.
The Philosophers Zone had another very good show, by the way, on Bailouts, Capitalism and the Financial Markets. Raghuram Rajan, who brings up some of the same points as Sam, had some really interesting things to say, I think.
So, these topics remain on my mind, and I still am not exactly sure how to approach them:
silk road trade versus contemporaray finance
silk road cosmopolitanism versus contemporary globalization
silk road international relations versus the Great Game
Checking in at the provincial warlord's homestead, I see someone left a comment here concerning the warlord's preposterous idea that the Tang dynasty is China's #4 most impressive dynasty. I can only say it again: he must be delusional (as clearly the Tang must be either #1 or --if I calculate my beloved's feelings into the calculation-- then, fine, #2) In any case, the comment had some interesting things to say about trade and is recommended reading. Whoever wrote it seems to have similar spelling issues that I have, so at first I wondered if I did in fact write the comment-- but reading it, I realized, no it wasn't me.
And, finally sending a kiss: