It is Greek Wednesday.
Have you ever heard the phrase Alea iacta est? If you immediately thought of G. Julius Caesar you hit the nail on the head. Why does Latin intrude into our Greek? You ask. Well, Menander was a dramatist who lived ca 341-290 BC. Most of his work has been lost, but some fragments (including today’s phrase – 111) have survived to modern times. The playwright was quite reputed for his dramatic imitation of Euripides, although he could be funny as well, as Aristophanes, making him a very good representative of Athenian New Comedy; facts which made him quite loved in Rome during later periods. According to Plutarch (Plut. Pomp. 60.2), the phrase used by Caesar was a direct translation of Menander’s Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος, quite literally meaning ‘the cube (die) has been cast,’ used by the author in his play “Arrhephoros” (not extant). The phrase is representative of the dramatic art in the playwright, just as is this one:
ὅν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῡσιν ἀποθνῇσκει νέος
The gods love he who dies young.
Los dioses aman a aquel que muere jóven.
The sentiment needs little translation here, but its meaning…well, that is another story. Consider the subject here, οἱ θεοὶ (the gods), they are the dictators of many things, but not of destiny or time. The Fates do that. The gods, when it comes to death, are completely powerless. They may try to kill, but whether you die or not is up to you and the will of the Three Goddesses. There is only one thing (amongst a few they are allowed) the gods are actively doing here: loving. Further, notice the kind of love we are seeing here, φιλοῦσιν (bond-love), for it is most telling as well. The gods don’t love you because they have gotten to know you and shared experiences with you, that would be ἀγαπεῦσιν. They do not love you because they have to, out of paternal need, στοργοῦσιν; they don’t even desire you, ἐροῦσιν. The gods relate to you, that love that comes from them seeing themselves reflected in you. Ponder that in mind for a moment; the gods see the need to relate to human beings.
Who, then, can be the subject of the gods’ love? Who can strive, according to Menander, to be loved by the highest beings in existence? Who do the gods relate to? ‘He who dies young.’ It is in youth that the gods see themselves in; that youth who runs not from battle, but who “bestrides [the dying man] in his need,” for it is “noble for a brave man to die, having fallen opposite the foremost ranks, whilst fighting for his father-land;” otherwise, said young man “disgraces his race, and belies his fair beauty” (Tyrtaeus). Interestingly, to the Ancient Greeks youth, beauty, goodness, worthiness and valor were thoroughly interconnected. Youth was beauty, it was goodness, it was courage. In a world in which most children with any disadvantage died before their first year was up, the gene pool that was allowed by the Fates to survive was of the highest quality, that quality in which the gods saw themselves.
Imagine the youth, then, who dies in battle. The young man who having been given all things by his parents, the Fates, and the gods, bestrides the older man fallen in front of him, facing the insurmountable wall of spears advancing and threatening his friends and family. He fights with honor, fights with courage, and dies while helping his fellows. To those dying and dead men the gods paid homage, the gods loved. There was nothing more moving to an Ancient Greek than a youth who had given his life for the state. The Spartans boasted the best trained youths in Greece, the Athenians the most resolute, the Thebans the most independent; but they all agreed that their sacrifice would come at the cost of little doubt, if at all, once spear and shield had destroyed the older men.
In the same way, these ideas applied to the political and artistic arena. Giving your youth to the arts and politics was a great sacrifice – especially in Roman times. However, those who arrived to old age were looked upon as having been a bit too safe, not having fought as many wars, or having done so away from the line (the Athenians certainly thought so, albeit mistakenly, of Socrates). Just as Spartan men who had fought and suffered many wounds for the state but died in peace were not given a headstone, aged Athenian men were seen as having lost their edge. Many often retreated to their villas and were never seen again.
The gods love he who dies young; but specially they love those who, having been given everything in life, had chosen none the less to fight for their country, and paid the ultimate price. Let us not, Menander says, be fooled by prosperity. We must seek, especially in our youths, that which deserves our efforts and put ourselves to use; and if we die in this cause while still in years counted only as youthful and carefree, then we have assured ourselves a place in the minds of the gods and future generations.