Short story by Dr Panagiotis Dallas
My advice is always followed by King Ptolemy IX, named as Lathyrus, King of Egypt. Of course, my advice involves important things, as also trivial ones. Important matters of the state require the king’s approval but his people’s daily struggles and agony demand his attention and sometimes his judgement. As for a person of my position, of my standing, giving advice for both of these two distinctive categories of state affairs is necessary. I am also honoured with the utmost respect and trust of our King. Many years ago I significantly contributed to the construction and perfection of a series of clockwork mechanisms that substantially helped the navigation of our ships between Alexandria, Rome and Rhodes. This was thanks to my knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.
For the story I will now tell you now regards a trivial matter, something that happens to both kings and peasants without any distinction. But who knows what the intentions our Gods have. Me, from time to time, I am seeking their advice. My intentions were to make everybody feel that my intentions were to loyally serve our king and our city. On the next day of the events of this story I visited the holy temple again. I pray often but this day I could only think about these events, even if they seem unworthy of further attention and without importance.
Often, they can see me visiting the Serapion. The Alexandrian Serapion, a temple that is not full of Egyptian sphinxes like the one in Memphis, but of Greek statues. But for me, as an Egyptian I cannot feel so close to the Hellenized form of a temple, with the idealized faces and bodies depicted in the statues. Here in Alexandria, people are still divided between the tradition of the Greeks that conquered us and our Egyptian past, this is something that brings great sorrow to me.
I, myself visited Greece. I visited Rhodes, where I discussed with renowned scholars and philosophers on politics, mathematics and astrology. But still, Egypt is where I grew up in, and this is the only palace I always served. And rose through the ranks. And I do strive to make Egypt become stronger and stronger. Will this happen? Many ambitious plans are to take place under Ptolemy the Divine. His name will be remembered even when these plans are just a memory of the past. My name will be forgotten, no one will mention, Ermotelis the king’s advisor, our fate is to move in the shadows of history. But still, the people that know more things, and know things in depth, will spend time and time searching for minor details for us. I wished they will find this one for me, but alas they will not. I am now writing down my memories hoping that they will not be lost and erased from the hands of history like morning mist.
It was a hot summer night, as all summer nights are in Alexandria. Even this, seems trivial and normal. It was a quite month without a serious disruption in the matters of the kingdom, our kingdom graced by the glory of our ancestors and Gods. Ships full of grains were leaving every day for Athens, for Rhodes, but most of them were going for Rome, may Poseidon be on their side. We had many fertile years in the Nile for long time and the people were peaceful, happily following their daily routines.
Our king had ambitious things in his mind and he was planning to establish one of his candidates in Damascus and other parts of Syria. This was an affair of utmost importance since the Seleucids, even if they did not stand to the legacy of our glorious common ancestor, they were still wealthy and powerful in our Mediterranean Sea.
I find particularly fruitful to make a late night’s walk to the royal gardens that grace our palace, this helps me carefully analyse and consider my plans for the administration of our kingdom and the fate of our people. This night, a clear sky, something so usual here in Egypt, with a half moon and a pleasant heat. Moving around the gardens, I was so surprised to see a purple dressed figure moving towards me. Purple is a royal colour and it was not difficult even for a man of my age to recognize our king. My dearest reader, it is very easy to imagine my surprise on this view and I stopped to give my respects. Our king returned my greetings. I asked him the purpose of his night walk since this was something that he was never doing- or at least nothing that I was aware of. What he said to me was simply the description of a dream. But he wasn’t convinced that this was a dream or a vision that he should take seriously into consideration. So he would be very interested to hear the opinion and advice of his trustworthy counsellor and he asked me to listen to his description.
Our king imagined that he was his great ancestor, Ptolemy I the Sotyr, a general in the army of Alexander the Great. Αn afternoon he was returning from his hunting and he and his company stopped to have some rest. He could not recognize the place, it was a forest, unlike the empty desert that Egypt is. Most men from his companion left and went to bring some water, leaving him just with his personal guards that were patrolling the area. Then two people suddenly appeared to be slowly walking towards him. It was a woman and a much older man. The woman was simply dressed and she was beautiful, but not young. The man on the other hand attracted his attention. His characteristics were unusual. He had broad shoulders, big arms and his hair were combed in the fashion of Greeks. His face though had Jewish characteristics. Sun was burning behind him. The king kept looking around but no sight of the other men, of his companion.
He let both of them approach him and asked them what they want. The woman spoke first, saying that she wants nothing anymore since the best years of her life has passed. The man then asked where they are going to and why they stopped here. The king answered that they went for hunting and they are returning back to the palace, now they are just having some rest. He then asked their names.
But no answer came and both of them stayed there staring at the king. Finally, the woman stepped forward and said with a slow and clear voice.
“Your mother’s lover made her a woman but age came fast on her. Be respectful for his remains”. The king left there standing, and then looked around the vast, empty, desert. Where once where trees now were only sand. And his soldiers were nowhere to be seen, disappeared. And the man and the woman kept staring at him with the blazing sun behind them without answering his questions. The tone of his voice was becoming stronger and louder but they stood there motionless and speechless. The king stood up panicked.
And then he woke up, got dressed in his purple, royal clothes and left the room. While he was walking, trying to clear his mind, I met him and he was still pale as the moon. I remember we spent some time talking about it in the garden and I carefully and sincerely told to our king my opinion on it, which he carefully considered.
It is said that our age is an age of wisdom, where philosophy and astrology thrive in our world and especially in Alexandria. But still we are people that respect what lies above us, our whole existence is based on the metaphysical questions. He asked me to give an explanation to the dream, and I did my best for it, even if I realize deep inside me that most of them have no meaning and are a simple reflection of our day life.
I then told to Ptolemy that the woman is his mother (with whom our king’s relationship was never good) and I advised him that this is now a chance to reconcile. And that the man is Alexander Jannaeus, the Greek king of Judea, hence the dual characteristics, a man against whom our king a year later went to war.
Now in the end of my life, with my king long dead I am thinking that what I said was not correct. I enraged my king and forced him to such aggressiveness. Maybe the woman was not his mother, Cleopatra, but Macedonia, in Greece, the country from where all of them descended. Maybe the man was not just a man, not Alexander Jannaeus, but was a whole city and a whole political system, he was Rome, which will eventually conquer all of us. I can now see that this is inevitable, their legions cannot be stopped. Maybe the remains where the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great that our king disrespected and this brought his end, a disgraceful end, no doubt. Our city bears the name of Alexander and a disrespect on his legacy and his body is not tolerated from neither the people nor the senate.
Or maybe they were nothing at all, just a dream without any meaning, without any connection to reality. Who knows what really this was, was it a dream, and was it a vision, or perhaps it was a miracle. What I am thinking is that it does not matter anymore, since what happened now cannot be changed. The past is past, no reason from me to regret or think about one of the countless paths that every moment is there for us, but we choose only one. And the one we choose, then leads us to countless other branches and goes on and on and on.
At this moment, there is not a long time left for me in this world. I wish to continue advising our king Ptolemy XII, Auletes is how people call him, as wise as possible, or as wise as I believe, and rule in secret for the time that remains to me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Panagiotis Dallas, 19th April 2017, [email protected]
– I never had much interest in the Hellenistic years, in my mind it was a rather decadent and degenerate period, yet it seems rather interesting (for some people exciting I am sure) and since it is similar to our times is definitely worth exploring. Hence I would welcome any comments and suggestions on the story. Cavafy (with his sense of irony and ingenious critic) and Jorge Luis Borges are the people from whom this short story draws inspiration.
– History says that Ptolemy IX (ruler from 116-107, 87-81 B.C) replaced Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus with a glass one. He then melted the original in order to make gold coins in a state of emergency, as has been said by Strabo.
– Δ.Λιαντίνης, Γκέμμα: “Καταφρόνια, που τη φανερώνει στον ίδιο βαθμό ο στίχος του από το ποίημα Η Δόξα των Πτολεμαίων: Είναι γελοίος ο Σελευκίόης με την αγοραία του τρυφή. Έτσι μιλάει ξεπεσμένος επίγονος για ξεπεσμένο επίγονο.”