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  • James Ward

Strange reading 1: Sulla and the satyr

Every now and then, you come across something in literature that makes you stop and wonder. If it’s a ‘classic’ you’re reading, often it’s a distinctly odd passage no one in your experience ever seems to have commented on. Very occasionally, you get the eerie feeling you’re the first reader in human history to really stumble across it – or at least realise its significance.

About two years ago, I read a Penguin Classics selection of Plutarch’s Lives called ‘Fall of the Roman Republic’. Plutarch lived from 46-120 CE, and was an ancient historian and moralist. I came across this bit about the patrician general, Sulla:

“After marching through Thessaly and Macedon, Sulla came down to the sea and prepared to cross over from Dyrrhachium to Brundisium with twelve hundred ships. Nearby is Apollonia, and near Apollonia is the Nymphaeum, a holy piece of ground with meadows and a green dell where at various points there spring up streams of perpetually flowing fire. Here, they say that a satyr, just like those represented by sculptor and painters, was caught while asleep and brought to Sulla. The satyr was asked through many interpreters who he was, but could scarcely speak at all and could certainly say nothing intelligible. He could only let out a harsh cry, something between the neighing of a horse and bleating of a goat. Sulla was horrified and ordered the creature to be taken out of his sight.” (p86, trans. Rex Warner)

Plutarch then changes the subject – and never returns to it.

What to make of it? Sulla died in about 78 BCE; Plutarch didn’t start writing until the end of the first century CE. And he wasn’t always reliable (yet in his defence, there is his qualification, “they say that…”). He was mystically inclined by nature, and spent the last thirty years of his life as a priest at Delphi. (Still, that might make one expect a little more ‘respect’ – if that’s the right word - for satyrs.)

Nevertheless, why is the story in there at all? It’s very short, it doesn’t cast much light on Sulla, nor apparently does it go anywhere. And if, as seems likely, it isn’t true, then just who on earth made it up, and for what purpose? Because it is hugely different to just about all other stories about satyrs in classical literature. It leaves the reader with a distinct chill, a distant echo, perhaps, of Sulla’s reported ‘horror’.

And that may be the central point. There is a reason why readers are caught unaware by stories like this. Because no one in the modern world, present writer included, knows remotely what to make of them any more.

And of course, the number of possible rational explanations is overwhelming.

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