For Hippokleides, no problem!

March in Durham after three months of Minnesota winter was a balm of Gilead. The air was moist and cool, the dogwoods and redbuds opening cream and pink around the Duke campus, cardinals chirping and robins caroling each morning. Home for a week of spring break before the spring term began at Carleton, I had a new course to prepare, half of which I’d never taught or been taught before. That half consisted of Herodotus’ Histories. There was reading to do. 

My brother was also visiting that week. He was accustomed to my having projects even during ostensible vacations, so he didn’t object to my proposal that after a morning game of tennis at the campus courts two blocks from our apartment that I read aloud from Herodotus before lunch. I explained how this was likely the way most readers encountered the text – declaimed by a servant if not performed by a singing poet. Peter reclined on the couch while I crossed my legs beneath me on an armchair.

Our reading wasn’t unusual in a second sense: Peter and I grew up being read to for years. My parents alternated nights and books, so we learned early how to follow two stories at the same time. They would sit in the hallway between our respective bedrooms and read from Louisa May Alcott or Mark Twain or Charles Dickens – books that they enjoyed, not just books for us. I remained awake until the end, excited by the story, feeling the comfort of its words like a familiar blanket, lulled by the rhythms of my parents’ voices.

I was using the recently published Landmark Herodotus, a splendid volume that included many maps and images and explanatory essays. There were photographs of mummified cats beside Herodotus’s descriptions of the Egyptians’ love for their furry friends and explanations of naval tactics like the diekplous, where ships ran through the enemies’ lines to attack from the rear. The entire book ran to nearly a thousand pages. The translator was also partner to one of my Greek teachers and he had recounted their labors to salvage original meanings from the editor’s sense of what a general audience could bear. It read well enough.

I was a little more than halfway through the book at this point, in the section where the united Greeks prevail at Marathon against the invading Persian army. Recounting some of those involved in the victory, Herodotus pauses to relate how Cleisthenes, the tyrant of Sicyon, wished to find the best man of all the Greeks to choose as husband for his daughter, Agariste. After he himself won the laurel crown at the Olympic games with his four-horse team, Kleisthenes announced that any Greek who thought himself worthy to become his son-in-law should come to Sicyon to prove himself. Kleisthenes constructed a racecourse and wrestling ground for the purpose.

Suitors came from all around the Greek Mediterranean to compete. When they arrived Kleisthenes questioned them about their native land and lineage. He then detained them for a year, testing them on their merit, valor, disposition, education, and character. He met with each individually while also observing how they acted when all together. He required the younger men to wrestle, box, and race in the nude. During this time he also entertained the suitors with extravagance, impressing them with his opulence and luxuriant taste. Over the course of the year, Kleisthenes came to prefer two men from Athens and of these two one in particular: Hippokleides, son of Teisandros, who was not only brave and excellent but well born of a dominant family from Corinth.

At last the day came that Kleisthenes had designated for the wedding feast, at which he would announce his choice of husband for Agariste. Kleisthenes sacrificed 100 cattle and served a feast to the suitors and all the people of Sicyon. When the meal was over, the suitors competed one last time in performing music and speeches for everyone assembled. As the drinking progressed, Hippokleides, who was already commanding much attention, ordered the flutist to play a dance tune for him. The music commenced and while, Herodotus notes, Hippokleides must have enjoyed himself, his dancing began to irritate his potential father-in-law. After his first dance, Hippokleides asked that a table be brought to him. He climbed atop it and danced more vigorously – first some modest, Spartan steps and then some from his native Attica. This display was more than enough for Kleisthenes, but Hippokleides was not finished. Still atop the table, Hippokleides turned upside down and, while balancing on his head, flailed and kicked his legs in the air.

The sight of Hippokleides in this position so disgusted Kleisthenes that he could no