The Classic Hangover


It is the final week of the university semester. Lecturers have been sapped, library shelves have been ransacked, campus lawns bear the scars of countless feet trekking between buildings and a few dedicated students trudge off to their final classes for the week. For students and lecturers alike, there is a mixed sense of pride, relief and achievement in finishing their courses. Many students will spend time celebrating and drinking with friends before sobering up to face their impending exams, and many will celebrate again after exams and well into the Christmas period. So, here is a blog for those students who are so inclined. A well-meaning, amusing but salutary warning against excess and its after-effects from the seasoned revellers of the classical world. It comes with kind humour and my best wishes to all students for the exam period, a happy end to another teaching semester, and a festive but safe holiday period:

A portrait of The Drunkard, written by Lyco of Troas (c. 300-225BCE):

‘Satiated with too much food and drink from a former day, at noon he is with difficulty awakened drunk, first with eyes wet with wine, blinded with moisture, heavy, unable to look at the light steadily; exhausted because his veins are filled with wine rather than blood, he cannot raise himself; at last, leaning on two servants, languid, tired from lying in bed, clothed in a tunic but without a mantle and wearing slippers, his head bound in a little cloak to keep off the cold, his head bent, eyelids lowered, face pale, he is raised from the couch in his bed chamber and is dragged to another in the dining room.

There, a few daily guests await him, summoned by the same desire. Here indeed as a petty chief, with what he has left of his mind and sense, he hastens to proffer the cup; he challenges to drink, he incites just as if he were in battle and surmounting or striking most of the enemy, thinking the greatest share of the victory his own. Meanwhile he proceeds to mock time in drinking; his eyes, weeping wine, make mists about him; the drunk scarcely recognise the drunk. One man without cause provokes his neighbour to a quarrel; another, surrendering to sleep, is kept awake by force; a third gets ready to quarrel; the doorman restrains a fourth from corrupting the company with a desire to go home; he beats him, forbids him to leave, pointing out the master’s injunction. Meanwhile a boy supports another fellow, abusively pushed out of the door reeling, and leads him away, the man dragging his mantle through the mire. At last left alone in the dining room, our man cannot put the cup down before sleep overcomes him as he drinks; the cup slips from his shaky hand as he collapses.’

Source for text:

Lyco of Troas (c. 300-225BCE) ‘The Drunkard’ quoted by Rutilius Lupus, Schemata Lexeos (On Figures of Thought and Style), translated by Boyce (B. Boyce, The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642, London, Frank Cass & Co., 1967, pp.22-23).

Header image:

Terracotta jug depicting a drunken old woman clasping a wine jug: Roman, early third century CE, made of African red slipware. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.

Link to source:

When nature merges with myth


It’s springtime in Canberra. The days are temperate, the sun lingers longer in the afternoons and the trees are glowing with effervescent green. Gardens are punctuated by bright splashes of colour from tulips, daffodils, cyclamens, anemones, irises and ranunculi growing in their midst. Riding through local suburbs I am struck by wave upon wave of floral perfumes – first sweet daphne, then mellow hyacinth, rich lilac, heady freesia, honeyed jonquils and aromatic wisteria. Which got me thinking: all these floral names evoke some wonderful Latin and Greek terms with some very interesting mythological stories to match.

The anemone or ‘wind flower’, for example, comes from the Greek ἄνεμος meaning ‘wind’. The petals of these flowers are so easily disturbed by the slightest breeze I can see how the flower acquired its name. The name reminds me of the Greek gods of the winds – Zephyros (the west wind, the gentlest of them all), Boreas (the north wind, fierce and gutsy and notorious for snatching a princess of Athens named Oreithyia) and Notos (the south wind). The steward of the winds was Aiolos. He collected the winds and bound them in a leather bag to help Odysseus sail directly homewards but, just as Odysseus’ dear island of Ithaca came into sight, the exhausted Odysseus fell asleep. Odysseus’ companions, thinking that the bag he was guarding was full of treasure, stole it. When they opened the bag, the wild and furious winds were released, a great storm blew up and the ship was driven far out to sea once more.

The narcissus is more commonly known as the daffodil and/or jonquil. The name is derived from the Latin ‘narcissus’ which, in turn, is derived from the Greek νάρκισσος and the Greek word νάρκη meaning ‘numbness’. The legend of Narcissus from Greek mythology is well known. Poor Narcissus has now acquired a bad reputation for vanity, self-infatuation and self-love but when he first caught sight of his reflection in the pool, he was unaware that the reflection was his or even that it was just a reflection (he tried to embrace it). There is an absolute innocence and lack of self-knowledge in the tragedy of Narcissus that is often overlooked.

The iris flower is named after the Greek word for ‘rainbow’ or ‘a bright halo of light’. It is also the name of the Greek god Iris, divine messenger of the Olympian gods. She is the female equivalent of Hermes, but she is less mischievous and found only in the heavens and on earth (never in the Underworld). In Book Five of the Iliad, Aphrodite is wounded in the fighting. A sharp spear tears through her immortal robes and gouges her wrist. Aphrodite lets out a piercing shriek “[b]ut Iris quick as the wind took up her hand and led her from the fighting…racked with agony, her glowing flesh blood-dark” (5.353-354).

Cyclamen is from the Latin cyclaminos which is in turn derived from the Greek word κύκλος meaning ‘circle’. These curious little plants produce round tubers, which are thought to have inspired the name. I can’t help thinking of the enormous Cyclopes, so named because of the single round eye in the middle of their foreheads. The Cyclopes were wild and brutish giants who represent the antithesis of Greek notions of respect for the gods and hospitality towards guests. Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops named Polyphemus is a favourite episode from the Odyssey and is often portrayed in Greek vase paintings. A lesser known tradition is that the Cyclopes were blacksmiths (with names like Brontes ‘Thunderer’, Steropes ‘Lightner’ and Arges ‘Flasher’) and were responsible for forging Zeus’ thunderbolts.

Daphne comes from the Greek word δάφνη meaning ‘sweet bay, laurel’. It is impossible not to be reminded of the myth of Daphne and Apollo when smelling this incredibly perfumed flower. Daphne was a beautiful nymph but like many of her kind, she wasn’t keen on male company. She preferred to live a carefree life in the wilds of nature. She was hotly pursued by Apollo but she resisted and begged her father, a river god, to transform her before she could be taken. Her father transformed her into a bay tree, and from that time on, the laurel became the sacred tree of Apollo.

Apollo continued to be unlucky in love. He next fell in love with a handsome Spartan youth named Hyacinthus. They liked to take turns throwing the discus. But on one occasion, Hyacinthus was too eager to collect the discus and it bounced and struck him in the head, killing him instantly. From the blood of Hyacinthus a flower grew, with petals bearing the Greek letters αἰ or αἰαι, representative of the sound of crying and grieving.

What evocative little wonders of nature these flowers are, with such interesting names, histories and associations! The stories range from the tragic, wondrous, exciting and frightening – almost as varied as the colours and shapes of the flowers themselves. And this is only a small selection. Too soon the wind will change, the petals will fall, the colour will fade and the heat of summer will come. Just like the seasons with their endless cycles, and the disappearance and reemergence of spring blooms, these mythological stories reappear and are told again and again in a myriad of forms.


W. Hansen, Classical Mythology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Homer, Iliad (transl. Fagles), London, Penguin, 1990.

The Horticultural Society of Canberra Inc., The Canberra Gardener (ninth ed.), Canberra, Pirion, 2004.

Header image:

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1625, Apollo and Daphne, marble sculpture, Galleria Borghese.

Image sourced from:



Pleasure and pain


Sitting in prison, having just received a visit from his distraught wife and his little son, surrounded by a few devoted friends, and rubbing the painful mark that the chains have left upon one of his legs, a man remarks on the dualistic nature of pleasure and pain:

“What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head. And I think,” he said “if Aesop had thought of them, he would have made a fable telling how they were at war and god wished to reconcile them, and when he could not do that, he fastened their heads together, and for that reason, when one of them comes to anyone, the other follows after. Just so it seems that in my case, after pain was in my leg on account of the fetter, pleasure appears to have come following after.” (1)

Any man who has the strength of will to philosophize awaiting execution is no ordinary man. These are, of course, the words of Socrates. A profound observation presented not in the usual form of a statement, question or dialogue, but a simple Aesopic fable that captures a universal truth: pain and pleasure are conjoined and follow soon after one another.

Dualism was fundamental to ancient Greek thought, philosophy and language. Dualistic concepts such as Greek/barbarian, male/female, and freedom/slavery underpinned ancient Greek social definition and status; Greek philosophy is replete with discussions of dualistic concepts such as bad/good, form/material and body/soul; Greek expression is full of contrasts and opposing concepts and ideas (sooner/later, on the one hand/on the other hand, one/another).

What I like about Socrates’ story is that, just as in so many things in life, it takes a third party to intervene in the war between dualistic opposites (in this case, pleasure and pain) and to insist upon unity (in this case, the intervention of Zeus, by fastening their heads together).

But given Socrates’ instructive fable, why is it that when we are consumed by either pleasure or pain, we tend to forget the inevitable and imminent arrival of its opposite? And is there an exactly proportional relationship between the two phenomena (the bigger the pleasure, the bigger the pain that follows, and vice versa)? And is it possible for pain and pleasure to exactly coincide, or by definition, can they only ever follow, one after the other? Questions, and more questions. Socrates might have reflected further on these topics had he not been interrupted by his companion Cebes. And alas, we have no further musings on the subject, for we all know what happened to dear Socrates.

(1) Plato, Phaedo 60b-c;

Text available online at

(2) Header image: Eternal Love by Igor Mitoraj, sculptural exhibition at Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, 2011.

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