Here’s a pleasantly comedic surprise, courtesy of the ancients, or at least of Herodotus’ version of their story: One day, Croesus, that cautious ruler, decided he’d better get the advice of a dependable oracle before he set out to invade Persia– but he wanted to be sure that his diviners were the real deal. So he sent off messengers throughout the whole land, who were to discover which far-flung oracles were able to describe what the wily king was doing right at that moment. Croesus, making sure the soothsayers couldn’t just fall back on a maybe-standard stock of “eating grapes” or “earning glory at the gymnasium,” decided he’d figure out “what was most impossible for any one to conceive of his doing.” (1) And lo, Croesus, that nut, decided to take “a tortoise and a lamb, and cutting them in pieces with his own hands, boiled them both together in a brazen cauldron, covered over with a lid which was also of brass.” (2)
I don’t know, but something about this plan is truly hilarious, as if Croesus were some sort of known foodie of old, scandalizing his urbane counterparts by– can you believe it, Antilochus?– mixing turtle and lamb– and who knows, maybe even going so far as to pair it all with, let’s say, a Megarian vintage instead of something from the fashionable vines of Stavros down the street. Next thing you know, he’ll be pinning his toga on the wrong side, walking around with a mischievous pinkie to his lips and goosing the guards. Whatever the case, the Delphic oracle had no trouble in relating exactly what was going on; the reaction of the messengers, or of anyone else, to this outrageous activity of Croesus’, didn’t form part of Herodotus’ story. I’d love to think it through, though, a sort of social detour through the glitterati of the ancient world, sitting around and speculating about what their fashion-forward ruler will do next, while they try new turtle-n-lamb recipes just to seem as if they’re in the know.
Herodotus, I’m only twenty pages into your efforts at relating history– but I like you already, you unwitting rascal.
(1) Herodotus, Histories, transl. George Rawlinson (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997), 16.
(2) Ibid., 16-7.