A sampling of comments on Pausanias: 1.20.4–1.21.3

2018.02.21 | By Gregory Nagy

I continue from where I left off in Classical Inquiries 2018.02.01. I focus here on a myth, highlighted by Pausanias at 1.21.3, about the eternal weeping of Niobe, petrified in her grief over the killing of her children by the twin divinities Apollo and Artemis. I show here on the cover page a close-up from a modern painting that pictures this Niobe as a towering rock with the craggy face-yes, face-of a grieving woman whose sunken eyes are flooded with tears transformed into an eternal flow of fresh water pouring down from the mountainous heights above. Pausanias at 1.21.3 refers to this myth as he sees it visualized in artwork adorning a grotto embedded in the South Wall of the Acropolis and looming over the Theater of Dionysus. At this point, our traveler pauses for a moment to reminisce about a version of the myth that was local to his own homeland in Asia Minor, at Mount Sipylos near the city of Magnesia. Pausanias tells about a spectacular sight to be seen there: it is a natural rock formation that conjures, he notes guardedly, the sad profile of the eternally weeping Niobe.



Niobe, by Artuš Scheiner (Bohemian/Czech, 1863–1938). In Logan Marshall, Myths and legends of all nations (Philadelphia, 1914). Image via Project Gutenberg.
Niobe, by Artuš Scheiner (Bohemian/Czech, 1863–1938). In Logan Marshall, Myths and legends of all nations (Philadelphia, 1914). Image via Project Gutenberg.


The Weeping Rock of Mount Sipylus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Weeping Rock of Mount Sipylus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Here I show not only the close-up but also the full picture of the modern painting—and immediately below that a photograph of the natural rock formation. I show other modern versions further below. I will have more to say about the myth of Niobe when I get to my comment on the translation for Pausanias 1.21.3.

{1.20.4} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.02.21:

Near the sanctuary [hieron] of Dionysus and the theater is a structure that is said to be a replica [mīmēsis] of the tent [skēnē] of Xerxes. It has been rebuilt, for the old building was burned down by the Roman general [stratēgos] Sulla when he captured Athens.[1] The cause [aitiā] of the war was this. Mithridates was king over the barbarians [barbaroi] around the Black Sea [Pontos Euxeinos]. Now his pretext [prophasis] for making war against the Romans, and how he crossed into Asia [Minor], and what cities he took by force of arms or made his friends, I must leave for those to find out who wish to know the things concerning Mithridates. What I will highlight here is the capture of Athens.

{1.20.4} subject heading(s): Odeum of Pericles; mīmēsis ‘replica’; tent [skēnē] of Xerxes; aitiā ‘cause’

The building next to the Theater of Dionysus, rebuilt after its destruction in first century BCE, is none other than the Odeum of Pericles, a spectacular structure that projected the glories of the Athenian Empire as the cultural heir of the Persian Empire of Xerxes. It was this ideological projection that inspired the builders of this building to give it a shape that re-enacted, as it were, the Great Tent of the King of Kings. I comment at length in HC 4§§115–124, 174–180, especially with reference to Plutarch Pericles 13.6-15. I offer here an epitome of HC4§178:

The idea of the Odeum as a visual imitation of the Skēnē or ‘Tent’ of the Great King of the Persian empire, as described in Plutarch’s Pericles, is a most fitting expression of imperial prestige. The Odeum, as the ‘Scene’ for the monumental Panathenaic performances of Homer in the age of Pheidias, was monumental in its own right. On the inside, its “forest of columns” matched the spectacular effect achieved at the Telestērion or Great Hall of Initiation at Eleusis. In fact, the Odeum was even more spacious than the Great Hall, and the enormous seating capacity of such a monumental building made it a most fitting venue for spectacular events of state, including juridical and political assemblies.

{1.20.5} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.02.21:

There was an Athenian, Aristion, whom Mithridates used as his envoy to the Greek [Hellēnides] cities. He persuaded the Athenians to join Mithridates rather than the Romans, although he did not persuade all, but only the common-people [dēmos] and, in particular, the most turbulent part of the common-people [dēmos]. But those Athenians who were of any account [logos] fled to the Romans of their own accord. In the engagement that followed, the Romans won a decisive victory; Aristion and the Athenians fled and were pursued right into the city [of Athens itself], while Arkhelaos and the barbarians were pursued right into the [harbor city of] Peiraieus. This Arkhelaos was another general of Mithridates, whom earlier than this the Magnesians who inhabit [oikeîn] the region of Mount Sipylos wounded when he raided their territory, killing most of the barbarians as well. So, Athens was besieged.

{1.20.5} subject heading(s): Mount Sipylos; Magnesia-at-Sipylos

Pausanias is reminded here in passing of his homeland, Magnesia in Asia Minor, and of the mountain looming over the land. See the comment at Pausanias 1.1.1, §5, about Magnesia-at-Sipylos. This Mount Sipylos, as the dominant marker of his homeland, stays on his mind as he proceeds to reminisce, a few moments later, about the Weeping Rock of Niobe at 1.21.3.

The Niobids (1923), by Károly Patkó (Hungarian,1895–1941). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Niobids (1923), by Károly Patkó (Hungarian,1895–1941). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


{1.21.3} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.02.21:

These are the things that he [= Aeschylus] said. On the South Wall [teikhos], as it is called, of the Acropolis, which faces the theater, there is dedicated a gilded head of Medusa the Gorgon, and around it is crafted an aegis [aigis]. Looming over the theater is a grotto [spēlaion] in the rocks under the Acropolis. This also has a tripod standing over it. In it are [likenesses of] Apollo and Artemis slaying the children of Niobe. This Niobe I myself saw when I went up to the mountain [oros] called Sipylos. When one is close by, it is a rock [petrā], a steep crag [krēmnos], showing not at all the shape [skhēma] of a woman who is lamenting [pentheîn] or the like; but if one gets further away from it one will think one is seeing a woman shedding-tears [dakruein], with-sunken-eyes [katēphēs].

{1.21.3} subject heading(s): Niobe; Mount Sipylos; pentheîn ‘lament’; katēphēs ‘with sunken eyes’

The picturing of Niobe as a rock exuding the tears of a fresh-water mountain stream is attested in the Homeric Iliad 24.614–617:

νῦν δέ που ἐν πέτρῃσιν ἐν οὔρεσιν οἰοπόλοισιν
ἐν Σιπύλῳ, ὅθι φασὶ θεάων ἔμμεναι εὐνὰς
νυμφάων, αἵ τ’ ἀμφ’ Ἀχελώϊον ἐρρώσαντο,
ἔνθα λίθος περ ἐοῦσα θεῶν ἐκ κήδεα πέσσει.

And now, somewhere amidst the rocks, on the desolate heights,
in Sipylos, where they say goddesses have places to sleep,
the goddess nymphs, the ones who dance on the banks of the Akhelōios,
there does she [= Niobe], though she has been turned into stone, digest her sorrows inflicted by the gods.

I offer some detailed comments on this passage in HC 1§34. Relevant is the use of the word tēkesthai ‘dissolve’ in Sophocles’ Antigone (828) picturing a weeping Niobe in a state of petrifaction. This word, as I analyze it in HC 2§§254–255 and 2§§346–348, comparing parallel wording elsewhere in Greek poetry, conjures the image of a cold mountain stream that flows without interruption from the heights where Niobe turned into stone; her tears are the uninterrupted source of that eternal stream.


Niobe (1897), by Hippolyte Lefèbvre (French, 1863–1935). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Niobe (1897), by Hippolyte Lefèbvre (French, 1863–1935). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Here is an epitome from my interpretation of other passages referring to the ‘dissolving’ of Niobe in Greek poetry (HC 1§34):

The sorrows of Niobe are so overwhelming that she continues to weep eternally even after the gods turn her into stone. A petrified figure should be drained of emotion, as we read in the framing narrative of Iliad 24.601–620: when the population in the land of Niobe is petrified, there can be no weeping, no mourning, and therefore no funeral, so that the gods themselves must conduct a funeral and bury the children of Niobe. But Niobe, even after she is petrified, is like a human figure in that she continues to dissolve into tears. So overwhelming are her sorrows. Unlike the dissolving of a human in mourning, however, this petrified figure takes forever to dissolve because the tears that pour out of her sunken eyes flow out of an inexhaustible source of sorrows.


Niobe (1917). The Gray family lot, Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, GA. Image via Flickr.
Niobe (1917). The Gray family lot, Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, GA. Image via Flickr.



[1] 86 BCE.