Omens of Defeat

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 10 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

Thebes Blows Hot; Greece Has Cold Feet
Omens for Thebes Do Not Look Favourable
Thebans Remain Optimistic Despite All

The Story
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that in writing about chapters 8-14 yesterday, I missed out Chapter 10. As with Chapters 3 and 4 of Book 17, Ch. 10 digresses from the main narrative (Alexander’s march to and destruction of Thebes) so I have separated the two in order to keep the main narrative flowing. I have a feeling I’ll be doing this quite a bit in the future.

So, what happens in Chapter 10 that is important enough for Diodorus to break off telling us about Alexander’s march to Thebes? Actually, its the gods.

Before introducing them, though, Diodorus gives us another example of the great neighbourliness of the Greek city-states towards one another. In Ch. 8 we saw how some Greek cities sent soldiers to Thebes only for the soldiers to delay their arrival there in order to see how the battle with the Macedonians went before intervening. Now, we learn why other cities did not send any soldiers at all.

Diodorus explains that while Greeks ‘were distressed’ at ‘the seriousness of the danger hanging over’ their neighbours, they ‘had no heart to help them’. The reason for this is that – notwithstanding their distress – the Greeks felt that Thebes ‘by precipitate and ill-considered action had consigned itself to evident annihilation’.

Diodorus now comes to the matter of the gods’ ‘intervention’ in the affairs of men. This occurred through a serious of omens predicting Thebes’ downfall. Here is a list of the omens and their interpretations.

Omen Light spider web in the temple of Demeter. The web was very large being the size of a himation (a type of cloak) and ‘shone iridescent like a rainbow’. Diodorus states that this omen occurred three months before Alexander’s arrival at Thebes and that two oracles were associated with it, one at Delphi and another at Thebes.
Meaning The web ‘signified the departure of the gods from’ Thebes. Its iridescence ‘meant a storm of mixed troubles’.

Omen Statues in Thebes’ market place started to perspire and became covered in large drops of moisture. Diodorus says this happened immediately upon Alexander’s arrival outside Thebes
Meaning The sweating ‘was the sign of an overwhelming catastrophe’

Omen A marsh at Onchestus started to emit ‘a sound very like a bellow’
Meaning none given

Omen At Dirce ‘a bloody ripple ran along the surface of the water’
Omen Blood stains appeared on the roof of a temple at Delphi that had been dedicated by Thebes
Meaning Diodorus does not refer to either omen individually but says that ‘the appearance of blood in many places foretold a vast slaughter throughout the city’

As so often happened in antiquity, the Thebans did not heed the gods’ warnings. Quite the reverse, ‘they were… carried away with enthusiasm… [and] indulged their nobility of spirit bravely rather than wisely, and plunged headlong into the total destruction of their country’.

The one thing that really strikes me about Chapter 10 is the mention of the sweating statues. Belief in the ancient Greek gods has long since died but at least one of the phenomena associated with it remains with us – as the occasional news story about statues of the Blessed Virgin and Saints in Catholic churches sweating tears or blood indicates. Regardless of the cause of the sweating it is interesting that it has remained a valid mode of expression for whoever is behind it.

One last point – the Footnotes say that Thebes did not dedicate the Delphic temple referred to by Diodorus.

In the Theatre This Week
Omen, Where Art Thou?
Blood on a Hot Stone Roof 

Demeter’s Web

Categories: Diodorus Siculus | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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