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The Achaemenid Persian Empire was perhaps the first superpower of the ancient world, establishing its ‘King of Kings’ as an immensely powerful individual. However, in the process of creating their empire, the Persians also established a series of powerful governors – satraps – in various provinces.
One such powerful man was Oroetes (or Oroetus), satrap of Lydia during the 520s BC. He may have been the first official satrap of Lydia after the region was incorporated fully into the Persian Empire late in the reign of Cyrus the Great. The region was brought under Persian control through the military campaigns of Cyrus’ Median general, Harpagus, who may have served briefly as satrap of all of Asia Minor before it was broken up into smaller, more manageable and less dangerous provinces.
The lack of clarity over the dates of Oroetes’ service as Lydian satrap makes it somewhat unclear if he was an appointee of Cyrus the Great or Cambyses I. However, Herodotus III.120 suggests that Oroetes was established in the post of “viceroy of Sardis” by Cyrus, which would suggest that Oroetes was appointed in 530BC – the year of Cyrus’ death – at the latest.
Does the timing of Oroetes’ appointment suggest that he was part of the Persian army of Harpagus that subdued Asia Minor? Could that in turn suggest similar Middle Eastern origins – such as Cyrus’ Persia or Harpagus’ Media – for Oroetes? Herodotus III.120 suggests that Oroetes was a Persian, but could this be a more general description of his allegiance to the Persian state rather than his actual origins? Could it be that he was a local Lydian, Carian or Greek who found himself in Persian service? Unfortunately, the sources or his recorded actions do not give much in the way of information beyond inferences which are ambiguous about where he might have come from.
During his time as Lydian satrap, Oroetes was involved in two major episodes – his bringing about of the crucifixon of Polycrates of Samos and his becoming the first satrap to demonstrate overt insubordination even revolt against the Persian central government, leading to his own murder.
The involvement of the Lydian satrap and perhaps the Persian Empire itself – it can be unclear just how much freedom of action many satraps had – with the demise of Polycrates is likely tied to the increasing power the Samian tyrant could wield in the Aegean Sea due to his building of a significant fleet [ harnessing the power of the trireme? ] and a skilled force of 1,000 archers. Indeed, Polycrates had become influential enough through his naval power to form an alliance with the Egyptian pharaoh, Amasis II [Carty (2005) 131-135 suggests that Polycrates provided the pharaoh with ships and manpower for the Egyptian conquest of Cyprus].
Later sources also played up the power of the Samos under Polycrates, with Herodotus III.122 considering Polycrates the first Greek ruler to recognise the potential of sea power, while Thucydides I.13.6 lists him amongst the Aegean thalassocracies.
Such power and influence not only on their Aegean frontier but being projected east into lands such as Cyprus and Egypt, which the Persians had their acquisitive eyes on, would explain why the Persians thought it necessary to perhaps do away with Polycrates.
While the origin of a Persian move against Polycrates is likely then to have been worry over his growing power, Herodotus III.120 records two possible sparks for action against Polycrates – an accidental or intentional snub of an ambassador sent by Oroetes to Polycrates (Herodotus III.121) or a squabble between Oroetes and Mitrobates, satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia.
During a conversation between the two, Mitrobates goaded Oroetes over his failure to conquer it for the Persian king… “You are not to be accounted a man; the island of Samos lies close to your province, yet you have not added it to the King’s dominion – an island so easy to conquer that some native of it [Polycrates] rose against his rulers with fifteen men-at-arms, and is now lord of it” (Herodotus III.120.2-3).
Herodotus is either demonstrating that Mitrobates (and many others?) knew about how Polycrates took over Samos, or he is using something he has already established in his narrative (Herodotus III.39) to add a plausible point of insult to his satrapal conversation.
Herodotus also suggests that while Oroetes was “angered by the taunt” (Herodotus III.120), he was less keen to attack his taunter (for now…) and more anxious to deal with Polycrates, suggesting that Mitrobates had definitely struck a nerve: Oroetes himself may have thought that he had under-performed in his dealings with the Samian tyrant.
Whatever the exact circumstances, Oroetes began to plot against Polycrates. The failure of a Samian rebellion against Polycrates, possibly facilitated by Persian backing, in the mid-520s BC, may have encouraged the Lydian satrap to look to less military and more deceptive means.
Oroetes appealed to Polycrates as a potential ally should the Persian king ever turn against his satrap. He offered Polycrates a substantial amount of money in return for a promise of refuge on Samos for Oroetes. Not only was there the financial incentive, Polycrates would have been intrigued by the potential of having a Persian satrap as an ally, while is asking for refuge Oroetes was also flattering the Samian tyrant as the satrap was inferring that Polycrates and his navy could keep Oroetes safe even in the face of the might of the Persian king.
Oroetes was likely counting on Polycrates’ want for further expansion of his influence in the Aegean and Ionia and could well have played into the rivalry with Mitrobates as proof of Oroetes’ need for help outside the Persian Empire.
It may well be queried if Oroetes had a potential ulterior motive in reaching out to Polycrates… could the notion of alliance with Samos have been less of a smokescreen than usually thought? Might Oroetes have been hedging his bets – establishing an avenue of contact with the Samian tyrant either to bring about his fall or to actually become his ally. There may be more truth in his supposed deception of Polycrates than might be thought.
“Oroetes addresses Polycrates as follows: I find that you aim at great things, but that you have not sufficient money for your purpose. Do then as I direct, and you will succeed yourself and will save me. King Cambyses aims at my death; of this I have clear intelligence.  Now if you will transport me and my money, you may take some yourself and let me keep the rest; thus you shall have wealth enough to rule all Hellas. If you mistrust what I tell you about the money, send someone who is most trusted by you and I will prove it to him.” (Herodotus III.122.3-4)
Polycrates did not jump in feet first at this invitation. Before agreeing to a meeting with Oroetes, he dispatched a compatriot of his, Maeandrius, to the court of the satrap to investigate the sincerity of Oroetes’ offer and perhaps more specifically, whether or not the satrap could provide the kind of wealth he had promised to the Samian tyrant.
The short answer was that Oroetes did not have such wealth, but he put on a good show of having such fabulous wealth, filling “eight chests with stones, leaving only a very shallow space at the top; then he laid gold on top of the stones, locked the chests, and kept them ready. Maeandrius came and saw, and brought word back to his master.” (Herodotus III.123)
At least partially convinced by Oroetes’ story and promises, Polycrates decided to accept this invitation for a face-to-face meeting at Magnesia, the residence of the Lydian satrap. This was completely against the advice of his diviners and various friends, who thought he was walking into a trap. The most evocative attempted dissuasion of Polycrates came from his daughter. She claimed to have had a dream where she saw her father hanging in the air, his body being washed by Zeus and anointed by Helios (Herodotus III.124.1). The tyrant brushed off the doomsayers, even threatening his daughter with refusing to let her marry once he returned from Magnesia. His daughter replied that she would rather remained unmarried throughout her life than lose her father… (Herodotus III.124.2)
Of course, Polycrates should have listened. It was a trap. The Samian tyrant was not to return home to prevent any future nuptials for his daughter…
It is not completely clear how Polycrates died from Herodotus’ account: “he was horribly murdered in a way unworthy of him… in some way not fit to be told” (Herodotus III.125.2, 3). This might suggest that the actual method of his death was either suitably inglorious – like a quick slitting of the throat by a lowly soldier or slave – or horribly gruesome like being impaled.
Whatever was the mode of Polycrates’ death, Oroetes then had his dead body subjected to crucifixion, perhaps to provide a warning to other leaders in the region. It was in this crucified position that the death of Polycrates has become a popular artistic scene, even if it was not the actual method of his death.
It was also seen by Herodotus as the fulfilling the prophetic dream of Polycrates’ daughter: the crucified position being the ‘hanging in the air’; the ‘washing by Zeus’ being the rain that fell on him in the open and the ‘anointing by Helios’ being the sweat on his body from the exertion and heat of sun (Herodotus III.125.4).
After achieving the assassination of Polycrates (paving the way for the Persian conquest of Samos in c.525BC), Oroetes then turned his attention back to the internal issues of the Persian state. The death of Cambyses in 522BC (either through an accidental wound or assassination) led to significant trouble at the heart of the Persian Empire, with his younger brother Bardiya (or someone impersonating him) briefly succeeding him as ‘King of Kings’ only to then to be then overthrown in favour of Darius I.
In the confusion surrounding the Persian kingship, Oroetes appears to have offered little help to any of the sides vying for control. Being so distant from the centre of Persian power, it might not have been expected that the Lydian satrap would have gotten directly involved in internal disputes; however, Oroetes certainly did something to catch the attention of Darius I once he was established on the Persian throne.
Rather than stay quiet during the succession crisis of 522BC, Oroetes seems to have used the disruption it caused to further his own agendas of personal vengeance and expansion of his power. The target for both of these agendas was his taunter and satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, Mitrobates.
Oroetes is said to have orchestrated the assassination not only of Mitrobates but also his son, Cranaspes, adding Hellespontine Phrygia and possibly Ionia to his own Lydian territory in the process (Herodotus III.126.2).
To this list of refusal to help in the Persian succession crisis, satrapal murder and usurpation, Oroetes then added what would be considered outright treasonous murder.
Darius I, seemingly just before he acceded to the Persian throne, sent a messenger to the Lydian satrap. Exactly what that message was is not recorded, but Herodotus suggests that it displeased the Lydian satrap. Could it be that Darius had warned Oroetes that he had to pick a side in the on-going succession trouble, forcing the satrap into forfeiting his beneficial neutrality? Herodotus III.127.2 has Darius claim that the messenger he sent to Oroetes was to recall him to court, presumably for trial or execution for his role in the deaths of Mitrobates and Cranaspes.
It might also be suggested that Oroetes feared what the messenger would say to Darius. Had he heard of Oroetes’ murders and usurpation? Could it even be that Oroetes was using this Persian succession crisis to orchestrate his own secession from the Persian Empire?
Whatever his motivation, Oroetes is said to have decided to do away with Darius’ messenger. Setting an ambush for the messenger on his way back east to report to Darius, the Lydian satrap had the messenger murdered, his body and horse hidden away.
Even with the intercepting and silencing of the messenger, Darius got word of the various murders, usurpation and defiance of Oroetes and decided to act against him (Herodotus III.127.1).
However, he felt that opening marching against the rebellious satrap would not be the best option. Darius was not yet well-established on the throne and suddenly marching to the western frontier of his realm might have encouraged some of his opponents to try to overthrow him. Furthermore, Oroetes had the forces of two full satrapies, including a loyal guard of 1,000 Persian spearmen, and likely some Ionian Greek allies to defend himself with (Herodotus III.127.1). Military victory would not necessarily be assured for the newly-enthroned ‘King of Kings’.
Darius therefore decided to employ subterfuge. He called together a large assembly of leading Persians at his court and asked…
“Persians, which of you will promise to do this for me, not with force and numbers, but by cunning? Where there is need for cunning, force has no business.  So then, which of you would either bring me Oroetes alive or kill him? For he has done the Persians no good, but much harm; he has destroyed two of us, Mitrobates and his son, and is killing my messengers that are sent to recall him, displaying an insolence that is not to be borne. So, then, before he does the Persians some still greater harm, he has to be punished by us with death.” (Herodotus III.127.2-3)
Such was Darius’ rousing speech calling for defenders of the Persian realm from this rebellious satrap, he had 30 men volunteering to undertake the plot to remove Oroetes. Rather than leave them to choose between themselves or having to choose himself, potentially sparking the enmity of the others, Darius had the 30 volunteers draw lots – via this method, the choice fell on the prominent Persian nobleman, Bagaeus, son of Artontes (Herodotus III.128.1).
Duly tasked by Fate and Darius to deal with Oroetes, Bagaeus set about this duty through a series of letters, all stamped with the seal of the King of Kings. With them, he travelled to Sardis and obtained a meeting with Oroetes.<p class="has-medium-font-size" style="line-height:1.5" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Before the satrap and a gathering of his spearmen, Bagaeus took out the first letter and gave it to the satrapal scribe to read aloud. It is not entirely clear from Herodotus’ recording what the first letter was supposed to have said, but it seems to have appealed to the loyalty of the spearmen, perhaps through flattery and making it clear that the letters were from Darius himself, without actually intimating that Darius felt that Oroetes was a threat to the Persian realm.Before the satrap and a gathering of his spearmen, Bagaeus took out the first letter and gave it to the satrapal scribe to read aloud. It is not entirely clear from Herodotus’ recording what the first letter was supposed to have said, but it seems to have appealed to the loyalty of the spearmen, perhaps through flattery and making it clear that the letters were from Darius himself, without actually intimating that Darius felt that Oroetes was a threat to the Persian realm.
Satisfied that the contents of the first letter had had the desired effect, without revealing the true aims of this epistolary series, Bagaeus then had the second royal letter read out to the spearmen. This one had a more overt order within it, which the Lydian satrap must have recognised as a threat to his power.
“Persians! King Darius forbids you to be Oroetes’ guard.” (Herodotus III.128.4)
Having been suitably flattered and/or reminded of their loyalty to the Persian king, the spearmen now obeyed the letter, lowering their spears in the face of Bagaeus’ royal writ. Before Oroetes could so anything about the growing undermining of his position, Bagaeus then moved on to the third letter. It contained the definitive test of the loyalty of the Persian spearmen…
“King Darius instructs the Persians in Sardis to kill Oroetes.” (Herodotus III.128.5)
Bagaeus must have realised that his own life was on the line here too, for if he had read the reaction of the spearmen incorrectly, the order to kill the satrap might have led to his own grizzly murder and ultimately the full usurpation of the Lydian, Phrygian and Ionia provinces, backed by some Greek forces. At a time when the reign of Darius I was not yet fully secure, a mass revolt in western Asia Minor may well have seen other recently conquered territories – Egypt, Cyprus, Libya – break out in rebellion, possibly threatening the cohesion of the central Persian provinces.
However, Bagaeus had been correct in his reading of the satrapal court at Sardis. Upon the reading out of this royal demand to murderous action, the Persian spearmen drew their swords and attacked Oroetes, killing him almost instantly. Herodotus III.128.5 considered this wretched demise of Oroetes just recompense for the end he had subjected Polycrates to.
Bagaeus then succeeded the vanquished Oroetes as Lydian satrap, bringing the region back in line with the Persian government of Darius. He then shipped off a large number of possessions of Oroetes to Darius at Susa as something of a tribute or even booty from a defeated foe (Herodotus III.129.1) Amongst these possessions were a number of slaves that Oroetes had taken from Polycrates, namely the non-Samian members of the entourage that had travelled with the tyrant to his fateful meeting at Magnesia, including a certain Democedes of Croton, who would make a name (and a fortune) for himself… which we will look into in the next blog entry (Herodotus III.129-132).
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You would be forgiven for thinking that this is a Biblical headline was about the story of Jonah and the Whale. However, looking past that the original Hebrew text suggests Jonah was swallowed by a “giant fish” rather than the mammalian ‘whale’ that appears in English translations, there are several other tales from ancient folklore with similar aquatic adventures.
But for all the Jonahs, Gilgameshs and Jasons to have been involved in such adventures, there are also some lesser known names. One such name is Arion of Methymna on Lesbos (also known as Arion of Corinth).
Arion was an Ancient Greek musician and poet, who specialised in the cithara. The dates of his life are unknown, but he is recorded as being active in Corinth during the reign of the tyrant Cypselus (657-627BC) and then had his son Periander of Corinth as a patron, who ruled that city between 627 and 585BC (Herodotus I.23-24; cf. Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae XVI.19).
The Suda date Arion’s activity to the 38th Olympiad (628-625BC), while Eusebius puts him in the fourth year of the 40th Olympiad (617BC). The likelihood is then that Arion was active during the last third of the seventh century BC. Arion is described by Herodotus as one of more distinguished musicians of the age and the first to compose dithyrambs, a song sung and danced in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility (Herodotus I.23).
This appears a simplification of Arion’s role in the development of the dithyramb, as it was first mentioned by Archilochus of Paros (c.680-645BC), perhaps several decades before Arion’s career. It may instead be that Arion was responsible for taking the established idea of the dithyramb and developing it further with a stationary chorus and dancers dressed as satyrs. He may also have been responsible for bringing it to a wider audience. Certainly, Herodotus has Arion being the first to teach the dithyramb in Corinth (Herodotus I.23).
Some sources note that Arion’s contribution to the reform of the dithyramb saw it performed in a circle and called kuklios choros (Proclus, Chrestomathy 12 credits Aristotle with this view; Suda A3886). This association may have seen other sources present Arion’s father as being called ‘Kukleus’ (‘Circle-man’). This may actually detract from the historicity of the whole scenario: ‘Kukleus’, Arion’s development of the dithyramb and indeed Arion himself (D’Angour (1997)). It was not just in music that Arion is recorded being an innovator. He is attributed with the invention of the dramatic performance of tragedy (Solon, Elegies Frag. 30a; Suda A3886).
But for all these reputed musical and artistic inventions, Arion is most well-remembered for his supposed miraculous rescue by a dolphin when he found himself overboard at sea. Herodotus proclaimed that this was a well-known story amongst the Corinthians and the Lesbians (Herodotus I.23).
Having spent considerable time in Corinth under the patronage of first Cypselus and then Periander, Arion decided to travel west. While in Sicily and southern Italy, he won a series of musical competitions, making a lot of money in the process. With his winnings, Arion then took ship at Tarentum on a Corinthian vessel in order to return to the patronage of Periander.
However, seeing the amount of money their passenger had brought on board, the crew plotted to cast him into the sea and keep his riches for themselves (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.1 has Arion’s slaves conspiring with the sailors). Arion got word of this plot – Hyginus, Fabulae 194.2 has Apollo come to Arion in a dream – and begged the Corinthian sailors to just take the money and leave him alive: “the sailors told him either to kill himself if he wanted to be buried ashore, or to jump overboard at once” (Herodotus I.24).
Arion asked to be allowed to sing for the crew before promising to kill himself. The crew liked the idea of receiving a performance from a renowned singing poet. Therefore, in full costume, Arion performed with his cithara on the deck. Once he was finished, Arion then jumped into the sea, with the ship continuing on its journey to Corinth. Arion survived his initial plunge into the water, but he was adrift in the depths of the Ionian Sea and could not expect to survive for long.
However, help was at hand as in following Apollo’s advice to “play his music, and give himself over to those who came to his rescue,” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.2) Arion was found by a pod of dolphins, seemingly attracted towards the ship by Arion’s singing. One of them then carried Arion on its back to Taenarum, a town in south Laconia about five miles north of the modern Cape Matapan, where he was able to make it to shore. Hyginus suggests that “when he reached land, out of a desire to get on his way [Arion] did not push a dolphin back into the sea, and the dolphin died there” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.3). Periander (misnamed by Hyginus as ‘Pyranthus) would order the dolphin to be buried and a memorial raised for it.
“It would be pleasant to believe this story, for dolphins are capable of carrying humans on their backs, and are fond of music; and this vocal behaviour reveals a high intelligence” (Huxley (1966), 86). This predilection of dolphins for music, as well as humans, was a recognised proverbial trope amongst the Ancient Greeks (Euripides, Electra 435f; Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45).
That a cavern near Taenarum was considered the entrance to the Greek underworld (cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses X.13 – “Downe at the gate of Taenarus did go to Limbo lake”) might suggest some ulterior meaning in Arion’s landing here. Could it be that it was to show that Arion was close to death, figuratively and literally?
Having survived his watery encounter, Arion made his way north, still in his full costume, through Laconia to Corinth. There, he told his story of success, betrayal and miraculous survival to Periander. The Corinthian tyrant found it a little too incredible, but sought more information.
Keeping Arion under supervision, Periander sent for the crew of the Corinthian ship. The tyrant asked them if they had any information about Arion. “Oh yes… we left him safe and sound at Tarentum in Italy.” Arion then appeared and “the lie was detected, and further denial useless” (Herodotus I.24).
Hyginus records a slightly different version with the sailors claiming that Arion had died on the voyage and they had him buried. The tyrant then proclaimed that “Tomorrow, you will swear to this at the dolphin’s memorial” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.5), which illustrates how Hyginus’ version eliminates any involvement of Taenarum, as Corinth and Taenarum are over 200km apart, too far to be reached in a day.
The next morning, Periander/Pyranthus has the sailors swear before the dolphin memorial that Arion had died and when they did so, Arion appeared before them in the same costume he was wearing when he jumped into the sea, as part of a plot between him and the Corinthian tyrant (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.6-7). When the sailors proceeded to swear that they had buried Arion, he emerged from the dolphin memorial, rendering them “speechless, wondering by what divine power he had been rescued” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.7). Hyginus then finished off his retelling of the story by reporting that Periander/Pyranthus had the men crucified at the memorial and that Apollo “placed among the stars both Arion, because of his skill at the cithara, and the dolphin” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.8).
While Hyginus has a memorial to the dolphin erected by Periander somewhere near Corinth, Herodotus has a bronze statue of a man riding upon a dolphin being dedicated in a temple at Taenarum. The second century AD Greek travel-writer, Pausanias (c.110-180), records that the statue was still extant during his time (Pausanias III.25.7, cf. IX.30.2), as does the Roman writer, Aelian, a generation later in the late second/early third century AD (Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45).
Indeed, Herodotus (I.24), and inferred by Aelian, would have it that the statue was erected by Arion himself in thanks for his rescue. Given his miraculous survival, it would not be surprising for Arion to have seen to the erection of a statue in honour of the dolphin and potentially the god behind it. But which god would it have been? The epigram inscribed with the statue does not contain a dedication to any specific god and several deities are linked to dolphins.
It could have been to Poseidon, god of sea, who Aelian suggests Arion dedicated an epigram at the site of the statue as a χαριστήριον / charisterion – offering – in thanks for his deliverance from the sea and to the dolphins (Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45). Poseidon also had form in entrusting important matters to dolphins, with his wife, Amphitrite, being found by and persuaded to marry the god of the sea by a certain Delphinus, who was rewarded with a place in the starry sky (Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 17). Some Greek writings make the connection between the story of Arion and that of Melicertes, son of Poseidon and Ino (who could be Amphitrite). To escape her husband, Athamas, who had been driven insane by Hera, Ino and Melicertes had jumped into the sea, with the latter’s body being carried by a dolphin to the Isthmus of Corinth, which became the site of the Isthmian Games.
Another son of Poseidon, Taras, was said to have been rescued from a shipwreck when his divine father sent him a dolphin. Taras then rode this aquatic taxi from the promontory of Taenarum to the south of Italy, where he founded the city that bore his name: Tarentum in Apulia (Pausanias X.10.8). Coins issued in the city (and in Corinth) bore this legend, with Taras mounted on a dolphin. The similarities between this story and that of Arion should not be overlooked.
It could have been to Dionysius, who had faced a similar tale to Arion where Tyrrhenian pirates try to tie the god to the mast, only for him to escape through the help of a helmsman, who was spared being turned into a dolphin with the rest of the traitorous crew. Dionysius could also have facilitated Arion’s rescue due to the musician’s role in the popularising of the Dionysian dithyramb.
Herodotus would have it that for his ‘final performance’, Arion chose to sing the ὄρθιος νόμος – the ‘stirring song’, which was a high-pitched and well-known song in honour of Apollo (Herodotus I.24). It could be then that Arion dedicated the statue to Apollo Delphinus in thanks for the fact and mode of his salvation.
An invocation and then thanking of Apollo by Arion may connect to the establishing of the constellation of Delphinus, with the god rewarding the dolphin who had saved Arion with a presence amongst the stars.
Like both Poseidon and Dionysius, Apollo also had form in this sort of use and rewarding of dolphins. In the form of a dolphin, he rescued a group of shipwrecked Cretan priests, bringing them on his back to a placed called originally called Krisa, but later called Pytho due to the enormous serpent that lived there. After Apollo killed this Python, the site was renamed after the animal Apollo had rescued these priests as – the dolphin, which in Ancient Greek is δελφίς, hence Delphi.
Not only are there issues with who the statue might be dedicated to, there are problems with the idea that Arion himself was behind the dedication of any such statue and epigram at Taenarum. The most important being one of date, concurrent technological advances and literary style.
Aelian does not mention the statue being erected by Arion, although as he has Arion writing the epigram on the monument, this could put the statue and epigram in the time of Arion – the last third of the seventh century BC. However, “a bronze statue of a man on a dolphin before 600BC is not easy to accept” (Bowra (1963), 121).
For Herodotus to have seen it, which he appears to intimate (Herodotus I.24), the statue would therefore have had to have existed by the last decades of the 5th century BC. This would seem more appropriate as statue-making technology had advanced enough to build the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This would seem to place the statue’s erection long after Arion’s death.
A literary issue arises with the epigram, which is recorded by Aelian as saying…
“Sent by the immortals this mount saved Arion son of Cycleus from the Sicilian main” (Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45)
Aspects of this short epigram seem incorrect. The language seems out of place for the Late Archaic period of Greece, perhaps belonging more to the Classical period of around the fifth century BC. Its entire tone seems too indirect and even impersonal for it to be a personal dedication of a man celebrating his miraculous survival. Arion’s father being given such a name “is too patently aetiological to be at all convincing” (Bowra (1963), 122). Indeed, the lack of a named dedicator or even a divine dedicatee could suggest that at the very least, the epigram was not part of any original dedication.
The cynical question then to ask is that did Aelian write the epigram himself, positing what he thought would have been written? “But though Aelian has many faults there is no reason to think he was a conscious swindler” (Bowra (1963), 125).
Rather than any sort of fraud, it could be that the story Arion and the dolphin was famous enough – Herodotus suggests that knowledge of the tale reached back from the Peloponnese to Lesbos – for it to inspire another later, possibly fifth century BC (Smyth (1900), 15, 205; Bowra (1963), 134), and unnamed poet to write the epigram on the statue. Time then saw this epigram attributed to Arion due to the subject and location of both the epigram and the statue, and perhaps due to knowledge of his being a composer. Unfortunately, such a deduction is lacking in hard evidence.
Another aspect of the recording of the story of Arion and the dolphin that appears to be of later creation is what Aelian describes as “a hymn of thanks to Poseidon” (Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45) written by Arion himself.
“Highest of the gods, lord of the sea, Poseidon of the golden trident, earth-shaker in the swelling brine, around thee the finny monsters in a ring swim and dance, with nimble flingings of their feet leaping lightly, snub-nosed hounds with bristling neck, swift runners, music-loving dolphins, sea-nurslings of the Nereid maids divine, whom Amphitrite bore, even they that carried me, a wanderer on the Sicilian main, to the headland of Taenarum in Pelops’ land, mounting me upon their humped backs as they clove the furrow of Nereus’ plain, a path untrodden, when deceitful men had cast me from their sea-faring hollow ship into the purple swell of ocean.”
Again, it would have seemed entirely possible, if not likely, that a musical composer like Arion would have used his talents to thank the gods and the dolphin for his rescue.
However, due to the same reasons as for the epigram – style, date, and Aelian’s ‘deplorable unreliability’ – this hymn of Arion is considered apocryphal (but again doubting that Aelien himself wrote this hymn).
It would seem then that none of Arion’s poetry or song survives, but the story of his dramatic delphinoid survival and the statue raised in its honour, even if it was not contemporary, were well-known in mythological and even general circles across significant parts of the Greek and then Roman worlds (Bowra (1963), 124).
Apart from the mentions by Herodotus, Pausanias and Aelian, there are numerous other mentions, interpretations and usages of the story of Arion and the dolphin from antiquity.
The second century AD satirist and rhetorician, Lucian of Samosata, imagined a dialogue between Poseidon and the dolphin who saved Arion.
Poseidon: Well done, Dolphins!— humane as ever. Not content with your former exploit, when Ino leapt with Melicertesfrom the Scironian cliff, and you picked the boy up and conveyed him to the Isthmus, one of you swims from Methymna toTaenarum with this musician on his back, mantle and lyre and all. Those sailors had almost had their wicked will of him; but you were not going to stand that.
Dolphin: You need not be surprised to find us doing a good turn to a man, Poseidon; we were men before we were fishes.
Poseidon: Yes; I think it was too bad of Dionysus to celebrate his victory by such a transformation scene; he might have been content with adding you to the roll of his subjects.— Well, Dolphin, tell me all about Arion.
Dolphin: From what I can gather, Periander was very fond of him, and was always sending for him to perform; till Arion grew quite rich at his expense, and thought he would take a trip to Methymna, and show off his wealth at home. He took ship accordingly; but it was with a crew of rogues. He had made no secret of the gold and silver he had with him; and when they were in mid-Aegean, the sailors rose against him. As I was swimming alongside, I heard all that went on. ‘Since your minds are made up,’ says Arion, ‘at least let me get my mantle on, and sing my own dirge; and then I will throw myself into the sea of my own accord.’— The sailors agreed. He threw his minstrel’s cloak about him, and sang a most sweet melody; and then he let himself drop into the water, never doubting but that his last moment had come. But I caught him up on my back, and swam to shore with him at Taenarum.
Poseidon: I am glad to find you a patron of the arts. This was handsome pay for a song.
Lucian, Dialogi Marini 8
St. Augustine invokes the pagan acceptance of Arion and his dolphin rescue as historical but denial of the story of Jonah as a mode of their failure to appreciate the power of God.
“These things, indeed, are turned to ridicule rather than credited by those with whom we are debating; though they believe what they read in their own books, that Arion of Methymna, the famous lyrist, when he was thrown overboard, was received on a dolphin’s back and carried to land. But that story of ours about the prophet Jonah is far more incredible — more incredible because more marvellous, and more marvellous because a greater exhibition of power.”
Augustine, City of God I.14
Despite such aspersions being cast on the Arion and the dolphin, either satirically or religiously, the tale remained well-known enough to make its way into the pages of Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Act I, Sc 2, lines 12-16), when the captain tried to reassure Viola over the survival of her brother Sebastian during a shipwreck…
“I saw your brother… bind himself… to a strong mast that liv’d upon the sea; where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back, I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves, so long as I could see.”
As can also be seen throughout this piece, Arion and the dolphin remained a well-enough known story to frequently appear in art from the Renaissance through Victorian times, to the modern day. The Warburg Institute Photographic Collection contains pictures of various images depicting Arion.
Modern scholarly interpretations of the story fail to find consensus over the divine subject of this story. Bowra (1963) connects the development of the Arion tale to the expulsion of the Bacchiadae clan, who traced their descent from Dionysius, from Corinth by Periander’s father, Cypselus. and perhaps therefore a rejection of Dionysius in the guise championed by the Bacchiadae, requiring some kind of a renewal for the Dionysian cult (Burkert (1983) 201). Whereas Arion and the dolphins has been considered an example of “a folkloristic motif especially associated with Apollo” (Malkin (1987), 219).
Flory (1978) considered Herodotus’ use of this story as part of his characterising of ‘brave gestures’, with Arion (eventually) facing his ‘inevitable’ demise with a calm bravery that allows him to give a tremendous performance, a calm bravery that actually brings about his salvation (and indeed immortalising in myth) by attracting the dolphins.
Scholars from various periods have felt that the entire story and even Arion himself were purely fictional. By addressing it at all, Lucian of Samosata may hint that he feels that the story was not only worthy of satire, but perhaps entirely false, given his proclivity towards ridiculing superstition and religion.
The Renaissance scholar, Erasmus, felt that the story of Arion and the dolphin seemed like an example of the “traditional poet’s topics that sound like historia rather than fabulae” (Erasmus, ASD 1-3 238).
And there are certainly plenty of ways to interpret sections of Arion’s life that make it seem that he is partly or even entirely mythological.
His reputed role as the inventor of the dithyramb (something that predated him) could be an ancient mis-recording of an actual role in altering and popularising it; an example of an ‘invented inventor’ either because Arion was known to use dithyramb or Arion the personage was invented to explain the development of the dithyramb.
Similar aetiological trouble comes in Arion’s supposed father, Kukleus, which with its meaning of ‘circle-man’ could be a little too coincidental given Arion’s ‘invention’ of the circular chorus performance.
The sheer popularity of this story type of dolphin saviours – Poseidon, Dionysius, Apollo, Gilgamesh, Jason, Taras, Melicertes – might also undermine the historicity of Arion’s miraculous aquatic survival.
With such potential ‘invented inventor’, aetiological names and a copycat story issues, it is not surprising that it has been considered that “there is no historicity in this tale” (Stebbins (1929), 67).