Wednesday, August 10, 2005



A friend drew my attention to the following passage in Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge, p. 299. I have not seen the book.
Sade frequently cited originality as his claim to immortality. But he had a predecessor in this raid on fame through infamy. It is the nearly forgotten Greek figure Herostratus. According to legend, this undistinguished and profoundly thwarted citizen of Ephesus conceived the idea of burning down his city's temple of Artemis with its fine library in order to create instant fame for himself and assure the survival of his name in history. Out of calculated self-aggrandizement, Herostratus committed an act of cultural arson, causing the destruction of genuinely valuable artifacts and probably of human lives.

What shall we do with such a story? For if we perpetuate the story as a negative example, we are also perpetuating the success of his crime. And if we try to suppress the story because of possible misinterpretation and deleterious consequences, we are establishing limits on knowledge of history and losing a fable. What we can and should properly protest is not the existence of the Herostratus parable but any interpretation of it, particularly for young and unformed minds, as recording a model deed of originality, courage, and human liberation. Herostratus could not project his imagination beyond furthering his own selfish interests by devastating the interests of others. Like Sade, he was engaged in the destruction of the very history in which he wished to survive.

The divine marquis represents forbidden knowledge that we may not forbid. Consequently, we should label his writings carefully: potential poison, polluting to our moral and intellectual environment.
I know almost nothing about the history and archaeology of Ephesus, but the city's famous Celsus Library dates from the second century A.D., and Herostratus' arson occurred in 356 B.C. Whether there was an earlier library associated with the temple, I couldn't say.

Here are some ancient testimonia concerning Herostratus. First are those that mention Herostratus' name, thereby giving him the fame he craved, followed by those that omit his name but describe his deed. None mention the destruction of a library.

Strabo 14.1.22 (tr. H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer):
Chersiphron was the first architect of the temple of Diana; another afterwards enlarged it, but when Herostratus set fire to it, the citizens constructed one more magnificent. They collected for this purpose the ornaments of the women, contributions from private property, and the money arising from the sale of pillars of the former temple. Evidence of these things is to be found in the decrees of that time.
Solinus 41:
Ephesus is a very famous city in Asia. Ephesus' crown jewel is the temple of Diana, the handiwork of the Amazons, so magnificent that Xerxes spared it alone, when he was putting all the other temples of Asia to flame. But this act of clemency on Xerxes' part did not long deliver the holy building from evil. For Herostratus, in order to prolong the memory of his name through the infamy of his crime, by his own hand caused the burning of the famous edifice, in hopes of achieving a wider fame, as he himself admitted. It is written that Alexander the Great was born at Pella on the same day that the temple at Ephesus was consumed in fire.

Ephesos in ea urbs clarissima est: Epheso decus templum Dianae, Amazonum fabrica, adeo magnificum, ut Xerxes, quum omnia Asiatica templa igni daret, huic uni pepercerit; sed haec Xerxi clementia sacras aedes non diu a malo vindicavit: namque Herostratus, ut nominis sui memoriam fama sceleris extenderet, incendium nobilis fabricae manu sua struxit: sicut ipse fassus est, voto adipiscendae famae latioris. notatur ergo eadem die conflagravisse templum Ephesi qua Alexander Magnus Pellae natus est.

Valerius Maximus 8.14 ext. 5:
The itch for fame is impious. For there was found a man who wished to set fire to Ephesian Diana's temple, in order that by the destruction of a most beautiful building his name might be bruited throughout the entire world. Put on the rack he confessed this madness of mind. And well had the citizens of Ephesus voted by decree to wipe out the memory of this most foul fellow, except that the grandiloquent genius of Theopompus included him in his histories.

illa vero gloriae cupiditas sacrilega: inventus est enim qui Dianae Ephesiae templum incendere vellet, ut opere pulcherrimo consumpto nomen eius per totum terrarum orbem dissiceretur, quem quidem mentis furorem eculeo inpositus detexit. ac bene consuluerant Ephesii decreto memoriam taeterrimi hominis abolendo, nisi Theopompi magnae facundiae ingenium historiis eum suis conprehendisset.
Aulus Gellius 2.6.17-18:
Unmentioned, like unmentionable, is he who is unworthy to be spoken of or thought of, who should never even be named, as once upon a time it was decreed by a general council of Asia that no one at any time should ever speak the name of the person who set fire to the temple of Diana at Ephesus.

inlaudatus autem est, quasi inlaudabilis, qui neque mentione aut memoria ulla dignus neque umquam nominandus est, sicuti quondam a communi consilio Asiae decretum est, uti nomen eius, qui templum Dianae Ephesi incenderat, ne quis ullo in tempore nominaret.
St. Jerome, Against Helvidius 18 (tr. anon.):
There are things which, in your extreme ignorance, you had never read, and therefore you neglected the whole range of Scripture and employed your madness in outraging the Virgin, like the man in the story who being unknown to everybody and finding that he could devise no good deed by which to gain renown, burned the temple of Diana: and when no one revealed the sacrilegious act, it is said that he himself went up and down proclaiming that he was the man who had applied the fire. The rulers of Ephesus were curious to know what made him do this thing, whereupon he replied that if he could not have fame for good deeds, all men should give him credit for bad ones. Grecian history relates the incident.
Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.27.69 (tr. Francis Brooks):
There is a remark of Timaeus which, like many of his, shows ingenuity; after saying in his history that the temple of the Ephesian Diana had been burnt down on the same night that Alexander was born, he added that that was by no means to be wondered at, since Diana wishing to be present at the delivery of Olympias had been absent from her home.

concinneque ut multa Timaeus, qui cum in historia dixisset qua nocte natus Alexander esset eadem Dianae Ephesiae templum deflagravisse, adiunxit minime id esse mirandum, quod Diana quom in partu Olympiadis adesse voluisset afuisset domo.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 3.5-6 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
Be that as it may, Alexander was born early in the month Hecatombaeon, the Macedonian name for which is Loüs, on the sixth day of the month, and on this day the temple of Ephesian Artemis was burnt. It was apropos of this that Hegesias the Magnesian made an utterance frigid enough to have extinguished that great conflagration. He said, namely, it was no wonder that the temple of Artemis was burned down, since the goddess was busy bringing Alexander into the world.

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