Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Pale Skin

In Menander's Dyskolos, a young townsman named Sostratos falls in love with farmer Knemon's daughter. To win her hand, Sostratos volunteers to till the soil on Knemon's farm. "The sun was burning me" (ὁ δ' ἥλιος κατέκα'), says Sostratos afterwards (line 535). Later in the play (line 754) Knemon looks at Sostratos and says, "He has been burned. Is he a farmer?" (ἐπικέκαυται μέν. γεωργός ἐστι;).

In Plautus' Vidularia, there is also a scene in which a young townsman proposes to work on a farm. The slave Dinia doubts the young man Nicodemus' fitness for such labor (lines 31-36):
DI. Life in the country is hard work, young man.
NI. Poverty in the city is much harder, by Pollux.
DI. Your hands have been used to throwing dice.
NI. But now I realize they must get a workout with baskets.
DI. Your body is pale from citified softness and shade.
NI. The sun is the painter for that: it will darken my body.

DI. laboriosa, adulescens, vita est rustica.
NI. urbana egestas edepol aliquanto magis.
DI. talis iactandis tuae sunt consuetae manus.
NI. at qualis exercendas nunc intellego.
DI. mollitia urbana atque umbra corpus candidumst.
NI. sol est ad eam rem pictor: atrum fecerit.
My translation doesn't reproduce the Latin rhyming wordplay on talis (dice) and qualis (baskets, probably for harvesting).

Plautus' Vidularia is adapted from a Greek original, probably Diphilus' Schedia. Lines 35-36 reflect a view common in Greek literature. It was normal for an ancient Greek woman to have a pale complexion, but for a man to be sun-burned. Women were supposed to stay inside much of the time, men outside. Women were supposed to wear clothes, whereas men were practically naked for some outdoor activities (athletics, farming, etc.). A pale-skinned man was therefore considered effeminate and a sissy.

We see this view in two entries from the Suda. The first is O 801 Adler (tr. David Whitehead):
Pale men are no use [other] than for shoemaking. [A proverb] applied to those who bring no profit. Inasmuch as the dark [are] more profitable than the pale.

Οὐδὲν λευκῶν ἀνδρῶν ὄφελος ἢ σκυτοτομεῖν: ἐπὶ τῶν εἰς μηδὲν λυσιτελούντων. παρ' ὅσον οἱ μέλανες τῶν λευκῶν λυσιτελέστεροι.
Erasmus, Adagia III vi 28 (Nulla candidorum virorum utilitas = Pale men are of no use) quotes the Greek proverb from Suda O 801.

The second passage from the Suda is Σ 727 Adler (tr. David Whitehead):
Shoemaker, shoe-cutter: Cobbler, thong-cutter. Aristophanes [writes]: "And of course we likened them all to shoemakers. But the assembly was marvelously white-filled to look at." He is speaking about women, because they were pale. Since shoemakers sit in the shade as they work and have been kept in the shade, he has said this.

Σκυτοτόμος: σκυτεύς, λωροτόμος. Ἀριστοφάνης: καὶ δῆτα πάντας σκυτοτόμοις εἰκάζομεν. ἀλλ' ὑπερφυῶς ὡς λευκοπληθὴς ἦν ἰδεῖν ἡ ἐκκλησία. περὶ τῶν γυναικῶν λέγει, ὅτι ἦσαν λευκαί. ἐπειδὴ οἱ σκυτοτόμοι ἐν σκιᾷ καθεζόμενοι ἐργάζονται καὶ εἰσὶν ἐσκιατραφημένοι, τοῦτο εἴρηκε.
The quotation from Aristophanes comes from his Ecclesiazusae 385-387.

Both passages from the Suda also reflect Greek disdain for such banausic occupations as shoemaking.

Related posts with many other parallels from Greek literature:

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