Wednesday, March 31, 2021


A Greek Proverb

Robert Parker, Athenian Religion: A History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 72-73:
An earlier attempt by Pisistratus to honour Apollo Pythios with a temple had fallen foul of the populace—if we believe the explanation offered by lexicographers of the proverb 'it would have been better to shit in the Pythion'. Only thus, it is said, could the impotent people express their odium for the tyrant. He responded by threatening offenders with death, and indeed carrying out the penalty in one obdurate case: whence the proverb, used of those 'suffering through their own fault'. How much actual history may lie behind the story we can scarcely say. The younger Pisistratus, at all events, later dedicated an altar in the sanctuary, which still survives.20

20 The most circumstantial testimonium (for others see J.P. Lynch in Studies Presented to Sterling Dow, GRBS 10, 1984, 177-79) is Paroem. Graec. I.406-407, no. 66 (from the Bodleian codex, on the value of which see W. Bühler, Zenobii Athoi Proverbia, Göttingen 1987, 126): the victim was a metic, the people hated Pisistratus because of the 10% tax (a learned detail, cf. Arist. Ath. Pol. 16.4-5). Suda, Photius s.v. Πύθιον say merely that Pisistratus founded the sanctuary (a reflection of the more elaborate story, or its origin?); a 'temple' in the sanctuary is mentioned only by the sources for the excretion story, and has not been traced archaeologically (L.H. Jeffery's reference, Archaic Greece, London 1976, 97, to 'the traces of a little temple in the precinct' is obscure to me). Cf. Judeich, Topographie, 386, n. 5 (who suspects that the whole tradition is merely spun out of the younger Pisistratus' dedication); Travlos, Pictorial Dictionary, 100-103. The altar: Thuc. 6.54.6; IG I3.948 (M/L 11, CEG 305).
Erasmus, Adages III iv 1 to IV ii 100 translated and annotated by Denis L. Drysdall, edited by John N. Grant (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), p. 535 (IV ii 65):
65 In Pythii templo cacare
To shit in the temple of Delphi

᾿Εν Πυθίου χέσαι, To shit in the temple of Delphi. This was said of someone who committed some abominable and perilous act, for the tyrant Pisistratus, having built the temple, inscribed a notice that no one should empty his bowels in the precinct, and imprisoned a foreigner who was caught in the act.

65 Apostolius 7.17. Cf. Suda E 1428.
The Latin:
Ἐν Πυθίου χέσαι, id est In Pythii templo cacare dicebatur qui rem nefariam et periculosam faceret, quod Pisistratus tyrannus extructo templo inscripserat, ne quis inibi ventrem exoneraret; et advenam quendam deprehensum e medio sustulit.
The English translation of Erasmus is faulty—the toponym Delphi has no place here.

Suda E 1428 (tr. David Whitehead and Catharine Ross):
It would have been better to relieve oneself in the Pythion: i.e. to take a risk. For when certain people were so contemptuous of Apollo as to relieve themselves in his temple-precinct, Peisistratus enacted a law, that anyone caught doing this would die. But when his notice [to this effect] was laughed at and still more were doing this, he stationed guards. An offender was caught, and Peisistratus ordered them to bind him and flog him by the roadside, while announcing 'after his punishment this man will die, because he despised the notice'. And when [the man] had been killed, the episode had such an impact on the Athenians that even now they refer to those who are in a bad way or suffering punishment because of some sin they have committed [by saying] 'it would have been better to relieve oneself in the Pythion.'

Ἐν Πυθίῳ κρεῖττον ἦν ἀποπατῆσαι: οἷον κινδυνεῦσαι. καταφρονούντων γάρ τινων Ἀπόλλωνος καὶ ἐν τῷ τεμένει αὐτοῦ ἀποπατούντων Πεισίστρατος ἔγραψε νόμον, τὸν ἁλόντα ἐπὶ τούτῳ θνήσκειν. καταγελώντων δὲ τοῦ γράμματος καὶ πλειόνων μᾶλλον τοῦτο ποιούντων ἔστησε φύλακας. ληφθέντος δέ τινος ἐκέλευσε δήσαντας αὐτὸν παρὰ τὴν ὁδὸν μαστιγοῦν, κηρύσσοντας: ὅδ' ἁνὴρ κολασθεὶς ἀποθανεῖται, ὅτι ὀλιγωρεῖ τοῦ γράμματος. κτανθέντος δέ, οὕτω ἐνέδυ τὸ γενόμενον τοῖς Ἀθηναίοις, ὥστε ἔτι νῦν τοὺς κακοπαθοῦντας ἢ τιμωρίαις ἐνεχομένους διά τινα αὐτῶν πλημμέλειαν ἐπιλέγειν: ἐν Πυθίῳ κρεῖττον ἦν αὐτὸν ἀποπατῆσαι.

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