Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #220 Iamblichos Babyloniaka


Full citation: 

Photius (trans. J.H. Freese). 1920. The Library of Photius (volume 1). The Macmillan Company, New York. - Greek text from De La Rochette, S. Charon. 1812. Mélanges de Critique et de Philologie. D’Hautel, Paris.

Publication summary: 

English translation, with key passages in the original Greek, of Photius' summary of the Babyloniaka of Iamblichos, including the romance and marriage(?) of Berenike, Queen of Egypt, and Mesopotamia.

* * *

Primary Source Text: The Babyloniaka of Iamblichos

Brooten 1997, among other sources, refers to “a lost novel by Iamblichos that tells of how Berenike, daughter of the king of Egypt, loved and married a woman named Mesopotamia.” This was an intriguing lead, but it wasn’t until I was working on a podcast about same-sex relations between women in classical Rome that I had the need to track down the original source and identify exactly what it did and didn’t say. For one thing, the name “Mesopotamia” is so obviously a geographic name that I wondered if the “lost novel” might be some sort of allegory of nations rather than a representation of real women’s lives. Furthermore, how exactly was this “love and marriage” presented? Was the language unambiguous? Did it use the same vocabulary that would be used for a heterosexual couple? And if the novel had been “lost” how was it that we knew the contents at all?

Fortunately, we live in the age of online texts, and I have the advantage of friends who live and breathe classical texts as close as my twitter feed. So with the assistance of Maya (who tracked down a cleaned up copy of the OCR’ed English translation, and a parallel text with the original Greek and French translation), Fade for Classical Greek consultation, Irina for general offers of assistance, and various virtual cheerleaders, I was able to put the following together.

Iamblichos (or in the Latinized version, Iamblichus) was a Syrian Greek writer of the 2nd century CE. His best-known work was his Babyloniaka (Babylonian History) which was an epic romance of the lovers Rhodanes and Sinonis and their hair-raising adventures to achieve their happily ever after. A 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia indicates that the original work consisted of 39 books, but today the only surviving version is a summary by Photius, which mentions only 17 volumes. Evidently a copy of the original survived to 1671 when it was destroyed in a fire. One could wish that someone had taken the trouble to copy it, but that’s true of so many works.

Photius was a 9th century Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Among his other endeavors, he was a compiler of Greek texts--not only religious and philosophical writings, but evidently more popular works as well. He does, however, offer his opinion of the moral and literary merit of the material, which raises the question of to what extent he may have edited texts to fit his prejudices. There’s at least a hint that he may have elided many of the details about Berenike and Mesopotamia due to disapproval, but on the other hand, he omits so much of the overall story that this may not have been a pointed choice. Many other classical Greek works are known only through his summaries and due, to later losses, this is true of the Babyloniaka of Iamblichos.

The text included below is an excerpt from a 1920 English translation by J.H. Freese entitled The Library of Photius in 5 volumes, with Iamblichos appearing in volume 1 (fortunately, since this seems to be the volume that has been made available online). Google Books has a cleaned up (though still error-filled) scan available in e-book formats and this can be proofed against a pdf scan of an original copy at archive.org (which also has a much messier OCR text). But for my purposes, I wanted to know what words were used in the original Greek (or at least in Photius’s Greek summary of the original Greek) to discuss the “love” and “marriage” between these women. The version I used is from a French website which provides parallel texts in Greek and French translation, taken from an early 19th century publication, and which conveniently separates the various authors Photius covers into individual pages. While I can’t tell if the Greek has been standardized in spelling and diacritics (likely), it presumably represents the original vocabulary. Pause for a moment to wonder at the fact that all these materials are avaialable freely and easily (at least, once you know they exist) on the internet! Truly we live in an age of riches.

The following collated version is Freese’s English translation, with the sections relevant to the story of Berenike and Mesopotamia in italics, and accompanied by the corresponding Greek. Key vocabulary is discussed (in curly braces). Freese’s footnotes are inserted in square brackets in place of the original footnote number. I’ve added some extra paragraph breaks for readability.

It’s best if you read this plot summary envisioning an ancient Greek soap opera. A really really wacky ancient Greek soap opera.

* * *

Read the Dramaticon of Iamblichus [Syrian romance-writer, probably lived about the middle of the second century A.D. The complete work is no longer extant (see Cod. LXXIII).], a narrative of love adventures. The author makes less show of indecencies than Achilles Tatius, but he is more immoral than the Phoenician Heliodorus. Of these three writers, who have all adopted the same subject and have chosen love intrigues as the material for their stories, Heliodorus is more serious and restrained, Iamblichus less so, while Achilles Tatius pushes his obscenity to impudence. The style of Iamblichus is soft and flowing; if there is anything vigorous and sonorous in it, it is less characterized by intensity than by what may be called titillation and nervelessness. Iamblichus is so distinguished by excellence of style and arrangement and the order of the narrative that it is to be regretted that he did not devote his skill and energies to serious subjects instead of to puerile fictions.

The characters of the story are a handsome couple named Rhodanes and Sinonis, united by the tie of mutual love and marriage. Garmus, king of Babylon, having lost his wife, falls in love with Sinonis and is eager to marry her. Sinonis refuses and is bound with chains of gold, while Rhodanes is placed upon the cross by Damas and Sacas, the king's eunuchs. He is taken down through the efforts of Sinonis, and the lovers take to flight, one thus escaping death, the other a hated marriage. Sacas and Damas have their ears and noses cut off and are sent after the fugitives. They take different routes to carry out the search. Rhodanes and Sinonis are nearly surprised by Damas in a meadow. For a fisherman had told him of some shepherds who, being put to the torture, at last show him the meadow where Rhodanes had discovered a treasure, revealed to him by the inscription engraved on a cippus [A monumental pillar or monument generally marking the site of a grave.] surmounted by a lion.

A spectre in the form of a goat becomes enamoured of Sinonis, which obliges the lovers to leave the meadow. Damas finds a garland of flowers dropped by Sinonis and sends it to Garmus as a consolation. In their flight, the lovers come across an old woman at the door of a hut; they hide themselves in a cave, thirty stades long and open at both ends, the mouth of which is concealed by thick bushes. Damas comes up with his companions, and questions the old woman, who is terrified by the sight of the naked sword. The horses on which Rhodanes and Sinonis had ridden are captured. The soldiers surround their hiding-place; the brazen shield of one of those who were keeping watch is broken on the cave; the hollowness of the echo discloses the whereabouts of the fugitives; the soldiers begin to dig, and Damas's shouts reach the ears of those within. They retire farther into the cave and make their way to the second opening.

Here a swarm of wild bees attacks the diggers, drops of honey falling also upon the fugitives. The bees as well as the honey are infected with poison from their having eaten certain venomous reptiles, so that the diggers whom they sting either lose a limb or die. Rhodanes and his companion, hard pressed by hunger, lick up some drops of the honey, are seized with colic, and fall on the road as if dead. The soldiers, worn out by the attack of the bees, take to flight but renew the pursuit of the lovers. Seeing Rhodanes and Sinonis prostrate in the road, they pass them by, taking them for two dead strangers. Sinonis, while in the cave, had cut her hair, and made a rope with it to draw water; Damas finds it and sends it to Garmus, as an earnest of the speedy capture of the fugitives. The soldiers who passed by where Rhodanes and Sinonis were lying in the road pay respect to them as if they were really dead, according to the custom of the country; some cover them with their tunics, others throw over them anything they have at hand, even pieces of bread and meat, and then go their way.

The lovers recover from the drowsiness caused by the honey; Rhodanes had been roused by some crows quarrelling over some pieces of meat, and woke Sinonis. Getting up, they go in the opposite direction to the soldiers, so as to be less easily recognized. They meet two asses and mount them, having first loaded them with part of what the soldiers, thinking them dead, had thrown over them, and which the lovers had carried away. They stop at an inn, but soon leave it for another, in the neighbourhood of a full market-place. Two brothers have died and they are accused of their murder, but acquitted. The elder of the two brothers, who had poisoned the younger and who had accused them, poisons himself, thereby proving their innocence. Rhodanes gets possession of the poison without being seen.

They put up at the house of a brigand who robbed passers-by and ate them. Soldiers sent by Damas capture the brigand and set fire to his house; Rhodanes and Sinonis, enveloped by the flames, with great difficulty escape with their lives, after they have killed the asses and thrown them on the fire to make a bridge across. The soldiers who fired the house, meeting them during the night, ask them who they are. "We are the ghosts of those murdered by the brigands," they reply. Their thin, pale countenances, the weakness of their voice, persuade the soldiers that they are speaking the truth, whereat they are greatly alarmed.

The lovers resume their flight, and meeting a young girl who is being carried to the grave, join the throng of spectators. An old Chaldaean comes up and stops the funeral, saying that the girl is still alive, and so it turns out to be. He predicts to Rhodanes and Sinonis that they will attain royal rank. The girl's grave is left empty, and a great part of the robes which were to be burnt and of the food and drink is left behind. Rhodanes and Sinonis make a good meal, take some of the clothes and sleep in the grave.

In the morning, the soldiers who had fired the house find they have been deceived, and set out in pursuit of Rhodanes and Sinonis, imagining that they are accomplices of the brigand. Having traced them as far as the grave and seeing them lying there motionless, overcome by wine and sleep, they imagine they are looking on corpses and so leave them, although they hesitated since their footsteps guided them thither. [Or, "being uncertain whether their footsteps led thither,”] Rhodanes and Sinonis leave the grave and cross the river, the waters of which are sweet and clear and reserved for the king of Babylon alone to drink.

Sinonis, when trying to sell the clothes she has taken, is arrested for sacrilege and brought before Soraechus, the son of Soraechus the tax-gatherer and named the Just. Owing to her beauty, he is minded to send her to king Garmus; whereupon Rhodanes and Sinonis mix a dose of poison, considering death preferable to the sight of this king. Their intention is revealed by a female slave to Soraechus, who secretly empties the cup containing the deadly potion and fills it with a sleeping draught; after they have drunk it and are in a deep sleep they are placed in a carriage to be taken to the king.

A little way from Babylon, Rhodanes is frightened by a dream and cries out; this wakes Sinonis, who takes up a sword and wounds herself in the breast. Soraechus wants to know their history, and the lovers having received a solemn promise from him, tell him everything. He sets them at liberty and shows them a temple of Aphrodite on a little island, where Sinonis can be healed of her wound.

* * *

By way of digression the author relates the history of the temple and the little island, which is formed by the surrounding waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. The priestess of Aphrodite had three children, Euphrates, Tigris, and Mesopotamia, the last, who was born ugly, being changed into a woman so beautiful that three suitors quarrelled for her hand. Bochorus, the most famous judge of the time, was chosen to decide their claims, and the three rivals pleaded their cause. Now Mesopotamia had given one of them the cup from which she drank, had crowned the second with a garland of flowers from her own head, and had kissed the third. Bochorus decided that she belonged to the one whom she had kissed, but this decision only embittered the quarrel, which ended in the death of the rivals by one another's hands.

{There is no discussion here of Mesopotamia’s relationship with Berenike, so we don’t know whether they have already met and fallen in love. I confess that my writer’s imagination has spun off a previous meeting and kiss between the two women, such that Mesopotamia eagerly agrees that she belongs to “the one whom she had kissed” envisioning Berenike. But I’ll save that for if I ever decide to write my own version.}

* * *

Ὡς ἐν παρεκβολῇ δὲ διηγεῖται καὶ τὰ περὶ τοῦ ἱεροῦ καὶ τῆς νησῖδος, καὶ ὅτι ὁ Εὐφράτης καὶ ὁ Τίγρις περιρρέοντες αὐτὴν ποιοῦσι νησῖδα, καὶ ὅτι ἡ τῆς ἐνταῦθα Ἀφροδίτης ἱέρεια τρεῖς ἔσχε παῖδας, Εὐφράτην καὶ Τίγριν καὶ Μεσοποταμίαν, αἰσχρὰν τὴν ὄψιν ἀπὸ γενέσεως, ὑπὸ δὲ τῆς Ἀφροδίτης εἰς κάλλος μετασκευασθεῖσαν. Δι´ ἣν καὶ ἔρις τριῶν ἐραστῶν γίνεται, καὶ κρίσις ἐπ´ αὐτούς. Βόροχος ἢ Βόχορος ὁ κρίνων ἦν, κριτῶν τῶν κατ´ ἐκείνους καιροὺς ἄριστος. Ἐκρίνοντο δὲ καὶ ἤριζον οἱ τρεῖς, ὅτι τῷ μὲν ἡ Μεσοποταμία τὴν φιάλην ἐξ ἧς ἔπιεν ἔδωκε, τῷ δὲ τὸν ἀπὸ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἐξ ἀνθέων ἀφελομένη στέφανον περιέθηκε, τὸν δὲ ἐφίλησε. Καὶ τοῦ φιληθέντος κρίσει νικήσαντος οὐδὲν ἔλαττον αὐτοῖς ἡ ἔρις ἤκμαζεν, ἕως ἀλλήλους ἀνεῖλον ἐρίζοντες.

* * *

In another digression the author gives details of the temple of Aphrodite. The women who visit it are obliged to reveal in public the dreams they have had in the temple; this leads to minute details of Pharnuchus, Pharsiris and Tanais, from whom the river is named. Pharsiris and Tanais initiated those who dwelt on the banks of the river into the mysteries of Aphrodite. Tigris died in the little island just mentioned, after having eaten of some roses in the buds of which, not yet full blown, lurked a poisonous little beetle. His mother believed she had made him a demi-god by her enchantments.

Iamblichus then describes different kinds of enchantments —by locusts, lions and mice. According to him, the last is the oldest, the mysteries being called after the name of these animals. [Deriving μυστήριον [mysterion] from μῦσ [mys].] There are also enchantments by hail, snakes, necromancy and ventriloquism, the ventriloquist being called by the Greeks Eurycles, and by the Babylonians Sacchuras. The author calls himself a Babylonian and says that, after having learnt the art of magic, he devoted himself to the study of the Greek arts and sciences. He flourished in the reign of Soaemus, son of Achaemenides the Arsacid, who occupied the throne of his fathers, and was afterwards a Roman senator and consul, and king of Greater Armenia. [A.D. 164.] At this time Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor. When Aurelius sent Verus, his adopted brother and son-in-law and colleague in the empire, to make war against Vologaesus [Or Vologases III (148-190).] the Parthian king, Iamblichus predicted the beginning, the course, and end of the war. He also tells how Vologaesus fled over the Euphrates and Tigris, and how the kingdom of Parthia became a Roman province.

Tigris and Euphrates, the children of the priestess, were very like each other, and Rhodanes was like both. Tigris, as has been mentioned, had been poisoned by eating roses, and when Rhodanes crosses over to the island with Sinonis, the mother of Tigris, when she sets eyes on Rhodanes, declares that her son has come back to life, accompanied by Kore. [Reading Κόρην with capital K. Kore or Persephone, daughter of Demeter (Ceres), wife of Pluto, and queen of the lower world. If κόρην be read, we must translate "and bids her daughter follow him.”] Rhodanes falls in with the deception, highly amused at the credulity of the islanders.

Damas is informed of what has happened to Rhodanes and Sinonis and of what Soraechus has done for them, his informant being the physician whom Soraechus had secretly sent to attend to Sinonis's wound. Soraechus is arrested and taken to Garmus, and at the same time the informer is sent with a letter to the priest of Aphrodite, ordering him to seize Rhodanes and Sinonis. The physician, in order to cross the river, hangs himself round the neck of a camel in the usual manner, having first deposited the letter in the animal's right ear. He is drowned in the river, the camel alone reaches the island, and Rhodanes and Sinonis, taking Damas's letter out of its ear, become aware of the danger that threatens them.

They accordingly take to flight, and on the way meet Soraechus, who is being taken to Garmus, and put up at the same inn. During the night Rhodanes bribes certain persons to slay the guards of Soraechus, who takes to flight with the lovers, being thus rewarded for his previous kindness.

* * *

Damas arrests the priest of Aphrodite and questions him about Sinonis; the old man is condemned to change his ministry for the office of executioner; the manners and customs relating to this office. Euphrates, whom the priest his father takes for Rhodanes and calls him by this name, is arrested, and his sister Mesopotamia takes to flight. Euphrates is taken before Sacas and questioned about Sinonis, being taken for Rhodanes and examined as such. Sacas sends a messenger to Garmus to inform him that Rhodanes is captured and that Sinonis soon will be. For Euphrates, when questioned in the name of Rhodanes, being obliged to call his sister Mesopotamia by the name of Sinonis, declares that Sinonis fled when she saw him arrested.

{Once again, no reference to the relationship between Mesopotamia and Berenike.}

* * *

Συλλαμβάνει Δάμας τὸν τῆς Ἀφροδίτης ἱερέα, καὶ ἀνακρίνεται περὶ Σινωνίδος, καὶ τέλος κατακρίνεται δήμιος γενέσθαι ἀντὶ ἱερέως ὁ πρεσβύτης. Καὶ τὰ περὶ τὸν δήμιον ἔθη καὶ νόμιμα. Συλλαμβάνεται Εὐφράτης, ὅτι ὁ πατὴρ καὶ ἱερεύς, ὡς Ῥοδάνην αὐτὸν ὑπολαβών, οὕτως ἐπεκάλει· καὶ φεύγει Μεσοποταμία ἡ ἀδελφή. Καὶ πρὸς τὸν Σάκαν ἀπάγεται Εὐφράτης, καὶ ἀνακρίνεται περὶ Σινωνίδος· ὡς γὰρ Ῥοδάνης ἠτάζετο. Ἀποστέλλει Σάκας πρὸς Γάρμον ὅτι Ῥοδάνης συνείληπται καὶ Σινωνὶς συλληφθήσεται· ὁ γὰρ Εὐφράτης, ὡς Ῥοδάνης κρινόμενος ἔφη, τὴν Σινωνίδα συλλαμβανομένου αὐτοῦ πεφευγέναι, Σινωνίδα καλεῖν κἀκεῖνος ἐκβιαζόμενος τὴν ἀδελφὴν Μεσοποταμίαν.

* * *

The fugitives Rhodanes, Sinonis and Soraechus, put up at the house of a farm-labourer. He has a beautiful daughter, who has just lost her husband, and out of her affection for him has cut her hair. She is sent to a goldsmith to sell the golden chain which Sinonis had brought from her former prison. The goldsmith, seeing the beauty of the young woman, and recognizing part of the chain which he happened to have made himself, and noticing that she has her hair cut, suspects that she is Sinonis. He accordingly informs Damas and has the labourer's daughter secretly watched. Suspecting what is afoot, she takes refuge in an empty house.

The story of the young girl named Trophime, of the slave who was both her lover and murderer, of the golden ornaments, of the lawless conduct of the slave, of his suicide, of the blood that spirted over the labourer's daughter when the murderer was committing suicide, of the fear and flight of the young woman, of the terror and flight of those who were keeping watch on her, of the young woman's return to her father, of the story of her adventures, of the departure of Rhodanes, and of the letter sent by the goldsmith to inform Damas that Sinonis has been found. To confirm his letter, he sends the chain which he has bought, and mentions the other suspicious circumstances connected with the labourer's daughter.

Rhodanes, at the moment of leaving, kisses the labourer's daughter. Sinonis is furiously jealous; at first she had only suspected this kiss, but her suspicions were confirmed when she wiped off the marks of blood with which his lips were stained. Sinonis makes up her mind to kill the young woman and hastens back like a madwoman, followed by Soraechus, who is unable to calm her passionate fury.

They put up at the house of a wealthy man of dissolute habits, named Setapus, who falls in love with Sinonis and tries to seduce her. She pretends to return his love and, at night, when Setapus is intoxicated, stabs him with a sword, orders the servants to open the door, leaves Soraechus, who is ignorant of what has happened, and sets out in haste to find the labourer's daughter.

Soraechus, when he hears of her departure, starts in pursuit, having hired some of the slaves of Setapus to accompany him, so as to prevent the murder of the labourer's daughter. He overtakes her, makes her get into a carriage which had been prepared beforehand, and turns back with her. On their return, the servants of Setapus, who had found their dead master, filled with rage rush upon them, seize Sinonis, bind her, and take her to Garmus to be punished as a murderess. Soraechus, having sprinkled his head with dust, and rent his cloak, announces the sad news to Rhodanes, who would have killed himself, but is prevented by Soraechus.

Garmus, having received the letters from Sacas and the goldsmith, informing him of the capture of Rhodanes and Sinonis, rejoices greatly, offers sacrifice to the gods, orders preparations to be made for the marriage, and issues a decree that all prisoners should be unbound and set free. Sinonis is accordingly released from her bonds by the servants of Setapus.

Garmus orders Damas to be put to death and he is handed over to the priest whom he himself had deprived of his priesthood and made executioner. Garmus was wroth with Damas, because he had allowed others to have the honour of arresting the supposed Rhodanes and Sinonis. Damas is succeeded in his office by his brother Monasus.

* * *

The story of Berenice, daughter of the king of Egypt, of her disgraceful amours, of her intimacy with Mesopotamia, who was afterwards seized by Sacas and, as Sinonis, sent to Garmus with her brother Euphrates. Garmus, hearing from the goldsmith that Sinonis has escaped, orders him to be put to death, and the guards, who had been deputed to watch the pretended Sinonis and to bring her to him, to be buried alive with their women and children.

{So here we finally bring Berenike into the story, with the clear implication that she and Mesopotamia already had a thing going on much earlier in the story.}

* * *

Διάληψις περὶ Βερενίκης, ἥτις ἦν θυγάτηρ τοῦ βασιλέως Αἰγυπτίων, καὶ τῶν ἀγρίων αὐτῆς καὶ ἐκθέσμων ἐρώτων· καὶ ὅπως Μεσοποταμίᾳ τε συνεγίνετο, καὶ ὡς ὕστερον ὑπὸ Σάκα συνελήφθη Μεσοποταμία, καὶ πρὸς Γάρμον ἅμα τῷ ἀδελφῷ Εὐφράτῃ ἀπάγεται. Γράμμα δεξάμενος Γάρμος παρὰ τοῦ χρυσοχόου ὡς Σινωνὶς διαπέφευγε, προστάσσει ἐκεῖνόν τε ἀναιρεθῆναι καὶ τοὺς ἐπὶ φυλακῇ ταύτης καὶ ἀγωγῇ σταλέντας αὐταῖς γυναιξὶ καὶ τέκνοις ζῶντας κατορυχθῆναι.

{ἀγρίων is from a root meaning “wild, fierce, savage, uncivilized” but used here as a noun, so perhaps something like “wild/uncivilized actions”? In ἐκθέσμων ἐρώτων the second word is easily recognizable as from the root “eros” (desire, erotic love). The first word, ἐκθέσμων, appears to be derived from θέσμός “law, rule, order”, so with that prefix, “unlawful” or perhaps “unnatural”. In the following phrase, συνεγίνετο with the dative can mean “to have intercourse with." Also “to be acquainted with” but this is less likely in the near vicinity of ἐρώτων! In any event, taken all together we get a clear description of an erotic relatoinship and activities.}

* * *

An Hyrcanian dog, belonging to Rhodanes, finds in the ill-omened inn the bodies of the unhappy girl and of the slave, her infatuated lover and murderer. It has already devoured the body of the slave and half eaten that of the young girl, when the father of Sinonis comes on the scene. Recognizing the dog as belonging to Rhodanes and seeing the half-eaten body of the girl, he first kills the dog as a sacrifice to Sinonis and then hangs himself, having first buried the remains of the girl and written on her tomb with the blood of the dog, "Here lies the beautiful Sinonis."

Meanwhile Rhodanes and Soraechus come up, see the dog lying dead by the tomb, Sinonis's father hanging by a rope, and the epitaph written on the tomb. Rhodanes stabs himself and adds to the epitaph on Sinonis the words: "and the handsome Rhodanes," written in his own blood. Soraechus puts his head in the noose, and Rhodanes is preparing to give himself the death blow, when the labourer's daughter rushes in, shouting loudly, "Rhodanes, she who lies here is not Sinonis." She runs and cuts the rope by which Soraechus is hanging, and snatches the dagger from the hand of Rhodanes. At last she manages to convince them by relating the story of the unhappy girl, and of the buried treasure, which she had come to carry off.

Meanwhile Sinonis, released from her bonds, hastens to the labourer's house, still furious with his daughter. Unable to find her, she asks her father where she is, and on his telling her the way she has taken, she immediately sets out in pursuit with drawn sword. At the sight of Rhodanes lying on the ground and her rival sitting alone by his side, endeavouring to staunch the wound in his breast (Soraechus having gone to fetch a physician) her rage and jealousy know no bounds and she rushes upon the young woman. But Rhodanes, forgetting his wound at the sight of her violence, musters up strength to throw himself in front of Sinonis and hold her back, at the same time snatching the sword from her hands. Sinonis, transported with rage, rushes out of the inn and running like a madwoman shouts to Rhodanes: "I invite you to-day to Garmus's wedding." Soraechus, on his return, hearing what has taken place, consoles Rhodanes, and after his wound has been dressed, the labourer's daughter is sent back with money to her father.

{As a comparative text to the following, I note that Sinonis's taunt "I invite you to-day to Garmus's wedding" renders the following Greek: Καλῶ σε σήμερον εἰς τοὺς Γάρμου γάμους. This uses the same word "γάμους" as is used for the union between Berenice and Mesopotamia in the next passage.}

* * *

Euphrates and Mesopotamia, the supposed Rhodanes and Sinonis, together with Soraechus and the real Rhodanes are taken before Garmus. Garmus, seeing that Mesopotamia is not Sinonis, delivers her to Zobaras with orders to cut off her head on the banks of the Euphrates, to prevent any one else in future taking the name of Sinonis. But Zobaras, who has already drunk at the fountain of love, is smitten with Mesopotamia; he spares her life and sends her back to Berenice, who had become queen of Egypt after her father's death, and from whom she had been taken. [By Sacas (p. 174).] Berenice is again united to Mesopotamia, on whose account Garmus threatens war.

Euphrates is handed over to his father, now executioner, by whom he is recognized, and his life is spared. He takes the place of his father, whose hands are not soiled with human blood, and afterwards, disguised as the daughter of the executioner, escapes from the prison and regains his freedom.

{This gives us a few more clues to the timeline of Berenike and Mesopotamia. I’ll try to put the whole known timeline for them together at the end.}

* * *

Ἄγεται πρὸς Γάρμον Εὐφράτης ὡς Ῥοδάνης, καὶ ὡς Σινωνὶς Μεσοποταμία· ἄγεται καὶ Σόραιχος καὶ ὁ ἀληθὴς Ῥοδάνης. Καὶ διαγνοὺς ὁ Γάρμος μὴ εἶναι Σινωνίδα τὴν Μεσοποταμίαν, δίδωσι Ζοβάρᾳ παρὰ ποταμὸν Εὐφράτην καρατομῆσαι ἵνα μή, φησί, καὶ ἑτέρα τις τοῦ τῆς Σινωνίδος ἐπιβατεύσῃ ὀνόματος. Ὁ δὲ Ζοβάρας ἀπὸ πηγῆς ἐρωτικῆς πιὼν καὶ τῷ Μεσοποταμίας ἔρωτι σχεθείς, σῴζει τε ταύτην καὶ πρὸς Βερενίκην Αἰγυπτίων ἤδη, ἅτε τοῦ πατρὸς τελευτήσαντος βασιλεύουσαν, ἐξ ἧς ἦν καὶ ἀφελόμενος, ἄγει· καὶ γάμους Μεσοποταμίας ἡ Βερενίκη ποιεῖται, καὶ πόλεμος δι´ αὐτὴν Γάρμῳ καὶ Βερενίκῃ διαπειλεῖται.

Εὐφράτης δὲ παραδίδοται τῷ πατρὶ ὡς δημίῳ καὶ ἀναγνωσθεὶς σῴζεται, καὶ πληροῖ μὲν αὐτὸς τὰ τοῦ πατρὸς ἔργα, ὁ δὲ πατὴρ οὐ μιαίνεται τοῖς ἀνθρώπων αἵμασιν· ὕστερον δέ, ὡς τοῦ δημίου κόρη, ἐξέρχεται τοῦ οἰκήματος καὶ διασῴζεται.

{My classical Greek consultant notes with regard to  γάμους (from γάμος “marriage” in its basic sense) that “in later Greek particularly, [it] gets an extended meaning that makes it more of a euphemism for sex, including illicit sex; when it's in the plural, it's even more likely to mean prostitution, rape, or, as my dictionary delicately puts it, ‘unlawful wedlock’. So it's more along the lines of ‘Berenice has illicit sex with Mestopotamia’.” This is a bit less unambiguous than Brooten implies. We still have a sexual context, but less clearly an assertion of marriage in the sense of a formal contract. But on the other hand, the exact same word was used for the expected union between Sinonis and King Garmus. Perhaps Freese’s “united to” is at an appropriate level of ambiguity, but if so, it is an ambiguity that applies to the heterosexual relationships in the text as well. Even as a euphemism, the word clearly evokes the concept of marriage. It may be one of those cases where, if you accept the concept of marriage between women, then you can understand it as referring to a marriage between two women, whereas if you consider marriage between woman an impossibility or absurdity, you’re left interpreting it in a purely sexual sense.}

* * *

Such was the state of affairs when Soraechus is condemned to be crucified. The place of execution appointed was the meadow with the fountain where Rhodanes and Sinonis had first rested during their flight, where Rhodanes had discovered the hidden treasure of which he informs Soraechus when the latter is being led away to execution. A body of Alans, indignant at not receiving their pay from Garmus, who had halted at the place where Soraechus was to be executed, drive away the guards of Soraechus and set him free. Soraechus, having found the treasure of which he had been told, and having cleverly removed it from its hiding-place, persuades the Alans that he has learnt this and other things from the gods. Having gradually gained their confidence, he induces them to elect him their king, makes war upon Garmus and defeats him. But this happened later.

While Soraechus is on his way to execution, Garmus, crowned with garlands and dancing, orders Rhodanes to be taken to the place where he was to have been executed before, and to be placed upon the cross. While Garmus, drunk with wine and dancing round the cross with the fluteplayers, abandons himself to joy and revelry, he receives a letter from Sacas, informing him that Sinonis has just married the young king of Syria. Rhodanes is rejoiced, Garmus at first wants to kill himself, but, changing his mind, makes the unwilling Rhodanes, who would have preferred death, come down from the cross. Garmus then appoints him to the command of an army which he decides to send against the king of Syria, so as to pit the lover against the rival.

Rhodanes is treacherously received by the army in a friendly manner, Garmus having privately instructed the generals under Rhodanes that, if their army is victorious and Sinonis is captured, they are to put Rhodanes to death. Rhodanes gains the victory, recovers Sinonis, and becomes king of Babylon, as a swallow had foretold. For when Garmus in person came to see Rhodanes set out on the expedition, an eagle and a kite pursued this swallow, which escaped the eagle but became the prey of the kite. Such is the contents of the sixteen books.

* * *

So here’s a brief summary of the events from the point of view of Mesopotamia and Berenike, as best I can work it out. All the other stories have been stripped down to only the context necessary for this part.

Mesopotamia is the daughter of a priest and priestess of Aphrodite, living on an island between the Euphrates and Tigris. She has two brothers, named after the rivers, and she herself is named for the land between those rivers (meso “middle” potamos “river”). Mesopotamia was born ugly but was changed (by unspecified means) into a beautiful woman. The two brothers closely resemble each other and also resemble Rhodanes, enough that they can all be mistaken for each other. Mesopotamia (in her beautiful version) so closely resembles Sinones that they too can be mistaken for each other.

At some point in the past, Tigris has died from eating poisoned roses.

Berenike is the daughter of the king of Egypt and evidently is known for “disgraceful amours” and at some point in here has an erotic relationship with Mesopotamia. It is not specified whether that relationship is before or after the following episode.

Mesopotamia had three suitors arguing over the right to marry her. At some point in this triple courtship, she gives one of them a cup from which she drank, crowned one of them with a garland of flowers taken from her own head, and kissed the third. The famous judge, Bochorus, judged that she belonged to the one she’d kissed, but the three suitors contested the decision and fought until all three were dead.

There is an implication that at the time of the following events, Mesopotamia and Berenike are together, so presumably both are present on the island where the temple of Aphrodite is.

Rhodanes and Sinonis are sent to the temple of Aphrodite to recover from the wounds of their most recent adventure and the late Tigris’s mother believes Rhodanes is her son come back to life, accompanied by Kore (Persephone) from the land of the dead. Rhodanes is amused and goes along with the deception.

The physician who attended previously to Rhodanes’ wounds betrays his location to Damas, the servant of King Garmus, and then is sent to the priest of Aphrodite with a message ordering him to seize Rhodanes and Sinonis, but the physician drowns crossing to the island and his message falls into the hands of Rhodanes and Sinonis, giving them warning and they flee the island.

Damas arrives at the island only to learn that his instruction to the priest of Aphrodite has not been carried out and he arrests the priest. Now the visual confusion between the various characters really comes into play. The priest calls his own son Euphrates by the name of the fugitive Rhodanes, resulting in the arrest of Euphrates (in place of Rhodanes). Seeing this, Mesopotamia takes flight. When Euphrates (mistaken for Rhodanes) is interrogated about the whereabouts of Sinonis, he says that the fleeing Mesopotamia was actually Sinonis, fleeing when she saw Damas arrive.

There is some confusion over exactly when and by whom Mesopotamia (taken for Sinonis) is captured and sent as a prisoner to King Garmus, along with Euphrates (taken for Rhodanes). It’s said that Damas arrested Euphrates/Rhodanes, but then it’s said that Sacas (another servant of King Garmus) was responsible for seizing Mesopotamia/Sinonis. It doesn’t much matter. On receiving news of the capture of (the false) Sinonis and Rhodanes, King Garmus celebrates by releasing all his prisoners, including the true Sinonis.

Euphrates (taken for Rhodanes) and Mesopotamia (taken for Sinonis) as well as the real Rhodanes are all taken before King Garmus where Garmus recognizes that Mesopotamia is not actually Sinonis and orders her to be killed for “impersonating” her. But her executioner falls in love with Mesopotamia, spares her life, and sends her back to Berenike, who in the mean time has become queen of Egypt at her father’s death. Berenike and Mesopotamia are married, though King Garmus is still mad about something to do with Mesopotamia and threatens war over it (presumably against Egypt?).

The embedded family saga is concluded when Euphrates is handed over for execution only to discover that the executioner is his own father (the former priest of Aphrodite) who spares his life. Euphrates takes his father’s place and later escapes the prison disguised as “the daughter of the executioner.” (would this be “disguised as his own sister”? Unclear.)

So, all in all, is this a text that supports the idea that marriage between women was a normal, accepted event associated with Egypt in the 2nd century CE (when Iamblichos was writing)? I’d have to judge that as “not proven.” The Babyloniaka is clearly a fantastic story of improbable events, not even a pseudo-history. But conversely, a female same-sex relationship in included in the story as an unremarkable event, described with the same word "γάμους" as is used for hterosexual relatoinships. Photius, at least, clearly disapproves of the women's relationship and recall that he explicitly refers to Iamblichos’ text as “immoral.” So we can’t rely on Photius as reflecting the original author’s position. Further, when you consider how rare it is for fictional texts to introduce the idea of same-sex romance at all, then it seems meaningful that Iamblichos included this element in a context where there seems to be no direct motivation for it. (Unlike, for example, Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe, where the same-sex element is the whole point of the story.) Brooten notes other texts that associate same-sex romance or marriage with Egypt in the classical era, though I think all of them have some amibiguity.

Even the most conservative reading of this text is that the 2nd century audience for the Babyloniaka would not have considered a romantic relationship--and perhaps even marriage--between a fictional Egyptian queen and a Babylonian woman to be an event that needed special pleading. The text clearly calls their relationship “erotic” in the sexual sense and uses the word gamos which at the very least evokes the concept (if not with certainty the legal status) of marriage, in parallel with how heterosexual unions are described. Within the context of the Project, we can consider this as a motif that women of the 2nd century within the Greco-Roman cultural sphere could reasonably have been aware of and used as a way to frame their own desires. The most generous reading is that marriage between women may have been an ordinary event in Egypt that has been largely erased from the historic record by later Christian writers and the prevailing misogyny of both pagan and Christian Roman culture. This, I think, goes beyond what this specific text can be considered to establish.

But I think someday I will write my own version of their story.

Time period: 
Event / person: 

Add new comment

historical