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Libanius, A monody on Nicomedia, destroyed by an earthquake (1784).  Select works of Julian, vol. 2, pp. 227-242.

A Monody on Nicomedia destroyed by an earthquake.1

[Translated by John Duncombe]

Homer never suffers even a tree to perish without commiseration; but, as if he himself had been the planter or gardener, when he sees it stretched on the ground, he sings a lamentation over it.  And can I permit Nicomedia, where I increased my knowledge of the liberal arts and acquired besides a degree of reputation which I had not before, to be destroyed?  Can I see such a city, a city no longer, reduced to ashes, unmourned, unwept?  This concern I share in common with the vulgar; let her also participate of the oratory which she cherished.  As, if I had been a musician, and had gained many victories there in musical contests, could I have suffered others to lament without joining in the lamentation?

Let me now address the gods, supposing them present, and thus endeavour to estimate our calamity.

When, sitting in the palace of Jupiter, with the other gods, you, O Neptune, were enraged on account of the wall which the Grecians had built at Troy to cover their ships, was not their neglect of the gods, when they laid the foundation, the principal subject of your complaint?  And therefore when Troy was taken you judged it right in thinking it necessary to destroy that wall; which you easily accomplished by turning against it the rivers that rushed from Ida.  But in the foundation of this city, what was the offence that induced you to treat it in the same manner?  Did not its first founder, designing to build a city on the shore opposite to that where it now stands, or rather where it once stood, begin his work from you?  Were not the altars covered with victims, and surrounded by a crowd of worshippers?   But by an eagle and a prodigious snake you diverted their attention to the hill; of these, the former with her talons snatched the head of the victim from the fire; and the latter, large and resembling those which are bred in India, issued from the earth.  The one cleaving the sea and the other the air repaired to the brow of the hill.  The people followed, led, as they thought, by the guidance of the gods.  These omens were all deceitful.  The city was at first overwhelmed by the torrent of war 2.   Be it so.  Your own Corinth also, and the land of Cecrops 3, your best beloved, have experienced the same fate 4.  Another founder came, who, making the gods his principal leaders, and, by the superior magnitude of his offering, rendering your minds more propitious, restored the city.  How then, like the land of Aeolia, for the offence of Oeneus 5, did she deserve to be punished with contempt?  

Is it right, has it been usual, for the gods to destroy with their own hands works like these, in which they have co-operated with mortals, and to imitate the pastime of children, who are accustomed to pull down what the have erected? 6  Or did it become you, O Neptune, to enter into a contest with your niece for an Attic city not then in being, and to overflow a citadel so distant from the sea 7, yet to display no regard for such a great and important city as this, but even to subvert it from the foundations?  

What city was more beautiful?  I will not say larger, for in size it was exceeded by four 8, but despised all that increase of extent which would have wearied the feet of its citizens.  In beauty also it yielded to these, and was equaled, not excelled, by some others.  For stretching forth its promontories with its arms it embraced the sea.  It then ascended the hill by four colonnades extending the whole length.  Its public buildings were splendid, its private contiguous, rising from the lowest parts to the citadel, like the branches of a cypress, one house above another, watered by rivulets and surrounded by gardens.  Its council-chambers, its schools of oratory, the multitude of its temples, the magnificence of its baths, and the commodiousness of its harbour I have seen, but cannot describe.  This only I can say, that frequently travelling there from Nicaea 9, we used on the road to discourse on the trees, and the soil, abundant in all productions, and also of our families, our friends and ancient wisdom.  But after we had passed through the intricate windings of the hills, when the city appeared, at a distance of a hundred and fifty stadia 10, on all other subjects a profound silence instantly ensued, and, no longer engaged either by the towering branches of the gardens, or by the fruitfulness of the soil, or by the traffic of the sea, our whole conversation turned on Nicomedia.  And yet mariners, or those who labour at the oar, and ensnare the fish with nets or hooks, naturally attract the observation of travellers.

But the form of the city, much more fascinating, by its beauty tyrannised over our eyes, and fixed their whole attention on itself.  Similar were the sensations of him who had never seen it before, and of him who had grown old within its walls.  One showed to his companion the palace, glittering over the bay: another the theatre embellishing the whole city: other various other rays darting from various objects: which surpassed, it was difficult to determine.  Revering it as a sacred image, we proceeded; on our way to Chalcedon it was necessary to turn, until the nature of the road deprived us of the sight.  This seemed like the cessation of a feast.

A city so great, so renowned, ought not the whole choir of the gods have surrounded and protected, exhorting each other to decree that it should never be subjected to any calamity?  But now some of you have deceived, others have deserted, and none assisted her.  And all these particulars which I have mentioned, once were, but remain no longer.  What a beautiful lock has Fortune now severed from the world!  How has she blinded the other continent, by thus bereaving it of its illustrious eye!  What a deplorable deformity has she diffused over Asia, as if her most spacious grove had been felled, as if her most conspicuous feature had been lopped off!  O most injurious earthquake, which did you perpetrate this?  O departed city!  O name of it in vain remaining!  O grief dispersed over land and sea!  O dire intelligence, distressful to the hearts of all ranks, of all ages!  for what heart is so stony, what heart is so adamantine, as not to be wounded by this relation?  who is so destitute of tears as now to withhold them?  O dreadful misfortune, which has reduced the innumerable ornaments of the city to one ruinous heap!  O unpropitious ray, what a city did you smite at your rising, what a city sank with you!  The day had almost advanced to noon 11; the tutelary deities of the city abandoned the temples, and she was left like a ship deserted by its crew.  The lord of the trident shook the earth and convulsed the ocean; the foundations of the city were disunited; walls were thrown on walls, pillars on pillars, and roofs fell headlong.  What was hidden was revealed, and what had appeared was hidden.  Statues, perfect in beauty and complete in every part, were blended by the concussion into one confused mass.  Artificers, working at their traders, were tossed out of their shops and houses.  In the harbour there was much destruction, and also of many worthy chosen men collected about the Prefect. 12  The theatre involved in its ruins all who were in it.  Some buildings, which had long stood tottering and others which had yet escaped, with all who were in them, shared at last the general fate.  The sea, violently agitated, deluged the land.  Fire, which abounded everywhere, catching on the rafters, added to the concussion a conflagration; and some wind, it is said, fanned the flames.  Much of the city, much of the ramparts, still remains.  Of those who have escaped, a few still wander about wounded.

O all-seeing sun, what were your sensations on seeing this?  Why did you not prevent such a city as this from leaving the earth?  For the oxen profaned by the famished mariners, such was your resentment as to threaten the celestial powers that you would give yourself up to Pluto 13; but for the glory of the earth, for the fruit of prodigious cost, destroyed in the day-time, you have no compassion.

O fairest of cities, on what a faithless and froward hill did you fix your seat; which, like a vicious horse, has dismounted its excellent rider?  Where now are your winding walks?  where are your porticos?  where are your courses, your fountains, your courts of judicature, your libraries, your temples?  Where is all that profusion of wealth?  Where are the young, and the old?  Where are the baths of the Graces and the Nymphs?  of which the largest, named after the prince, at whose expense it was built, was equal in value to the whole city 14.  Where is now the senate?  Where are the people?  Where the women?  the children?  where is the palace?  where is the circus, stronger than the walls of Babylon?  Nothing is left standing; nothing has escaped; all are involved in one common ruin.

O numerous streams, where now do you flow?  what mansions do you water?  from what springs do you issue?  The various aqueducts and reservoirs are broken.  The plentiful supply of the fountains runs to waste, either forming whirlpools or stagnating in morasses; but drawn and quaffed by no-one, neither by men nor birds.  These are terrified by the fire which rages everywhere below, and where it has a vent, flames into the air.  This city, once so populous, now in the day time is deserted and desolate, but at night is possessed by such a multitude of spectres as I think must crowed the inhabitants of the infernal regions after they have passed Acheron.

Celebrated of old were the disasters of Lemnos 15, and the Iliad sings the woes of Troy.  Their remembrance will be slighted, but the excess of our calamities anyone may hence determine.  Former earthquakes, though they destroyed some parts of the city, spared others; but this has overwhelmed the whole.  Other cities have also perished, but never one of such a magnitude.  If it has been deprived only of bodies infected with the plague, or of those persons who, contrary to the laws, were celebrating a general sacrifice outside the city, and had not itself fallen, the stroke might have been supportable.  The whole would not have been desolated; now both lie prostrate and the form of the city is confused with the slaughter of the citizens.

Lament, therefore, every island and every continent, peasants and mariners, cities, villages, cottages, everything that is connected with human nature; and let tears prevail over all the world, as in Egypt, whenever Apis dies 16.  Even rocks should now be indulged with tears, and birds with reason, to join in an elegiac song.  O harbour, which ships now carefully avoiding, rather steer into the ocean, their cables slipped, which formerly were filled with loaded vessels, but now cannot boast even a pleasure-boat, and are more dreaded by mariners than even the mansion of Scylla!  O disappointment to travellers, who no longer frequent the road, which, gloomy and in the form of a crescent, beautifully winded round the dykes of the haven, but embarking sail towards the hill, to which they formerly hastened [by land], trembling as at Charybdis, and unable to conjecture in what part of the sea they used to stand on the shore!  O dearest of cities!  in your ruin, you have involved your inhabitants; you have destroyed them by your fall; so that all mankind apply themselves to supplications, thinking the extinction of their whole race determined.  After the loss of this most valuable possession, nothing hearafter, they believe, will be spared.  Who will supply me with wings to waft me thither?  Who will place me on an eminence to view the distressful sight?  For a lover has some consolation in being surrounded by the objects of his affection, though in ruins.

[Abbreviated notes moved to the end and numbered.  I have slightly modernised the text to improve readability, and pruned or rewritten the footnotes, since a PDF of the whole thing is available online.]

1. A mournful song, recited by one only on the stage, without a chorus, was called Μονοδία.  

2. This most probably refers to the reign of Nicomedes III who was twice driven from his throne by Mithridates the Great, king of Pontus.

3. Athens

4. Corinth was surprised by Antigonus and Aratus, taken and burnt by the Romans, etc.  Athens was destroyed by Mardonius, taken by the Lacedaemonians and Sulla, etc.

5. Oeneus, king of Aetolia, or Calydon (its chief city) sacrificing to the rest of the deities neglected his duty to Diana who in consequence sent a wild boar to ravage and destroy the country, which was killed by his son Meleager and his company.  See Hom. Il. ix. 530.

6. Libanius had here in view no doubt that passage in the Iliad to which Julian also refers in his 11th letter.

7. Cecrops not knowing what name to give to his new-built city, an olive-tree and a fountain of water (or as others say, a horse) appeared.  The oracle being consulted answered that "Neptune and Minerva were contending for the honour of naming it, that the olive was the gift of Minerva and the fountain (or horse) that of Neptune: and that that which they esteemed most beneficial to mankind should adjudge the prize to the giver."  The men and women being assembled to give their judgement, the former gave it for the god: but the women, who were more numerous, gave it for the goddess, and the city was named from her Athena.  Neptune in revenge of the affront overflowed their territories.  Apollodorus.

8. Rome, Byzantium, Antioch and Alexandria.

9. 32 miles.

10. 19 miles.

11. Literally, "it was near high market".  But Ammianus says that it happened at daybreak, and George Cedrenus, in the night.

12. Aristaenetus, the great friend and patron of Libanius, to whom the latter addresses several letters.  He was later buried at Nicaea, of which he was a native.

13. Alluding to what Apollo says in the Odyssey book 12.

14. According to Lactantius Diocletian embellished Nicomedia with a great number of stately buildings, including a circus; possibly a set of baths might be among these, and take his name, as at Rome.

15. Great disasters were proverbially known as 'Lemnian'.  Libanius mentions this passage of the Monody in his 24th letter.

16. So Diodorus Siculus.

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This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2007. From John Duncombe, Select Works of the Emperor Julian and Some Pieces of the Sophist Libanius (1784), in 2 vols.  This work is from vol.2.  Both volumes are available for download complete at Google Books.  All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

Greek text is rendered using unicode.

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