The story of the Speculator of Tristia 3.9


The story of the Speculator of Tristia 3.9
 05/26/2017 11:54 AM

Our main topic today concerns a Look-Out man with his own outlook on life and one with much to reconsider. 

The Argonauts' 'speculator at Tristia 3.9.11 has seen the pursuing Aeetes from afar ('procul vidit') but then he says 'I 'recognise' the sails ('nosco ... vela'). This is where it all goes prickly. Why's he lying? Please, no appeals to 'Ovidian slackness over detail'. That is an excuse not to think. And it's always wrong. In saying he recognises the sails, the speculator's suggesting they're a long way off still. But they can’t be if he has seen Aeetes.  

The speculator’s words are those of a weasel. That chiasmus is too clever by half. In any case the words χιαστι (= à la Chians and crosswise) and χιαζω (I play the Chian and I dispose crosswise) relate chiasmus to the roguishness of the lying Chians (hence the expression 'not a Chian but a Keian' in Aristophanes' Frogs 970, meaning someone honest not a dissembler ). The more you pore over the Look-Out's  words the more unease creeps in. On a basic level we're not too sure if he means (a) 'I recognise the sails from Colchis, a guest-friend is coming' ('is that ok then he's a good mate of yours is he? he certainly won't be any friend of mine even if he was before; hang on what were you doing in Colchis? don't they sacrifice people like you? So you're not Greek ...) (b) 'I recognise the sails, he's coming from Colchis, oh stranger' ('do you mean he's coming from Colchis or from a Colchian direction and is one of those colonists who live up the Tanais and has come down through the Sea of Azov? Anyway I thought old Strabo said that the Panticpaeum-Phanagoria route was blocked by those Tyrogetans and their sheep. why can't they stay up the Dneistr for a winter or two? So did we hire you for your local knowledge?') (c) 'I recognise the sails, it [the ship] is coming from Colchis, O host' ('oh you think I should offer him a bearskin from the wood & hope he forgets all about the golden fleece?).

This look-out man is a Chian by (his) implication (in chiasmus), and his interwoven words need to be further disentangled. 'Hospes' in his mouth could mean '[H]O spes! ('Oh Hope!). First words are always ominous says the Janus of the Fasti ('omina principiis ... inesse solent': Fasti 1.178). If Medea was listening hard then the omen she would have received would have been 'Oh hope is arriving from Colchis, I recognise the sails'. But what will convince her she is right is that fact that 'specula' also means 'a ray of hope' and can be interpreted as the etymology of 'speculator' Double etymologies entrap double spies; hope multiplies with hope (even a little one). At the eleventh hour an embarrassment of oracular words saves the tuned-in Medea. She accepts the etymological omen as averring the version involving 'hope'. The hope can only be that the speculator will be delivered by his Colchian friends from his Greek enemies

Medea further realises that 'nosco' also means 'I am familiarising myself with the sails' 'I am examining the sails'. That is, this Chian is affecting not to be sure yet whether the ship that is (merely) coming from the direction of Colchis is Colchian (see the answers to (b) above). This now gives one to believe that the ship (if it is of any immediate interest) is yet further away than had been originally imagined. The look-out's words continue to give the lie to his trustworthiness. Indeed the tone darkens considerably as we enter deeper into subtextual territory. Ignoring the claims of the metre we could suggest 'hospes ... venit' means that 'my guest has been sold' or 'the guest-stranger has been betrayed for money'. The spy is blissfully untouched by any concerns that he might be flouting the laws of Zeus Xenios who took vengeance on those who failed to accord guest-friendship to guest visitors. His unmetrical words now betray him as one in the pay of the Colchian Court. Spies could be activated in Romania even before Ceauşescu’s day. On the topic of ignoring metrical lengths in interpreting words we should consult Rhetorica Ad Herrenium which disucusses the same confusion of 'venit' and 'venit' (4.21).

The speculator's voice may be broadcast by the echoing cliffs, but he is addressing a single male person who should be Jason and who with Medea should be with the Look-Out. That is uness 'Hospes' is addressed rhetorically to Aeetes or is a nominative. The reader nevertheless cannot help but feel party to Medea’s mind as the one that leads us through the interpretation of the Look-Out Man's hidden meanings. 

The speculator can be happily called a blow-in from Chios. The rest of his words now unravel from their convoluted chiasmus. '[having betrayed the guest-stranger for cash] I am coming to know the fabrics from Colchis' he crows (‘nosco Colchide vela’). This clearly must have an oracular edge unless the devious chap has kept from us his obsessive midnight sessions on the loom. Ancient 'sails' were made of fine linen as the word 'εἀνος' ('fine linen’ and ‘sail') proves. Now the methods for producing this linen in both Egypt and Colchis were quite distinct from the methods adopted elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean. This may have led Herodotus to report the linen's name, a name which guarantees that our suspicions about Colchian fabrics were well placed. The historian reports that Colchian linen was termed 'Σαρδονικὸν' by the Greeks (Herodotus 2.105: 'λίνον δὲ τὸ μὲν Κολχικὸν ὑπὸ Ἑλλήνων Σαρδωνικὸν κέκληται').This is not just an adjective referring to that which is Sardinian. It also evokes that which provokes 'bitterly sneering laughter'. Pollux (ch 5. 26) quotes Herodotus' as referring to 'Σαρδονικὸν λίνον' which means that we are obliged to privilege this spelling of the adjective. For there are many variants of it. Nevertheless, the fact that this variant relates directly to Sardinia, means that the origin of the bitter laugh (from the facial expression caused by eating the bitter plant Sardinian Crowfoot or Σαρδανη) can be more directly attributed to this form of the adjective.

In sum, the Chian double spy has overstepped the boundary between smugness over his day's double-dealing and attentiveness to the success of the same. 'Sardonikon' puts the final nail in the coffin of the Argonauts' trust in the Look-Out and the internally heard word leads to immediate action. The verb 'trepidant' is just as likely to mean 'they are feverishly busy about' as they fear'. Without having to look out to sea they realise that Aeetes is almost upon them. This brings us to the denouement of the story which was examined in a previous entry on this site

And so ends the story of the Chian Look-Out Man or Clom for short. He has strutted his 15 minutes on the stage and has been roundly booed off.  Of its type this vignette has few equals in Classical Literature. To capture myriad psychological processes in a sentence of 5 words is a skill worth having. One almost feels one knows Clom. He might fetch up in a dodgy deal over a second-hand car in Docklands one day. He’ll be the one looking into the middle distance and shaking his head.

© Barney McCullagh 2017. All rights reserved

* The email will not be published on the website.