The 'Speculator' of Tristia 3.9.11f

The Look-Out Man of Tristia 3.9.11f:

The ‘speculator’ of Tristia 3.9 stands on a 'high mound' ('tumulo ... ab alto') because etymologically he (at least creatively) derives from 'specula' ('a small hill'). On the other hand a ‘scopulum’ is also a small eminence’ and it is related to the ‘speculator’ through the etymology of ‘speculor’ (‘I examine’). The Argonauts' Look-Out man at Tristia 3.9.11 has seen the pursuing Aeetes from afar ('procul vidit'). Yet then says 'I recognise' the sails ('nosco ... vela'). He is clearly lying. In saying he recognises the (very large) sails, the speculator is giving us to believe the ships are still at some distance. But they must be close at hand if he has recognised Aeetes.

The chiasmus is so obtrusive that we are obliged to consider the metapoetic significance of it. 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 one pores over the Look-Out's words the more unease creeps in. We cannot be sure he does not mean (a) 'I recognise the sails from Colchis, a guest-stranger is coming'; in which case he may be a Greek who recognises the sails ‘from [having been in] Colchis’ because he was once a visiting, guest-friend of the captain’s; yet if he were a Greek, he ought rather to have been sacrificed (b) 'I recognise the sails, he is coming from Colchis, oh guest-stranger (addressing Jason?)’; (c) 'I recognise the sails, it [the ship] is coming from Colchis, O host'. This Look-Out is a Chian by (his) implication (in chiasmus), and his interwoven words need to be further disentangled. First words are always ominous says the Janus of the Fasti ('omina principiis ... inesse solent': Fasti 1.178). Thus if Medea were listening hard then the first omen she would have received from the Look-Out is not 'Hospes' but '[H]O SPES! ('Oh Hope is arriving from Colchis’). The reason she would have embraced this omen (which ‘proves’ the two-facedness of the ‘speculator’) is also based on oracularity. For the word ‘specula’ which is morphologically identical to the beginning of the word ‘speculator’, also means 'a ray of hope'.

A double etymology has entrapped a single spy. Hope multiplies with hope (even a little one). At the eleventh hour an embarrassment of oracular words saves the tuned-in Medea. She 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 (b) above). This also gives one to believe that the ship (if it is of any immediate interest) is yet further away than had been originally imagined. Thus 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 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.

The speculator can clearly communicate loudly and supratextually at least with Jason who however we assume will be insensitive to the subplot in the subtext. Conversely, the reader cannot help but feel party to Medea’s mind as the one that leads us through the understanding of the hidden meanings. Meanwhile the words of this Chian Look-Out now unravel fully 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 strange statement will also have an oracular meaning. 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. Colchian linen was termed 'Σαρδoνικὸν' 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 (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 ominous word leads to immediate action on the part of the Argonauts. 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. Line 14, in which the anchor is hauled in through a flurry of hands, is inspired by the attempts of Orestes, Pylades and their crew to reel in the stern cable in Euripides' Iphigineia in Tauris (1352: 'ἦγον χερων πρυμνησια'). In that play the anchors are mentioned first, as being hung from the catheads, with the stern-cables being simultaneously hauled in by other crewmen. There are many other parallels between these two myths. To name but a few: The heroine's theft of Artemis' statue in Euripides (1383f) equates to the theft of the Golden Fleece (implied) in Ovid; the female dramatis personae both temple wardens, both sacrificers of guest-friends from Greece, both attempting a sacrireligious act before escaping to Greece from the western Black Sea via the Clashing Rocks en route to Attica; finally the use of deceit on the part of the Chian and Iphigineia (Euripides 1330ff).