The Romans would laugh their tits off to look at American executions. The Romans had no such paradoxes, no confusion or anxiety over the right to life or privacy or dignity. Dignity was a privilege afforded to the very, very few. Life was something you earned, mostly by being rich, useful, and a citizen who followed the rules. Those who didn’t manage those things deserved everything they got. A Roman would ask what the point of the state murdering someone was if no one got to see it. …
There is, of course, a problem with this. For the Romans, that is. There are about eight million problems for us as modern Western readers with an ingrained sense of individual self and inalienable personal human rights. The problems for the Romans was simpler: once you’ve seen one guy get stabbed or hung or burnt or eaten by a leopard, you’ve basically seen them all. One stabbing is the same as the next. Burnings are barely distinguishable from one another. Animals are a bit unpredictable, but eventually they’re gonna eat the guy’s face and, you know, I already saw that on a mosaic the other day at my mate’s house. …
Roman sources only show public executions as being either very boring or very spectacular. They were either mundane, everyday crucifixions and behadings or wildly exhilarating theatrical displays praised for their stagecraft. What a modern reader never sees is any writer wrestling with the extraordinarily cavalier approach to human life.
— Emma Southon, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome 280–81, 288 (2021)
On July 6, 1776, John Jay – future governor, ambassador, cabinet minister and chief justice – wrote a letter to his colleague Edward Rutledge. It began:
DEAR RUTLEDGE: Your friendly letter found me so engaged by plots, conspiracies, and chimeras dire, that, though I thanked you for it in my heart, I had not time to tell you so, either in person or by letter.
It’s a great opening, and a timeless sentiment. But it raised a question for me: where did the amazing phrase “chimeras dire” come from? After far too long digging into the question, I think I have an answer. As best I can tell, Jay’s most direct source was Milton:
… Thus roving on
In confus’d march forlorn, th’ adventrous Bands
With shuddring horror pale, and eyes agast
View’d first thir lamentable lot, and found
No rest: through many a dark and drearie Vaile
They pass’d, and many a Region dolorous,
O’er many a Frozen, many a fierie Alpe,
Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death,
A Universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable, and worse
Then Fables yet have feign’d, or fear conceiv’d,
Gorgons and Hydra’s, and Chimera’s dire. (Paradise Lost, book II, lines 614–28 (1667))
Jay’s “plots, conspiracies, and chimeras dire” is a playful reference to Milton. He is comparing the political intrigues around him to the monsters of Hell, emphasizing how much they have distracted him while also poking a little fun at them.
He wasn’t the only one to borrow the phrase from Milton. Here is Alexander Hamilton:
In reading many of the publications against the Constitution, a man is apt to imagine that he is perusing some ill-written tale or romance, which instead of natural and agreeable images, exhibits to the mind nothing but frightful and distorted shapes “Gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire’’; discoloring and disfiguring whatever it represents, and transforming everything it touches into a monster. (Federalist 29 (1788))
The quotation marks without a citation indicate that Hamilton trusts the reader to recognize the reference. And like his collaborator John Jay, Hamilton is using Milton for rhetorical contrast: his point here is that the Constitution will not breed monsters, and describing it in these exaggerated terms shows how silly such fears are. (Compare “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!,” from The Wizard of Oz.)
The English critic Charles Lamb used the phrase as well in his “Witches, and Other Night Fears”:
Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimæras – dire stories of Celæno and the Harpies – may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition – but they were there before. They are transcripts, types – the archetypes are in us, and eternal. How else should the recital of that, which we know in a waking sense to be false, come to affect us at all?
This too is straight out of Milton, this time without the quotation marks but with a sly repunctuation to make the “stories” dire, rather than the “Chimæras.” Again, not plagiarism, just the knowing use of a familiar phrase. So too in a New York Times headline from 1863 and a charming 1828 William Heath cartoon of the microorganisms in London’s water. And plenty of artists have found fruitful inspiration in Milton’s descriptions of Hell’s residents, from Gustave Doré’s woodcuts to Najeeb Tarzi’s 8-bit animated music video for White Flag’s “Delta Heavy.” More loosely, try this, from Rudolph Erich Raspe’s 1895 The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen:
Gigantic monster! leader of witches, crickets, and chimeras dire! know thou, that here before yon azure heaven the cause of truth, of valour, and of faith right pure shall ordeal counter try it!
But even if Milton is the common inspiration for modern chimeras dire, the trail goes further back. There is a similar passage in Virgil:
Multaque praeterea variarum monstra ferarum:
Centauri in foribus stabulant, Scyllaeque biformes,
et centumgeminus Briareus, ac belua Lernae
horrendum stridens, flammisque armata Chimaera,
Gorgones Harpyiaeque et forma tricorporis umbrae. (Aeneid, book 6, lines 285–89 (19 BCE))
In A.S. Kline’s translation, this is:
And many other monstrous shapes of varied creatures, are stabled by the doors, Centaurs and bi-formed Scylla, and hundred-armed Briareus, and the Lernean Hydra, hissing fiercely, and the Chimaera armed with flame, Gorgons, and Harpies, and the triple bodied shade, Geryon.
Virgil’s Chimaera is not quite “dire,” but there are Milton’s “Gorgons and Hydra’s, and Chimera’s.”
But wait, there’s more! Here is a passage from Plato’s Phaedrus:
ἐγὼ δέ, ὦ Φαῖδρε, ἄλλως μὲν τὰ τοιαῦτα χαρίεντα ἡγοῦμαι, λίαν δὲ δεινοῦ καὶ ἐπιπόνου καὶ οὐ πάνυ εὐτυχοῦς ἀνδρός, κατ᾽ ἄλλο μὲν οὐδέν, ὅτι δ᾽ αὐτῷ ἀνάγκη μετὰ τοῦτο τὸ τῶν Ἱπποκενταύρων εἶδος ἐπανορθοῦσθαι, καὶ αὖθις τὸ τῆς Χιμαίρας, καὶ ἐπιρρεῖ δὲ ὄχλος τοιούτων Γοργόνων καὶ Πηγάσων καὶ ἄλλων ἀμηχάνων πλήθη τε καὶ ἀτοπίαι τερατολόγων τινῶν φύσεων. (Phaedrus 229d–e (~370 BCE))
In the fairly literal 1925 translation by Harold N. Fowler, this is:
But I, Phaedrus, think such explanations are very pretty in general, but are the inventions of a very clever and laborious and not altogether enviable man, for no other reason than because after this he must explain the forms of the Centaurs, and then that of the Chimaera, and there presses in upon him a whole crowd of such creatures, Gorgons and Pegas, and multitudes of strange, inconceivable, portentous natures.
So Virgil, too, is riffing on themes that were far older than him, and like Milton in his day, Virgil arranges the details for poetic effect.
But our tale is not yet done, because here is Benjamin Jowett ’s widely-reprinted 19th-century translation of this passage from the Phaedrus:
Now I quite acknowledge that these allegories are very nice, but he is not to be envied who has to invent them; much labour and ingenuity will be required of him; and when he has once begun, he must go on and rehabilitate Hippocentaurs and chimeras dire. Gorgons and winged steeds flow in apace, and numberless other inconceivable and portentous natures.
“Dire” is not in Fowler’s translation, for a very good reason: it’s not in the Greek original. No, I think it is more likely that Jowett got the phrase from Milton. Maybe it was a quotation meant to be recognized as such, maybe it was more of a wink, maybe it was not even conscious – but I doubt that it was a coincidence.
At any rate, the fact that Jowett’s translation became the standard and most widely-available English translation of the Phaedrus has had another, surprising consequence. It sometimes lures the unwary reader into thinking that “chimeras dire” is a classical quotation that Jay and Hamilton would have been familiar with because they were familiar with the ancients. So here we have economist William F. Campbell of the conservative Philadelphia Society confidently but wrongly claiming that Hamilton in Federalist 29 is referring to the Phaedrus:
No reference is given for the quote about gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire. The most likely reference is Plato’s Phaedrus. Here Plato is discussing the story of Boreas and Orithyria and points out that both the allegorization of fables and their rationalistic debunking by scientific methods of criticism are a waste of time. (William F. Campbell, The Spirit of the Founding Fathers, 23 Modern Age 250 (1979))
It is true that this is what Plato is discussing. But this is not what Hamilton is discussing, because Hamilton is quoting Milton, not Plato. To be sure, Milton is referencing Virgil, who may have been echoing Plato. But the context in which these chimeras and their fellow monsters make their appearance is so radically different from Plato to Milton that Socrates’s argument about myth and philosophy has entirely dropped away. It seems like there is a connection because you will see “chimeras dire” if you open your Jowett translation of Plato. But Jowett was born thirteen years after Hamilton died, and he is the one who put the phrase in the Phaedrus.
We carry the past with us like a traveler’s phrasebook. However unfamiliar the streets we walk may seem to us, it serves as a reminder that others have been here before. They may not have had any better idea what they were doing than we do, but at least they left us something to say.
A big hat tip to historian Emily Sneff, whose toot on Jay’s letter sent me down this rabbit hole.
“How can it be permitted,” the pro-Jacobin Journal des Hommes libres has asked, that even though terror is the order of the day, “–… large amounts of false news circulate from the centre of Paris … and carry uncertainty into the minds of patriots and serenity into the souls of aristocrats?”
–Colin Jones, The Fall of Robespierre 146 (2021)