Few poems resonate in my mind as Cavafy’s “On the March to Sinope,” one of few of his historical poems that are set in Pontus. “I ask myself…”Cavafy, could you write History?’ he once said in an interview. “A hundred and twenty five voices tell me, ‘You could.” Rather than aiming for a comprehensive historical recount in his historical poems, he selectively focused on particular moments, figures, or events that intrigued him. This selective approach allowed him to delve deeply into the emotional and psychological aspects of historical occurrences, offering a more nuanced understanding.
It is thus that we join Mithridates V Euergetes, King of Pontus, on the march back to his capital of Sinope. He has, via an alliance with Rome, was with Pergamum and a series of dynastic marriages with the adjacent kingdom of Cappadocia, vastly increased the power of Pontus.
“Mithridates, glorious and powerful,
ruler of great cities,
master of strong armies and fleets,
on the march to Sinope took a route
through a remote part of the country
where a soothsayer lived.
Mithridates sent one of his officers
to ask the soothsayer how much more wealth,
how much more power, he’d accumulate in the future.”
When Cavafy refers to someone as glorious and powerful, we immediately pay attention. For the rise and fall of empires, and of potentates, the reflection on the nature of power and the inevitable decline that accompanies it is one of his main concerns, one that allows him to explore the transient nature of glory, the consequences of unchecked ambition, and the vulnerability of powerful entities. The listing of the kings’ attributes, as “ruler of great cities” and possessor of vast armies causes us from the outset to contemplate the inevitable passing of time, the impermanence of achievements, and the fading of human endeavours into obscurity.
In like fashion, the underlying theme of the march’s obscurity (“through a remote part of the country”) suggests a certain emptiness or futility in the pursuit of grandeur. This can be related to the idea that unchecked ambition, driven by greed for power and glory, may lead to ephemeral triumphs that eventually lose their lustre.
What does one make of Mithridates’ desire to learn how much more wealth and power he would accumulate in the future? On the one hand, it is self-evident through a self-aggrandising potentate bent on expansion and the acquisition of even more power, Cavafy’s treatment of ambition and greed can be seen as a commentary on the broader human condition, inviting readers to reflect on the consequences of unchecked desires and the impermanence of worldly pursuits.
On the other hand, Mithridates does not seem to take the prospect of acquiring knowledge of his fate all that seriously. After all, unlike Alexander the Great who travelled all the way to the remote Siwa Oasis in order to consult an oracle, Mithridates, at an equally remote location, disdains to visit the soothsayer and instead sends on of his officers. Significantly, Cavafy mentions the sending of the officer twice, stating: “He dispatched one of his officers,
then continued his march to Sinope.”
Strangely enough for a soothsayer, who makes his living from his prognostications, this particular practitioner of the art seems to be a bit cagey:
“The soothsayer withdrew into a secret room.
About a half an hour later he came out
troubled, and said to the officer:
“I wasn’t able to clarify things very well.
Today is not a propitious day—
there were some murky shadows, I didn’t understand them fully—.
But, I think, the king should be content with what he has.
Anything more will prove dangerous for him.
Remember, officer, to tell him that:
for God’s sake to be satisfied with what he has.
Fortune changes suddenly.”
The reason as to why the soothsayer felt the need to retreat to a ‘secret room,’ only to emerge in order to state the patently obvious is one of those wicked ironies that so characterise the historical perspective of Cavafy. You don’t really need a clairvoyant to reveal to you something that is easily accessible to all: that one should be happy with what one has and that the pursuit of power for power’s sake is a path fraught with danger, not in the least because you bound to prove an obstacle to those also bent on acquiring the same power, along the way.
Nonetheless, the soothsayer goes on to offer the officer a deeper insight:
“Tell King Mithridates this:
it’s extremely rare to come across anyone like his ancestor’s companion,
that noble companion who wrote in the earth with his lance
those timely words that saved him: ‘Flee, Mithridates.'”
Here the soothsayer is referring to the king’s ancestor, Mithridates I, the founder of the kingdom of Pontus. We learn from the historian Plutarch that: “Mithridates the son of Ariobarzanes was …. one of the courtiers of Antigonus, and though he neither was nor was held to be a base fellow, still, in consequence of a dream, Antigonus conceived a suspicion of him. Antigonus dreamed, namely, that he was traversing a large and fair field and sowing gold-dust. From this, to begin with, there sprang up a golden crop, but when he came back after a little while, he could see nothing but stubble. In his vexation and distress, he heard in his dream sundry voices saying that Mithridates had reaped the golden crop for himself and gone off to the Euxine Sea. Antigonus was much disturbed by this vision, and after he had put his son Demetrius under oath of silence, told it to him, adding that he had fully determined to destroy Mithridates and put him out of the way. On hearing this, Demetrius was exceedingly distressed, and when the young man, as was his wont, came to share his diversions with him, though he did not venture to open his lips on the matter or to warn him orally, because of his oath, he gradually drew him away from his friends, and when they were by themselves, with the sharp butt of his lance he wrote on the ground so that he could see it, “Flee, Mithridates.” Mithridates understood, and ran away by night to Cappadocia. And soon the vision of Antigonus was accomplished for him by fate. For Mithridates made himself master of a large and fair territory, and founded the line of Pontic kings…”
Few then, according to the soothsayer are granted the privilege of being warned of their impending doom in advance. Yet is not the soothsayer obliquely acting as Demetrius did, indicating the danger, while not expressly stating it?
The irony here is that for all the soothsayer’s warning, express or otherwise, we have no idea as to whether the officer managed to deliver the message in time, or indeed, whether having done so, Mithridates heeded it, misinterpreted it, or completely ignored it, for Cavafy’ chosen path here is one of silence, he presupposing that we are already privy to Mithridates’ fate: Arriving in his capital city of Sinope in triumph, he will attend a sumptuous banquet at which he will be poisoned, quite possibly at the behest of his wife Laodice, who some historians speculate, was either bribed by the Romans to do so, or was opposed to her husband’s policy of expansion.
So how does a king flee from those things that signify safety: a home, a wife, a family? Cavafy’s ultimate sardonicism lies in the fact that often it is often those things that make us happy that we have then and which we hold most dear to us that can betray us, especially when they share our vices. For Cavafy would have known that upon achieving the regency of Pontus, Laodice’s extravagance would impoverish Pontus, render her a compliant client of Rome and cause her son Mithridates the Great to imprison her, she dying in her cell. Mithridates the Great of course, would follow in the footsteps of his father, his lust for power and dominion leading to the disastrous Mithridatic Wars against Rome that would far-reaching consequences for the Greek world: social and economic disruptions, changes in governance, the consolidation of Roman power, and the decline of the independence of Greek city-states and kingdoms.
The key, if there is one, may lie in a single word: ευγενής, usually translated as ‘noble’ but literally meaning “well born.” Must one be well born, and thus not a scion of the Mithridatic scion of venal vipers in order to be possessed of the insight necessary to know when one must not overreach oneself, that enough is enough and that too much is too much because that is what too much means? Possibly, but since fortune, as Cavafy, through the soothsayer is fickle and subject to sudden change, maybe the soothsayers’ admonition signifies that we should be happy with our vices as well as our virtues, for no amount of one, or the other may guard against our luck turning. Perchance to believe otherwise, is to be fortune’s fool indeed.