Sunday, June 14, 2015

On the Golden Age


The highway to Korkuteli, Turkey descends from the Taurus Mountains and crosses the Xanthus River. A hundred yards away from the modern bridge there is an old Ottoman arch mostly collapsed and itself built over the span of a fallen Roman bridge. Some of the piers of the Roman bridge are embedded in the sandy slope of the river bank. A slab of marble carved with Latin letters proclaims that the bridge at Oenoanda was built in the reign of the Emperor Claudius for the use of Roman legions.

The ancient site is above on a hill overlooking the river. Wooded ravines cut through the slope. The highest point of the hill is striated, a quarry with innumerable chalk white terraces that are the eroded benches in a semicircular amphitheater. Some heavy and crude walls fortify the perimeter of the town; the walls have slumped into pyramidal heaps of broken stone. Within the walls, a couple of graceful arches pierced by pine trees stand in the crushed rock. Some metal huts are half-hidden in the woods, their steel doors padlocked – the blocks containing the famous inscription of Oenoanda are protected in those sheds.

From the amphitheater, you can look to the nearby ridges black with evergreen trees and, then, beyond to the bigger mountains with their stony, barren heights. In this part of Turkey, the hills are made of yellowish gravel, overgrazed by sheep and goats so that the pebbly stone is everywhere, slipping and sliding in little dusty avalanches into the ravines. A small Turkish village occupies a knoll above a bend in the river – the town shimmers in the heat and looks indistinct, blurry, impoverished.

During the reign of Hadrian, a wealthy man in Oenoanda purchased a part of the marketplace in the town. The man, whose name was Diogenes, tore down the vendor’s stalls and the little huts along one side of the market and erected a long stoa – that is, a colonnade supporting a timber ceiling capped by a peaked sloping roof. In the shade of the stoa, almost the length of a football field, Diogenes erected a wall engraved with an inscription. This wall incised with Greek characters was the longest inscription in ancient world, 12 feet high and 240 feet long. Diogenes was a follower of Epicurus and the inscription was erected as a "healing drug," a pharmakon, for the plague of ignorance afflicting the world, a "medicine to bring salvation." The inscription is medicine

...not least for those who are called foreigners, for they are not foreigners. For, while the various segments of the Earth give different people a different country, the whole compass of this world gives all people a single country, the entire Earth, and a single home, the world.
Diogenes’ inscription is thought to have contained 25,000 words, all of them derived from the writings of Epicurus. The Epicurean texts cut into the rock are various: critiques of Plato, descriptions of physics, a vivid account of a shipwreck survived by Epicurus when he traveled by sea to Lampechus, treatises on law and ethics, an essay on old age, as well as letters to the philosopher’s disciples. Epicurus was an atheist who followed Democritus in believing that the world was made from atoms and the void. His ethic was that men should live for pleasure and avoid harming others. Death was not to be feared because it was a return to the state of inchoate atoms from which we arise. The Epicurean perspective on death is summarized in the Latin expression: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo – that is, "Wasn’t there, Was there, Ceased to be, I don’t care."

On several blocks formerly part of Diogenes’ massive inscription, Epicurus tells us that if men will follow his precepts the Golden Age will return to Earth. Boundaries and walls will fall into disuse and armies will be disbanded. The law will pass away and men will live according to the precepts of uncorrupted reason. Death will occur without pain – men will lie down in green pastures and simply fall asleep to awaken no more. Their food will be fruits falling ripe from trees that require no husbandry. According to Epicurus, "the men of the Golden Age will dwell in ease and peace. War will cease to exist."

The mighty inscription is fragmentary today. The large blocks onto which it has been carved have been quarried from the massive ruined wall surrounding the city. In the third century A.D., the heavy stone blocks making up the inscription were dragged from the stoa and made the foundations of the great wall built to defend the city from marauding Goths.

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