Luke Worthy

‘Not the Same River’: Imagining the Poets of Ancient Ephesus

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus

Recently, I spent a day at the ancient city of Ephesus – the ruins of which now lie in the Izmir Province of modern-day Turkey. Very little remains of the city as it once was, and even less so of what existed before the Romans took control of the city in 129BC and built their customary bathhouses – filled with chic mosaics and city latrines. Passing through the ticket barrier, a little lizard scurried along a fallen column and into the shade and I knew I would find poetry inside.

I took in the view – what was once the Roman Basilica is now only a few ionic pillars, jutting from the earth like snapped rhubarb. The main street is accessed through the Hercules Gate, where the demigod holds the head of the Nemean lion to his crotch, and with those same stone eyes that have been open for centuries, it watches countless travellers pass by beneath. I looked around and saw the same intense expression of concentration on every face as they tried to imagine what once was. As much as we visit these ruins to see all that is left, I realised that we are also drawn to the absence, to that which is no longer, to the absence that pulls on our imagination. As our minds tried to rebuild  missing roofs, to conjure the ghosts who still walk these streets, the merchants setting up shop in the old agora, the trickle of water in courtyard fountains, my mind turned to poetry.

Just like Ephesus, a city built by Greek colonists in the 10th Century BCE, very little remains of the poetry that circulated during these times. Anyone familiar with Ancient Greek poetry will know that what we do have has survived only by chance – and even then, in fragments, and through scholarly reconstruction. This is of course particularly true for the poetry that preceded the invention of the Greek alphabet – its rhythms and rhymes aiding the poet during its oral recitation. But whilst in contemporary times ancient poetry is seldom read, it is still a major part of poetry’s evolutionary journey. Invoking such an ancient past can bring the present into perspective – that what started all those centuries ago has changed, but not entirely. 

The poetry that has survived is in part thanks to, poet and collector, Meleager of Gadara. In the 1st Century BCE, Meleager began to compile epigrams from 46 Greek Poets spanning the Classical and Byzantine periods of Greek Literature. He named this collection Anthologia, and in the preface compared this collection of poems to a garland of flowers. In Greek, anthos = flower, whilst logia = collection – and so our concept of anthology is rooted in this first compilation of Greek poetry, the Greek Anthology. 

When we speak of ‘Ancient Greece’, we are referring to a loose network of city states that stretched across the Mediterranean. It was the job of poets to travel between these cities, providing entertainment and storytelling that ultimately tried to preserve a Pan-Hellenic culture that would unify and bind these cities together. In Homer’s Odyssey, the title given to the poet was the ‘divine singer’. Yet as Greece began to embrace democracy as a form of governance, poets began to move away from writing about the divine and from God-centred views of the world favour of exploring the self. What did it mean to be human, and to feel pleasure? 

Cities would bestow great gifts to the foreign poets they received, such as tax exemption and even plots of land. Poets travelled to cities in order to perform, motivated by the desire to share their poetry with the world. Often, they would invoke local history and traditions to please their audiences, as well as receiving commissions along their intercity journey. The court of powerful rulers attracted a lot of poetic talent, as wealthy elites desired laudations and well understood what a poet could do: enshrine them in history. It is at this court where the poets would enjoy a permanent or semi-permanent residency.

Of course, residencies are something contemporary poets still partake in (I’m writing this as part of my (digital) residency). And whilst the ways in which a poet shares and writes their work has certainly changed, modern poetry expends from this history following similar routes with competitions, festivals, performances, and commissions. Ancient Greek poets would travel miles to attend festivals held at major sanctuaries and would perform at annual competitions across the Hellenic world. One of the biggest competitions at this time, perhaps comparable to the Booker or Pulitzer, was the annual competition in Dionysia. Around an altar of the God Dionysus, a group of fifty competitors would sing and dance in a circle, performing a ‘circular chorus’. First place would bag you a new bull and a tripod dedicated to Dionysus. Second, a nice amphora of wine, and third prize would be a humble goat. 

As I walked through Ephesus that day, I tried to imagine the poets that would stand on street corners, and the throng of crowds jostling to hear them. Ephesus’s most well-known poet, Hipponax, was reportedly exiled from the city. His poetry, as scholar Schmidt details, wrote about the human body at its most vulgar, with a poetic obsession with excrement, food, sex, and cruising. And through the same gates that I walked past, Hipponax will have been thrown out of the city, and most of his poems lost to the ether.

Ephesus was once home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. It is this that is perhaps the hardest thing to conjure as a tourist – a monumental temple unlike any other in history, all made of marble. When the poet Antipater of Sidon passed through Ephesus on his travels, he remarked:

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.”

It was only during the 1860s when archaeologists found ruins of the temple in the Cayster river. It was when I read this that I made an anachronistic connection to Heraclitus’s quote, a famous philosopher emerging from Ephesus in 500 BCE. He wrote that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” I find the meaning of this message beautiful and all-encompassing of the human condition. Change is perhaps the only constant that we have – our minds, bodies, our surroundings, our learning, our journey through life. We will never experience the same moment again, and as we change throughout our life, so will we experience things differently. Poetry, too, has undoubtedly changed from ancient times, but it is all poetry from the same river of human development. It is not the same river with the same fish, and certainly not the same legs that wade into its waters, but perhaps the impulse and currents of the river have remained the same, and life continues to be made and move through it. And if this reflection has strived for anything, it’s to not forget the ruins that are buried beneath the riverbed.

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