Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Iniquity of Oblivion

In a famous and beautiful paragraph in his Hydriotophia, Or Urne Buriall, Sir Thomas Browne writes:

'But the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but pity the founder of the pyramids? Herostratus lives that burnt the temple of Diana, he is almost lost that built it. Time hath spared the epitaph of Adrian’s horse, confounded that of himself. In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names, since bad have equal durations, and Thersites is like to live as long as Agamemnon without the favour of the everlasting register. Who knows whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, than any that stand remembered in the known account of time? The first man had been as unknown as the last, and Methuselah’s long life had been his only chronicle.'

As it happens, today is the anniversary of the infamous burning down in 356BC of the great temple of Artemis [Diana] at Ephesus, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. The name of the arsonist Herostratus lives on, yes, but despite the best efforts of the horrified Greeks, who decreed that it should never be mentioned again, under pain of death. The historian Theopompus ignored this, and so Herosrtatus's name has come down to us - as, incidentally, has that of the architect. He was a Cretan called Chersiphron, assisted by his son Metagenes. Like Herostratus, they are known for but one thing.

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