Dear reader, yesterday Rome turned 2,766 years old, and as every year ALL civic museums were free.
After visiting several interesting places, we ended up at the Museo Civico di Roma, a museum which is currently hosting a beautiful collection of war photos in Sudan and Iraq and Greek paintings. My favourite, The Judgement of Paris by Francesco Podesti, hosted at Palazzo Braschi. This simple act of judgement provoked one of the most beautiful tales ever: The Iliad, or Song of Ilion, by Homer.
Paris was a handsome young man and goat herder with a very interesting past.
His true name was Alexandros, and he was the youngest child of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. But the poor child had a terrible older sister, Cassandra, who as soon as he was born started shouting “Troy will burn! Kill him!”.
As Priam knew his daughter was blessed with the gift of prophecy, he considered that the safety of his realm was too important, and so one night he left the new born baby on a cliff of Mt. Ida hoping that wolves or whatever angry animal looking for a meal would eat the baby. However, Cassandra had already spoken and Troy was doomed, so the fatherly gesture didn’t help save precious Troy in the future: Alexandros was found by Agelaus, who took him along and named him Paris (Greek for ‘warrior’ or ‘backpack’, I disagree with the first one as Paris was quite the coward).
Now, we know Cassandra was quirky but she did in fact predict the fall of the city very accurately, in fact she knew how it would have been destroyed and by whom. The problem with Cassandra, however, is what happened several years after she predicted the fall of Troy: Cassandra, gifted and all that, refused to lie with Apollo. So one day the God, angered by such refusal, spit in her mouth and turned her blessed gift into a curse that would make Cassandra’s divinations never to be believed by anybody. Unlucky family for Ecuba and Priam.
One sunny day however, Paris was herding his goats on Mt. Ida. He was unaware that on a different mountain, Mt. Olympus, a very significant event was taking place, an event that would have soon claim Paris’ role in the biggest war of all time.
On Mt. Olympus that day something very unusual was happening: for the first time, the Twelve Olympic gods were celebrating the joyous union of a mortal and an immortal, Peleus and Thètis. Normally the gods wouldn’t never attend weddings involving mortals, but this was a special case.
Thètis and Peleus wanted the perfect wedding, which means: “We want all the gods to be witnesses of our joyous union, we want to have our wedding on Mr. Olympus with a glorious feast and we certainly don’t want anything to go wrong, so Eris, we are sorry but you’re not invited”. Eris, Goddess of Discord, Contention, Provocations and many more, was certainly hurt. But she decided to keep her name up with honor and mess up the wedding celebration by doing what she does best: she rolled on the banquet table a beautiful Golden Apple with imprinted “To the most beautiful”.
Aphrodite and Hera, quite rightly, jumped at it. Athenae, Goddess of Wisdom, Strategy, Intelligence and many more attributes, also raced to the get the Apple, but since she was known for other reasons (kind of like ‘inside beauty is what really matters’) and frankly she was not that pretty, I still wonder why she jumped too.
Zeus was quite the coward too and didn’t dare to assign the Apple to one of them, plus his wife Hera was fiercely jealous, so it was better to skip trouble and designate someone else to be the impartial beauty judge.
The choice went to Paris, an honest goat herder blessed with a simple uncomplicated life who was probably napping under a tree while his goats roamed around.
Hérmes led the three goddesses to the unfortunate fellow and let him judge who was the fairest. As soon as they found the doomed boy Hérmes gave the introductory speech (from Robert Graves’ book The Greek Myths):
‘Paris, since you are as handsome as you are wise in affairs of the heart, Zeus commands you to judge which of these goddesses is the fairest.’
Paris accepted the apple doubtfully. He first thought to divide the Golden Apple in three identical parts, but such thing was not allowed so he proceeded by asking the three goddesses to disrobe so that he could judge them. Before they did so, he said ‘But first I beg the losers not to be vexed with me. I am only a human being, liable to make the stupidest mistakes.’ Sure, like that was going to save him from the avengers…
Aphrodite was quickly undressed, Hera followed right up and Athenae was the last one (she had a helmet and armor, so it took longer to undress).
Hera was the first one to speak and try to bribe him:
‘Examine me conscientiously,’ said Hera, turning slowly around, and displaying her magnificent figure,’ and remember that if you judge me the fairest, I will make you lord of all Asia, and the richest man alive.’
Poor Paris, knew nothing about glory and war ambitions so he kindly refused the offer.
Athenae was next:
‘Listen, Paris, if you have enough common sense to award me the prize, I will make you victorious in all your battles, as well as the handsomest and wisest man in the world.’
He didn’t know what wars and wisdom were either, so another monumental offer was kindly turned down.
Then last but not least, Aphrodite. She approached Paris so closely that he immediately blushed:
‘Look carefully, please, pass nothing over. … By the way, as soon as I saw you, I said to myself:’ ‘Upon my word, there goes the handsomest young man in Phrygia! Why does he waste himself here in the wilderness herding stupid cattle? “Well, why do you, Paris? Why not move into a city and lead a civilized life? What have you to lose by marrying someone like Helen of Sparta, who is as beautiful as I am, and no less passionate? I am convinced that, once you two have met, she will abandon her home, her family, everything, to become your mistress. Surely you have heard of Helen?’
Paris immediately said ‘you have all my attention’ and asked for a description of Helen. Aphrodite knew to manage situations like this one very well as she masters all matters of love. It was easy: she basically described herself by adding the “human” factor, and boom! Paris was convinced and awarded her the Golden Apple!
The scene of Aphrodite’s moment of victory
For more information on beautiful Greek Myths:
Robert Graves (1957, 1960) The Greek Myths in two volumes, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. pp.270-272.