Tuesday, May 22, 2012


His name has been mentioned already a couple of times: Sotades reportedly wrote some of the first palindromes.

Sotades was an Ancient Greek poet, living in the third century before Christ. He lived in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285 BC-246 BC). Ptolemy II was born in Kos in about 309 BC. As a youth, he enjoyed the best tutors. The practice of getting the best scholars or poets available to educate the crown prince was something that Ptolemy II's father (also called Ptolemy, which explains the II in his son's name), had the occasion to observe in Macedonia, where the young Alexander was taught by no less a figure than Aristotle himself. Ptolemy II and his father set up the Alexandrian University and Library, and attracted the most learned men of the times to Alexandria. Ptolemy II provided these scholars with a life free from want and taxes, allowing them to study, write, perform research, and lecture in their respective disciplines.

Ptomely II was married to Arsinoe (I), and got three children with her. He had also a sister called Arsinoe (II), who was married to a Greek king. Sister Arsinoe was a scheming woman. She had the oldest son of her husband, by a different woman, murdered to position her own children for the throne. When her husband was killed in the battle that ensued after the widow of the murdered son fled to a neighboring country, she married her half-brother (also called Ptolemy), who claimed the same throne as her husband had had. When her new husband became too powerful, she and her sons conspired against him. They were found out. Two sons got killed, and she and her eldest son (also called Ptolemy) fled to her full brother Ptolemy II in Egypt. In Eqypt she managed to get rid of Ptolemy's first wife Arsinoe I by accusing her of conspiring against her husband. Arsinoe I was sent in exile, and Arsinoe II married her brother.

Alexandria not only attracted scholars, but also poets and satirists, such as Sotades. One of his poems attacked Ptolemy II's marriage to his sister Arsinoe, from which came the infamous line: "You're sticking your prick in an unholy hole." For this, Sotades was imprisoned, but he escaped to the island of Kaunos, where he was captured by Ptolemy's admiral, shut up in a leaden chest, and thrown into the sea.

Sotades wrote obscene verses, in particular about the love between an older man and an adolescent boy. He invented his own metre for such verses, the sotadic metre. This metre spread around the world, and was used by other satirists to hint at an obscene or satirical interpretation. For example, Ennius wrote his `Sota' already in the same century in southern Italy. Sotades' verses could be read both forwards and backwards, where the backwards reading was the same, or contained an obscene interpretation. Unfortunately, none of the palindromic verses of Sotades survived.

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