The Sultans’ Glasswork


Quotations from Charalambides’ poems are from D. Connolly’s translation, Kyriakos Charalambides, Myths and History, Minneapolis 2010.

Ancient Greek quotations are from H. W. Smyth, Aeschylus I: Suppliant Maidens, Persians, Prometheus, Seven Against Thebes, Loeb Classical Library 145, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London 1973.


The poem dwells upon Xerxes’ expedition against Greece during the Persian Wars. In reality, however, it provides the springboard for the treatment of wider issues, such as the perception of the Other (through the polar Greek-Barbarian), cultural relativity, and ethnic prejudices. The expedition is introduced in an ironical way and is cast as Xerxes’ desire to ‘study the Greeks from the original’. 


Lines 4-9

His first step was to fit

the sea – the high sea – into his ships

to clothe it in a fleece of land

that would be furrowed by red

wrought wheels, studded with precious

stones: jasper, agate, enamel.

An allusion to Xerxes’ insolent attempt to bridge the Hellespont using his ships, as this is described in Aeschylus’ Persians 65-72, 722, 745-50.


Lines 16-19

He had them bind the insubordinate sea;

stripped her to the navel and lashed her

with impassioned excitement, pouring

unadulterated words from a cup.

The whipping and binding of the Hellespont allude to the story accounted by Herodotus in Book 7.35. According to him, in his attempt to bridge the Hellespont Xerxes had his men build a bridge. As soon as the bridge was finished it was destroyed by a storm. In order to ‘punish’ the water, Xerxes asked his soldiers to strike the sea with 300 whipping stokes and to throw into it a pair of fetters. The reference to Xerxes’ ‘unadulterated words’ (ἄχραντους λόγους) is an ironic comment on Herodotus’ remark that during the punishment the Persian king even ordered the scourgers to utter outlandish and arrogant words while inflicting their punishment.


Lines 20-26

Greeks who understand nothing

of glass sacrifices and extravagant works

misinterpreted as hubris, as a transgression

of their tragic measure. And they claimed

in the cavea of their theaters that we

(the Greeks that is) are supposedly

no one’s subjugated slaves.

Even though prima facie Charalambides seems to refer to the ‘glasswork of the Sultans’, the reference to their ‘hubris’ and transgression are implicit allusions to the way in which Xerxes’ attempt to bridge the Hellespont was interpreted and presented by the Greeks, more specifically by Aeschylus in his Persians and by Herodotus in his Histories, that is as an insolent and hubristic act justly punished by the gods.



Lines 4-5

Tὸ πρῶτο βῆμα του ἦταν νὰ χωρέσει

τὴ θάλασσα − τὸν πόντο − στὰ καράβια του∙

(The first step was to fit the sea −the high sea − into his ships)

Τhe emphatic placement of the term πόντος in the middle of the verse is not fortuitous; it rather serves as a verbatim allusion to Aeschylus’ Persians 71-72: πολύγομφον ὅδισμα / ζυγὸν ἀμφιβαλὼν αὐχένι πόντου (by casting a stout-clamped roadway as a yoke upon the neck of the deep).










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