Egyptians: Attic vase paintings, Isocrates and others on king Bousiris and human sacrifice (fifth century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: Attic vase paintings, Isocrates and others on king Bousiris and human sacrifice (fifth century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 24, 2023,

Ancient authors: Pherekydes of Athens, Genealogies, as cited in the scholia to Apollonius of Rhodes’ Voyage of the Argo; Panyassis (fifth century BCE), as cited by Seleukos who was cited by Athenaios, Sophists at Dinner 4.172d; Herodotos (mid-fifth century BCE), Inquiries 2.1.43-45; Eratosthenes (third century BCE), as cited by Strabo, Geography 17.1.19; Diodoros (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 1.17 and 1.88; Dio of Prusa (first century CE), Oration 8.27-36; Pseudo-Apollodoros (second century CE), Library 2.5.11; Isocrates (early fourth century BCE), Bousiris, or Busiris, entire work.

Comments: One of the most lasting negative characterizations of Egyptians as an uncivilized people comes in the form of Greek stories about king Bousiris (Busiris) and Egyptian human sacrifice. Beginning in the fifth century BCE, vase-paintings, mythological works, inquiries,

Attic red-figure vase found at Vulci with Herakles killing king Bousiris and Egyptian attendants wearing Egyptian robes (ca. 480 BCE), now in the München Staatliche Antikensammlungen, inv. 2428. Photo by ArchaiOptix (CC BY-SA 4.0).

geographical works, and now lost comedic plays refer to a circulating myth about an encounter with king Bousiris in Egypt during Herakles’ journey. The basic story that is visible on several fifth century BCE Attic vase paintings (such as the one found at Vulci to your right) is that, once in Bousiris’ domain in Egypt, Herakles is captured and led to be sacrificed on an altar because the Egyptians in Bousiris’ realm customarily engage in sacrificing foreigners. (Later the notion of a famine adds more urgency to this particular sacrifice). But Herakles escapes, killing Bousiris and others involved and, presumably putting an end to this terrible rite. On the vase here, the soon-to-be killed Egyptians are portrayed somewhat uniformly with Egyptian robes and bald heads in the manner of a Greek perception of Egyptian priests. Herakles, wearing his typical lion skin, attacks in front of the altar.

As you can see further below, the literary references to Bousiris’ or Egyptians’ performance of human sacrifice also begins in the fifth century. Brief references to Pherekydes’ and Panyassis’ retellings find their early counterpoint in Herodotos, who does not believe the Greek legends, but also does not expressly name Bousiris.

Later passages in Dio of Prusa (first century CE) and Apollodoros (second century CE) show how the Bousiris story could be incorporated (sometimes immediately following Libyan adventures) within a larger sequence of Herakles’ supposed achievements, particularly in relation to foreign rulers. Numerous other sources not gathered here likewise reflect a similar narrative pattern.

The final and most extensive source presented below is perhaps the most intriguing of all: The fourth century BCE Athenian rhetorician and educator Isocrates twists the usual Greek legend in order to demonstrate how to write a good praising speech and a good defensive speech without mixing up what properly belongs in either type of speech. Here he is responding in an ironic manner to a speech of one Polykrates who evidently and humourously (to me, not Isocrates) attempted to defend Bousiris while nonetheless maintaining the more horrendous charges of the usual legend. One need only look at some other passages in Isocrates to realize that Isocrates’ playful use of Bousiris here is not at all meant to offer a positive portrayal of barbarians generally (link). Nonetheless, Isocrates’ style of praising the wise Egyptian king Bousiris for introducing a superior society along with major civilizational advancements draws on the trope of the wise barbarian, even if Isocrates doesn’t believe it for a moment (see category four).

Works consulted: N. Livingstone, A Commentary on Isocrates’ Busiris (Leiden: Brill, 2001); T.L. Papillon, “Isocrates and the Use of Myth,” Hermathena 161 (1996): 9–21 (link); P. Vasunia, The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Source of the translations: Translations by Harland, except: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25); H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932); J.W. Cohoon and H.L. Crosby, Dio Chrysostom, 5 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1939-51), public domain (for volumes 1-2, Cohoon passed away in 1946; for volumes 3-5, Crosby passed away in 1954); L. van Hook, Isocrates, 3 vols., LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1928), public domain (passed away in 1953), all adapted by Harland.


Pherekydes of Athens, Genealogies (ca. 460 BCE)

[Mention of the legend of Herakles with killing of Bousiris who engaged in sacrificing foreigners]

[In the context of Herakles’ journey to find the apples of Hesperides, after passing through Libya:] Herakles reaches the Nile in Memphis near Bousiris (or: Busiris), son of Poseidon, whom he kills along with Bousiris’ son Iphidamas, the herald Chalbes, and the attendants near the altar of Zeus where Bousiris murders foreigners.


Panyassis (fifth century BCE)

[Mention of a poetic account of the legend of human sacrifice among Egyptians]

Seleukos [of Alexandria, first century CE] says that Panyassis was the first to mention the offering of cakes in the stories he relates concerning human sacrifice among the Egyptians.


Herodotos, Inquiries 2.1.43-45 (ca. 420 BCE)

[Rejection of Greek legends of Egyptian human sacrifice]

Concerning Herakles, I heard it said that he was one of the twelve gods. But I could nowhere in Egypt hear anything concerning the other Herakles, whom the Greeks know. I have indeed many proofs that the name of Herakles did not come from Greece to Egypt, but from Egypt to Hellas. . .  But among the many poorly considered tales told by the Greeks, this is a very foolish story which they relate about Herakles: how when he came to Egypt, the Egyptians crowned him and led him out in a procession to sacrifice him to Zeus. For a while, they say, he followed quietly, but when they began the first rites of sacrifice upon him at the altar, he resisted and killed them all. Now it seems to me that by this story the Greeks show themselves completely ignorant of the character and customs of the Egyptians. For how would those who are forbidden from sacrificing even lower animals (except swine, bulls, and bull-calves, if they be unblemished, and geese) actually sacrifice humans? Moreover, Herakles being alone, and still but a man, as they say, how is it natural that he should slay a countless multitude? So much I say of this matter. May no god or hero be displeased with me as a result!


Eratosthenes (third century BCE)

[Rejection of the common Greek legend of Bousiris]

According to Eratosthenes, the expulsion of foreigners is a custom common to all barbarians. Yet the Egyptians are condemned for this fault because of the myths which have been circulated about Bousiris (or: Busiris) in connection with the Bousirite district (nome). Later writers falsely want to malign the inhospitality of this place even though – my Zeus – no king or tyrant named Bousiris ever existed. Eratosthenes says that the poet’s words – “to go to Egypt, long and painful journey” [Homer, Odyssey 4.483] – are also constantly cited in this connection with the lack of harbours contributing considerably to this opinion. Added to this is the fact that even the harbour which Egypt did have, the one at Pharos, gave no access but was guarded by bandits (lēstai) who were cowherds (boukoloi) who attacked those who tried to bring ships to anchor there.


Diodoros (mid-first century BCE)

[Another Bousiris as Osiris’ successor]

(1.17) Now after Osiris had established the affairs of Egypt and turned the supreme power over to Isis his wife, they say that he placed Hermes at her side as counsellor because his prudence raised him above the king’s other friends, and as general of all the land under his sway he left Herakles, who was both his kinsman and renowned for his courage and physical strength. As governors, he appointed Bousiris over those parts of Egypt which lie towards Phoenicia and border upon the sea, and Antaeus over those adjoining Ethiopia and Libya.

[Common misinformation about Egypt and Bousiris]

(1.88) The sacred bulls — I refer to the Apis and the Mneuis — are honoured like the gods, as Osiris commanded, both because of their use in farming and also because the fame of those who discovered the fruits of the earth is handed down by the labours of these animals to succeeding generations for all time. Red oxen, however, may be sacrificed, because it is thought that this was the colour of Typhon, who plotted against Osiris and was then punished by Isis for the death of her husband. (5) Men also, if they were of the same colour as Typhon, were sacrificed, they say, in ancient times by the kings at the tomb of Osiris. However, only a few Egyptians are now found red in colour,​ but the majority of such are non-Egyptians, and this is why the story spread among the Greeks of the slaying of foreigners by Bousiris (or: Busiris), although Bousiris was not the name of the king but of the tomb of Osiris, which is called that in the language of the land.


Dio of Prusa (late first century CE)

[Bousiris in the context of the feats of Herakles in relation to foreign rulers, including the eating contest]

[Diogenes the Cynic speaking about facing hardships and combatting vices:]

(8.27-36) “This is the contest which I [character of Diogenes] steadfastly maintain​ and in which I  risk my life against pleasure and hardship. Yet not a single wretched mortal pays attention to me, but only to the jumpers, runners and dancers. In fact, men did not pay attention to the struggles and labours of Herakles or have any interest in them, but perhaps even then they were admiring certain athletes such as Zetes,​ Kalais,​ Peleus,​ and other similar runners and wrestlers. . . [omitted several sentences]. Herakles, however, roamed over all of Europe and Asia, though he did not look at all like any of these athletes. Where could he have gone had he carried so much flesh or required so much meat or drink into such depths of sleep? No, he was as alert and lean like a lion, with keen eyes and ears, ignoring cold or heat, having no use for a bed, blanket, or rug, dressed in a dirty skin, with an air of hunger about him, as he helped good people and punished bad people. Because Diomedes​ the Thracian wore such fine clothing, sat upon a throne drinking the entire day partying, treated strangers unrighteously as well as his own subjects, and kept a large stable, Herakles hit him with his club and smashed him as if he had been an old jar. Then Geryones,​ who had so many cattle and was the richest of all western rulers [in Iberia] and the most arrogant, he also killed along with his brothers and drove his cattle away. When he found Bousiris (or: Busiris) very diligently training, eating the whole day long, and exceeding proud of his wrestling, Herakles burst him open like an over-filled bag by dashing him to the ground. He loosed the girdle of the Amazon [queen Hippolyte],​ who tried to flirt with him and thought to win by means of her beauty. For he both consorted with her and made her understand that he could never be overcome by beauty and would never delay far away from his own possessions for a woman’s sake. And Prometheus,​ whom I take to have been a sort of sophist, he found being destroyed by popular opinion. For his liver swelled and grew whenever he was praised and shrivelled again when he was censured. So Herakles took pity on Prometheus, frightened . . , and thus relieved him of his vanity and inordinate ambition. Immediately he disappeared after making him whole.”

“Now in all those exploits he was not doing a favour to Eurystheus [an athlete] at all. And as to the golden apples that Herakles got and brought back – I mean those of the Hesperides [in Libya] – he did give them to him, since he had no use for them himself, but told him to keep them and go hang; for he explained that apples of gold are of no use to a man, nor had the Hesperides, found them to be useful either. Then, finally, when Herakles was growing ever slower and weaker, from fear that he would not be able to live as before, and besides, I suppose, because he was attacked by some disease, he made the best provision that was humanly possible for himself: he prepared a funeral pyre of the very driest wood in the courtyard and showed that he couldn’t care less about the fiery heat. But before that, to avoid creating the opinion that he did only impressive and mighty deeds, he went and removed and cleaned away the dung in the Augean stables,​ that immense accumulation of many years. For he considered that he should fight stubbornly and war against opinion​ as much as against wild beasts and wicked men.”

While Diogenes spoke like this, many stood around and listened to his words with great pleasure. Then, possibly with this thought of Herakles​ in his mind [i.e. the shitty stable], he stopped speaking and, squatting on the ground, performed indecent actions. At this the crowd immediately scorned him and called him crazy. Once again the sophists raised their racket, like frogs in a pond when they do not see the water-snake.


Pseudo-Apollodoros (second century CE)

[Bousiris episode in the context of the feats of Herakles]

After Libya, Herakles passed through Egypt. Bousiris (or: Busiris) son of Poseidon and Lysianassa daughter of Epaphos were reigning over this region. Bousiris used to sacrifice foreigners (xenoi) on an altar of Zeus in keeping with an oracle. For a famine had happened in the land of Egypt for nine years, and Phrasios, a skilled diviner (mantis) who had come from Cyprus, said that the famine would come to an end if they slaughtered a male foreigner in honour of Zeus every year. Bousiris began by slaughtering the diviner himself, and continued to slaughter foreigners who landed there. So Herakles was arrested and dragged to the altars, but he broke free of his bonds and killed both Bousiris and his son Amphidamas [alternative to Iphidamas, as in Pherekydes].


Isocrates, Bousiris (380s-370s BCE)

[Challenging Polykrates’ approach to education through written speeches]

I have learned of your fairness, Polykrates, and of the reversal in your life, through information from others. After reading some of your discourses, I should have been greatly pleased to discuss frankly with you and fully the education with which you have been obligated to occupy yourself. For I believe that when men through no fault of their own are unfortunate and so seek in philosophy a source of gain, it is the duty of all who have had a wider experience in that occupation and have become more thoroughly versed in it, to make this contribution voluntarily for their benefit. (2) But since we have not yet met one another, we will be able, if we ever do meet, to discuss the other topics at greater length.

Concerning those suggestions, however, by which at the present time I might be of service to you, I have thought I should advise you by letter, though concealing my views, to the best of my ability, from everyone else. I am well aware, however, that it is instinctive with most people, when corrected, not to notice the benefits they receive. On the contrary, they tend to listen to what is said with the greater displeasure in proportion to how emphatically their critic reviews their faults. Nevertheless, those who are well disposed toward any persons must not hesitate from incurring such resentment. Instead, they must try to effect a change in the opinion of those who feel this way toward those who offer them advice.

[Critique of Polykrates’ confusion of praising and defensive rhetoric]

Therefore, after noticing that you take special pride in your Defense of Bousiris and in your Accusation of Socrates, I will try to make it clear to you that in both these discourses you have fallen far short of what the subject demands. Everyone knows that those who want to praise a person must attribute to that person a larger number of good qualities than he really possesses and accusers must do the contrary.

[Hints of Polykrates’ adaptations of existing Bousiris legends]

(5) Yet you have so far fallen short of following these principles of rhetoric that, though you profess to defend Bousiris (or: Busiris), you have not only failed to absolve him of the charge with which he is attacked, but have even imputed to him a lawlessness of such enormity that it is impossible for one to invent wickedness more atrocious. For the other writers whose aim was to malign him went only so far in their abuse as to charge him with sacrificing the foreigners who came to his country. However, you accused him of actually devouring his victims. And when your purpose was to accuse Socrates, as if you wished to praise him, you gave Alcibiades to him as a pupil who, as far as anybody observed, never was taught by Socrates, but that Alcibiades far excelled all his contemporaries all would agree. (6) Hence, if the dead should acquire the power of judging what has been said of them, Socrates would be as grateful to you for your accusation as to any who have been used to praising him. While Bousiris, even if he had been most tender-hearted toward his guests, would be so enraged by your account of him that he would abstain from no vengeance whatever! Yet shouldn’t a person feel shame, rather than pride, when he is more loved by those whom he has reviled than by those whom he has praised?

(7) You have been so careless about committing inconsistencies that you say Bousiris emulated the fame of Aiolos (or: Aeolus; mythic ancestor of the Aiolians) and Orpheus, yet you do not show that any of his pursuits was identical with theirs. What, can we compare Bousiris’ actions with the reported achievements of Aiolos? But Aiolos restored to their native lands foreigners who were cast on his shores, whereas Bousiris, if we are to give credence to your account, sacrificed and ate them! (8) Or, are we to compare his actions to those of Orpheus? But Orpheus led the dead back from Hades, whereas Bousiris brought death to the living before their day of destiny. Consequently, I should be glad to know what, in truth, Bousiris would have done if he had happened to despise Aiolos and Orpheus, seeing that, while admiring their virtues, all his own actions are manifestly the opposite of theirs. But the greatest absurdity is this: even though you have made a specialty of genealogies, you have dared to say that Bousiris emulated those whose fathers even at that time had not yet been born!

[1. Isocrates’ mock praising speech for Bousiris]

(9) But that I may not seem to be doing the easiest thing in assailing what others have said without exhibiting any specimen of my own, I will try briefly to expound the same subject – even though it is not serious and does not call for a dignified style – and try to demonstrate what elements you should have used to compose the praising speech and likewise with the defensive speech.

[Great family lineage]

(10) Who would not find it easy to speak of the noble lineage of Bousiris? His father was Poseidon, his mother Libya the daughter of Epaphos the son of Zeus. They say Libya was the first woman to rule as queen and to give her own name to her country. Although fortune had given him such ancestors, these alone did not satisfy his pride. Rather, he thought he must also leave behind an everlasting monument to his own courage.

[Conquest and achievements]

(11) Bousiris was not content with his mother’s kingdom [Libya], considering it too small for one of his endowment. When he had conquered many peoples and had acquired supreme power, he established his royal seat in Egypt. This was because he judged that country to be far superior as his place of residence, not only compared to the lands which then were his, but even compared to all other countries in the world.

[Superior Egyptian environment]

(12) For he saw that all other regions are neither seasonably nor conveniently situated in relation to the nature of the universe, but some are flooded by rains and others are scorched by heat. Egypt, however, having the most admirable situation in the world, was able to produce the most abundant and most varied products, and was defended by the immortal ramparts of the Nile. (13) The Nile is a river which by its nature provides not only protection to the land, but also its means of subsistence in abundance, being impregnable and difficult for foes to conquer, yet convenient for commerce and in many respects serviceable to dwellers within its bounds. For in addition to the advantages I have mentioned, the Nile has provided the Egyptians a godlike power with respect to cultivation of the land. For while Zeus is the dispenser of rains and droughts to the rest of humankind, every Egyptian has made himself master on his own account over both of these. (14) The Egyptians have come to such a perfect a state of happiness that, due to the excellence and fertility of their land and the extent of their plains, they reap the fruits of a continent. Regarding the disposition of their superfluous products and the importation of what they lack, the river’s possibilities are such that they inhabit an island because the Nile, encircling the land and flowing through its whole extent, has given them abundant means for both.

[Superior societal organization, with a swipe at Spartan rivals]

(15) So Bousiris began, as wise men should, by occupying the fairest country and also by finding sustenance sufficient for his subjects. Afterwards, he divided them into classes: some he appointed to priestly services, others he turned to skills and crafts, and others he forced to practise the skills of war. He judged that, while necessities and superfluous products must be provided by land and by skills, the safest means of protecting these was practice in warfare and reverence for the gods. (16) Including in all classes the right numbers for the best administration of the community, he gave orders that the same individuals should always engage in the same pursuits, because he knew that those who continually change their occupations never achieve proficiency in even a single one of their tasks, whereas those who apply themselves constantly to the same activities perform each thing they do extremely well. (17) So we will find that, with regard to skills, the Egyptians surpass those who work at the same skilled occupations elsewhere more than artisans in general excel the untrained. Also with respect to the system which enables them to preserve the kingdom and their communal organization in general, they have been so successful that philosophers who seek to discuss such topics and have won the greatest reputation prefer above all others the Egyptian form of communal organization (politeia), and that the Lakedaimonians [Spartans], on the other hand, govern their own city in admirable fashion because they imitate certain Egyptian customs. (18) For instance, there are the provision that no citizen fit for military service could leave the country without official authorization, the meals taken in common, and the training of their bodies. Furthermore, there is the fact that, lacking none of the necessities of life, Lakedaimonians do not neglect the communal ordinances, and that none engage in any other crafts, but that all devote themselves to arms and warfare. They have taken all of these practices from Egypt. (19) But the Lakedaimonians have made so much worse use of these institutions to the point where all of them, being professional soldiers, claim the right to seize by force the property of everybody else. In contrast, the Egyptians live as people should who neither neglect their own possessions, nor plot how they may acquire the property of others. The difference in the aims of the two communal organizations may be seen from the following: (20) if we should all imitate the laziness and greed of the Lakedaimonians, we would immediately die through both the lack of the necessities of daily life and civil war. But if we would want to adopt the laws of the Egyptians which prescribe that some must work and that the rest must protect the property of the workers, we would all possess our own goods and pass our days in happiness.

[Superior medical, philosophical, and astrological advancements]

(21) Furthermore, the cultivation of practical wisdom may also reasonably be attributed to Bousiris. For example, he saw to it that from the revenues of the sacrifices the priests should acquire affluence, but that they would acquire self-control through the purifications prescribed by the laws and acquire leisure by exemption from the hazards of fighting and from all work. (22) Because they enjoyed such conditions of life, the priests discovered for the body the help which the medical skill brings. This does not involve use of dangerous drugs, but drugs of such a nature that they are as harmless as daily food, yet in their effects are so beneficial that everyone agrees the Egyptians are the healthiest and longest living people.


For the soul, Egyptians introduced philosophy’s training, a pursuit which has the power, not only to establish laws, but also to investigate the nature of the universe. (23) Bousiris appointed the older men to have charge of the most important matters, but he persuaded the younger men to avoid all pleasures and devote themselves to the study of the stars, to arithmetic, and to geometry. Some people praise the value of these bodies of knowledge for their usefulness in certain ways, while others attempt to show that they are conducive in the highest measure to the attainment of virtue.

[Superior piety]

(24) The piety of the Egyptians and their worship of the gods are especially deserving of praise and admiration. For all people who have presented themselves in such a way to create the impression that they possess greater wisdom, or some other excellence, than they can rightly claim, certainly do harm to the ones they fool. But those people who have so championed matters pertaining to gods that divine rewards and punishments are made to appear more certain than they prove to be, such men, I say, benefit the lives of men to the greatest degree. (25) Actually, those who in the beginning inspired in us our fear for the gods made it also the case that our relations to one another were not completely like wild beasts.

So great, moreover, is the piety and the solemnity with which the Egyptians deal with these matters that not only are the oaths taken in their sanctuaries more binding than is the case elsewhere, but each person believes that he will pay the penalty for his mistakes immediately and that he will neither escape detection for the present nor will the punishment be deferred to the time of his children. (26) They also have good reason for this belief, because Bousiris established for them numerous and varied practices of piety and ordered them by law even to worship and to revere certain animals which among us are regarded with contempt. He did not do this because he misunderstood their power, but because he thought that the crowd should  be accustomed to obedience to all the commands of those in authority. (27) At the same time he wanted to test with things they could see how they felt about things they could not see. For he judged that those who belittled these instructions would perhaps look with contempt upon the more important commands also, but that those who gave strict obedience equally in everything would have given proof of their steadfast piety.

[Conclusion of the praising speech]

(28) If one were not determined to make haste, one might cite many admirable instances of the piety of the Egyptians, that piety which I am neither the first nor the only one to have observed. On the contrary, many contemporaries and predecessors have remarked it, of whom Pythagoras of Samos is one. On a visit to Egypt he became a student of the religion of the people, and was first to bring to the Greeks all philosophy, and more conspicuously than others he seriously interested himself in sacrifices and in ceremonial purity, since he believed that even if he should gain thereby no greater reward from the gods, among men, at any rate, his reputation would be greatly enhanced. (29) And this indeed happened to him. For so greatly did he surpass all others in reputation that all the younger men desired to be his pupils, and their elders were more pleased to see their sons staying in his company than attending to their private affairs. And these reports we cannot disbelieve; for even now persons who profess to be followers of his teaching are more admired when silent than are those who have the greatest renown for eloquence.

[2. Isocrates’ mock defensive speech on behalf of Bousiris]

[Introduction to the defence]

(30) Perhaps, however, you would reply against everything I have said with the view that I am praising the land, the laws, and the piety of the Egyptians, and also their philosophy, but that I have no proof whatsoever that Bousiris was their author, as I have assumed. If any other person criticized me in that fashion, I would believe that his criticism was that of a scholar. However, you [Polykrates] are not in a position to critique me. (31) For, when you wished to praise Bousiris, you chose to say that he forced the Nile to break into branches and surround the land, and that he sacrificed and ate foreigners who came to his country [i.e. that Bousiris did apparently incredible things]. Yet you gave no proof that he did these things. And yet is it not ridiculous to demand that others follow a procedure which you yourself have not used in the slightest degree? (32) No, your account is far less credible than mine, since I attribute to Bousiris no impossible deed, but only laws and communal organization, which are the accomplishments of honourable men. Whereas you represent him as the author of two astounding actions which no human being would commit, one requiring the cruelty of wild beasts and the other the power of the gods. (33) Furthermore, even if both of us are perhaps wrong, at least I have used only the types of arguments that authors of praising speeches must use. You, on the contrary, have employed types of arguments which are appropriate to those casting blame. Consequently, it is obvious that you have gone astray, not only from the truth, but also from the entire pattern which must be employed in a praising speech.

[Son of a god the best choice for such achievements]

(34) Apart from these considerations, if your discourse should be put aside and mine carefully examined, no one would justly find fault with it. For if it were manifest that another had done the deeds which I assert were done by Bousiris, I acknowledge that I am exceedingly audacious in trying to change men’s views about matters of which all the world has knowledge [i.e. Greek knowledge from legend of Bousiris’ terrible actions]. (35) But as it is, since the question is open to the judgment by everyone and one must resort to conjecture, who – reasoning from what is probable – would be considered to have a better claim on the invention of institutions of Egypt than a son of [the god] Poseidon, a descendant of Zeus on his mother’s side, the most powerful figure of his time and the most renowned among all other peoples? For certainly it is not appropriate for anyone who was in all these respects inferior to Bousiris to gain credit for introducing those great benefactions.

[Chronological mistakes of those bringing charges against Bousiris]

(36) Furthermore, it could be easily proved on chronological grounds also that the statements of the detractors of Bousiris are false. For the same writers who accuse Bousiris of slaying foreigners also assert that he died at the hands of Herakles. (37) Yet all chroniclers agree that Herakles was later by four generations than Perseus, son of Zeus and Danai, and that Bousiris lived more than two hundred years earlier than Perseus. And yet what can be more absurd than that one who was desirous of clearing Bousiris of the slanderous charge has failed to mention that evidence, so manifest and so conclusive?

[Faults of the poets’ characterizations of Bousiris]

(38) But the fact is that you [Polykrates] had no regard for the truth. On the contrary, you followed the slanderous charges of the poets, who declare that the offspring of the immortals have perpetrated as well as experienced things more atrocious than any perpetrated or experienced by the offspring of the most impious of mortals. Yes, the poets have related about the gods themselves tales more outrageous than anyone would dare tell concerning their enemies. For not only have they imputed to them thefts and adulteries, and vassalage among men, but they have fabricated tales of the eating of children, the castrations of fathers, the bindings of mothers, and many other crimes. (39) For these blasphemies the poets, it is true, did not pay the penalty they deserved, but surely they did not completely escape punishment. Some became vagabonds begging for their daily bread; others became blind; another spent all his life in exile from his fatherland and in warring with his kinsmen; and Orpheus, who made a point of rehearsing these tales, died by being torn to pieces. (40) Therefore if we are wise we will not imitate their tales, nor while passing laws for the punishment of libels against each other, will we disregard loose-tongued vilification of the gods. On the contrary, we will be on our guard and consider equally guilty of impiety those who recite and those who believe such lies.

[Gods and their descendents only engage in honourable conduct]

(41) Now I, for my part, think that not only the gods but also their offspring have no share in any wickedness but themselves are by nature endowed with all the virtues and have become for all humankind guides and teachers of the most honourable conduct. For it is absurd that we should attribute to the gods the responsibility for the happy fortunes of our children, and yet believe them to be indifferent to those of their own. (42) No, if any one of us should obtain the power of regulating human nature, he would not allow even his slaves to be immoral. Yet we condemn the gods by believing that they permitted their own offspring to be so impious and lawless. And you, Polykrates, assume that you will make men better even if they are not related to you, provided that they become your pupils, yet believe that the gods have no care for the virtuous behaviour of their own children (i.e. Bousiris is a child of Poseidon)! (43) And yet, according to your own reasoning, the gods are not free from the two most disgraceful faults: for if they do not want their children to be virtuous, they are inferior in character to human beings; but if, on the other hand, they desire it but are at a loss how to make it happen, they are more powerless than the sophists!

[Conclusion regarding Polykrates’ mistakes in constructing speeches]

(44) Although the subject allows many arguments for the amplification of my theme of praising speech and defensive speech, I believe it unnecessary to speak at greater length. For my aim in this discourse is not to make a display to impress others. Instead, I aim to show for your benefit how each of these topics should be treated, since the composition which you wrote may rightly be considered by anyone to be, not a defense of Bousiris, but an admission of all the crimes charged against him. (45) For you do not exonerate him from the charges, but only declare that some others have done the same things, inventing thus a very easy refuge for all criminals. Why, if it is not easy to find a crime which has not yet been committed, and if we should consider that those who have been found guilty of one or another of these crimes have done nothing so very wrong, whenever others are found to have perpetrated the same offences, should we not be providing ready-made pleas of innocence for all criminals and be granting complete freedom to those who are determined to commit crimes?

(46) You [Polykrates] would best perceive the nonsensical nature of your defense of Bousiris if you imagined yourself in his position. Just suppose this case: if you had been accused of grave and terrible crimes and an advocate should defend you in this fashion, what would be your state of mind? I know very well that you would detest him more heartily than your accusers. And yet is it not disgraceful to compose for others a plea in defense in such a way that it would arouse your extreme anger if spoken on your own behalf?

(47) Again, consider this, and meditate upon it. If one of your pupils should be induced to do those things which you praise, would he not be the most wretched of men who are now alive and, in truth, of all who ever have lived? Is it right, therefore, to compose discourses such that they will do the most good if they succeed in convincing no one among those who hear them?

(48) But perhaps you will say that you too were not unaware of all this but that you wished to leave to educated men an example of how pleas in defense of shameful charges and difficult causes should be made. But I think it has now been made clear to you, even if you were previously in ignorance, that an accused person would sooner gain acquittal by not uttering a word than by pleading his cause in this way. (49) Furthermore, this is also evident: philosophy, which is already in mortal jeopardy and is hated, will be detested even more because of such discourses.

If, then, you will listen to me, you will preferably not deal in future with such base subjects. However, if that cannot be, you will seek to speak of such things as will neither injure your own reputation, nor corrupt your imitators, nor bring the teaching of rhetoric into disrepute. (50) Do not be astonished if I, who am younger than you and unrelated to you, aim so lightly to admonish you. For, in my opinion, giving good advice on such subjects is not the function of older men or of the most intimate friends, but of those who know most and desire most to render service.

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