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Ancient Mystery : During the 'Archaic Period,' a Man Called Demokedes Lived a Fantastic Adventure

July 03, 1988|JACK SMITH

OCCASIONALLY, I wonder at the inventiveness of our century. Recently I wrote that "we who are 60 or more have lived through the greatest period of change within one lifetime that the world has seen in 6,000 years."

Sixty years back is not enough to take in the telephone, the telegraph, radio, photography, the automobile and movies, but the last 60 years have given us television, nuclear weapons, computers and, ultimately, the pornographic videocassette.

C. J. Wright of Venice wonders why I chose 6,000 years as my time frame; was it because, as he suggests, 4004 BC was Bishop Ussher's date for Adam's birth? I chose 6,000 years because I thought it put us safely beyond recorded history. Who can deny that the greatest change man has made was when he began to stand upright, or when he dropped from the trees?

Wright concedes that the greatest technological changes have occurred in the past century, But he argues that "for really profound changes in our ways of perceiving and describing the world," one must go back to the lifetime of Demokedes, the Greek physician of the 6th Century BC.

Wright has written a book, "Doctor Demokedes and His World: C. 530-480 B.C.," which tells of the physician's fantastic adventures.

Though it is outshone in history books by the Golden Age that followed, that terminal half-century of the Archaic Period, according to Wright, "is an historical watershed of the first magnitude."

Perhaps the most visible manifestation of the leap was the softening of Greek sculpture from the stiff and stylized Asio-Egyptian mode to the supple, naturalistic style familiar to our eyes today.

Other innovations for the West, according to Wright: the first coinage; the first dictatorships and the first civic democracy; the first government by an educated elite; in Persia, the first multi-ethnic empire with a degree of religious tolerance; in Italy, the birth of the republic that would become an empire; the beginning of drama; the use of dissection for the understanding of human anatomy; the origins of scientific speculation itself.

In religion, Judaism and Orphism emerge (while in the East, Buddha and Confucius are sowing their seeds); Greek athletics, which had arisen as religious ritual, become secularized; Pythagoras, a fellow citizen of Demokedes in Crotona, is the first to use the words mathematics and philosophy .

Demokedes would have been a great hero for Cecil B. DeMille. Son of an ill-tempered physician in Crotona, a Greek city on the sole of the Italian boot, Demokedes went to the island of Aegina, where he outshone other physicians. In a year he was hired by the city council for the amount of 1 talent, an enormous sum.

The next year the tyrant Hippias lured him to Athens for more pay. A year after that, the tyrant Polycrates of Samos bid him in at 2 talents a year. He was moving up like a skilled baseball player. As Polycrates' personal physician, he went along when the tyrant went to Magnesia to borrow money from the Persian satrap Oroites. It was a trap. Oroites had Polycrates killed in an indescribably horrible way and took Demokedes into bondage. Within the year, Darius had Oroites killed for his impudence, and Demokedes was taken in chains to the Persian capital, Susa.

When Darius sprained an ankle, his Egyptian doctors were worse than useless. Hearing of Demokedes' reputation from a courtier, Darius sent for him. He appeared in chains and rags. Of course, he healed the king and was made his physician.

Demokedes longed for home, but the king would not release him. When the queen developed a rash on her breast, Demokedes cured her. In a bedroom scene reported, improbably, by Herodotus, she persuaded her husband to send the physician back to Greece disguised as a spy.

Fifteen Persian guards were assigned to Demokedes to assure his return, but he escaped and made his way back to Crotona, where he soon became engaged to the daughter of the wrestler Milo, the most famous athlete of the ancient world.

About 10 years later, Demokedes had to flee Crotona for political reasons. The rest is silence.

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