The Gardens of Tantalus

A delightful new phrase for me from Erasmus Adagia 4 – Adonidis Horti (the Gardens of Adonis).  The phrase receives its own full slot at Adagia 1046 but I only have volume 1 (1-1000) with me at the moment so the tension will be left to mount.

 With a similar metaphor Isaeus, according to Philostratus, labels the passions of youth the Ταντάλου κήπους (Gardens of Tantalus) because they are like shadows and dreams and do not satisfy a man’s spirit but rather goad it on the more.  Likewise, Pollux called the style of Athenodorus the Sophist the gardens of Tantalus because it is it is immature and insubstantial, presenting itself as though it contained something when it has nothing.


Non dissimili figura Isaeus apud Philostratum iuueniles voluptates appellat Ταντάλου κήπους, quod vmbris ac somniis persimiles sint nec expleant hominis animum sed iritent potius. Similiter Pollux sophistae Athenodori dictionem appellabat Tantali hortos, quod iuuenilis esset ac leuis, speciem prae se ferens, quasi esset aliquid, quum nihil esset.

The source in Philostratus (Lives of the Sophists 1.20, page 69 in the Loeb) for Isaeus:

Isaeus, the Assyrian sophist, had devoted the period of his early youth to pleasure, for he was the slave of eating and drinking, dressed himself in elegant stuffs, was often in love, and openly joined in drunken revels. But when he attained to manhood he so transformed himself as to be thought to have become another person, for he discarded both from his countenance and his mind the frivolity that had seemed to come to the surface in him; no longer did he, even in the theatre, hearken to the sounds of the lyre and the flute; he put off his transparent garments and his many-coloured cloaks, reduced his table, and left off his amours as though he had lost the eyes he had before. For instance, when Ardys the rhetorician asked him whether he considered some woman or other handsome, Isaeus replied with much discretion: “I have ceased to suffer from eye trouble.”[ὁ Ἰσαῖος “πέπαυμαι” εἶπεν “ὀφθαλμιῶν.”]  And when someone asked him what sort of bird and what sort of fish were the best eating: “I have ceased,” replied Isaeus, “to take these matters seriously, for I now know that I used to feed on the gardens of Tantalus.” [“πέπαυμαι” ἔφη ὁ Ἰσαῖος “ταῦτα σπουδάζων, ξυνῆκα γὰρ τοὺς Ταντάλου κήπους τρυγῶν,”] Thus he indicated to his questioner that all pleasures are a shadow and a dream.

And for Athenodorus (2.14, page 243 in the Loeb)

Athenodorus the sophist was, by virtue of his ancestors, the most illustrious of the citizens of Aenus, and by virtue of his teachers and his education the most notable of all the educated Greeks in that city. For he was educated by Aristocles while still a mere boy, and by Chrestus when his intelligence began to mature; and from these two he derived his well-tempered dialect, for he both Atticized and employed an ornate style of eloquence. He taught at Athens at the time when Pollux also was teaching there, and in his discourses he used to ridicule him as puerile and would quote “The gardens of Tantalus,” by which I think he meant to compare his light and superficial style of eloquence with some visionary image which both is and is not.

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