As his description of the wanderings of Menelaus may seem to authenticate the charge of ignorance made against him in respect to those regions, it will perhaps be best to point out the difficulties of the narrative, and their explanation, and at the same time enter into a fuller defence of our poet. Menelaus thus addresses Telemachus, who is admiring the splendour of his palace:
It is asked, What Ethiopians could he have met with on his voyage from Egypt? None are to be found dwelling by our sea,2 and with his vessels3 he could never have reached the cataracts of the Nile. Next, who are the Sidonians? Certainly not the inhabitants of Phoenicia; for leaving mentioned the genus, he would assuredly not particularize the species.4 And then the Erembi; this is altogether a new name. Our contemporary Aristonicus, the grammarian, in his [observations] on the wanderings of Menelaus, has recorded the opinions of numerous writers on each of the heads under discussion. It will be sufficient for us to refer to them very briefly. They who assert that Menelaus went by sea to Ethiopia, tell us he directed his course past Cadiz into the Indian Ocean;5 with which, say they, the long duration of his wanderings agrees, since he did not arrive there till the eighth year. Others, that he passed through the isthmus6 which enters the Arabian Gulf; and others again, through one of the canals. At the same time the idea of this circumnavigation, which owes its origin to Crates, is not necessary; we do not mean it was impossible, (for the wanderings of Ulysses are not impossible,) but neither the mathematical hypothesis, not yet the duration of the wandering, require such an explanation; for he was both retarded against his will by accidents in the voyage, as by [the tempest] which he narrates five only of his sixty ships survived; and also by voluntary delays for the sake of amassing wealth. Nestor says [of him],
“ After numerous toils”
And perilous wanderings o'er the stormy deep,
In the eighth year at last I brought them home.
Cyprus, Phœnicia, Sidon, and the shores
Of Egypt, roaming without hope, I reach'd,
In distant Ethiopia thence arrived,
And Libya.1Odyssey iv. 81.
[And Menelaus himself],
“ Thus he, provision gathering as he went,”
And gold abundant, roam'd to distant lands.7Odyssey iii. 301.
As to the navigation of the isthmus, or one of the canals, if it had been related by Homer himself, we should have counted it a myth; but as he does not relate it, we regard it as entirely extravagant and unworthy of belief. We say unworthy of belief, because at the time of the Trojan war no canal was in existence. It is recorded that Sesostris, who had planned the formation of one, apprehending that the level of the sea was too high to admit of it, desisted from the undertaking.9 Moreover the isthmus itself was not passable for ships, and Eratosthenes is unfortunate in his conjecture, for he considers that the strait at the Pillars was not then formed, so that the Atlantic should by that channel communicate with the Mediterranean, and that this sea being higher than the Isthmus [of Suez], covered it; but when the Strait [of Gibraltar] was formed, the sea subsided considerably; and left the land about Casium10 and Pelusium11 dry as far over as the Red Sea. But what account have we of the formation of this strait, supposing it were not in existence prior to the Trojan war? Is it likely that our poet would make Ulysses sail out through the Strait [of Gibraltar] into the Atlantic Ocean, as if that strait already existed, and at the same time describe Menelaus conducting his ships from Egypt to the Red Sea, as if it did not exist. Further, the poet introduces Proteus as saying to him,
“ Cyprus, Phœnicia, and the Egyptians' land”
I wandered through.8Odyssey iv. 83.
And what this place was, namely, some far western region, is evident from [the mention of] the Zephyr in connexion with it:
“ Thee the gods”
Have destined to the blest Elysian Isles,
Earth's utmost boundaries.12Odyssey iv. 563.
This, however, is very enigmatical.
“ But Zephyr always gently from the sea”
Breathes on them.13Odyssey iv. 567.