No bother to Hippocleides!

This famous remark relates to an event at the court of Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, in 575 BC. Our knowledge of it comes from Herodotus, and it is mentioned in histories of Greece, as well as in grammars (see References). Herodotus had an excellent sense of humour, something rather lacking in classical scholars in general. His account centers around a Greek pun that must be obvious to everyone who knows Greek, but which is not even hinted at in mentions of the account. This silence may be simply because the pun is somewhat indelicate, or even because it is missed. Therefore, I summon up the courage here to explain the pun as a service to fans of Herodotus and others.

Cleisthenes was desirous of marrying his comely daughter Agarista well, and had his eyes on two suitors of promininent Athenian families, Megacles (an Alcmaeonid) and Hippocleides. He threw a large party at his court for the purpose of naming a successful suitor, inviting not only Megacles and Hippocleides, but any other contestants who wished to be considered. There was feasting and music, and demonstrations of talent. Hippocleides, knowing he was favored, showed off his talents, which included dancing to the flute to the admiration of all. He danced on a table, which was rather showy anyway, but he was finally so indelicate as to dance with his head on the table and his legs gyrating in the air. The indecent display convinced Cleisthenes to reject his suit, with the comment that he had "danced" away his bride. Hippocleides replied with "What do I care?" Megacles, in fact, won the treasure of Agarista.

Now, the word for dance was orcheomai, which came from orchos or orchatos, referring to trees in a row, which the row of dancers resembled. The place where they danced was the orchestra, later the location of good seats close to the stage, and where musical accompaniment was placed when necessary. This gave its name to the musicians themselves, which are now known as the orchestra.

There is another common word similar to orchestra, and that is orchid. This name comes from a very different origin, orchis, which means testicle. Now the flower does not look like that, but its tuber, from which it grows, does, and gave the flower its name, which is now used without recognition of the fact. An orchid is just something looking like a testicle.

Let's return to Hippocleides, dancing on his head. He certainly was not wearing trousers, and probably was not wearing much underwear, so what the view was can be imagined. The Greeks were not much offended by nudity, but this must have been too much for Cleisthenes, and the verb he used could just as well have been derived from orchis as from orcheomai. This is the pun that Herodotus records with a chuckle.


J. B. Bury, A History of Greece (New York: The Modern Library, no date). p. 148.

H. L. Crosby and J. N. Schaeffer, An Introduction to Greek (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1961). p. 89.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 2 November 2003
Last revised