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Astonishing Quotations from the Ancient World

"On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen, and if I rightly remember that which the interpreter said in reading to me this inscription, a sum of one thousand six hundred talents of silver was spent."

— The Greek historian Herodotus recounting what he was told by a Pyramid tour guide, 5th century BC

Portrait of a Phoenician

Portrait of a Phoenician

"I am powerful, I am omnipotent, I am a hero, I am gigantic, I am colossal!"

—One of the inscriptions of King Esarhaddon of Assyria, who was later killed while applying makeup to himself; 7th century BC

"Following the rivers of fire for three further days, we reached a gulf named the Southern Horn. In the gulf lay an island with a lake, and in it another island. The second island was full of wild people. By far the greater number were women with hairy bodies. We gave chase to the men but could not catch any, for they all scampered up steep rocks and pelted us with stones."

—The Phoenician explorer Hanno, encountering apes for the first time along the coast of West Africa, 5th century BC

"I never learned how to tune a harp, or play upon a lute; but I know how to raise a small and obscure city to glory and greatness...whereto all kindreds of the earth will pilgrim.

—The Greek Admiral Themistocles, who defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, on being taunted with his lack of social skills, 5th century BC

Greek Kouros

Greek Kouros

"King Croesus, watching Persian soldiers sack [his capital city], is supposed to have asked the Persian King Cyrus, 'What is it that all those men of yours are so intent upon doing?' 'They are plundering your city and carrying off your treasures,' Cyrus replied. 'Not my city or my treasures,' Croesus corrected him. 'Nothing there any longer belongs to me. It is you they are robbing.' "

—Diodorus Siculus, Greek Historian, 1st century BC

"Look at me, gaze upon me, Thutmose my son. It is I, your father Harmachis. I will give you my kingdom on earth...the country will belong to you in its length and breadth, as well as everything that is lit by the eye of the universe. See, my condition is that of a sick man, for my body is totally ravaged. The desert sand on which I stand is engulfing me."

—Words spoken by the Great Sphinx to the Egyptian Prince Thutmose in a dream, 1400 BC

"Will anybody compare the Pyramids, or those useless though renowned works of the Greeks, with these aqueducts?"

—Frontinus, Roman Water Commissioner, 1st century AD

"Anyone who doesn't think the Trojans were utterly stupid will have realized that the horse was really an engineers device for breaking down the walls."

—Pausanias, Greek travel writer, 2nd century AD

"Great cavities gape in the broken limbs, and inside them one can see stones of great size, which were used to weigh the Colossus down."

—Pliny the Elder, Roman author and statesman, describing the fallen ruins of the Colossus of Rhodes, which had been comparable in size to the Statue of Liberty, 1st century AD

"Taking candles, they went down into the chamber and found marble columns carved in relief. The space between the columns was lined with mouldings and sculptures, and histories and battle scenes were also represented in relief. Having admired this at first, and entertained their fancy with the singularity of the work, finally they pulled it down, broke it apart and smashed it, in order to use it [for the lime kilns]."

—The Knights of St. John discovering Mausolus's burial chamber within the Mausoleum, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, as described by Claude Guichard, 1581

Roman Bust

Roman Bust

"The Arrius Pollio Apartment Complex
owned by Gnaeus Allius Nigidius Maius
FOR RENT from July 1st.
Streetfront shops with counter space,
Luxurious second-story apartments,
And a townhouse.
Prospective renters, please make arrangements
with Primus, slave of Gnaeus Allius Nigidius Maius."

—Roman rental notice from Pompeii, 1st century AD

"Crescens, the net fighter, holds the hearts of all the girls.
Celadus, the Thracian, makes all the girls sigh."

—Graffiti from Pompeii describing the popularity of two gladiators, 1st century AD

"As they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which [the natives] regretted to an amazing degree."

—Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa, on his systematic burning of thousands of Mayan books in the 16th century AD. Only three have survived.

"The sea appeared to have shrunk into itself, as if pushed back by the tremors of the earth...the banks had widened, and many sea creatures were beached on the sand. In the other direction gaped a horrible black cloud torn by sudden bursts of fire in snake-like flashes, revealing elongated flames similar to lightning but larger. And then came the ashes..."

—Eyewitness report of Pliny the Younger on the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which buried the Roman city of Pompeii, 79 AD

More Memorable Quotations from the Ancient World

"The whole army, suddenly and with one accord, stood in amazement and clapped their hands with delight, as if the end and object of their glorious toils, and the complete conquest of Egypt, were accomplished by taking possession of the splendid remains of this ancient metropolis."

—Napoleon's army encountering the temples at Karnak (Thebes) from river boats, as recounted by Denon, 1802

Easter Island Statues

Thor Heyerdahl explores Easter Island

"Our Countrymen reckon this for one of our wonders and miracles, and much they marvel from whence such huge stones were brought. I am not curious to argue and dispute, but rather to lament with much grief, that the authors of so notable a monument are buried in oblivion."

—William Camden, historian and antiquarian, writing on the enigma of Stonehenge, 16th century

"[They] seemed to be triumphing over us, asking: 'Guess how this engineering work was done! Guess how we moved these gigantic figures down the steep walls of the volcano and carried them over the hills to any place on the island we liked!'"

—Thor Heyerdahl, adventurer and writer, describing his reaction to the Easter Island Statues, 1950's

"We sat down on the very edge of the wall, and strove in vain to penetrate the mystery by which we were surrounded. Who were the people that built this city? In the ruined cities of Egypt, even in the long-lost Petra, the stranger knows the story of the people whose vestiges are around him. America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones. We asked the Indians who made them, and their dull answer was 'Quien sabe?'—'Who knows?' "

—John Lloyd Stephens, explorer and travel-writer, recounting his explorations in Central America, 1840

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum

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Ancient legends associated with mazes—such as the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur—speak of danger and confusion, of heroes and transformation, death and rebirth.

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