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The Most Precious Possession

The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives


Eliezer Segal

Finding a precious object – a gem, a ring or a coin – inside the belly of a fish is a favorite motif in western literatures that can be traced back to the Greek historian Herodotus. In Herodotus’ account of the rise and fall of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, the hero cast his beloved ring, his «most precious possession», into the sea in order to appease or fend off the gods’ envy of his unstoppable successes, but was ultimately disappointed to discover that same ring inside a serving of fish that was placed before him to eat, thereby signaling the beginning of his tragic downfall. The Most Precious Possession: The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives examines variations on this motif as they appear in ancient religious texts, including the Gospel of Matthew, Jewish Midrash and Talmud, and Augustine’s City of God. It explores how the theme functions in relation to the authors’ respective religious outlooks and literary objectives and what we can learn from these examples about the processes of transmission, interaction and cultural adaptation that occurred among the diverse religious communities of the ancient Mediterranean basin.
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Augustine: City of God

← 80 | 81 → CHAPTER FIVE


Augustine Bishop of Hippo was stimulated to compose his monumental De Civitate Dei as a response to the plundering of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410—an event that sent tremors through the empire and raised fears about the viability of the civilized empire and, more to the point, the compatibility of Christianity with loyalty to the state.1 Augustine devoted a decade and a half (roughly, from 413 to 426) to this undertaking.

At this stage of his life he was already a mature thinker and an experienced pastoral leader, and his response took the form of a profound apologia for Catholic Christianity that took him well beyond the narrower requirements of the immediate challenges; rather, he presented a comprehensive theological interpretation of human history, which he conceived as a divinely guided transition from the Fall (a theme that was, or course crucial to his understanding of the human situation and the origins of sin) through to the final redemption. Only when viewed from the proper theological perspective, he argued, is it possible to appreciate that the role of the state, even a formally Christian state, can never be equated with the paradigmatic ideal of a Christian society as ← 81 | 82 → it unfolds in history; even as the church can never be truly content to exist on the periphery of the social reality. The ultimate truth must be found in the subtle counterpoint by which the earthly and heavenly cities pursue their respective courses....

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