A bed of roses
The historical reality and people´s fantasy have made Sybaris a city steeped in luxury and pleasure; Sybarite is the adjective that designates its inhabitants, but the term came to refer to exquisite people with refined tastes or to those who were delivered to the luxury and pleasure.
Ancient people themselves and then some Renaissance put some reservation to the things that were told of the "Sybarite people", the inhabitants of Sybaris; we must put it as well.
Perhaps to better understand what was said about them, we should interpret it as the "stories" or “tales” that nowadays we tell children or even adults. To this, it will certainly help us to relate one of the ancient Sybarite stories with one of the most famous contemporary tales.
Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD) stated in his dialogue De Ira, II, 25.2 the tale, certainly known and repeated a thousand times in Antiquity, of a really delicate Sybarite man:
Mindyriden aiunt fuisse ex Sybaritarum ciuitate qui, cum uidisset fodientem et altius rastrum adleuantem, lassum se fieri questus uetuit illum opus in conspectu suo facere; idem habere se peius questus est, quod foliis rosae duplicatis incubuisset.
It is said that there was a certain Mindyrides, from the city of Sybaris, who once, when he saw a farmer digging and lifting a hoe, complained of feeling tired and forbade him to work in his sight; and he himself complained of feeling very bad because he had slept in a bed of roses and one of the petals had folded.
Without doubt this is the source, or maybe the result, of the expression "a bed of roses".
Also Claudius Aelianus (175? -235? AD) Latin professor of rhetoric who insisted on publishing his work in Greek (it was called μελίγλωττος / melíglôttos = honeyed tongue), and who wrote a Ποικίλη ἱστορία, Several Stories, Weird Stories, collects this cartoon or story about Sybarite people. He says in his Stories, in his Latin version Ninth Book, 24:
Smindirides Sybarita adeo in luxuriam delitiemque prolapsus est; ut cum omnes Sybaritae delitiis vacarent, vitaque diffluerent, hic omnes longe post tergum relinqueret. Proinde quodam tempore in rosarum foliiss recumbens experegefactus dixit se postulas ex nimia lecti duritie inflactas habere.
Smindyrides the Sybarite advanced to so high degree of luxury that, although the Sybarites themselves were very luxurious and made the pursuit of pleasure and delight of life their only occupation, yet he surpassed all of them. On a time being laid to sleep on a bed of roses, as soon as he awaked, he said that the hardness of his bed had raised huge blisters on him.
No doubt the story or tale went on running in the Middle Ages and even later, in written texts or in oral tradition.
This Sybarite story has an obvious reflection in the famous tale published by the well-known Danish author Hans Christian Andersen "The Princess and the Pea", in which an unknown girl confirms her royal ancestry and status as princess because lying on a bed of twenty mattresses she could not sleep due to the trouble that a pea that was under them caused her. So delicate the little princess was!
Andersen said that he had heard the story as a child and then took the memory. Its structure and social intention is different from the story about Smindyrides the Sybarite, but the bottom line is the same and the relationship, known or forgotten in Europe, is evident.
Among similar stories or tales it is quoted one of the Indian story collection of the eleventh century called Kathásaritságara (The Ocean of rivers of legends): a young man gets up from a bed of seven mattresses and feels hurtful because under the first or lower one there was a hair that bothered or disturbed his dream.
Any relation has also got an Italian tale in which a jasmine petal wounded in its fall the delicate skin of a sensitive Italian woman.
So, somehow, it turns out still more curious that it is not quoted as precedent or similar the story about Smindyrides the Sybarite.
However, we can quote a fragment from a lecture by a curious character, the Spanish Pablo of Ballester, Orthodox bishop in Mexico, who was shot to death in 1984 by a general who alleged mental disorders. Pablo of Ballester was a professor of Classical Greek at the Autonomous University of Mexico and headmaster of the Hellenic Cultural Institute and famous lecturer.
Ballester says in his book Lectures I, Great Greek World, edited by Cruz. O Publications SA, Mexico, 1996, page 102:
Near those latitudes was the wonderful city of Sybaris, the finest in the whole world but yes! in the whole world! of all ages! ... Let me say (I promise that is the last time) what happened in Sybaris one night when a scream was heard, a woman let out a scream that woke everybody in Sybaris. They said:
- What is it? What is going on?
- Well, it's the princess who shouted
- And why has the princess shouted?
They all ran to the palace. The princess had cried because- like every Sybarite person- she slept on a bed of rose petals and one petal was bent when she went to sleep! So... she almost breaks the side ... The Sybarite people, such a springy civilization, so refined, weren´t they? As they were able to resent a rose petal when it was folded...
Obviously Ballester made a logical mix: the story about Smindyrides the Sybarite with the tale of The Princess and the Pea by Andersen.