July 21 – Anniversary of an Arson

Posted on July 21, 2015

On this date more than 2,000 years ago, a man named Herostratus wanted to become widely known. It's too bad he wasn't amazingly skilled at athletics or art, because then perhaps he would have poured his ambition into those fields. But apparently he couldn't come up with a better plan for achieving fame than to destroy something important!

What could he destroy that would immortalize his name? Herostratus decided on the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. 

This building was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Artemis is the Ancient Greek goddess of the hunt (and is now linked to the Roman goddess Diana). This particular temple was built in what is today part of Turkey. It was built about a thousand years before Herostratus's time, but in the 7th Century BCE, the building had been destroyed by a flood. It was finally reconstructed after a decade of work around 550 BCE.

Herostratus set fire to the Temple on this date in 356 BCE.

Although portions of the Temple (including all those columns) were built out of marble – and stone doesn't burn! – Herostratus burned down the Temple by setting fire to the wooden roof beams.

After he did his criminal act, Herostratus didn't try to run away – he proudly claimed credit for the arson. It was obvious that the crime was a sick attempt to achieve notoriety, so the Ephesian authorities didn't just punish Herostratus by executing him, they also TRIED to make sure that nobody else ever did a horrible crime just to have his or her name immortalized. The authorities forbid any mention of Herostratus's name, and they threatened to execute anyone who broke that rule! (A bit harsh, I feel!)

But their idea didn't work. The historian Theopompus wrote about Herostratus's deed, including naming the villain, and Herostratus's infamy lives on to this day! 

(Some scholars say that Herostratus was not the arsonist's name - that, indeed, the law against uttering his name worked, after all, and that we have no idea of the name of the man who destroyed the Temple. If that is the case, then Herostratus is the term we use to replace the real name.)

Ever since then, Herostrat has meant a criminal who would do anything for notoriety, in German; also, Herostratic fame in English means “fame at any cost.” An example of is the fellow who murdered musician John Lennon just so that he would be famous, so that people would know his name. (And I refuse to add to people knowing his name by giving it here!)

Science fiction author David Brin says that we should not be making into household names the monsters who blow up buildings and shoot school kids and do other horrible acts. He thought that, the more infamy we heap upon these sick individuals – the more TV coverage and specials, the more magazine covers, the more interviews of the criminals and their families and former schoolmates – the more OTHER people will be inclined to try to garner notoriety for themselves.

Of course, there is going to be news coverage about horrible crimes, but Brin suggests that we resist the urge to splash the images of the criminals around, and that, instead of making their names famous, we refer to them as something like “Doofus # __.”

I agree with Brin. There is an organization with a similar idea called "No Notoriety: No Name. No Photo. No Notoriety." 

What do you think?

By the way...

Check out the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World here and here, and the current list of the New7Wonders of the World over here and the Seven Wonders of the Modern World here.

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