Would Romans like latte art? or On the Jubilee

I feel guilty buying lattes. Bear with me. Mrs Croc makes infinitely better coffee at home, I am conscious of the supply chains that bring us the beans (the back-breaking underpaid labour; the destroyed environment) and the cheap milk used by coffee shops (moo). And then I hand over a significant portion of the hourly minimum wage in my country and am in turn handed something that is part product part art all sumptuousness.  

Roman attitudes to luxury generally and food/drink specifically are complex. Actually, complex is probably not the right word. Most things are complicated if you stare at them long enough and have the incentive to make them so. Roman attitudes to luxury, especially with regards to food and drink, are well attested across a various sources (legal, literary, religious, artistic) and times (what mores did the authors of the XII tables share with Juvenal?), of course they become complex if we try to squish everything together, this is a nonsense statement. Let’s run with it lol.

It was important for the Romans to see themselves as rugged men at best a generation or two removed from the toil of farm work, whatever the reality. Thus Cincinnatus returns hands over the fasces to return to his farm and, in fact, we are invited to envision him at the plough himself when he was adlected into office.[1] That it would be some seven centuries until another Roman statements, Diocletian, would likewise eschew high office for the trials and tribulations of the land tells us something. That he would be, by origin, Greek and therefore the kind of person Republican Romans warned against as being too luxurious tells us something funny. Rome’s rapid expansion throughout the Italian peninsula and the Mediterranean meant that – for the first time in history? – slaves were ridiculously plentiful. If a Roman was in arm’s reach of a stylus you can guarantee he was not within a barge pole’s of a plough. Cabbage, posca, pottage, ofellae; these were a far cry from the diets of those who give us our sources.[2]

This contrast between rustic ancestors and cosmopolitan contemporaries (sound familiar?) is central to the Roman moral imagination. For Livy, it was the Punic Wars, the acquisition of Rome’s oversea empire, that is the watershed and his preface – remember he is as much moralist as historian – explicitly equates the simplicity of the past with the luxury of the present (adeo quanto rerum minus, tanto minus cupiditatis erat. To such an extent that there were fewer things, there was less avarice). I wonder if there was more than cantankerousness to this. If you look at the numbers,[3] the Romans throughout the Punic and Macdonian/Syrian wars were capable of amassing huge armies, but this must have been incredibly destructive to them as a polity especially when you realise the need to marshal such forces directly correlate to losses such as Trasimene and Cannae. Survivors guilt baked into the culture? Your brothers/fathers/friends died or came back to fallow land/land purchased by a senator and worked by slaves but the markets now mean you can add a bit of mace to your morning breakfast? Hmm.

I am writing around the time of jubilee: HRH the Queen will the first British Monarch to celebrate 70 years of rule, she was coronated around a year after Britain had escaped rationing but, needed as rationing was, it has indelibly marked a generation or two of Britons. Orderly queuing, plain fare, a dislike of ostentation, all these arose not from the depths of time but from the second world war and its immediate aftermath.[4] We pay lip service to them even as international supply chains and a cheap third world manufacturing base make ostentation cheap and ubiquitous. Who is to say it was much different for the Romans?

Right. Food.  The lexical net the Romans employed for describing desire, both positive and negative, went beyond simple material acquisitiveness. Voluptas, cupiditas, avaritia, licentia etc all could be applied to any type of appetite. Polybius, that brilliant observer of the Romans,[5] claims Cato the elder saw this in just those terms and elided the distinction between greed, food, and sexual license:

ἐφ᾽ οἷς καὶ Μάρκος ἀγανακτῶν εἶπέ ποτε πρὸς τὸν δῆμον ὅτι μάλιστ᾽ ἂν κατίδοιεν τὴν ἐπὶ τὸ χεῖρον προκοπὴν τῆς πολιτείας ἐκ τούτων, ὅταν πωλούμενοι πλεῖον εὑρίσκωσιν οἱ μὲν εὐπρεπεῖς παῖδες τῶν ἀγρῶν, τὰ δὲ κεράμια τοῦ ταρίχου τῶν ζευγηλατῶν.

Marcus [Porcius Cato] was annoyed by these things[6] and said to the populace that he could seethe decline of the state from these things: that comely boys could be purchased for more than fields and jars of preserved meat more than ploughmen.

Polybius 31.25.5a

Thank you, dearest reader, for bringing up Cato, because he is relevant in more ways than one. Cato the Censor represented for later generations a stern, sparse, republican morality, the maius in the mos maiorum so to speak.[7] Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the case of his great-grandson whose political career veered closer to cosplay than emulation of his ancestor (cosplaying ancestors? See this IS a jubilee relevant post).  Ironically his handbook, de agricultura, is so studious in its simplicity it must in part be performative but if anything, he was too frugal. Even the Romans could balk at his mean treatment of his elderly slaves and Plutarch’s reprimand of his character (Life of Cato 5) must have been widely shared.[8]

The Romans were not everywhere impressed by thrift nor repulsed by largesse; there would have been several times throughout the year e.g bribing voters electioneering, games, and public festivals where the public fiscus was expected to be bloody well public. I am minded to bring this up, not just because it helps to sensibly calibrate Roman attitudes as well as can be done in a shitpoast, but because again we are in the midst of jubilee celebrations and the usual naysayers are crowing about the cost. I agree: our state is too ready with our taxes and the feckless government comprised of people who never held a real job need to be seriously taken to task,[9]  but the Romans would have understood and approved the need to have a festival outside the usual mercenary election cycles which allows people to come together and celebrate their shared nationhood.[10]

Where were we? Oh yeah, food. When moralisers failed the Romans turned to their legal system and we have several examples of sumptuary legislation on the tables e.g in 115 the consul M. Aemilius Scaurus passed the lex aemilia qua lege non sumptus cenarum, sed ciborum genus et modus praefinitus est (which by law fixed not the number of diners but the type and manner of foodstuff. A Gellius Noctes Atticae 2.24.12) and the dictator Sulla followed suit with a lex cornelia in 81 which revived earlier laws which had fallen into abeyance and expanded them.[11] Of course this hardly stopped the dictator throwing wild parties (Plutarch Sulla 35; let’s see you spin that one Keaveney). The Romans had by now come a long way from their rude past where the only legislation needed on the books was the minuendi sumptus lamentationisque funeris. Now every aristocrat had his own fishponds, expensive Greek chef, and the mode du jour seemed to be passing sumptuary legislation in order to flaunt them. There really is something funny in Augustus passing a law trying to limit (sexual) appetites of all people.

Nowhere is this hypocrisy better taken up than in satire and by no one else more skilfully than Juvenal. There are almost too many examples to pick from, but I have always loved his fourth. I can neither translate (it would take some 70 lines, none of us are that patient) or do justice to (I’m just not that funny ☹) the relevant section here but I will try. A fisherman discovers a massive fish and decides it must, of course, be yielded to Caesar (the emperor Domitian) who far from following the Augustan legacy as an arbiter of moral temperance is worse even than his courtiers. The fish is brought to court and the emasculated, timorous, senate are introduced with an epic catalogue and give their suggestions on what to do with it as if it was a war council. At last the heroically named Lucius Venuleius Montanus Apronianus carries the day.[12] We are told of his qualifications:

nouerat ille

luxuriam inperii ueterem noctesque Neronis

iam medias aliamque famem, cum pulmo Falerno

arderet. nulli maior fuit usus edendi

tempestate mea…

                             [for] he knew

the ancient luxury of the court, Nero’s

and the second hunger even at midnight, when his

lungs burned with falernian wine. There was no one

greater at eating, in my time…

Juvenal 4.136-40

It is a great send up. Neither the senators nor the emperor are the equals of their fathers, the historical parallel is Nero who was already a by word for lascivious (prostitution, forced sex-reassignment surgery, gluttony, rape, and singing) and – perhaps most pointedly at all – was probably the first emperor to reign without the old republic being within living memory. The great sadness is that things would have gone better for Rome if Domitian really was so focused on gustatory trivialities (atque utinam his potius nugis tota illa dedisset/tempora saeuitiae 150-1). Domitian did not, of course, reign long enough to celebrate any sort of jubilee.

Ok. Let’s talk about coffee. What would the Romans make of it? Arguably much more exotic than stuffed dormice and despite the protestations of younger millennials who think drinking it is a personality it is neither staple nor necessity. But it is the art that draws me. It is not quite as over the top as things found in Apicius’ de re coquinaria or Petronius’ (Nero’s friend!) satyricon but it is a little extra. I can’t help but like it, in moderation. What would the Romans make of it? Well based on our readings probably try to ban it as a foreign luxury whilst drinking as much of it as possible behind closed doors. Probably enslave whole towns of people and train them solely in the most ostentatious of latte art. I for my part am still quite conflicted. Perhaps I have read too much Bentham, not enough Seneca, but I can’t fully reconcile my love of the drink with the harm it causes to everyone involved in cultivating, roasting, and selling it.

As we consider the queen’s jubilee regnum cuius non iam dimidiam partem vivebam lol and the very different environment in which she started to reign, these things are worth thinking about. Anyway.

Appendix: Romans and their coffee orders

Julius CaesarEspresso
AugustusEspresso (affogato when nobody is looking)
VirgilFrench press
HoraceFarm to table ice latte
Cato the CensorTap water
NeroIrish coffee
OvidMatcha latte (cappuccino when nobody is looking)
ClaudiusPumpkin spice latte
CiceroTea (with free refills)
HadrianGreek coffee

Disagree? Have more to add? Please do below!


[1] Livy 3.26

[2] The new defunct Pass the Garum has recipes for all these and more should you wish to try them. I myself heartily recommend Cato’s bread spread with moretum and washed down with some spiced posca.

[3] Check out this thesis here: https://escholarship.org/content/qt1tj4n5sm/qt1tj4n5sm_noSplash_adf69c425bac62377049e6b7d4deda20.pdf (didn’t read lol)

[4] They seem timeless but believe it or not British food was once spiced and varied as much as the environment and trade routes would allow; British dress – not Italian! – set the standards we all emulate nowadays too. Insane, I know.

[5] One must imagine him like some David Attenborough or, even better! Steve Irwin type hanging around the Scipionic circle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fynWOio9jBo

[6] i.e sexual/moral/gustatory license.

[7] Passet, L. (2020). Frugality as a Political Language in the Second Century BCE: The Strategies of Cato the Elder and Scipio Aemilianus. In I. Gildenhard & C. Viglietti (Eds.), Roman Frugality: Modes of Moderation from the Archaic Age to the Early Empire and Beyond. pp. 192-212. Cambridge – is probably a good source for further discussion of this. Haven’t read lol.

[8] https://el.wikisource.org/wiki/%CE%92%CE%AF%CE%BF%CE%B9_%CE%A0%CE%B1%CF%81%CE%AC%CE%BB%CE%BB%CE%B7%CE%BB%CE%BF%CE%B9/%CE%9C%CE%AC%CF%81%CE%BA%CE%BF%CF%82_%CE%9A%CE%AC%CF%84%CF%89%CE%BD bro you can do this one.

[9] https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/127/public-accounts-committee/news/150988/unimaginable-cost-of-test-trace-failed-to-deliver-central-promise-of-averting-another-lockdown/ lol

[10] They’d also wonder where the fuck are the naked aristocrats in wolf masks whipping ladies with leather thongs. Naked aristocrats in wolf masks whipping ladies with leather thongs in this economy? Are you kidding me, Gaius? dimitte ab colo caput!

[11] Aulus Gellius (book 2) and Macrobius (book 3) who has clearly cribbed from him reverse the chronology here and assume the lex aemilia to have been passed later, perhaps but M. Aemilius Lepidus. This makes a certain historical sense, but I take as my authority Pliny who assigns it to our boy M. Scaurus in consulate (NH 8.57.223) because he has better vibes. He also tells us that the law specifically barred stuffed dormice, mussels, and wild birds. In other words, luxury goods.

[12] Ok I am following Syme here:  Syme, R “People in Pliny”, Journal of Roman Studies, 58 (1968), p. 150 since elsewhere he is also simply referred to as Montanus.

There are two types of strife, twitter.

οὐκ ἄρα μοῦνον ἔην Ἐρίδων γένος, ἀλλ᾽ ἐπὶ γαῖαν

εἰσὶ δύω: τὴν μέν κεν ἐπαινέσσειε νοήσας,

ἣ δ᾽ ἐπιμωμητή: διὰ δ᾽ ἄνδιχα θυμὸν ἔχουσιν.

ἣ μὲν γὰρ πόλεμόν τε κακὸν καὶ δῆριν ὀφέλλει,

σχετλίη: οὔτις τήν γε φιλεῖ βροτός, ἀλλ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἀνάγκης                     15

ἀθανάτων βουλῇσιν Ἔριν τιμῶσι βαρεῖαν.

τὴν δ᾽ ἑτέρην προτέρην μὲν ἐγείνατο Νὺξ ἐρεβεννή,

θῆκε δέ μιν Κρονίδης ὑψίζυγος, αἰθέρι ναίων,

γαίης ἐν ῥίζῃσι, καὶ ἀνδράσι πολλὸν ἀμείνω:

ἥτε καὶ ἀπάλαμόν περ ὁμῶς ἐπὶ ἔργον ἔγειρεν.                               20

For there is not only one type of strife upon the earth,

but two: one of these a man, having known it, might praise

and the other is blameworthy: they differ in spirit.

One proffers evil war and conflict, wicked one

No mortal loves her but, out of necessity, and the

will of the immortals they honour this exigent strife.

The other one, dark night, bore first,

she did the high throned son of Cronus, dwelling in heaven,

place in the roots of the earth: a boon for mankind.

She urges even the helpless man to work.

Hesiod Works and Days 11-20

I have little time for #ClassicsTwitter drama as of late. I am too busy doing hot girl shit (gentlemen, you must squat in short shorts) and most of the space has me blocked by now or at least on the “politely ignore” setting. Besides, precious little of the disagreements appear to be about the Classics as the academy that gatekeeps safeguards them. I am not a society crocodile, and these names and disagreements are opaque and uninteresting to me. Professor Steve McDichael of Dugnutt College said what about whom? Who cares?[1] Fuck Steve.

If I cast my eyes around the space lately it seems indolent, enervated. Witch hunts and arguments have forced consensus, but it is an incoherent consensus, false and cloying, strained and timid. We have taken all the energy the internet could receive and magnify and reduced it to what amounts to the office water cooler. Also, where are the youngsters? The angry young men and women who normally provide that billowing updraft when their elders’ sails fail? Well probably on TikTok or whatever new Vine successor is making the rounds.[2] More likely the current environment is a little unsafe for them: if an inopportune tweet or opinion can crater a thesis grade or the chance of a graduate scholarship, they are liable to keep silent. It is probably better for them in some sense. But we need that energy. And let’s be honest, the younger generation need some of that visceral confrontation we (kind of) benefitted from. Let’s not get all boomer/gen x about this “your generation got participation trophies, rah rah rah” – yes old man, but who raised us? That is not the point. We can rage on boomers later.

The bad kind of strife, the one who is ἐπιμωμητή and σχετλίη, we have not eliminated her, rather we have tried to ignore her like some evil fairy godmother and in doing so only made her more powerful. There is a quiet watchfulness that is only ever excited when someone falls foul of some new tenet and is dragged kicking and screaming into the mire, never to be heard of again.

What about the other kind of strife, the one that is a boon to men?

ἥτε καὶ ἀπάλαμόν περ ὁμῶς ἐπὶ ἔργον ἔγειρεν.

εἰς ἕτερον γάρ τίς τε ἰδὼν ἔργοιο χατίζει

πλούσιον, ὃς σπεύδει μὲν ἀρώμεναι ἠδὲ φυτεύειν

οἶκόν τ᾽ εὖ θέσθαι: ζηλοῖ δέ τε γείτονα γείτων

εἰς ἄφενος σπεύδοντ᾽: ἀγαθὴ δ᾽ Ἔρις ἥδε βροτοῖσιν.

What about her twin, the good kind of strife?

She urges even the helpless man to work.

For one man is eager for toil, seeing another

who is wealthy, he rushes to plant and till

and to set his home in order: and so neighbour envies neighbour

rushing after abundance: this strife is a boon to mankind.

Hesiod Works and Days 20-24

That verb in 23, ζηλόω, is a bit awkward. Jealousy is a negative emotion for us. Incidentally, modern pedants would try to tell you that jealousy (from ζηλόω, above) and envy (from invideo) have different shades of meaning and that somewhere amongst those stretched out connotations you can express different concepts. I am not so sure. If a language inherits both English drink (Anglo-Saxon drinke) and French boire (ultimately from Latin bibere) does it necessitate that those are necessarily distinct?[3] I suspect that this is one of those asinine post factum middle class shibboleth like “don’t split an infinitive” “less vs fewer” and so on. What were we on about? Oh yeah. I’m not sure how to get across that idea of good strife. If you look at the Septuagint god in Exodus refers to himself as jealous ἐγὼ γάρ εἰμι κύριος ὁ θεός σου, θεὸς ζηλωτὴς (for I am the lord your god, a jealous god). The OT god might do some straight up villainy, but I do not think it meant to come across as such. I guess the Hellenophone Jews translating this probably saw this as a positive thing.[4] I don’t know, I don’t have any Hebrew. If you do, please let me know what’s going on in the original.

Anyway, the central idea is that there is a type of envy/jealousy that encourages people to work hard and improve themselves and, hopefully, by extension the community. Semantically this is probably somewhat distinct from sheer avarice on one hand and modern right wing neo-liberal blood thirsty market economics on the other. I am less interested in this type of envy than when I started typing this paragraph, what I am interested in is how we cultivate a useful and pleasant strife/dissent. Yes, we need second year undergraduates writing about how Virgil had major cat-boy energy, we need people willing to get down in the muck over the correct translation of particles in Plato, we need…well in short, we need an environment where people can speak their minds without risk of pile ons or straw manning. I find the last to be particularly annoying and sadly all to common on twitter. Oh? You think students should learn Latin? Well then, you’re obviously a holocaust denier. And so on and so forth ad peiora. We need more dissent, more argument, but more importantly we need more of it in a charitable manner. What we need is that good Eris, placed deep in Earth’s roots. Perhaps that is what Hesiod is getting at amongst all his yeoman farmer analogies. Deep roots are hard to get at, yes, but they are better at weathering the frost, surviving there for when we need them.


[1] https://slate.com/technology/2020/04/mlbpa-baseball-nintendo-japan-player-names.html what a classic

[2] On its deathbed Vine claimed it chose as its heir ταχίστῳ…

[3] I know, I know. Gaius Julius Caesar may have absolutely genocided all three parts of Gaul, but with the help of some Frankis foederatii it does seem like their descendants got some modicum of revenge against the author of de analogia.

[4] Later when warning against covetousness, the verb ἐπιθυμέω is used, which has a more direct sense of desire or even avarice. So there is a distinction.

What I read in 2021

Illud autem vide, ne ista lectio auctorum multorum et omnis generis voluminum habeat aliquid vagum et instabile. Certis ingeniis immorari et innutriri oportet, si velis aliquid trahere quod in animo fideliter sedeat. Nusquam est qui ubique est.

But ware, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every genre has you [become] wandering and unsteady. You ought to remain amongst and be nourished by certain masterly authors, should you wish for something to be lodge more faithfully in your mind. Everywhere is nowhere.

Seneca Epistulae 1.2.2

“…and I said to him when you learn to read then you learn everything you didnt know before. But when you write you write only what you know allready so patientia Im better off not knowing how to write because the ass is the ass”.

Umberto Eco Baudolino

Ah books! Where else does one learn that, truly, the ass is the ass?[1] I thought I would try to jump in on the current trend of nominating 10 books read during 2021 that have been worth their while. Straight away there are problems with this. I read like I knit wool: far too much speed and aggression and far too little attention paid to my surroundings, so it is surprisingly difficult for me to remember what I have read. This is compounded by the fact that without the usual calendar of feast days – both secular and religious – and thanks to the misdemeanours of a conservative government neither conservative (ask the wildlife, oh wait) in nature nor capable of governing, I have very little idea of when 2020 ended and 2021 started. Not so much an ouroboros as an ἐν ἑαυτῷ τῷ κώλῳ βινεόμενος.

Ground rules and assumptions. I will try to get to 10 books, I may, I may not. Look I no longer even pretend to edit these things, so if it stops at 5 or 6, you have been warned. Whilst, lector dulcissime, the list will be ribbed numbered for your convenience the books are in no way to be ranked. Since I am not an NPC I will not solely be listing books published in 2021. As I said earlier, I am barely cognisant of the elision between 2020-1 as it is, and I am not exactly on the receiving end of free books and ARCs from publishers, hot off the press. I will endeavour not to list books I have re-read,[2] or mentioned elsewhere. Lastly, I will try to cite only books directly concerning or potentially useful to Classics. I know why the five or six readers I have stop by her occasionally, and it’s not to hear my musings on economics or poetry such like.

This is surprisingly difficult by the way! I must have ploughed through 100 books or so. Admittedly, not all are on the Classics, but it is alarming how few I feel comfortable recommending. It helps to keep Skallas’ axiom about the 4HL in mind: if people have such limited leisure time, recommending something bad to read/watch is tantamount to eating up their life. An act of micro-violence, if you will.

Tom Holland Dominion

What a great start. A book that I read near two years ago and have indeed re-read. This book, hitherto, has defied my abilities as a reviewer and I really want to get a few remarks down on the blog at some point. Dominion is magisterial, perhaps the height of Holland’s power as a historian. Purportedly a history of Christianity it comes across more as a vindication of the idea that secularism and modernity are just one more Christian heresy. Holland proves himself sympathetic to and understanding of pagan and Christian, ancient and modern (how many books cite both Origen and Angela Merkel?).

He may not be Spider-Man, but he is – I think – Britain’s best historical writer and you could do a lot worse than read through his oeuvré.

Camilla Townsend Fifth Sun

Revisionist history should not be a dirty word. After all, as our evidence improves and our tools for assessing said evidence with it, we should be capable as a society of producing better histories. Should. When I came across this project to retell the history of the conquest of the Aztecs I was rather sceptical. My antipathy to those demon worshippers is well known. However, Townsend’s biases are laughably evident in this book that nonetheless shows its historical working. As a result, this may be the single best presentation and study of the Nahuatl evidence in a narrative history and for that alone it is worth the price of entry.

Bonus: Michael Launey/Christopher MacKay An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl>

I picked this book up directly thanks to reading the above. It is a recent(ish) translation of the French original and can be acquired cheaply. I have no intention of gaining real proficiency in Classical Nahuatl: unlike these “polyglot” morons on YouTube I know full well what it takes to get halfway decent at a corpus language and I have neither time nor inclination here. HOWEVER, for anyone wanting the mental exercise of learning a very different grammatical and syntactical system and getting a taste of an interesting language, this is a great book.

James Hankins Virtue Politics

Do you know what struck me this year? Most historians of the renaissance are functionally illiterate. That is they are neither capable of reading Latin to any real degree nowadays or, just as bad, are poorly read in the literature of the period. Hankins is not such a one and this book deserves to stand (at least) toe to toe with Burckhardt’s triptych of books on the subject.

Bruni, Flavio, Filelfo…even George of Trebizond (!!!) gets a look in. Hankins shows renaissance was so much more than Petrarch and Machiavelli. This book is the single best introduction to renaissance thought as it concerns – in the author’s formulation – both statecraft and soulcraft.

Gesine Manuwald, L. B. T. Houghton, Lucy R. Nicholas An Anthology of British Neo-Latin Literature

Should this be here? Have I added this out of guilt? Nationalism? Ah well. Britons of the renaissance and early modern wrote Latin too. Some even in good Latin.[3] In addition to the obvious candidates like Moore and Milton, this book provides a broad overview of authors, styles, and genres (a satire on the clergy next to some funerary verse and an ethnography of the highlands). It is generous in that it provides text and translation both, prefaced with some insightful introductory essays.

Bonus: Sarah Knight, Stefan Tilg The Oxford Handbook to Neo-Latin Literature

These Oxford handbooks are evincing some real staying power on my shelves I must say, and for those with any further questions on the authors contained above this is a great compendium. The book is tripartite, focusing on language and genre (Moul and Sidwell definitely worth reading); cultural context and, finally, a regional overview. Handy bibliography too.  

Julian Maxwell Heath Warfare in Neolithic Europe

Do let’s have something at least hinting at archaeology if hardly stinking of it. This book suffers slightly from trying to draw the reader into an academic debate about which they are unlikely to care (i.e many archaeologists still seem to think of the neolithic as a period with little conflict – what?!?)[4], however it is thoroughly engaging. The book starts with a global outlook and theoretical overview and then moves onto looking at specific sites and countries within Europe. It is hardly going to replace more technical overviews, but it was enjoyable. The chapter on neolithic Greece will be of particular interest to readers here.

Robin Waterfield The Making of a King

I have been a fan of Waterfield’s ever since I read his Taken at the Flood, which covered the Roman conquest of Greece in a readable way. This book fills a much needed gap in the market. Not only is Antigonus Gonatas an interesting character, his reign is set during the real fragmentation of Alexander’s empire, it was the crucible of the Hellenistic period and all that came after. The combination of character biography and more traditional history works incredibly well here. The best book I have read on the Hellenistic period in quite some time.  

Ian Rutherford Hittite Texts and Greek Religion

It is a genuine shame that the import of the Syro-Anatolian region, its history, and languages, for the study of archaic Greece is becoming more and more evident at a time when we are granting PhDs to classicistuli who can barely read Latin and Greek, let alone pick up sorely needed ancillary languages.[5] If this book does not inspire you to hit van den Hout’s The Elements of Hittite then nothing will.

This is a deep, systematic, probing of the contexts and evidence for Hittite religion and its interrelationship with its Mycenaean contempory and Greek epigone. Even when not eliciting actual influence and interaction, it manages to provide useful heuristic models based on real evidence. Easily, easily, one of the best books on ancient Greece I have recently read.

Richard Eaton India in the Persianate Age

What happened to ancient India? To non-specialists like ourselves the disjunction between the Sanskrit (and, I guess, sub-Sanskrit) world and the sudden emergence of a highly Persianate culture seems a schizophrenic one. The ancient world is actually rife with these jostling bilingual cultures and the situation with Latin and Greek (utraque lingua!) is hardly unique or novel, despite the growing academic focus: Sumerian and Akkadian, Akkadian and Aramaic etc etc. I picked up this book hoping to both increase my knowledge of the Persianate world and read something more linguistically, culturally, and historically, informed than the shit I have been reading on Greek and Latin.[6] Eaton’s book traces the complex, interwoven, lines of anxiety, influence, and competition between Sanskrit, Persian and the emergence of medieval/early modern Indian culture. If you want to understand the world which occupies the diaries of Niccolao Manucci, this is the book for you.

I am sure I got a lot less out of this book than someone with a good familiarity of the subject would, but it was an enjoyable read.

Marie Favereau The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World

Recall my comments on revisionist history above. This book is like the Fifth Sun but better. It is altogether more capable and less outright motivated by the need to rehabilitate her subject than to explain it to us. Favereau marshals an array of sources, using a systematic and comprehensible theoretical framework – even if her wrangling over words and their definition at times will not be to everyone’s taste.

The Horde focuses on the westernmost part of the Mongol empire (the Ulus Jochi), the mechanics of its administration, its ideological framework and its long-lasting effects on emerging states (not just the Russians!). They really did manage to rule from horseback and this books shows you how. Also, Mongols were just cool you fucking nerd.

Coda: Reading in the New Year

You would have to be a fool to try and predict the future, but eh why not. I suspect next year’s list will be even less weighted towards the Classics. At the academic level, at least, the subject is moribund. I could have produced a list solely of books pertaining to Greco-Roman antiquity, but such a list would either be highly weighted to the, well, not very recent or books by ageing scholars. This is not a a healthy sign. This is not a town vs gown thing either, I have very little time for most “popular” offerings. I read impulsively. I am no great watcher of films or television, I have no particular interest in the back catalogues of Netflix et al. I read impulsively and this, coupled with chronic insomnia, means that seldom does a week pass without my having (re)read a book or two. I do not think there are enough good, new, books on the subject to sustain this. Ah well.

So moving forward I suspect that I will continue my habit of a) largely sticking to primary texts and old commentaries and monographs and b) reading extensively from other fields. Over 2020, the major theme – thanks in part to being inspired by @ByzantinePower @ByzHistoryTweep @TheHillpaul and others – was Byzantine literature. 2021 has seen a dramatic increase in post-Roman Latin (somewhat hinted at in this list) and I think this will continue in the near future.

That is it for me. What were your must reads of the year? Have any suggestions? Do let us know.


[1] Look, nobody cares what happens in your JCR, be polite.

[2] This rule, tbf, saves you from a lot of technical books on Homeric philology and Greek dialectology.

[3] “On every level except physical, I am basil and oregano”.

[4] Men will fight over anything. I’ve literally had a fight over who was the better pacifist. Lads, lads, lads.

[5] No learning enough German to read Brecht but non Mommsen doesn’t make you learned you fucking commies.

[6] One bold exception, though hardly recent, stands out: the work of J. N. Adams. RIP.

Saturnalia Woes?

Usually late December, early January, would be the time where bloggers – back when blogs were still a thing – where bloggers take the time to set out a year in review and declaim some goals for the upcoming year sed anno voluto non satis feci. Ah well. Maybe I will give it a go before January ends. Instead, here a sequence of disjointed thoughts held together by the illusion of the paragraph system. Just as a shoal of fish can convince a predator that it is a mighty shark, so to can a hoard of sentences convince the reader they are dealing with paragraphs and logical coherence. Anyway.

My major aim this year was to hit a hit a target of one post per month, ideally on a classical theme. When that became untenable, I told myself that (temporary) omissions would be allowed, only to be made up later e.g it would be perfectly fine to skip a post in February should I write two in March. That too swiftly proved to be unworkable and my drafts folder has grown fat with everything from bullet pointed ideas, half begun (hardly well done) drafts, completed but unformatted pieces, and so on.[1] Ultimately only me, myself, and I are to blame. Reader, I failed. However, I think certain trends and circumstances over the past year or so have compounded my natural laziness.

Corona virus! This is an unexpected one. COVID-19 drove everyone online (arguably we are now too online, we have all become some unholy mix of boomers and zoomers)[2] and this combined with the increase in free time – whether from furlough or a dearth of commuting – should have birthed the perfect environment for posting. I can not but help think of some lines of Juvenal’s which seem apposite.

anxietate carens animus facit, omnis acerbi

inpatiens, cupidus siluarum aptusque bibendis

fontibus Aonidum. neque enim cantare sub antro

Pierio thyrsumque potest contingere maesta

paupertas atque aeris inops, quo nocte dieque

corpus eget: satur est cum dicit Horatius ‘euhoe.’

a soul lacking anxiety, unfeeling of all bitterness,

makes him: he longs to, and is fit to, drink from

the Heliconian spring. For sad poverty can neither sing

beneath the Pierian cave nor touch the thyrsus,

it is poor in the means which the body needs, night and day:

Horace was well sated when he said “euhoe!”.

Juvenal 7.57 – 62

I love these lines. In fact, for all its textual troubles I love the entire poem. But these lines I love especially. The mixture of learned vocabulary, poetic imagery, wordplay (satur est, well done!)[3] and message combine to great effect. Generations of readers have, rightly, homed in on the central message: creative work is unlikely to happen when the author lacks basic subsistence.[4] True enough, and one our own feckless arts funding councils might want to consider in future (more on free school meals and libraries, less po-mo nonsense that only serves money-laundering and/or “elites” sniffing their own effluence). However, I want to focus on the idea that a poet can be made only by an animus anxietate carens. If I was a good classicist, and had access to such things, I might try and hit up the TLL, some commentaries and secondary literature, etc to see the philosophical connotations of anxietas and how it relates to Ciceronian and Lucretian ideas such as securitas and its transformation under the empire.[5] But I have no access to such things and if I wanted philosophy in my satire I would read Persius.

“Mutta Krokotiili-herra! Are you saying you have not posted because corona made you anxious!?” Truth, no. I think that would be a reasonable excuse for any sort of cessation, but I myself have not been made particularly anxious. I do not think I am at risk or that, at any time throughout the pandemic, I have been at risk. But the world around me is so laden cum anxietate. Everywhere you see (parts of) sullen faces, down-cast eyes, furtive expressions. This has naturally translated to, perhaps been echoed and increased by, the online spheres in which we, dear reader, move. Everything has seemed grey and foreboding and nobody seems very engaged. It has all felt a little pointless.[6]

Maybe that’s a big stretch to get that Juvenal quote in there. Maybe I should have just used the vulgate: non in solo pane vivat homo (“man doth not live by bread only”).[7] Maybe this is just a poor excuse, I don’t know. To be fair, these are not the only reasons for my inarticulacy. Work has been rather insane, and I have been nursing a fair few injuries (physio is mind numbingly boring). What little free time I have had I have sought to spend in reading (Libanius, Julian, Ausonius, if you’re interested).[8]

Not the only reason, but a big one. I am also increasingly sceptical of the idea that the internet, #ClassicsTwitter, or whatever, can serve as a conductor for a rude and healthy discussion of the Greeks and Romans. Why do I still hold out on this? At heart I am an idealist and can still remember the lean teenaged times when a book (!!) was a precious thing and scholars were far off (I had never met a single person with a degree, let alone a doctorate) and high minded. My time in university had dented, but not destroyed, this idea but I do not see how it can weather twitter. “Scholars”, such as they are, are cliquey and cattish (apologies to any cats reading this) and evince no real interest in our texts. Everything, anything, can and must be sublimated to The Discourse ™. It is tiresome not just because it is boring but because normal minded people must get involved now and then, if only to make us look a little less insane as a discipline.[9] Is this our discipline still? With the focus removed from skills and contexts and placed firmer and more firmly on job titles, I am unsure. etiam si soror mea Graece nescit, ego quoque…sed professor sum sedem universitate tenens seems to be the rule of the day. Ahw ell.

There you have it friends. Thank you for the kind words and wonderings after my health, I have been around and I have been trying to tweet more these past few days. Hopefully that little lanx satura explains some of the reasons why I have been quieter than usual. Basically, I’m lazy.

But what next? Well there is a week and a half left of this year so I shan’t pretend that there will be another post ere we must give Veiovis his nanny goat – unless its another improvised piece like this. I intend that 2022 will finally be the year wherein I manage 12 posts in succession, and that it will be a year even fuller and more bountiful with memes both philological and classical. In short, I expect to do enough to warrant a “year in review” type post. To try and do my bit in dispelling rather than simply ignoring the cloud of malaise and inertia that is enveloping our little corner of the internet. But what about you? What classically themed things are you up to? What are you reading? Either way, I hope you and yours will have a lovely time this Christmastide. What else, after all, is there to do?

Sed quid agam potius madidis, Saturne, diebus,

quos tibi pro caelo filius ipse dedit?

Vis scribam Thebas Troiamve malasve Mycenas?

‘Lude,’ inquis, ‘nucibus’. Perdere nolo nuces.

But what else am I to do these sodden days, Saturn?

which your son himself gave you in return for the heavens?

Do you want me to write [blogs] of Thebes, Troy, or evil Mycenae?

“Play with nuts!” he says. But don’t want to lose mine!

Martial 14.1 9-12


[1] Not a single reader would deign to believe that I proof-read and edit, fine, but surely the quality of the memes proves I at least format? Cast your eyes back to some of the glorious photo-shoppery.

[2] What would Hesiod have made of boomers? “they have hands like shovels and eyes like lamps for the seeking and scooping of wealth; the world is there’s but no dish sates them like the flesh of their children and grand-children: a cursed race whom cloud-gathering Zeus would slay, too late, too late”. Fuck boomers.

[3] qui non edistis, saturi non fite fabulis! In your face Plautus you fatfooted jongleur bitch. P.s I love you. 

[4] There is a very strong grex verborum here to this effect: paupertas, corpus eget, aeris (aes is oft used metonymically for anything purchasable by base currency) and the clever juxtaposition of being cupidus for the forests and whatnot rather than avaricious for material reward. A true poet.

[5] I doubt the 3rd century barracks emperors were reading Lucretius when they had securitas hammered into their, erm, asses but one never knows.

[6] T. Greer’s piece on the world that twitter made, which looks back a more genteel and engaged internet is a good read on this: https://scholars-stage.org/the-world-that-twitter-made/

[7] Deuteronomy 8: 2-3. Yes, yes, I know. The bible in Latin? On this blog? I genuinely possess no copy of, nor do I know how to find freely online, the Septuaginta. 

[8] The books actually remain the same even if you’re not interested.

[9] I also harbour the suspicious that classical texts can have interesting things to say about the cotidiana providing we do not start by reading it into them. Insane, I know.

Lars Porsenna vs the Roman Taliban

“per hunc,” inquit [L. Iunius Brutus], “castissimum ante regiam iniuriam sanguinem iuro, vosque, di, testes facio, me L. Tarquinium Superbum cum scelerata coniuge et omni liberorum stirpe ferro, igni, quacumque denique vi possim, exsecuturum nec illos nec alium quemquam regnare Romae passurum.”

“By this” he said “blood most pure – before its royal defilement – I swear, and you gods I call upon as witnesses, that I will drive out Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, his sordid wife, and his progeny with steel, fire, and with whatever strength I am able. I will not suffer them [the Tarquinii] or any other to reign in Rome.”

Livy 1.59.1

A heavy oath: Brutus died for it. Certainly heavier than the one sworn by his feckless descendent still wet with Caesar’s blood.[1] The traditional account of the founding of the Republic should be familiar to all readers of this blog, even if only in Tacitus’ bravura precis (“urbem Romam a principio reges habuere; libertatem et consulatum L. Brutus instituit”). The Tarquinii were expelled, no single man would ever again hold power due to a genius mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy,[2] and the nascent Republic won legitimacy in the only political theatre that actually matters, the battlefield.[3] But the Romans were about to find out what the Athenians recently did with King Cleomenes’ feet upon the sacred concrete soil of the Acropolis and what many would be revolutionaries have found out since:[4] internal revolutions seldom stay, well, internal.

Lars Porsenna was king of the Etruscan city Clevsi (Latin Clusium, Italian Chiusi),[5] whose life seemed to have echoed and rhymed with that of many archaic age aristocrats up and down the Italic peninsula. The exact manner of relationship between Lars Porsenna and Tarquinius Superbus, his actions in and around Rome, and their aftermath is of course lost to time. Classicists have diligently teased out a (perhaps) more creditable narrative than what the tradition has handed down to us but, whilst that is an interesting story in and of itself, it is not the purpose of this blogpost. For our present needs, we are going to more or less work with the traditional narrative.[6] Porsenna seems to have struck some sort of deal with the exiled Tarquin, correctly intimating that there would be some aristocratic elements at Rome who would not entirely welcome the new Republic. With this in mind, he set out for Rome with his army, Tarquin in the train, hoping to intimidate them into acquiescence. Not a bad strategy and not at all alien to the classical Mediterranean: The Persians had old man Hippias in tow as they set out to subdue Athens; The Spartans loved installing puppet oligarchies; Alexander would force cities to accept their own exiles as a sort of fifth-column/domestic terrorists in waiting. Ah well, plus ça change

Instead, the Romans decided to fight. Livy’s account presents a larger-than-life narrative with colourful heroes who were once current amongst our educated classes. Horatius Cocles at the bridge; the unfortunately named C. Mucius Scaevola; Cloelia. None of it is true, but none of it is unimportant either. Porsenna’s forces must have been an intimidating sight. It is a rhetorical commonplace to state that kings in the archaic period were little more than thugs. But these were thugs with good equipment, discipline, and numbers. They struck like lightning and soon held the Janiculum. This was disastrous. The Romans must have thought that between their hills and the Tiber they could mitigate some of the enemy’s strength. They thought wrong. It soon looked like the Etruscans would take the Pons Sublicius, a bridge that forded the Tiber and gave easy access to the Aventinus and to the Roman heartland. Horatius Cocles had other ideas and having ordered his men to break the bridge he set to defending it by himself.

circumferens inde truces minaciter oculos ad proceres Etruscorum nunc singulos provocare, nunc increpare omnes: servitia regum superborum, suae libertatis immemores alienam oppugnatum venire.

There, casting his grim eyes about threateningly at the leaders of the Etruscans, now he challenges them single file, now he insults them all at once,[7] for their servitude towards proud kings, heedless of their own liberty, they have come to oppress that of another people’s.[8]

Livy 2.10.8

A heroic moment. Perhaps English and Norwegian readers will be reminded of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, though in this case Horatius got away at the last minute under a hail of missiles.[9] You can see why painters and poets have been inspired by this story. Nevertheless, Porsenna was victorious in the field and the remaining Romans now locked behind their gates (“Porsenna ad portaaaas!”). The Romans had been beaten on the field. Trickery might do. Since the Romans had inherited a congenital allergy to wooden horses, they decided that the next best thing would be to send a youth into Persona’s camp to assassinate the king.

Gaius Mucius slipped into the king’s camp unnoticed. After all, there were quite a few Latins on Porsenna’s side, who would notice one more? He chanced to be there when the king was distributing salaries to the soldiery. As an aside, I am struck by how eternal this image of warlord personally redistributing wealth would be in Italy. Germanic ring givers, Anglo/Italian condottieri captains, Garibaldi and his merry …it is the later Roman bureaucracy that is the rare aberration. Anyway. Mucius, however, has no idea which man is the king and mistakenly kills the secretary instead.[10] He is, of course, apprehended and brought before the king. Porsenna at least was a man and instead of squirrelling young Mucius to some proto-Guantanamo and lying about it to the Tyrhennian Observer, he addresses him directly. The response is intransigent.

hostis hostem occidere volui, nec ad mortem minus animi est quam fuit ad caedem: et facere et pati fortia Romanum est. nec unus in te ego hos animos gessi; longus post me ordo est idem petentium decus. proinde in hoc discrimen, si iuvat, accingere, ut in singulas horas capite dimices tuo, ferrum hostemque in vestibulo habeas regiae.  hoc tibi iuventus Romana indicimus bellum. nullam aciem, nullum proelium timueris; uni tibi et cum singulis res erit.”

“I am an enemy and wanted to kill an enemy. I will not face my death with less courage than I would in killing you. To act and suffer bravely, this is Roman nature. I am not alone in girding my soul against you: there is a large number after me seeking the same honour. So then if it pleases you, proceed in this contest wherein you must fight for your head every hour and withstand an armed foe in your palace. This is the war that we Roman youth declare against you. You will fear no formation, no pitched battle, the war will be between you and each one of us singly.”

Livy 1.2.9-12

Non iam acta est fabula. After having demonstrated a seemingly endless enmity, sworn the Roman youth to forever war, and threatened guerrilla warfare, Mucius then thrusts his right hand into the altar fire. He calls this self-immolation a great glory and his descendants will forever carry the name “Scaevola” (lefty) in honour of this. The king, of course, is horrified and impressed in equal measure and dismisses G. Mucius Scaevola from his camp. He would soon withdraw. Porsenna had the numbers, he had the equipment, he even seems to have had the tactical nous. But he did not have victory. Who could hope to win against such a people? After all, they were suckled on wolf’s milk.

What was Porsenna’s mistake? In Livy’s bed time story I mean. In reality, he seems to have stormed Rome, reduced it to slavery, used it as a launch pad for his raids before abandoning it after a defeat or two. One might say that his mistake was underestimating his enemy and pursuing an unwinnable war. But, following Livy, Porsenna seeks a cessation of hostilities with the Romans more or less as soon as he realises that they can’t be reduced in war. No, his mistake was that neither he nor his staff (nor the traitorous Tarquin in his train) seemed to know the Romans in any meaningful way.

Livy was a Roman writer, writing for Romans. We might chalk up his depiction of the Roman character here to mere chauvinism, especially given what we (think we) know about the actual events of the archaic age. It is true that all peoples at all times lionise themselves and their national character in this way. Herodotus, for example, as an Asiatic Greek had more experience of the Persians than most, yet all throughout his Histories he has them marvel at the Hellenic character. Consider the reaction he ascribes to the Persians upon their discovery of the Olympic games:

πυνθανόμενος γὰρ τὸ ἄεθλον ἐὸν στέφανον ἀλλ᾽ οὐ χρήματα, οὔτε ἠνέσχετο σιγῶν εἶπέ τε ἐς πάντας τάδε. ‘παπαῖ Μαρδόνιε, κοίους ἐπ᾽ ἄνδρας ἤγαγες μαχησομένους ἡμέας, οἳ οὐ περὶ χρημάτων τὸν ἀγῶνα ποιεῦνται ἀλλὰ περὶ ἀρετῆς.’ τούτῳ μὲν δὴ ταῦτα εἴρητο.

For, learning that the prize was a crown [of laurel leaves] and not money, he could not hold his silence and said to them all: “Oh Mardonius! What sort of men have you brought us to war against? They do not contend for money, but for virtue!”. In this way he spoke.

Herodotus 8.26.3

In fact, this may even be the literary inspiration behind Livy’s depiction of the events we are currently discussing. The major difference is that all our historical data point towards there being some truth in Livy’s patriotic scribbling. Consider Pyrrhus’ victory, Aurelian’s resurgent empire, Aetius’ grinding resistance to Atilla, Justinian’s Reconquista, Heraclius’ generational war against the Persians…all the way to Constantine XI at the walls of Constantinople and perhaps to the klephts in the hills beyond. There is something fundamental, foundational, to the Roman character that could be found in pseudohistorical archetypes like Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola. As I said earlier, these stories contained in Livy’s early books are false historically, true in the ways that matter.[11]

This brings us, at last, to recent events. If others too see reflections of the Romans’ contumacy, dissolution into guerrilla warfare, and willingness to literally self-immolate in the Taliban, good. I have feinted clumsily at this. I do not draw this parallel with any sense of approbation, I certainly do not think the Taliban are just a bunch of good chaps hard done by, but I do think Livy offers us a good hermeneutic framework with which to play about. Does that make the US Lars Porsenna? With the same caveats I have just laid out – I think that too is a helpful parallel. Certainly, they both committed the same fatal flaw as not knowing their erstwhile enemy.[12]

Cauda

Why did I write this? The telchines will crow that no matter what I post, they are of no account. When I first put that poll up (pretend I did not forget about the blog and posted this within 3-5 days…) I suspect many where expecting something a bit more historically grounded. After all, I have a variable but serviceable grasp of some of the ancient languages pertinent to the area: People will kind hearts, big brains, but low pattern recognition might have expected me to produce something on the Hellenistic kingdoms or the Kushanas or even the Sasanids. It was tempting, it still is, but part of the vitality of a discipline like Classics relies on the ability of its practitioners (whosoever they may be) to make credible links with the present and offer us. The Romans, who knew a thing or two about empire, colonisation, and assimilation proved to be an irresistible source of comparison.

The link, with however light a hand it was done, between the early Romans and the Taliban will doubtless prove too provocative for some. The Romans represent for much of us all that is best, foundational, to Western civilisation and the Taliban its antonym. But I put it to those offended that If your reading of the past only ever reinforces your current worldview, if the broad stretch of history looks like a series of steps leading comfortably to your own politics, then you are not doing history, you are constructing just so stories. If 20 years of Western failure in Afghanistan has proven anything, its that self-indulgence is ever more than merely self-destructive.

History is never truly dead.

[1] “De li altri due c’hanno il capo di sotto/ quel che pende dal nero ceffo è/ vedi come si storce, e non fa motto!” Dante Inferno 34.64-66 enjoy asshole. His ancestor is, of course, listed amongst the honourable pagans (4.127-9) along with poor Lucretia.

[2] Shhh.

[3] You can rig elections; you can’t rig wars. War is a horrid, lamentable, and sadly unavoidable phenomenon. Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι πάντων δὲ βασιλεύς.

[4] Hillary Clinton upon the smoking bones of Libyan children…

[5] Anecdotally, this is one of the few Etruscan toponyms I remember since one of the textbooks I used pointed out that what we take to be the Etruscan endonym – rasna – simply meant people in their tongue and was more often compounded with toponyms e.g Rasneas Clevsinsl. I said it was an anecdote, not an interesting anecdote.

[6] I genuinely hate this kind of disclaimer and feel that this is getting close to detestable academic hedging. But one must ward off the bugmen. Please, if you are reading this, stop assuming I am unfamiliar with the books on your first-year reading list. Spend the time you waste sending e-mails learning Latin or Greek instead.

[7] For those of you who cannot yet read Latin, use the use of now, nunc, is translated literally despite the subject matter being something you would expect to be very past tense. This is an affectation that helps build a sense of vivacity. I know right? Read Livy.

[8] https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/south-asia/taliban-facebook-freedom-of-speech-b1904246.html

[9] He even, unlike Achilles, had the good manners to address the river in prayer before jumping in.

[10] We moderns take this to be evidence of a certain oriental effeteness about Porsenna and his court. Artists love this theme. Look at the pampered Asiatic despots against the hardy, simplistic, Roman sons of the soil. Not only is this moronic and ahistorical, it belies a complete ignorance about the role of a secretarius in ancient armies. Likewise, Hellenistic “historians”, stop writing about the “soft Eumenes of Cardia”. Imbeciles.

[11] Why yes, I do subscribe to the Lucanian school of historiography. How can you tell?

[12] Secret footnote. Good job.

With friends like these…

Have you heard? In a PCP and coke fuelled rage,[1] ragamuffin, vagabond, and all round roisterer about YOUR town Gavin Williamson has broken into Battersea dogs’ home, killed all the puppies and then interrupted a WWII veteran’s funeral playing an instrument of his own design nomine ass-trumpet. This has been roundly condemned by the most accomplished, most virtuous, members of our society: Surgeons have stopped midway through Aortic Dissection Repairs, Conservationists from freeing trapped animals,[2] and Firemen stand in contrite silence against the roaring backdrop of a house ablaze. “No” they tell themselves, “No, we will not put out this fire only for Williamson to set a yet greater one”. Suntne lacrima rerum?

At least that is what you would think.

Instead, Williamson has managed to earmark a minor amount of money for a rather important aim:  getting a little bit more Latin into the country. The dismissive people I can understand. They are dysgenic, degenerate, and dysfunctional. They represent nothing we should wish to strive to be or cultivate. We can mark them as enemies and move on. Society needs such people. It is the so-called friends of the subject who are dangerous. The ones who have wormed their way into positions due to the impotent acquiescence of its so-called guardians, who now wear all of the subject’s trappings like some sort of skin suit, who constantly presume to speak for us when all they want is to speak at and not with we polloi.

“OH NO NOT THE HECKERINOO UNIVERSITIES!?!” is it not always the same refrain? “What about us! What about us!”. Even if we have reached (surpassed?) Tony “ethnically cleansing Iraq” Blair’s target of 50% students heading to universities,[3] how many end up in the Humanities? How many of those end up in Classics? Listen, by any reasonable metric Classics departments in universities are over, not under, funded. Yes, you heard that right. The amount of PhD studentships, early career fellowships, expensive EU, AHRC, etc etc funded research projects is unconscionable in light of the current rates of enrolment and all forecasted trends. Twitter has taught me that PhD’s are uniquely resistant to understanding market economics – I suppose they need that brain space for social striving – but looked at objectively, this is patently true. Depts. now graduate fewer people with markedly worse skills in Latin (let us not mention Greek!) annis volventibus but, hey, at least we have studies like The Eroticism of Foot-fetishes in Terence’s Andria and Noli me tangere: The Racial Politics of Hair in the Later Roman Empire.[4]

Classics depts. have singularly failed at their core functions, and we are sick of being treated like tax-serfs, forced to subsidise mediocrities. There are good scholars, geniuses really, somehow still teaching at the tertiary level. We must, however, cut out the canker, trim the fat, balance the pocketbook.  If this was not apparent before, it should be now (ἦτε γάρ ποτε σκότος, νῦν δὲ φῶς) when you see the serried ranks of those arrayed against what is really a tiny expenditure and a modest tincture, meant to give some glimmer of culture and opportunity to our least privileged. Who could honestly be against this? How much do you have to actively hate the poor?

Yes, why this disjunction? Part sheer cravenness (people desperate to get their share of an ever-shrinking pie) and part status anxiety. Teach enough people Latin, give them direct access to antiquity and suddenly they can see how feckless and useless most of the current batch of academics are. They were meant to serve as midwives and handmaidens of our classical patrimony – and it is our patrimony[5] – instead they have set themselves up as the worst kind of malignant, doddering, clerisy. Even a smattering of Latin, some time carved out with the Greco-Roman past, will expose them, and allow we unwashed masses to eschew their little narratives. Gone will be the dreaded cry of “historian/classicist/ancient historian here!”; gone, too, the attempts to copyright Galla Placidia’s birthday and bugmen “well aktschyyalallylylyl…” may be met per force with “well, in the text…”. It will be hard to justify not being able to read a page of Latin, unaided, until well into your PhD years when an increasing number of school children can do so with ease. Classics, incidentally, is the only discipline where we accept this. Students of French or Russian are not afforded the same privilege.

The special interest groups of course carry on unabated in the face of all this.[6] I mean are you really funding Classics if you’re not burning more money on the altar of whatever pseudo-intellectual cause du jour? The following is symptomatic:

I am not even 100% against this idea in principle,[7] however the correct response right now is really just “WTF?”. This, this is going to get bums in seats and kids interested? Not Miltiades and the lads charging down the Persians at Marathon, not the unlikely life and conquest of Alexander, nor Caesar weeping at things not yet done, but…this? No, it is not just the theoreticians, but even the real philologists are being stupidly obtuse. I also came across a tweet of some idiot lamenting that Latin is taught “without context” and we should make space for linking it to the broader PIE family (!!!) and teach the basics of linguistics. Elsewhere people are excitedly discussing the chance to utilise medieval and neo-Latin. This is…almost charming in how naïve it is. But now is not the time for charming.

Have…have you ever set foot in an underfunded working class school? I honestly do not know where to begin with these people. They are so out of touch as to the conditions on the ground (which I am told have worsened since I was a student – and we used to literary fight the teachers). Do you point out that personal research interests are no basis for a national curriculum? That underfunded and understaffed faculties, fighting for resources and scraping by on two or three periods a week, can barely cover the language as it is? Do you remind people that it is the ancients and not their valour stealing commentators who interest people? Where? Ah never mind. These people are convinced they can close the hermeneutic gap between themselves and the ancient Mediterranean but can’t even understand the situation affecting their poorer countrymen.[8]

baina Krokodilo Jauna what about politicisation? Ah yes, the same people who claim “everything is political” are the first to use “politicisation” as a derogatory term. Take the following:

Burnham is, of course, living proof that sortition is likelier superior to voting for choosing elected officials. Yet, even by the standards of the anti-Semitic Labour party this is some low rhetoric. Where are the Tory boys politicising this? Believe me I have tried to find them. Instead, there are seemingly endless Labour/LibDem/#FBPE people keen to turn tribal. Incidentally this trifling support of Latin comes as part of a wider package where foreign languages such as Mandarin are given a commensurately larger share of the pie. So much for Little Englander Tories vaunting Latin’s superiority! People reacting with this unseemly petulance really need to sit down and ask themselves a few questions. I will highlight two I find somewhat pressing.

To be fair you do kinda suspect a homophobe to hate the Greeks and Romans. Points for consistency.

For starters, if you unflinchingly associate Latin/Classics with the Conservatives – why? What does it mean that there are never any equivalent movements of support from successive left-wing governments, funding bodies, and think-tanks? This is not an idle question. If this is a one-sided political issue, why?

Secondly, why do you feel that giving into your tribalism, that flying your team colours (“eeww nasty party bad, we good!”) is more important than supporting one of the handful of teeny tiny opportunities for poorer students to gain some exposure to the ancient world? I am not here to critique your priorities – though for the record I absolutely do not share them, I obviously think the Classics more important than political tribalism – but you should at least own them and be transparent about them.  

Who can disagree with this?

I think it is time to start wrapping up. I can only say that as someone who came from a horrendously deprived background, I would have welcomed a similar initiative during my schooling. There were no such programmes, no emphasis on outreach, diversity, recruitment etc etc. The UK has come a long way. This programme will not change much, but if we are lucky it holds within it the seeds of a gradual transformation. If UK Classicists (stop looking towards the US!!) can come together, offer support and encouragement, do whatever to help make this a success then in future years we might create an environment where no child will think the treasures of the past beyond their reach.

How have the professional guardians of the discipline failed to remember this? I recently saw a tweet that said something like “discourse is only discourse if you let it be” and…they’re right. Even on this blog, it is easy to get weighed down with the sniping and the fighting and the defensiveness and lose sight of why so many of us got into Classics in the first place: not because we were unable to get into PPE or English, not because we saw a decrepit old field of which we could take advantage…but because it is fascinating, and enthralling, and challenging. It is time to get back to that joy, to eschew the niggling little telchines – νήιδες οἳ Μούσης οὐκ ποτέ ἐγένοντο φίλοι – and focus once more on the ancient world herself.

The study of antiquity is a demanding field, but there are few more rewarding and doubtless none more interesting. To those students about to commence on its study for the first time, I wish the absolute best. You will learn things that delight and shock you, you will discover why in the face of civilisational collapse, Viking raids, Arab piracy, religious persecution, revolution, and war monks, scholars, and scribblers fought to keep the light of learning burning. As for the naysayers, well…


[1] For the avoidance of doubt, do not mix these. I disavow.

[2] Not an ascending tricolon but much like Catullus 56 (pro telo rigida mea cecidi) it is the central element that counts.

[3] Don’t look away, coward. What exactly do you think Western governments were up to? “nation building”?

[4] Did you Google those? Fucking lol, your dad was right about you.

[5] Another unpopular opinion. I say that if something has been a fairly central preoccupation of your country’s intellectual climate for centuries, drawn a large share of the public purse in funding, and animates your culture….it is part of your intellectual inheritance.

[6] “group” is too ill defined. They are a group in so far as they share interests in the same topics being advanced. Why am I writing this note? Because some quasiliterate will always attack such comments as proof of an illogical belief in some shadowy cabal behind the scenes. There is no cabal, no conspiracy, mere cowardice, greed, and idiocy.

[7] Yes, hello, please, hello: can we decolonise European Classics’ depts. from this American garbage please?

[8] Congratulations you have found the secret footnote.

Passio Mariae Barbae

***So, some of you guys are clearly illiterate and seem to be thinking the take away is that you can be mean to transpeople/old women/whatever. No. Treat human beings, whoever they are, with the same dignity that you yourself would want. This is not, should not be, a difficult concept to understand. You can’t harass people for looking different. You can’t harass people for something they have not said.***

Was S. Severus a persecutor of Christians?[1] You see I write this on the cusp of the Ανάσταση and, as always during this time of year, the role of suffering in faith and the development of Christianity under the Roman boot/aegis (delete depending on the century of your reading) is much on my mind. Though we debate the frequency, severity, timbre, and cause, persecutions were a major part of Christianity’s entstehung. If anything, such things are still a part of Christianity. In large swathes of the world Christians are still persecuted and, indeed, there have been periods (are still periods?) where the Christians were the ones doing the persecuting. Who now, after all, remembers the Albigeois? The women of Salem and elsewhere we reduce to a meme or a tourist attraction, and it seems that only a few dictionary botherers care for the summary extinction of Baltic paganism nowadays. The foot in the boot has changed, the kickings remain the same.

Which brings us back to Severus, whom later Christian tradition sometimes remembers as one of the persecutors along with Decius and Diocletian.[2] One of the people persecuted and martyred during his reign was a young noblewoman called Vibia Perpetua. How do we know this? A text survives from the period which details her suffering. Called the Passio Perpetuae, the bulk of the text is seemingly her own prison dairy with some sort of homily appended to the beginning and an account of her death and that of her maidservant affixed to the tail. I think the little work has become something of an internet sensation. Certainly, I had never read it until a few years ago. Along with Sulpicia’s poetry, it must be amongst the earliest female authored Latin texts that we now possess. It is an interesting read and well suited to current tastes.[3] Anyway, in the text Vibia Perpetua, along with her maidservant Felicitas, are apprehended by the authorities and put into prison, awaiting execution.  Vibia Perpetua’s father is evidently a man of note and tries to intercede on her behalf, but she is intransient:

Parce, inquit,[4] canis patris tui, parce infantiae pueri. fac sacrum pro salute imperatorum. et ego respondi: Non facio. Hilarianus: Christiana es? inquit. et ego respondi: Christiana sum. et cum staret pater ad me deiciendam, iussus est ab Hilariano proiciet uirga percussus est. et doluit mihi casus patris mei quasi ego fuissem percussa; sic dolui pro senecta eius misera. tunc nos uniuersos pronuntiat et damnat ad bestias; et hilares descendimus ad carcerem.

“Spare” he said “your father’s grey hairs, spare the infancy of the boy.[5] Make sacrifice for the wellbeing of the Emperors”. And I responded, “I shall not”. Hilarianus asked “you are a Christian?” and I responded, “I am a Christian”. And then, when my father stood by for the casting down [of my faith], he was ordered thrown down and beaten with a staff by Hilarianus. The fall of my father saddened me as if I myself were beaten and I was saddened too by his miserable old age. Then he passed sentence on all of us: we were damned to the beasts, and happily went down to the prison.

Passio Perpetuae 6.

There are two relevant bits of the text to the current Mary Beard situation (and I swear, they are relevant)[6]: The command to just sacrifice to the emperors and Perpetua’s absolute stubbornness in both proclaiming her Christianity and refusal to perform a simple gesture. This little scene, the exasperated Roman governor, the fanatical Christian, is repeated across our sources and is misunderstood as often as it is commented upon.[7] “You see!” says the modern commentator “this is proof that the pagan Romans were orthoprax as opposed to orthodox!”. In other words, believe what you like, just behave like we do. How cosmopolitan and modern! They probably voted Liberal Democrat in the local elections, too. Utter fucking nonsense. If there was no belief in the efficacy of ritual, they would not be at such pains to ensure it done. In addition to the religious, there was also a transparently secular motive, the kind we can recognise in any imperial project. The Romans knew, as we have forgotten, that orthodoxy follows orthopraxy.

Arch of Trajan, Beneventum: sacrifice (detail)
Arch of Trajan, Beneventum. Photo by Roger Ulrich. The scene is one of sacrifice, presumably for the health of the Emperor.

Perpetua’s refusal to sacrifice (non facio), her repeated confession of her faith (Christiana sum) is a powerful gesture, again, not well understood in the modern world. We talk endlessly of inclusivity, but such things always by definition exclude someone or thing. In an environment where there are competing group interests, signifying your status vis a vis in and out groups can be costly, as poor Perpetua found out. Again, our modern society is anodyne. If I ask you to picture someone with tattoos you are much more likely to picture some risible hipster or even somehow you know rather than a hardened lifer. You, presumably, do not need to worry whether your shirt and tie combo signifies membership of a rival gang when walking to your office. Not so for much of human history.[8] “Conform” says Hilarianus, “show us that you belong, submit to our power structure, or…”. Just burn a little incense. Just bow your head. Just say the words. Go on, go on. And what does Perpetua say? Christiana sum “fuck off”.

This, then, is not an example of two groups speaking across one another. Both are speaking the same language: power.[9]

“The Discourse”

Which brings us, finally, to Mary Beard. A few days ago, someone traduced Beard as a transphobe. Well, not exactly. Someone noted that Beard follows or is followed by transphobes. This certainly should cause eyebrows to raise. Not because Beard is above reproach (who could or would vouch that?) but because there is something inherently distasteful about guilt by association – especially when phrased in such a weaselly way. Anyway, surely something so basic could be quickly cleared up? Of course. Not

et intelleximus passionem esse futuram, et coepimus nullam iam spem in saeculo habere.

And we knew the future to be a passion [lit: a suffering], and we began to have no hope in this age.

Passio Perpetuae 4.

To bewildered onlookers, I suggest that the power dynamics present in the Passio Perpetua help you make sense of all that is happening. I am focusing on power, which always seems venal, because the go to defence of people called on their bullying on twitter (and it is bullying) is always that you should be more mindful of power structures. One, in other words, should not punch down. Just what is up and what is done is highly contentious and amorphous. Schrodinger’s cardinal direction if you will. Miraculously, people in the accuser’s in group are always being punched down and always punching up. As an outsider of no account, I often look upon this with a mixture of sadness and bereavement. I much rather nobody punches anyone, but ok, fine.

So, what ought Beard to have done when faced with this accusation? Certainly not write a TLS piece defending herself (“wielding institutional power”) or try to explain herself (“a nopology”) to the twitter mob. Even so much as addressing her accuser was taboo (“punching down”; “orchestrating a pile on”).

She stands accused (esne Christiana?) and she has two options. Either she affirms the charges and damns herself to the beasts or she gives in to the demands, makes the sacrifice, says the words, bows her head (fac sacrum pro salute imperatorum). Those were apparently the only options. The power dynamics were naked for all to see. You would have to be an academic to miss them. Beard, however, did the equivalent of ignoring the procurator and walking out of the courtroom. The fallout from this has been the predictable thunderstorm in the tea-cup that erupts over #ClassicsTwitter every fortnight or so. There are several accounts signalling their own in group status apropos of seemingly nothing with all the forcefulness of Perpetua’s Christiana sum.

Make no mistake, Perpetua, Euplus et al who affirmed their faith did so in an environment which meant they would at the very least face censure and most likely death. They were purposefully doing the equivalent of wearing the wrong gang colours in the wrong area,[10] all these accounts are doing is forming a mob. The equivalent of the imperial functionary and his cronies. There is no faith, no virtue, in these demands on Mary Beard. Just power. What must this look like to outsiders, I wonder? Certainly not support of trans people. For that one might look to various practical measures such as this support meeting (I don’t see the link, so I will post the tweet for any of my trans readers interested in joining).

Instead, to outsiders and quasi(?)-outsiders like myself, the current kerfuffle looks like a lot of bullying of one elderly professor and a lot of status-signalling from people who are otherwise untouched. It also stinks of envy and a complete lack of charity to one of your own.

Which leaves us to wrap up this short piece. I am sorry for the clumsiness, but for a while now it has increasingly seemed to me that the kind of behaviour we see our corporations, universities, and governments behave is religious in nature and I thought that parsing this through the lens of a religious text and the model of intra-religious conflict might prove, if not elucidating, interesting.

Is Beard a transphobe? I would like to think such an eminent Classicist does not have it in her to set her face against anyone based on their personal characteristics. But who can read the heart of another? Who should? Who is entitled to know? Certainly twitter seems to think itself entitled to judge. I, like many others, am sick of all this performative virtue from a group of people who would step over the still twitching corpses of their friends for a shot at a TT job. I am sick of the Spanish Inquisition like nastiness. The lack of grace, the base meanness. I do not know if Beard is a transphobe, but I do know that she is brave[11] Let the incense remain unburnt. Let the creed remain unspoken. Let us have good deeds rather than pretty words. Hilarianus can go fuck himself.  

Τί οὖν; προεχόμεθα; οὐ πάντως…καθὼς γέγραπται ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν δίκαιος οὐδὲ εἷς.

What then? Are we better? Not at all…as it is written that there is no one just, not one.

Romans 3:9-10


[1] imperator, not potions master, you fucking millennial.

[2] Decius has suffered the impotent ignominy of being completely forgotten by any public, Diocletian had his body turfed out of his own palace in Spalatum. A crime of which many of the modern inhabitants with whom I have spoken are proud. I do not doubt that Christians were persecuted under Severus, but I could say not off the top of my head whether he took a more Trajanic or a more Decian involvement.

[3] Perhaps not really the place, but for anyone looking for more female authored Latin texts, @SkyeAShirley has set up a group which is worth checking out: https://www.lupercallegit.org/ go read some Latin! By tastes I mean both the attempt to diversify and extend our cannon and in the increasing integration of Christian/Late Antique texts into mainstream curricula.

[4] The speaker is one Hilarianus, a procurator. The title is quite general. Think of him as a minor functionary who did not himself wield imperium. He does seem a right shit, however.

[5] Both Perpetua and Felicitas had recently given birth, the former is still nursing and has her baby with her for a good part of the text. In jail. Yes…

[6] They are probably not relevant. Shhh. Just keep reading.

[7] The locus classicus optimus is Pliny Epistulae 10.96-97. The first of these is Pliny’s lengthy description of the procedures he uses to deal with Christians, the second is Trajan’s reply. Also, the Jewish writer Philo has an interesting account of an embassy to Gaius Caligula which underlines how threatening this demand can be. Jews (despite getting off to a rocky start with the Romans, thanks Pompey!) were often otherwise exempted from these trials, but then the sovereign is he who decides when, where, and how falls the exception.

[8] As you can tell from my examples, not so for a good part of modern society either once you step outside that middle class bubble.

[9] This may not be the tweed and ivy girt analysis you are used to, but it comes from the experience of both the slums and the boardroom and I dare say it is indeed the correct one.

[10] This is an Americanism that I may not entirely be getting right. From my own background one tended to get jumped for a) being of the wrong ethnicity or b) from the wrong post-code. Americans, a post-code is like a zip-code but more functional and sensible.

[11] Seriously. Bigger fish than her have been, er, scalped. Look at the current kerfuffle over Richard Dawkins and J. K. Rowling. Classicists routinely overestimate their own importance at a time when entire departments are disposable.

[13] Congratulations. You have found the secret 13th footnote. Tomorrow morning you will wake up to find $3 underneath your pillow.

controversiae crocodili: some controversial classics opinions

Alexander the Great defence attorney totally impartial researcher @agameganon recently put out a call for controversial opinions. This, of course, has an eminently classical precedent. Students in the Roman empire would practice for legal careers by declaiming suasoriae (see our borrowed word persuade, the root is cognate with the English word sweet) and controversiae (…duh).  Whilst awaiting the forthcoming launch of the BOUS journal, I thought I would give it a go. As someone who marches lockstep with the cutting edge of #ClassicsTwitter, it was incredibly difficult for me to find something controversial but see below for five four such controversiae.

Learn, or at least use, the accents.

The amount of complaining over what really is not a huge effort is rather quite striking. “It’s too difficult”, “Who has time?”, “why, this is violence!” and so on. Look, the accents *matter*. Not only in terms of differentiating otherwise minimal pairs (did you see a weasel, or did you see a calm? Am I going or, simply, am I?), but in being able to properly read the words out loud and therefore internalise the shape (the phonotactics) of Ancient Greek. It is criminal that the accentuation system is so thoroughly ignored by modern learners. I suspect many teachers were not properly taught and subsequently pass on their habit of abusing the Greek language to their bright-eyed charges.

I lay no small portion of the blame at the sock and sandalled feet of the modern academics. Probert’s A New Short Guide to the Accentuation of Ancient Greek clocks in at 235 pages. This volume is meant to improve upon Postgate’s earlier version. Perhaps it does, but does it warrant more than twice the amount of pagination? Is it twice as good? No, of course not. With this as the industry standard, is there any wonder people are put off? Learning – or at least using (seriously, just stress the word where you see the little mark) – should not be an ordeal.[1] Every Greek schoolchild memorises the rules in a few weeks. The most important rules only make up a single side of A4:

What a princely handout.

Also, there is a lot of patronising in e.g Youtube comments (quando non sunt?) and in the mouths of German and American Classicists as to the Ancient Greek pronunciation of Greeks. You stupid bitches, how do you think Greek speakers know where to put the accent when speaking out loud? Do you think pronouncing β as /b/ whilst slinging in your potato vowels and profligate accents (EYE-mi does not in any way correspond to εἰμί) is better than a living pronunciation that accurately places the accents and therefore must know the correct vowel length? If you want to be the accent police (why, bro?) at least pass over the lowest hurdle. Have some humility before you criticise others.

WTF is this?
ahhh, that is better.

Secondary Literature ought to be written in Latin.

Twitter and, apparently, the Classics Listserv has recently been crying about languages again.[2] We have mirabile auditu moved on from complaining about classical languages to modern ones. Progress? I guess? There are two main complaints. The first of these is that requiring modern languages is not inclusive. Ah, inclusivity! You will notice that in the mouth of an American “inclusive” really means “make things as easy for me as possible, no matter how much this burdens everyone else” and “remove even the most reasonable barriers of entry and measures of accountability…for me”. I have little patience with this base arrogance, and I dare say Francophones, Italophones, Lusitanophones κτλ working in the Anglosphere have any either. To be a natively Anglophone Classicist is to be born with a golden spoon in one’s mouth: Universities in the Anglosphere are staffed with the best and brighten from the entire world (the morality of this brain-drain is something else, entirely) and English dominates academic publishing. Shut up, be grateful, and do the bare minimum to be able to be a good colleague and contributor to your academic discipline.

That is the first complaint. The second seems to be from Germanophones complaining that nobody reads their barbarbar anymore.

All this leads me to my “controversial” opinion: we should publish (more) scholarship in Latin. There is an extremely strong (some might say erotically throbbing) historical precedent for this. It is an incredibly elegant solution. Everyone is at a similar dis/advantage. No singular vernacular is overly privileged. Fledgling Classicists are firmly grounded in their intellectual heritage. It centres Latin and therefore inoculates against the worst of modern secondary literature and forces institutions to take equitable and effective Latin pedagogy seriously. Couple the moral and intellectual duty to pass on these languages with an economic incentive like that and everything else will follow. Better Classics. Fairer Classics. A more connected, international, Classics.

There will inevitably be some pushback to this one. Let me go over these at pace.

Not every Classicist can write well in Latin or teach it to a high enough standard.

Sack them. There, I have cleared up your funding/institutional bloat problem as well. Medieval aristocrats fought in the front line. Ancient Indian Brahmins guarded the most arcane and esoteric traditions of their people and underwent several restrictive taboos. Celtic Druids trained (according to Caesar) for 20 years. What is it about the modern academic that they feel entitled to a free ride, cushy sinecures, without doing the bare minimum? No, no, no. If you want to work on Russia or China or England…you learn the languages. Classicists are not special. Shape up or ship out. Disce aut discede.

I am hardly the type of person to treat the PhD with any deference, but even I can see that twitter is full of very talented ECRs existing in precarity. Get rid of the useless tenured old guard and replace them with a handful of dedicated, talented, youngsters who could do this.

It is not very inclusive!

By your twisted self-serving definition, no. By any rational one, yes. This has already been answered.

What about accessibility of scholarship?

Is that an entirely bad thing? If you can’t comfortably read Virgil what can you possibility have to say about him? Again, this is the bare minimum expected in other academic fields that deal with languages and culture. We have neophytes trying to gallop before they can waddle (some of them are called professor). More to the point, there are thousands of books and articles already published in all manner of vernacular languages. Many of these will remain invaluable. Nobody is going to burn them.

What about accessibility for Non-Classicists

See the point above re: the current body of work. Also, please stop being disingenuous. Non-Classicists are hardly running to ZPE to get the latest. There are open facing journals such as Arion, Eidolon, the brand-new Antigone, academic press/university press releases, faculty web pages, personal blogs κτλ. An absolute smorgasbord of options.

Shouldn’t we use Greek instead?

Either you are a troll, in which case fuck off, or you are too stupid to realise how idiotic that question is. In which case, more time reading before you even think of putting pen to paper.

me too!

How serious are you?

Quite. I am not saying all and every press needs to mandate only Latin. But put it as an option! Everybody wins!

German scholarship is colossally overrated.

Seemingly hypocritical from a blog that has produced a post dedicated to Wilamowitz and frequently cites him and other great scholars. I am dependant on the LfgrE like it is methadone, I pull from the Basler Kommentar like an ancient Egyptian duck-hunter, and I throw around concepts like nachleben. I am not saying scholarship in German is worthless I am saying it is overrated and that we achieve nothing by pretending the works of a handful of great scholars like Wissowa and Mommsen and a handful of reference volumes are in anyway representative. Let me cite a useful comment from a BMCR review: “… it raises the disturbing question whether the German academic system can continue to flood the shrinking market of scholarly monographs with unrevised dissertations of questionable value.”[3] Macte.

Moreover, this fetishising of German scholarship did not, alas, arise solely from the brilliance of yesteryear. If you think awfully hard, you might be able to think of a series of historical incidents that arose in the 1930s and 1940s that sent German scholars – especially those of a Jewish extraction – across Europe and the US. Naturally, these scholars inculcated and/or fortified a tradition of reading (and often writing) German scholarship. That was how they taught their students, and their students taught us (or our teachers).[4] This is very evident in the case of scholars like Fraenkel, Auerbach, Zuntz κτλ. Yes, we got a dash of Prussian rigour but also the cloying incest of the doktorvater pretentious nonsense.[5]

There is an uncomfortable history behind all this and that is why I can, with an iron spined rectitude, tell the quarrelsome German scholars lamenting their languages declining market share “cry more”.

Did some coprophiliac Austrian right this? Because this is a symphony.

Textual Criticism needs to be brought back into focus.

Following the Geneva convention any internet discussion on this needs must start with this anecdote found in West’s manual.[6]

West’s first chapter is a fantastic explanation and defence of textual criticism, I am not going to repeat any of it here. Textual criticism is one of the purest forms of Classicism, it will improve your Latin/Greek and is truly communal in that practitioners improve our pool of evidence for everyone. Sure, whatever. I want to focus on provenance.

One of the genuinely great trends I have noticed on #ClassicsTwitter has been the rising interest in the provenance of antiquities and concern over the antiquities trade. This goes far beyond the typical complaints and cavils over the Parthenon marbles to a wide range of statues, reliquaries, pots, frescos (!!) and so on. Perhaps this trend was inevitable in the modern interconnected world, but I suspect it has been spurred on by the horrors of ISIS, their wanton destruction and subsequent flooding of the antiquities market, all happening over twitter and telegram.[7] As a result, even younglings feel the need to know more beyond those innocuous laminated 4×4 cards affixed to the lip of a plinth or nestled into the cusp of a frame. A handful of twitter accounts have been useful for my own journey down this road, not all of them classically focused: Erin L. Thompson (@artcrimeprof) who, in addition to serious conversations, runs the #FakeOTD hashtag. Dorothy Lobel King (@DLVLK) is the Sherlock Holmes of Roman gemstones and auction catalogues (does that make Ellie the dog, Watson?). Vijay Kumar (@poetryinstone) is the author of an interesting book, The Idol Thief, and investigates various modern cases of theft. Anyway, the point is that texts too can have provenance. We scarcely have to go back to the days of nicking texts from the scriptorium of Fulda Abbey to embellish our point, let’s look at two recent cases, both involving papyri a recent case.[8]

At some point in 2014 a new, rather substantial, fragment of Sappho came too light. Just how it came to light is even now contested as the account from the horses’ mouth has changed somewhat from this rather novelistic one to a rather more lapidary version of events.[9] Leaving all that aside for a moment, perhaps one of the odder aspects of this whole affair was that for a brief moment or two antiquity was all over the news…and only a handful of working Classicists were in any sort of position to be able to offer sensible comment. This is truly bizarre when you think of it. There were probably infinitely more old fogies who took their bachelor’s degrees in the 80s and 90s au fait with the rules and methods of textual criticism than current students and professionals.[10]

A discipline that takes textual criticism seriously and as an important part of undergraduate reading is one that avoids such silliness. As a student I somewhat resented my tutors for asking us textual questions and forcing us to look stuff up and memorise seemingly arcane sigla, but it made me a Classicist. Not a better Classicist. A Classicist full-stop. I can not claim to love the textual criticism, I am hardly a specialist (nor would I ever want to be, frankly), but I am at least conversant with the text because of this skillset and not a victim of sometimes fanciful editors. I suppose there is also a question of equity. A majority of the textual work in the Anglosphere is done in OxBridge and London (with some particularly good papyrological work at Manchester and Michigan). How is this fair or sustainable? Contrast Italophone Classics where there is much more robust decentralisation.

Whence the new Sappho papyrus (P. Sapph. Obbink)? Wither goes it? Who knows? I do not think any of this is an open and shut case – though as of a fortnight or so Brill has discontinued its companion volume due to allegations of illicit providence. Readers looking to better situate themselves in debate could do worse than to read this. And if all that hasn’t convinced you maybe this tongue in cheek chicanery will?

***

haec verba locutus, ab computorio se vertit et clamavit “facta est opera!” That is it for now. I am sure I can wrangle up more controversial opinions, but I think we all need a break. What do you think? Have you any thoughts of your own? Comment, tweet, affix a tear sodden letter to the foot of a carrier pigeon, whisper into the midnight wind; let us know!

P.S My three long-time readers will have noticed some changes to the blog’s visual formatting. I am – still – having issues with WordPress’ new editor and style formatting and might move to another platform in the near future. If anyone has any experience with other platforms, let m know what you recommend. Because WP right now is abhorrently torturous.


[1] This is not the place for a book review, feel free to check out the BMCR if that is your thing. I do like this book, incidentally. The title is incredibly misleading, insultingly so, and the circumstances which make this volume so important are frustrating.

[2] https://listserv.liv.ac.uk/cgi-bin/wa?A1=ind2104&L=CLASSICISTS#39 did not read lol.

[3] https://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/1999/1999.04.20/ judging by recent contributions they absolutely can.

[4] To a (much) lesser extent we see a similar thing with Italian. But for whatever reason giants like Momigliano have been less fortunate in the influential placements of their students.

[5] Even the Germans now think it cringey to discuss academic pedigree as if we were at Crufts. Nowadays, the term betreuer is preferred and few boast of reconstructed stemmata of teachers/advisers the way Anglos do.

[6] West, M. L. (1973). Textual criticism and editorial technique applicable to Greek and Latin texts. Walter de Gruyter. Pp7.

[7] Here is a good study using open source data (PDF): https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2700/RR2706/RAND_RR2706.pdf

[8] Initially I had intended to add a little non-classical flair by also examining the recentish Coptic shenanigans surrounding the so called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. However, my review of Ariel Saber’s brilliant book is still not done and I note that the fantastic piece by Theo Nash makes more than passing mention of it. So go read that.

[9] “Monsieur le Crocodile, abonnez-vous à la Times?” of course not, Jesus Christ. Also, lector carissime, tu is fine.

[10] At least in the Anglosphere.

The hideous weakness of the modern classicist

A chance tweet by @theo_nash has had an intemperate effect on my reading as of late.[1] I naturally went straight to the inaugural lecture, which may be found here. As far as such things go it is not as entertaining as Wilamowitz’ zukunftsphilologie or as erudite as Housman’s UCL accessional, it is certainly interesting.[2]

“But we have lived to see the second death of ancient learning. In our time something which was once the possession of all educated men has shrunk to being the technical accomplishment of a few specialists…it could even be argued that Latin  gave to some parts of the classical heritage a far more living and integral status in the life of those ages [the dark ages]  than the academic studies of the specialists can claim in our own… if one were looking for a man who could not read Vergil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the 20th century than the 5th.”

The essay is not all doom and gloom. It is a sombre (if at times self-aggrandising!) narration.[3] It anticipates some of the debates we are currently having, which we have always been having, on the degeneration of skills amongst humanities specialists, the exclusion of the public, and the utility of periodisation.[4] Where it stands out against modern screeds, however, is the evident love of its subject. There is no talk of burning down here.

I thoroughly recommend you read it and, as usual, if you have limited time and the choice is between that and this blog post, click the little x in the corner and go and read Lewis.[5]

I did say it had an intemperate effect on my reading, I was inspired enough to re-read his The Discarded Image. How much more I got from it as an adult! What a beautiful book! It is passim outdated, and Lewis and I clearly come at literature from directly opposite angles,[6] but near every page oozes erudition in the best of the humanist tradition. It is also beautifully written and recently led me to ponder why so many Classics’ books are so turgidly written and to try and crowdsource a list of beautifully written ones, available here. Once again if you have any suggestions please add them. Anyway, Lewis. Having re-read The Discarded Image, I found myself moving on to his fiction.

Lewis, like Tolkien, was a member of the now famous literary discussion group the Inklings (this is as boring as it is seemingly mandatory to add in any blog, essay, or fucking tweet on these guys) and like his colleagues he wrote a mixture of fiction (whether poetry or prose – all poetry is fiction because all poets praeter Homerum are filthy liars) as well as more academically focused non-fiction. Like all the Inklings, the line between his fictive and factual literary works was a blurry one and (post/)Christian themes are liable to animate both sides of his literary production. Consider the way one can trace a direct line both from Tolkien’s interest in Germanic philology and his Catholicism all the way into his Lord of the Rings. Lewis’ fiction perhaps evinces this more evidently than that of the others, as anyone who has read the Chronicles of Narnia can tell you. It is common now for the chattering classes to speak disparagingly of the Christian elements of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, calling them obvious, lame, and preachy allegories whilst lauding whatever moronic book the NYT is hawking that happens to reaffirm their faith more fiercely than any expounder of homiletics would dare.

One of these is a thinly disguised allegory pushing a particular moral outlook. The other has a talking lion.

But why am I justifying my choice to pick up some fiction to you idiots? After all, as Lucan says:

Ὥσπερ τοῖς ἀθλητικοῖς καὶ περὶ τὴν τῶν σωμάτων ἐπιμέλειαν ἀσχολουμένοις οὐ τῆς εὐεξίας μόνον οὐδὲ τῶν γυμνασίων φροντίς ἐστιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῆς κατὰ καιρὸν γινομένης ἀνέσεως – μέρος γοῦν τῆς ἀσκήσεως τὸ μέγιστον αὐτὴν ὑπολαμβάνουσιν – οὕτω δὴ καὶ τοῖς περὶ τοὺς λόγους ἐσπουδακόσιν ἡγοῦμαι προσήκειν μετὰ τὴν πολλὴν τῶν σπουδαιοτέρων ἀνάγνωσιν ἀνιέναι τε τὴν διάνοιαν καὶ πρὸς τὸν ἔπειτα κάματον ἀκμαιοτέραν παρασκευάζειν.

Those who are interested in athletics and the care of their bodies are concerned not just with keeping themselves in good condition and well exercised, but with timely relaxation: indeed, they regard this as the most important part of training. In the same way, I think it does students of literature good, after hard and serious reading, to relax their minds and invigorate them further for future efforts.

Lucian True History 1.1 (trans D. Costa (2005))

Anyway. I found myself picking up his That Hideous Strength (whence the bastardised title of this piece). The book, as we shall see, has some very interesting things to say about humanistic learning and the modern academy in general. First, a general sketch. Spoilers? Probably – I am trying to avoid them but must therefore tread the line between scuppering your (potential) enjoyment and indulging in a seemingly nonsensical rant. THS reminded me very strongly of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim as both novels share a few notable elements:[7] the young, ambitious academic in a state of precarious employment whilst simultaneously grapplng with problems with the opposite sex. I think Lewis’ Tolkien Ransom is the more interesting protagonist of the two. I am not sure either book handles the female sex well. Both books contain fantastical elements. Amis’ eponymous Jim is meant to be in some manner likeable or at least sympathetic: Lewis has Merlin and extra-terrestrial magic beings.  But aside from its (perhaps prurient) use of spoken Latin, what does this book have to say about Classics and its would be guardians/parole officers? My copy is full of highlights and notes (not all of them laudatory, mind you), but I would like to use this blog to offer a small selection.

One common theme is the essential hollowness of the (then) modern man. He has no learning, he has no faith, he has no roots. I am sure that Lewis is writing from a predominantly Christian context (I am deaf to much of this), but he could basically be describing the death of any real engagement with the Classics. Look at the way the protagonist’s education is described:

“It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical-merely “Modern “. The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers), and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.”[8]

This is no mere old man yelling at clouds. Whilst, yes, nefarious forces are aligned against poor Mark, much of his difficulty is compounded by his own moral failings and the empty caverns of his unexercised synapses. He knows nothing fully but has the careerist shrewdness that characterises his profession (he is, of course, an academic). Mark is a Sociologist, a student of a made-up subject for the lesser able, but I dare say the modern Classicist is on no more stable ground. How many Classicists now possess any “exact knowledge” of their discipline? How many bachelors, masters, doctors are there who have never read through even Homer or Virgil but are full to the brim of whatever recently published nonsense is on their reading lists? i.e enough to do “well on Essays and General Papers” with little risk of being exposed to actual difficulty or the nobility (or baseness!) of their subject?

Lewis likewise seems to have anticipated the attempt to transform or deconstruct the Classics, often disguised with words like “reclaiming” or “retelling” (some would more honestly say subverting or even ruining). He uses a very striking, visual, metaphor for this. At some point Mark finds himself in the beating heart of the dreaded “institute” and takes a moment to examine some of the art on display and what follows is one of the best portraits (lol) of the modern school I have recently read.

“Their peculiar ugliness consisted in the fact that they kept on suggesting it and then frustrating expectation. He realised that this was another trap…

Some belonged to a school with which he was familiar. There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skilfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could feel that hair. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea beneath a summer sunset.

… the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became like the ominous surface innocence at the beginning of certain dreams. Every fold of drapery, every piece of architecture, had a meaning one could not grasp but which withered the mind.”[9]

The whole passage is brilliant, and I was struck forcefully enough to immediately re-read it. What is this describing but most modern scholarship? Mind withering. A half-hidden ugliness to it that is always suggesting, and very rarely out in the open. The work produced by the classicistuli is like this. Close enough to real Classics that it almost passes muster, but the little divergences that are at first unnoticeable bit by bit build up an uncanny valley effect of revulsion before they smack you in the face. Sure, perhaps you honestly think Alaric is a sympathetic figure akin to the modern refugee, perhaps you genuinely think the sexual impulse and modern gender identities were the driving force behind a millennium of Byzantium art (to name two recent examples), but such things are so divorced from the source cultures we study, so far from the evidence offered by the texts, but I cannot really believe it. Perhaps the classicistuli are like the main character, hollow chested “strawmen, glib examinees”, rather than the deliberately sinister perverters who work at the evil institute. Perhaps. It makes no difference; the effect is the same.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

We are everywhere told to be on our guard against the “appropriation” of the Classics. As if 90% of current academic work is anything but! I look at sites like, for example, Pharos Classics and though I find them more histrionic than accurate half the time it astonishes me that not one of these people ever stops to ask themselves why. Why is there this unsatisfied hunger for the Classics? Why are so many people turned off by modern secondary texts (or, indeed, the academics themselves who author them)? Perhaps there are indeed some racists, fascists, white supremacists and so on. I can credit such things. But to the extent these places are claiming? We must admit that there is some ugliness in a lot of these modern Classicists. There is something unseemly about a spindly armed gentleman damning the Spartans as losers for Thermopylae whilst comfortably drawing on a public sinecure. Something off-putting.  Is it really surprising more and more people are looking elsewhere for their classical fix?

This is indeed a problem. But the primary/secondary dichotomy should be a false one. Secondary reading should be a product 10% or so of your study.

Similarly evil too is the institute’s tendency to never really say what they mean. Words are twisted into new meanings or any straight answer hedged and buried within a wall of text. Truth can be warped by evil and neutered by bullshit, basically. Sometimes this is blatant as in the acronym naming the agency – N.I.C.E – sometimes slightly more subtle as in the set-piece speeches of the mysterious deputy director (note that, always eschewing taking real responsibility, he is the deputy director), whether in English or Latin these speeches are worth studying. Seriously, if there are any teachers or lecturers reading this, use some of these speeches in your English to Latin exercises.

The effect of these speeches on the reader is quite something, by the way. Again and again we find ourselves subjected to these long winded speeches that move between vacillation and vacuity, where words are redefined seemingly halfway through being employed. The genius is that we, at first, sympathise with poor Mark who clearly does not want to make a fuss but it quickly becomes apparent that this aberrant language use really is just an exercise of power over the protagonist and, vicariously, the reader. I was reminded not just of the kind of recent scholarship whose foundations wither away once you consult the primary texts in their own language, but the novel of a very different Lewis.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass[10]

Socrates:ἔχεις τι;
Humpty Dumpty: οὐδέν γε πλὴν ἢ τὸ πέος ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ.

“But Croc!” I hear you say “surely none of this matters? Who reads modern scholarship anyway? It’s not as if they are going to take the Classics themselves anyway…” Well first off handsome reader, I must say it very much does matter. If nobody reads any of this scholarship then why on earth are we subsiding it with tax dollars better spent on coding camps or cookery classes? I know, I know, terribly old fashioned to expect public institutions to benefit the public. The fact is accessing and understanding the ancient world is hard and good scholarship is a boon. It is why, however much I hate the moderns, I honour men like Porson and Bentley and Wilamowitz etc etc. They should be honoured. I do not think they deserve more honour than the skilled carpenter or mason, but we should be grateful for their work. The same can not be said for their self-appointed epigones.

Whenever complaints like this are brought up – that modern humanities academics are producing work that obfuscate rather than illuminate, that they tell us more about themselves than their subject matter – the usual tuiterati affect a supercilious posture and exclaim “well nobody is taking away your Classics you know!” and nod and smile to one another about how stupid we, the plebs, are. Let us not mention any of the recent articles talking about the removal of classical texts from school curricula and be real for a moment. You see, the average person does not enter school at 5 and stay there for the rest of their adult life. There is a finite window of opportunity for them to have time to learn about something that does not relate to their fiscal wellbeing. All you have to do is frustrate access a little, push people away a little, and the effect is compounded across time.

Nobody is taking away your real Classics. You just can’t teach it or talk about it

There is something to be said for the hope that even through all the distortions and perversions people will still flock to the actual ancient texts. Lewis certainly seems to think so. After all, despite his lengthy stay in that room full of demented art the protagonist begins to think of haler things.

“after an hour, this long high coffin of a room began to produce on Mark an effect which his instructor had probably not anticipated. As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose. up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight”

But of course Lewis thinks this! Of course he has this annoying optimism! For Lewis the lines between scholarship and religion are consistently elided, crossed, confounded. Here is a hilariously characteristic example. A character undergoes some sort of deeply religious experience and another remarks, apparently in all seriousness “how much better you will now understand the seventeenth-century poets!”. For Lewis it may be (going back to his inaugural) enough to be a co-religionist with Boethius to understand him, but I do not think that really offers us enough of a connection to really understand on any deep level. After all, that would mean that by his own criterion he could never hope to understand Homer, Apuleius, Virgil etc. I think sort of a thing is a major weakness in Lewis’ argument. You constantly confuses understanding with deriving benefit from. The average Silicon Valley bro has a laughable understanding of Stoicism on any deep level, but they certainly derive a benefit from it. This is no mean thing.

I suspect that this is where Lewis and I could diverge. He would damn me as a man neither Christian nor Pagan, and reprimand me that good morality not only surpasses good scholarship but encapsulates it, may even be required for it. Certainly he has argued this elsewhere, e.g in his Abolition of Man.[11] I obviously do not think this is true. There are, have been, very many great scholars of abominable personal character. Leaving aside some of the modern allegations, you only have to look back to men like Bowra and Dover – brilliant scholars, but catty and corrupt. On the bright side, producing good men is a difficult and uncertain process (what does Jesus say? οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός.)[12] but producing good scholars is something we have centuries of success in. Lewis is right, however, about the importance of beauty when dealing with our subject matter, and that’s the main lesson of the book. For me at least.

The other lesson is to try and focus on doing. However ultimately ineffectual. Donate books to schools and local libraries, write and talk about the texts you love in as engaging a manner as you can. Make as good a case as you can, whenever you can, even if ultimately futile.

Anyway, enough of my meandering. How does this – and the novel – end? I have made reference once or twice to men of straw, to hollow men, and it is from the novel that this is pulled. Published some time in the 40’s I dare say Lewis would have been familiar with the poem by Eliot of the same name. Anyone who reads this blog will probably know how that poem ends, it is horrendously over cited, and I now join my midwit brethren and likewise cite it:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

Well, it does, and it does not in the novel’s case. There is very much a bang, both literal and metaphorical (seriously, the theology of love in this book is…odd, to say the least). But as for the Classics as a discipline? There will be no bang, no fire, no conflagration. When they have twisted all that is good and fascinating and beautiful in the texts to something mean and ugly, when they have pushed everyone away by their conduct and their impenetrable prose, when they make us think love for the past is really hatred, then we will end. Not with a bang but a whimper.


[1] I freely admit that this was supposed to February’s blogpost.

[2] Does anyone have a good link to a transcription of Housman’s lecture on accession to the Kennedy chair? You’d think those fucking tsigounides at Cambridge would put it up gratis, but…

[3] Lewis claims for himself and his generation a particular affiliation with the past (“I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours…I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”) which does not hold up to scrutiny. He has, at best, something of an affiliation with those post-scholastic humanistae (ironic!). He is a fine critic, but there is no more of the classical in him than there is in most of us. Far less than in the Italian olive farmer or the professional athlete. Calm it the fuck down Clive.

[4] Lewis seeks to re-organise our literary periodisation, especially the breach between the Medieval and Renaissance eras (which was first put in place by the followers of Petrarch themselves, to be fair). He offers instead pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian. I obviously disagree with this.

[5] I myself cannot vouch for this, but here is a lecture on the text and his book, more on which below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Zk5-gKioDc . Alright crocklings 15:26 into this video and not only have I clicked off. I remain convinced I could lecture more engagingly on any classical topic than >85% of current professionals. Yeesh.

[6] See note 4 above. More separates Lewis and me than unites us, to be frank, but I applaud and share in his sheer love of literature.

[7] At my most charitable I can agree with W. Somerset Maugham’s judgement of K. Amis, but very much suspect that the latter belonged to the kind of men against whom Lewis was taking aim in this book. For Amis’ movement see: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Angry-Young-Men

[8] Chapter 9 p118-9 in my battered old edition.

[9] Chapter 14 p206

[10] IDK I just use the freely available version of Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12/12-h/12-h.htm

[11] Happily available here: https://archive.org/details/TheAbolitionOfMan_229 (yes, I read that too).

[12] Mark 10:18.

Filling the Neophytes Library (Ancient History)

“But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?”

           Steven Pinker (Chronicle)

Why indeed? The question has attracted answers innumerable, illegible, and incontinent (including Pinker’s own, frankly), but I have been asking myself this recently, with especial consideration of our shared discipline. I am not going to venture my own answer here, but I did form two hypotheses:

  1. That earlier academics were, on the whole, much better writers.
  2. That Latinists would have better prose than Hellenists.

The first hypothesis – let us be honest – was hardly long on the odds, this seems to consistent across all the humanistic disciplines: I have recently been reading C. S Lewis’ The Discarded Image and it strikes me that few could write like this now about literature or history (Classical or Medieval) and retain their ivory capped curule seats. The bet on Latinists over Hellenists may seem odd, less sure, but I think my calculated risk taking here paid off (as you will see below). I based this on the long tradition of Latin energising English poetry and prose, whereas I cannot help but find e.g the effect of Thucydides on Hobbes enervating and of Herodotus on many (Grote included) bloviating. If I could travel back in time, I would beat the shit out of Keats with a Grecian urn.

I wanted to put together a reading list for the neophyte Classicist, fresh from genuinely brilliant books such as Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Mary Beard’s SPQR and ready to start hitting the stacks and getting their fangs into academic volumes. My criteria were simple. Academic books with a capital A that you could happily find yourself reading on the beach. The lodestone was the great writers of yesteryear such as Ronald Syme (whose Roman Revolution manages to be Tacitean in outlook and in prose). No edited volumes, no disjointed volumes of the essays (the latter rule forced me to eject one of my favourites, Wiseman’s Catullus and his World from the list ☹).

Fair? I make no secret of trying to model my longer form writing on Holland’s perhaps a bit too much, but let’s see if we prove Taleb wrong on this.

To limit bias, and expand our palette, I took to twitter to crowdsource this list. This list deliberately focuses on ancient history (often the gateway), should there be interest we can repeat the experiment for archaeology, literature, and philology proper (I promise you that Meillet is a good read! Meanwhile @mattitiahu has a great resource on lexica here).

Again, this list is not a list of foundational or must-read texts, you can find them elsewhere (e.g university reading lists; G Kantor’s blog post on Roman History); my main focus was on prose. Because men like Wissowa and Mommsen and Wilamowitz and Gibbon etc etc wrote beautifully and we have lost something. This list will not render unto you mastery of any culture, period, or phenomenon. You could not construct a course from them, but you can be entertained.

Please feel free to comment and tweet, either to annotate the list or make suggestions.

Warning: I pulled these, uncorrected, from an online auto bibliographic database. Dates, publishers, place of publishing etc are wrong passim. If you happen to be a student, do not use this list to cite.

With massive thanks to @_paullay, @peter_sarris, @GMcCor, @GeorgyKantor, @Nakhthor, @ProfSimonton, @Kleisthenes2, @DrMichaelBonner, @DrPeterJMiller @sasanianshah (and others, probably, sorry).

Outside the Classical Mediterranean

(Not the original date, but that of the reprint. A multi-volume history from a more genteel time)

Bonner, M. (2020). The Last Empire of Iran. Gorgias Press.

(Conflict of interest to include? probably! But it exhibits a mixture of that older, gentlemanly style, and the incisiveness of modern academe, there are few narrative studies of the entire period. The Sassanians were important and Latinists and Late Antiquenerds should know more about them.)

Briant, P. (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander: A history of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns.

(Technically a translation, perhaps it does not belong on this list. But the contents therein are fascinating. Most books on the Achaemenids are absolute doggrel)

Bryce, T. (2005). The kingdom of the Hittites. Oxford University Press.

(Suspicious of this one having read his latest, but we’re going to trust @sassanianshah on this!)

Debevoise, N. C. (1969). A political history of Parthia TX.

Thapar, R. (2003). The penguin history of early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin Books India.

(Thapar is a good stylist, and a brilliant historian of India. Probably the best)

Ancient Greece

Bevan, E. R. (2015). The house of Seleucus. TX: Cambridge University Press.

Bresson, A. (2015). The making of the Ancient Greek economy: Institutions, markets, and growth in the city-states. Princeton University Press.

(Have my doubts! Never seen a Classicist, or a Historian, write sensibly about Economics but ok)

Chadwick, J. (1976). The Mycenaean world. Cambridge University Press

(Material vs prose, brings this out on top. He’s essentially writing about inventory lists)

Dodds, E. R. (1956). The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press.

Dover, K. J. (1989). Greek Homosexuality.

(Do not blame him for his shitty epigones)

Green, P. (1993). Alexander to Actium: The historical evolution of the Hellenistic age. University of California Press.

(Yes, yes, massively dated on art and culture but one of the best encompassing narratives around. What a writer).

GUYS LOOK HOW BARE THIS SECTION IS, THESIS VINDICATED!?

Ancient Rome

Athanassiadi, P. (1992). Julian: An intellectual biography. TX.

(Like the Memoirs of Hadrian but not made up, and with less fucking hippies)

Daube, D. (1969). Roman Law. TX.

(Seems an odd addition, but so many reviews and tweeters talk about this book as being humorous. Yes, Roman Law…)

I mean…what is the competition?

MacMullen, R. (1992). Enemies of the Roman order: Treason, unrest, and alienation in the empire. Routledge.

(This often comes on lists. Definitely an interesting take. Does accidentally make me more pro-Roman though.)

Millar, F. (1993). The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337. Harvard University Press.

(Millar was generally a brilliant writer, I personally would have chosen his Emperor in the Roman World – which dramatically changed how I saw the office, but twitter spoke. Actually, just read all of Millar. Honestly if you make it through Weinstock’s Divus Julius you deserve to).

Syme, R. (1939). The Roman Revolution. OUP Oxford.

Hahaha yeah, eat shit Cicero

(This may well be the best written Roman history in the English language, excepting Gibbon. His later work was sadly not so wonderful to read.)

Late Antiquity

(It is an inevitable category)

Brown, P. (1989). The World of Late antiquity: AD 150-750. W. W. Norton.

(Brown’s name came up again, and again, and again. I found him enjoyable, though perhaps to a lesser extent).

Treadgold, W. T. (1997). A history of the Byzantine state and society. TX: Stanford University Press.

(How many narrative studies of Byzantium are there? How many are actually good? Exactly)