CP Snow’s Three Cultures or why Wordcels should shut up and learn Ancient Greek

I am not interested in the discourse of the day, but I am interested in trying to increase my number of blog posts, especially when I ought to be working, therefore let’s go. Get ready for some incoherence.

Cet gazouillis has been doing the rounds lately and has drawn the typical responses which could be (broadly) organised in the following schema:

  1. Lol das rite.
  2. Akscthually humanities are seriously hard because (an example of something that is easy for anyone with a basic level of literacy).
  3. They’re equally hard guys because (a recherche example with little likelihood of ever happening); can’t we all get along?

I suspect 1) is generally correct and that the Sciences have a much higher difficulty ceiling. That said, I am not confident your average science student is much (if at all) more intelligent than your average humanities student. I am not one of the precious few who stand proudly in the middle of the church with one leg on a pew either side of the isle. My early education was quite science driven and I have worked in a quant driven field, but my academic specialisation is very much in the Classics.[1] But a few things beyond seeing the psychometric data from several hiring rounds a various firms and experience of a common room or two on a mid-weeknight makes me think I am intuitively correct here.

To be fair, most stemtards seem to think they’re the modern-day equivalent of Newton or von Neumann rather than the product of a specialist education. This is important. Spending your 30’s writing code to help Facebook Meta advertise better to 46-year-old divorcees is not the same as revolutionising our understanding of the universe.[2] Replicating is not discovering; preaching is not understanding. We live in a society that puts science on the utmost pedestal and organises all our funding and educational endeavours around it, hence the percolation of scientism through seemingly every aspect of culture. If you try to align as many incentives as possible one way, and offer tremendous support, to people learning a specific body of content with its attendant methodologies, you are going to get a lot of people specialising that way, regardless of skill or aptitude. A friend of mine, a medic by training, once told me that he felt the sciences were the only subject where students, upon encountering difficulty, immediately blame the subject and not themselves. He was wrong: the humanities have this as well (“man, Latin is so hard!!!1”), but I suspect much of the would be dick slinging comes from people unconsciously channelling their insecurity. It’s always the epidemiologist talking shit and never the Cambridge educated Mathematician, isn’t it?[3]

This is something we really ought to stop and think about. How many harmful experiments (see the recent issues around gain of function research), how many studies that fail to be replicated, how many recondite papers read by a handful of incestuous reviewers and researchers, could we avoid if we, ahem, curtailed the number of universities and depts out there? I’ve long said this for the humanities and the social sciences, and it stands to reason for the “hard sciences” too. Kill the universities. Ahem, anyway.

We should also take a second to consider why the Sciences are treated thusly. Everyone is making fun of the Econ/Business guys (do you dumb fucks not have pensions?) but a quick look through the lens of supply and demand should be clarifying. Yes, shockingly, corporations want as many people competing for their jobs as possible. Graduate training schemes are not Giffen goods.

Let us now turn to category 2). The rhetoric here is interesting, leaving aside the meaningless word salads that come from a place of insecurity next to style-over-substance avenue, an interesting pattern emerges. Take a look at this:

Do you see it? Comments like these are interesting as much for what is there as what isn’t. to start with the former, how many English students (majors if you insist on being American),[4] can do any of that. I have wasted a good twenty minutes now looking through the bios of various lecturers and professors at differing institutions and I unsure of how even a motivated undergraduate course piece together a syllabus for themselves that would allow them to do that well. A “specialist” Shakespeare course would be pointless,[5] one would need the correct understanding of the development of English phonology and metres as well as a medley of historical and economic courses. In short, the kind of thing that was the standard offering until about WW2. Many such cases. Let us leave aside the fact that I am not even an English student, and I can think of infinitely more difficult topics within the (former) mainstream of the discipline.[6] This is designed to demonstrate the difficulty and thus the worthiness of the field. Rhetorically it fails for two reasons. Firstly, it lacks the punchiness of something like “Calculus II”,[7] and, secondly, it is not indicative of what most humanities grads do or are capable of. Most humanities (“liberal arts”) students can get a degree without going further back than the 19th century.

Which leads us nicely to what isn’t being said. Well, that’s the stuff humanities depts. are known for nowadays. C’mon guys, where are the plugs for eco-criticism? 4876875th wave feminist theory? Indigenous theory-praxy? Decolonising this or that? We consistently see a revealed preference whenever these subjects are forced to justify themselves qua “rigour” (whenever rigour is not decried as a white supremacist concept) for what is essentially old school classics: language, culture, history, context.[8] Even 15-20 years ago it would be rare to find the student who could not spend the morning writing on “what Athenian society tells us about the plays of Aristophanes”; the afternoon on “Is the archaeological evidence more or less useful for the fall of western Rome than the literary?”; and the evening on “What can aspect in Slavic languages tell us about the development of the Greek verb?”, though that is now likewise rarer than birds’ milk.  

Like I said, revealed preference, even most humanities people subconsciously know their fields lack rigour and, groping about for a defence, they get their crayon-stained mitts on some parody of the previous generation’s excellence. Why then should we humanistae be upset when scientists call out our fields? After all, our professionals have been the ones ardently hollowing them out, making them easier, for decades. #ClassicsTwitter is a perfect example of the madness. Whenever someone suggests the languages are mandatory, they are publicly pilloried, courses such as “Classical References in Video-Games” are advertised and touted, lecturers gleefully mention all the alternate ways to assess their students.[9] The scrolls of Callimachus are in the hands of a conspiracy of dunces and even the best-meaning younglings now graduate knowing more about citational justice than the critical apparatus. Humanities specialists have done this to themselves. They have done this to us.

n.b I am not automatically equating rigour (however measured) with worth. At least not unequivocally. But that is what the initial tweetstorm laid out as the terms for the debate and I don’t think you can entirely unentangle them. The contents of university courses, especially in societies where they are funded by taxes, are up for criticism. Anyway, carrying on.

Let’s wind down with the third category. No, not the idea that both humanities and science are equally difficult – that’s untestable and I don’t care – the idea both are needed. The humanities, good humanities, are only going to draw more from science in the future. This is to be expected, as our baseline technological competency goes up newer generations will be able to do more with less training. E.g I was encouraged to spend some time with programming languages – Python and JS – to see if studying man made languages gave me any philological insight. It did not. But it was useful in other ways. All that time learning database management for archaeological topics was directly useful in the professional world. The truth is what the grey hairs call “digital humanities” the rest of us just call doing our fucking homework.[10]

One area which scientific advancement has completely blown open is ancient DNA. This has, ironically, been a vindication of traditionalist methods vis a vis archaeological and theoretical ones for the most part but that is neither here nor there: the exciting things will happen when ADNA allows us to go beyond vindicating/trashing current paradigms into discovering new ones.

This is not to say that it is game over, that science is here to solve all the humanistic problems in some sort of Whiggish road to progress. We’ve all seen the attempts at applying evo psych to Greek texts, game theory to Roman military strategy, medical diagnoses to historical characters and such. The languages are no more immune, perhaps you remember the absolutely cringey papers in journals like Nature which tried to model the relationship between PIE languages not as languages (on which we have a lot of data) but as germs (because why the fuck not?). It was excruciatingly moronic, evidently so to anyone who does not own a “I fucking love science” t-shirt and received a strong, sadly under-read, response.

Note what made the team here capable of launching such a strong defence. Not schlocky theory, no buzz-words and jargon, they didn’t even attempt to call the Nature team cisheteropatriarchs; all this was borne of the specialism of careful study of difficult material. The humanities are capable of adding to our knowledge and fighting back against real misappropriation like that, but only when done correctly. This is what is at stake here, this is what is at risk, because proper humanistic learning is neither flashy nor sexy. There are no cutting edge grants to be won, no labs with principal investigators, nor is the attention getting stuff particularly liable or likely to stand the test of time.

The title alludes to C. P. Snow’s famous The Two Cultures which has predictably been cited by a few tweeters (though less commonly than one would have assumed: remember, nobody reads anymore).[11] There is much in this book worth discussing, though perhaps its worth is predicated less on its perspicacity as social/intellectual history and more on the snapshot it preserves of the old academy. I suspect much will be foreign to non-Britons specifically, such as Snow’s discussion of our hyper-specialist degrees and the A Levels and OxBridge examinations that lead up to them; and much to people generally, such as his odd contention that it is traditional subjects, not sciences, which hold sway over society. Yes, seriously. This was an indefensible claim at the time he was writing, let alone now.[12] Perhaps I might have been better off alluding to Feynman’s 1974 Caltech address,[13] but the overall point of a bifurcated intellectual cultures is one I want to expand upon. Let’s take his most famous example:

Once or twice, I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.

Snow must be being deliberately provocative, or else obtuse, here for he must have known that those scientific concepts are learnt in school as mandated by law in the UK. So is Shakespeare too, I guess, but if we properly parse his polemic, we can see that he is using Shakespeare as a stand in for his dreaded traditionalist/conventional learning. How indicative is that of modern humanities departments? How traditional are the curricula and the skillsets passed on?

This is the true risk to Classics, its true tragedy. It belongs to neither of the two cultures as nowadays conceived. True there are elements drawn from the sciences both in the formation of hypotheses ( comparative philology makes, breaks, or otherwise proves predictions) and method (the careful arranging of manuscript stemmata, or the stratigraphy of sites) as well the humanities but at its best represents a third culture, scorned by scientists and modern humanity specialists a like.

Maybe this is a good thing? One can plainly see the material of the subject if not its modern guardians are an endless source of fascination to people. Look at the response to any A-DNA paper touching on antiquity, or what happens when Marc Andreesen tweets out a reference to Fustel de Coulanges’ The Ancient City. Ariel Saber recently wrote a best-seller on what is basically just papyrology 101 (Veritas). Maybe the way forward is the way back to a more rigorous curriculum on our side of the divide. More and more humanities graduates are realising just how much the map is not the territory, how a piece of paper does not grant you the respect of a graduate. Perhaps its time to stop blaming everything and everyone but ourselves?

You must forgive my incoherence. Like most of you I am tired of the constant back and forth between those of us who really love our subject and the oddly hostile professoriate. I am not even targeting them specifically here; one can imagine how precarity and the incentives of a university bloated with administrators and suffering the scurvy of grade inflation might impact any real standards. But to explain is not to excuse and if the humanities are dying anyway they may as well go out with some pride and self-worth. In the mean time, I haven’t quite started finished the post on how to learn Ancient Greek, but why not start by learning some Latin?


[1] Classical Philology ride or die, betch.

[2] You’re not allowed to dead-name Zuckerberg just because he wore white-face that one time.

[3] You won’t admit it, but you had an atavistic reaction to that pairing. You know you can’t voice is in the current climate. You coward.

[4]

[5] In so far as all you would be doing is regurgitating/rephrasing what the prof is telling you without ever acquiring the tool sets to replicate.

[6] Surely English has some interesting problems of dialectology or the derivation of early MSS? I mean they’ve probably all been solved by Classicists on leisurely lunches, but still.

[7] I think it fair to say that calculus is around the level of Mathematics a normal human can be expected to grasp regardless of actual specialisation. When it starts getting to combinatorics or groupoids, get a proper stem guy in.

[8] I’m using Classics far too loosely here. Let’s think of it not as a basket of content/area of study but a set of principles and methodology. You can substitute “Classics” for old school Assyiology, Egyptology, ASNAC, etc etc.

[9] It always shocks me how eager students are to go along with this. Oh, everything is open book? Oh, you get extra credit for listening to a podcast? Bro, how much are you paying for this? Jesus.

[10] There is especially piquant for Classics, a field that has made very early use of all sorts of emerging technologies.

[11] Buck the trend and at least check out the original Rede lecture, here: https://apps.weber.edu/wsuimages/michaelwutz/6510.Trio/Rede-lecture-2-cultures.pdf (opens in a PDF!)

[12] And I say this as someone who considers PPE to be a humanities degree.

[13] https://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm

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Against All Gods (Review)

Ah, the age of bronze: tyrants descended from gods, shoring up their divine blood with consanguineous marriages, glut with human sacrifices. Or! centralising states backed up by a highly trained scribal class capable of great feats of literature and architecture. Or! Hordes of scarcely washed barbarians descending from the eurasiatic steppe or the middle sea to terrorise the agrarian-based peoples of the coast. Or! You get the picture. The bronze age was one of considerable variety and vivacity and yet it has proven to be anything but a popular choice in fiction. Instead, many writers try to follow Tolkien’s wonderful evocation of the Middle Ages with none of his skill and some reflection of his commercial success.[1] Unlike most moderns, Cameron has produced work (under both guises) which show a clear appreciation and understanding of the medieval, from Fiore dei Liberi to Froissart; from the rules of amour Courtois to tying one’s points.[2] There is some irony in Cameron turning away from that familiar, best-selling, setting then given his accomplishments there. Can he do that again? Can he make this new setting interesting?

Against All Gods is a good book. It introduces a new series that I would be minded to continue reading. The setting is an interesting melange of historical cultures, literary tropes, and genre influences (there is even some Lovecraftian in the mix) and is populated by interesting characters. The title encapsulates the central conceit nicely; this is a theomachy.  A group of adventurers from different backgrounds have been wronged in some way by the gods or those who (purport) to support them and so set out for revenge and, eventually, revolution.  How does one hurt a god? The author has any number of classical and near eastern sources to draw from: Gilgamesh against the bull of heaven; Diomedes vs Ares in Iliad 5 (which I suspect Cameron of drawing upon directly); Hercules vs Ares in the Aspis etc etc and it is interesting to see what he does with this literary heritage.

Venus wounded by Diomedes, Gabriel-François Doyen, 1761,

It is important to keep this broad heritage in mind. Despite his previous work, Cameron is not just doing a riff on the Greek Bronze Age, there are hints of Mesopotamia, Anatolia/Syria, and Egypt here. This is not Tolkien for those of you expecting that kind of “worldbuilding”, but the world manages to feel alive despite some of the slightly off-key linguistic choices: There is a traveller analogue culture here who practice a form of nonviolence here called himsha. This is, perhaps, referencing the Hindu principle of ahiṃsā and so is an adroit way for the author to get the audience to think of travelling Roma. Yet the missing a in Sanskrit is a privative prefix and so himsha literally sounds like the word for violence. This is a minor quibble, as I said, the world feels alive, and the language is just as often astute: Narmer will bring to mind Egypt, Mykoax somehow both the Mycenaeans and the Minoans, Dardanians can’t but help allude to the broader Troad etc.

It is hard to overstate how vivid and alive the world can be at times. Early on we get perhaps one of the best descriptions of how a logographic script in clay tablets was used and stored. Seldom will a reader have to work hard to imagine the ziggurats, high city walls, the divine counsel chambers of Sumerian/Assyrian literature, and it strikes me that any TV executive looking to replicate the success of Game of Thrones could do worse than look here. This book would be a visual treat.

‘wet dirt.’ The god king said. ‘It is the cheapest clay, and yet by these signs a man can order armies or gold’.

The book as it its best when the author combines history and genre. The sea people analogue is intriguingly terrifying, the Thera style set-piece is cinematic, who – or what – are the gods? What happened to the previous goddess of the sun? what is the great beyond? And what of the dry ones? Never mind the clever take on the transition from bronze to iron; I am still waiting to find out what’s the deal with those neolithic hammer things.

Tutankhamun’s dagger made with iron from a meteorite

Violence is done well. Or at least respectfully. Let me try and explain. I picked up another book in the genre recently in which there is an almost Marvel comic book attitude to combat – this is all to common. Swords are not treated as expensive, specialist, instruments but fashion accessories. Toys almost (why are people who have just met keen to prove themselves with naked steel); people who are 100lbs soaking wet are suddenly breaking down groups of grown men, and so on. You know of what I speak. Conflict has weight, it has tension, it is as much a part of the world as the seas and the sky, and it is done well. Here’s something funny about Cameron. I have recently been re-reading his Tom Swan and at one point the characters spar with sharps,[3] the author has the blades bite into one another. That is a weird detail. Only someone who has sparred with sharps would know that. What a madman.

Enough about the background and setting. I sure nobody would appreciate my going through the book and pointing out parallels with real world bronze age cultures and I have given enough to convey my impression of the world, I think. Of the plot I shall give the merest summary so as not to spoil anything.

Centuries ago, Enkul-Anu (who is like a Zeus crossed with En-Lil crossed with cocaine) and his brood overthrew the old pantheon and set themselves up over humanity, whom the kept in a technological and economic stasis. Victory has not bought peace: there are remnants of the old pantheon (and perhaps something more?) to be found and stamped out, younger godlings chafe at their strictures of their elders and plot their less than subtle treasons, the rulers of city-states (so called god-kings) foment war with one another and Enkul-Anu just wishes everyone would shut the fuck up already and do as they’re told, especially his scheming wife and that drunken sex-pest Druku. An assassination gone wrong drives the aged wizard Gamash of Weshwesh to war against the gods. Alone, he would be doomed to fail, but a gift of iron ore from beyond the stars and the fellowship of others similarly scorned may give him a chance.

‘Caution? I’m in rebellion against the gods. My life ended when my daughter died.’

Actually, despite Gamash’s role in the beginning, the book has an assorted cast; there is no particular hero.[4] Throw in the various gods and their own plot lines and there is always danger of confusing the reader. I think it safe to say all that has been avoided here as the characters and their motivations each appear distinct. The individual strands of woven deftly together by the end of the book and seeing our fellowship assembled and proceeding with their task will be a major draw for the sequel.

I was surprised at how firmly I became attached to Zos. On the face of it he seems to be little more than an archetype but Cameron draws him with such wry humour and humanity you can not but help like him as much as you do bald Polon (of course I’m going to rep my fellow scribe). Conversely, I was surprised by how little I cared for Era by the end of the book. She had by far the strongest opening but came across as techy and ineffective by its end.[5] The gods themselves are all colourful individuals and whilst, as the villains, you can never quite feel sympathetic to them, you do find yourself wanting to at least understand them better. The characterisation is one of the best draws of the novel.

Against All Gods is a great entrant into an overcrowded and frankly sclerotic genre. It is an imaginative work and deftly written. I think it’s about time readers of sci-fi/fantasy swapped their castles and elves for some ziggurats and insectoid resin carriers.

I want to learn about the real bronze age. What do I do?

Honestly, if you are after the author’s own inspirations, just tweet him. He seems friendly enough, but I will provide some cursory reading suggestions. Of course, the best way is to pick an ancient language from the period and get into it, but failing that…

I have produced two short pieces on the (Greek) bronze age, dealing with weapons, here, and symbolism, here. Each have suggestions for further reading.

Literature

Mesopotamia

Black et al’s The Literature of Ancient Sumer (seriously there are a lot of editors here) is most comprehensive collection of humanity’s earliest literature. Inana’s descent is rightly famous, but there is a lot of cool stuff here.

Foster’s Before the Muses is an approachable introduction to the Akkadian material. It is also one of the most exhaustive in English. If you want a smaller selection, including the famous Gilgamesh, check out Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia.

Egypt

From the earliest inscriptions to Coptic literature, Egyptian has the longest continuous attestation of any human language. I have no idea how to even pretend to pick one or two books to give you an overview. If you really want to get into the weeds Miriam Lichtheim captained a three-volume collection under the heading Ancient Egyptian Literature. Egypt is less of a palpable influence on Against All Gods than the other areas anyway, but if you are curious pick-up Parkinson’s translation of The Tale of Sinuhe.

History

Chadwick’s The Mycenaeans is old. It is also by far the single best introductory book on the bronze age Greeks. Sure, it is not as up to date as various academic offerings but its infinitely more readable and a great overview.

It is impossible to collate such a list without Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. It is a good book, recently updated, and I suspect it will be topical to future novels.

If you’re interested in a general sweeping history of the period be sure to read van der Mieroop’s A History of the Ancient Near East: ca 3000-323 BC. It is part of the Blackwell ancient history series and so I can promise neither good prose nor graceful formatting, but the book successfully conveys much of the complexity of the bronze age without overwhelming you.


[1] Tolkien’s success here is interesting since in many ways he himself is a medieval author. Not in the literal sense, but in that he is so clearly writing from a tradition. Modern sci-fi/fantasy falls flat so often because it is entirely without connection to any tradition. Any meaningful tradition at least.

[2] I know far, far, too much about medieval and ancient clothing thanks to this man. What the madeleine was to Proust, clothing is to Cameron.

[3] Yes, this did and does happen. But not with strangers, and never in a temper!

[4] Actually I do feel like the donkey is carrying the entire team tbh.

[5] She is a natural leader but needs other leaders not to lead, even when they have palpably more and more relevant experience? Ok. Were I to be cynical I would suggest that, give modern publishing trends, she is the one we are meant to identify as empowered etc.

How to Learn Latin Well

There a million of these pieces online and I suspect the fact that, when it comes to learning the languages – that is, becoming able to access the heart of the ancient world[1] – there is far, far, too much talking about doing and not enough actual doing. I am loath to add to the troth. In my defence I shall keep this general (there will be no shilling for specific books) and, hopefully, useful. Why me? Why listen to me? First, I think it is clear I have proved my proficiency across both our classical tongues time and time again, from philological excision to spontaneous composition. Unlike some people writing these sorts of guides I actually know the languages. Second, don’t. Don’t listen to me. Just grab a book and read ffs.  

What are we going to do here then? We will skip the usual rigamarole about why you ought to learn Latin and lay out how to learn Latin beyond the paltry level of an ex public school boy. Most guides, like this one, will not get you very far. If you want the ability to pick up and read a broad variety of texts from antiquity to the present and exhibit some philological acumen, you are going to have go a bit beyond the parse-and-hope-and-oh-fuck-it-check-a-translation method.[2] The real trick is to ensconce yourself in the language and use it productively. Anyway, the plan is to produce one of these for Latin and, if there is demand, one for Greek and then a final one on how to develop that technical philological sense. If you can’t handle papyri and epigraphy, you don’t know the languages; if you can’t feel your way through an Umbrian inscription, you don’t know…you get the idea.

Before we begin, I need to leave the inevitable disclaimer. There are untold riches online nowadays and there is no way I can cite even a fraction of what will make people happy. I am not aiming to be thorough, quite the opposite. If you have any arguments with this piece, ok, I accept your wisdom. You are right.

Laying the grammatical foundations

Pick a book. It really does not matter. I said I do not want to talk about specific books and that is true but to some extent it can’t be avoided. The Cambridge Latin Course is perhaps the most well-known series in the anglosphere but it is human faeces wrapped in the flayed skin of an elderly care home patient. It has not one, not two, but five (5!!!) volume at god knows how much and simultaneously fails at teaching both grammar and discursive reading. A tremendous feat! I have never met anyone who used this course with passable Latin. There’s a new course called Suburani but this is like the Cambridge with the pictures in colour from what I can see. Avoid courses designed for modern schools. They are shit, they are expensive, and they are designed to operate in a rapacious manner that benefits from risk adverse school boards weighed down by sunk cost fallacies.

America does better here. Wheelock’s is much maligned, but it will present and explain the grammar, give you ample exercises, and some extra readings. It is much better than any modern British equivalent. It will suffice for stage one. I am a little unsure as to what else is used over there.

Do I have any actual suggestions? It does not matter, really, what book you use for this stage. Nothing will give you a working vocabulary.[3] Nothing will present you with enough exercises. Nothing will give you enough reading practice.[4] The aim is to find something cheap (so fuck off with five volumes Cambridge you vultures) that will give you the rudiments in a clear manner. If you are willing to read from a screen there are any number of out of copyright books (available on GoogleBooks or Archive.Org etc) that would work very, very, well. Something like this is great.

Take this phase seriously, for however long it lasts. You are unlikely to finish a textbook outside of a classroom setting. I am told that is statistically the case at least. But you ought to at least try. What do I mean by seriously? You should be writing out and reciting grammatical paradigms and you certainly should be thoroughly learning your principal parts. OK, we’re done right? After all, in the contact of a modern university you have completed a textbook (nominally) and should now be ready to tackle real texts.

Theoretically you could do something like cram the 1200 or so most common Latin words and then tackle Pharr’s Aeneid commentary for students. This is somewhat in line with modern pedagogy, at least in the universities.[5] It would be unpleasant; you would not really be reading in any meaningful sense but decoding. Let’s move on.

Learning how to read

How many people do you know who are good readers? How many in a foreign language? I do not think I have ever met an ESL familiar with the length and breadth of English literature, and yet we expect to throw fledgling Latinists out of the nest and towards the summit of the language’s literature.[6] No, you need experience in reading Latin. You need a chance to consolidate the language and developing an intuition for the rules and patterns and sounds before you can tackle great literature and the problems of linguistics.

Your next step involves broad, easy, reading. Again, there are a number of freely available options online (take a look here) but I am going to suggest Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina. This is a much lauded, little read, textbook and I am not going to sit her singing its praises (it has been reviewed ad nauseam) but I will briefly defend putting it here. It is an excellent book and entirely in Latin but I suspect that people stall much more often than its partisans would admit. Having spent some time with another textbook beforehand should give the neophyte Latinist a margin of safety whilst working through this. At the very least it should make the early chapters a more pleasant experience. I also expect the vast majority of people do not do the exercises. This is a mistake; at least give them a go. This likewise applies to the second volume, Roma Aeterna.[7]

This is not the place for a lengthy discussion on how to best use the text. There are many online and besides the textbook is, I think, fairly intuitive and works wonders providing you are willing to revise and re-read. There is also this fantastic playlist which really brings the text alive.

Many complain about the difficulty jump from Familia Romana to Roma Aeterna and recommend you step away from the textbooks and pick up some of Ørberg’s editions of texts. You can do this, but if you have already done a textbook and been assiduously attempting the exercises and re-reading whenever you get stuck this should not be a problem. At the very least, start by reading some of freely available readers linked above and then returning to RA. If you lift weights deloading is a very good analogy.[8] Remember the idea is to spend as little (time/money) on textbooks as possible. [9] Sadly this book is somewhat less served in terms of audio/visual resources online but I think the recordings of lessons using it, available here, should be somewhat helpful.

Let us shoot the elephant in the room. I have not once mentioned comprehensible input or terms like grammar-translation. The debate is tiresome, not least since it is dominated online by one side. I do not care. You should not care. Use every tool available to you. The combination of a solid grammatical framework, lots and lots of easy reading, and a functional vocabulary (Lingua Latina gives you something like 2000 base words) will set you on the right path.

Aside: Spoken Latin?

“Active” and “passive” are not binary oppositions but fundamentally reinforce one another in any language learning. In fact, much of the torturous inheritance of traditional methods of instruction in the Anglosphere is because the British system was traditionally geared towards prose and verse (“long and shorts” i.e elegiacs) composition. Good writers are good readers are good writers. I believe you absolutely should try your hand at oral Latin (at the very least you should make aural Latin a part of your study. Maybe this is something I will write more on later, but for now some quick tips.

I am old enough to remember having to physically go to Latin speaking circles in cafes with bitter coffee and dodgy pubs and physically interact with people. I suspect COVID-19 has all but killed the last of these places and you’d be much better off looking for rooms via Reddit, Discord, ClubHouse etc. In a way this is a shame – I formed friendships that have lasted well over a decade and been conducted (almost) entirely in Latin but at least the digital economy offers modern convenience. So, yes, I would encourage you to hop on and get started. I am told that most people are incredibly welcoming. I have yet to receive an invite 😦

How do you actually get started speaking? How do you go from “there are pirates in the Adriatic who are desirous of theft and rapine” to asking how someone finds the weather? We did it the old fashioned (read inefficient, circuitous etc) way: we mined dramatic authors like Plautus and Terence, the letters of Cicero and Fronto, read “phrasebooks” and just went at it.[10] You should be able to speed up your own route to speaking by making use of textbooks specially geared towards it. Traupman’s Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency is a common choice and certainly not a bad one, though some of the neologisms therein are monstrous. I often hear Berard’s Vita Nostra bruited about and though I have only read the sample it too seems sound. Both of these are more accessible and cheaper than common recommendations like the Assimil and if you really like you can save even more money by aiming at old public domain versions (search around for colloquia). I advise you to have a look at how other people have done it.

A huge part, perhaps the largest, of conversing is listening well. As Zeno of Citium said we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.[11] This is another area where the internet has ­immeasurably improved things: there are a large number of fantastic podcasts and other resources, so much so the only one I will directly recommend is Satura Lanx. The hostess speaks incredibly well and has a series dedicated to beginners. This is your best starting point. I am openly partial to Scorpio Martianus and Legio XIII but I am unsure as to how approachable these are for beginners.

What to read: the cursus textum

I recently read an institutional blog post from someone recounting their experience teaching a graduate survey of texts and how the thought of that made them so anxious they burst into tears. I am not going to comment on that, and I admire the way they stepped up and made some innovative changes to their pedagogy. It is overall a story of triumph. I want to talk about avoiding that feeling. After all, Latin literature is a vast corpus that exists pretty much up until the present day. How do you situate yourself in it? How do you develop a good base from which to spring to and fro?

Previous ages solved this issue in that there was a more or less stable cursus textum that you could follow before being released onto Latin at large. This idea has fallen out of favour. The texts themselves are often considered boring or only to have appealed to boys. More esoteric criticisms point out that many of these selections were made for the training of British civil servants during the empire or as preparatory work for prose composition. Sure, ok. It does not matter.[12] The simple truth is some texts are simply easier than others – who is starting beginners on renaissance humanist letters or Prudentius? Who?– and some texts are more influential and therefore pay dividends down the line (Caesar and Cicero became canons of style for a reason).

To recap, if you have followed the suggested path, you have a) seriously tackled a grammar focused textbook and diligently applied yourself to mastering the paltry vocabulary contained therein. You then b) picked up the Lingua Latina series and should therefore have a sizeable working vocabulary and a much more intuitive sense of the grammar and syntax. Sure, you will not be ready to edit an OCT any time soon, but the language feels comfortable. Now you can stay comfortable and indulge in any of the many readers, Ørberg’s or otherwise, but you must take the training wheels off sometime.

There are many snake oil salesman on this bird app telling you that you can achieve Latinity without any struggle or effort – this would have been news to the Romans! What survives is often the equivalent of our Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes etc and you can see how many native English speakers can comfortably tackle such authors. You will need to expend some effort but by now you are more than ready for the task (which is after all a very pleasant one).  In fact, thanks to Roma Aeterna, you have even had some small exposure to the authors you are able to tackle.

Start with Caesar. In fact, you want to spend some time hitting Caesar, Nepos, and Cicero before you break out onto verse and the broader Latin world. Caesar’s Gallic Wars are, I think, on the whole easier than his Civil War and definitely more interesting. It has been the neophyte text since time immemorial and there are several freely available commentaries. This one by Steadman comes well recommended  though like the Ørberg edition it only covers a small part of the text. You might find the in usum delphini series more helpful.[13] These texts are written entirely in Latin and cover a very wide variety of authors. Next pick anything by Nepos, though I think his Life of Pomponius Atticus may be one of the best introductions to the aristocratic milieu of the late Roman Republic. I think I myself read his Hannibal first and then his Cato from an old 1920’s school text. Either way, he is a good, clear, author, nowadays seldom read which much to offer. Finally, Cicero. His pro Caelio is the standard introduction though the internet seems to prefer his Catilinarians (also good). Either option is fine. Cicero is much maligned on the internet for all his rhetoric brilliance and effusive influence, but you owe it to yourself to spend a little time with him and now you will at least have the rare distinction of actually having read some of his work beyond the excerpts in a textbook next time people are pulling out the tired “hur durr where is the verb!! Dur!!” meme.

That’s effectively it. Traditionally at this stage you would start reading expansively whilst honing specific aspects of the language in your study. We will eventually come to that, but I want to write something similar for Greek first.  


[1] Look we’re not going to indulge the archaeologists and historians here. Yes, these are very important subfields of the Classics and you are not a Classicist in any meaningful sense if you are able to do nothing but read literature…but the languages offer an unparalleled access. There can be no argument here. I am sorry that they are difficult.

[2] Very few texts, all said and done, even have translations.

[3] You need around 1200 or so words to start comfortably reading. Most textbooks seem to top out around 500.

[4] Learning to read a language is not the product of any one book but a library.

[5] Probably not because Latin is taught by people who hate Latin and students, but due to the fact that most beginners of Latin nowadays start ab initio at a university and there are all sorts of administrative problems with which to contend. Could you create good Latinists running through Moreland & Fleischer’s Latin: An Intensive Course and then jumping into the Aeneid? Yes, absolutely. Would you create many? Hmm.

[6] I wish I could spend more time on this point…

[7] I am old enough to own a CD rom of the exercises lol.

[8] Stuck? Stop, go back two chapters. Re-read. Consolidate. Come back to it.

[9] I am not cheap, but I remember what it was like to work minimum wage jobs while being a student. Save your money for books that you will read and re-read like Lingua Latina or student editions of classical texts.

[10] I just checked and it turns out Meissner is available (legally?) online: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/50280 enjoy!

[11] δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

[12] There are many excellent works on the history of classical scholarship (Sandys, Wilamowitz) but few know of or read histories of classical education (including myself). Christopher Stray has produced a few books/articles on the schooling system in the UK and I do pretty consistently recommend Waquet’s Le latin, ou L’empire d’un signe which looks at Western Europe more broadly.

[13] Named such because they were collated for the education of the son of Louis XIV (he died before reaching the throne). The heir apparent of France was referred to by the title dauphin (dolphin, hence delphinus latine) due to an odd condition appended to the sale of an manorial estate.

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.