Who Guards the Guards? Scythian Police in Cambridge

Quis custodes custodiet? Like many witty apothegms from Latin literature (Horace’s carpe diem being the most famous – see Lugubelinus), this has taken on an afterlife of its own far beyond its original context. Juvenal originally meant to call to mind the worry of every husband in a sexually licentious Rome. Here are the surrounding lines, though you ought to read the entire poem. Actually, you ought to read all of Juvenal:

“pone seram, cohibe.” sed quis custodiet ipsos

custodes? cauta est et ab illis incipit uxor.

“Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who will guard

the guards themselves? The wife is cautious and begins with them.

Marital fidelity was of crucial import to the ancients. There was no XXIII mecumque, and the need to carry on the patrilineal line safely was paramount (and indeed would have been symbolically enacted at every funeral via a process wearing imagines, Roman death masks). It is true that adoption was not considered an entirely shameful option, but it really is hard to overwrite biology in this way. No less capable an emperor than M. Aurelius gave the empire over to his biological son and farting Vespasian gave way to impaling Domitian.

Rome began, doubly so really, with a rape, yet marriage and the family (not the state) were the heart of Rome, and its violation was no laughing matter. When Suetonius tells us Augustus’ friends alleged him to have committed adultery for political rather than carnal reasons (excusantes sane non libidine, sed ratione commissa 69) he is not painting him as some effete limp …er…wristed striver, but some sort of violator and emasculator in chief. Especially when coupled with his stringent anti-adultery/pro-marriage laws (see the treatment of his freedman Polus at 67.2; the moralising legislation at 39).

This is not a post about adultery, incidentally. Given the current state of the lockdown how would you even get away with it? Even if you were Zeus and could turn yourself into her husband…anyway.

Who guards the guards indeed? But, as I said, the original context has much got away from us and the phrase’s nachleben has generated some interesting readings. Perhaps the most popular being Alan Moore’s Watchmen which treats it as a political statement. Admittedly the Romans had difficulty telling fucking and politicking apart, but this is the sense most of us know the phrase. Recent events across the country during the corona virus lockdown bring this latter usage to mind:

Putting Orwell and Huxley on the senior school reading lists since time out of mind seems to have encouraged an obscene number of faceless bureaucrats to take them as instructional manuals. Who is watching over these morons? What recourse do we as citizens have, in the wake of failing institutions? We started with a quote from Juvenal, who has been dismissed as a serious author since antiquity:

Quidam detestantes ut venena doctrinas, Iuvenalem et Marium Maximum curatiore studio legunt. nulla volumina praeter haec in profundo otio contrectantes, quam ob causam non iudicioli est nostri.

Certain people hate learning as if poison and read with careful attention only Juvenal and Marius Maximus. In their profound idleness they handle no books besides these, for what reason it is not for me to judge.

Ammianus Marcellinus 28.4.14

But his work has attracted no less serious a mind than Housman and I have always found Satire generally to be a genre conducive to understanding antiquity on the ground, as it were. Regardless, this question has been one that has plagued societies from antiquity onward. We will hear more from both Juvenal and Ammianus later. For now, we are going to consider the implications of our original quotation in light of recent events. It is not a mere question of oversight and responsibility, but how do we define and devolve power? Who gets to hold it? What are they entitled too?

A quick note. You will notice from the date on the tweet that I had meant to get this out a…brief while ago. Apologies if this now seems a little stale. More importantly, many people are tweet-deleting cowards (especially the police!). This means a) I have lost a lot of material because it never occurred to me to take pictures and b) I am relying on those smart cookies, like the above, who did take them.

Setting Wolves to Guard Sheep: The Athenian Solution

The central conceit of Athenian democracy was that all men were equal under the franchise (Greekless political scientists have tried to make formulations such as isonomia and isegoria more problematic than they were). For this to function in practice the status of citizenship had to be something inviable and jealously guarded. The disquiet one senses throughout the Pseudo-Xenophontian Old Oligarch is effectively concerned with this and the consequences of widening the suffrage (10-11) to where freeborn males can be in material state equivalent to slaves (how do you know whom to beat!?!). Several Athenian laws are concerned with the makeup, treatment, and privilege of the citizen body (in addition to its continued propagation)[1]. The most pertinent, for us, must be the so called graphe hybreos.

That such a law existed is almost certain but, equally, we have no firm evidence for it ever coming to trial.[2] The crimes and behaviour it concerned were broad ranging but may be (roughly) summarised as those affecting the personage and status of a citizen. Rape, for example, came under this as it compromised the wives and daughters of citizens.[3] As did the accosting, apprehension, and striking of a citizen. This then underlies the Old Oligarch’s concern over how things were in democratic Athens. Striking a slave was one thing, a citizen something else entirely – with loss of citizenship or even death on the line.

Civilisation (in its etymological sense, as urbanisation) practically foments and invites crime.

ἡ δὲ τῶν νόμων ἰσχὺς τίς ἐστιν; ἆρ᾽ ἐάν τις ὑμῶν ἀδικούμενος ἀνακράγῃ, προσδραμοῦνται καὶ παρέσονται βοηθοῦντες; οὔ: γράμματα γὰρ γεγραμμέν᾽ ἐστί, καὶ οὐχὶ δύναιντ᾽ ἂν τοῦτο ποιῆσαι. τίς οὖν ἡ δύναμις αὐτῶν ἐστιν; ὑμεῖς

And what is the strength of the laws? If one of you, having been wronged, cries out, will the laws run up and be present, assisting? No; they are only written texts and incapable of doing such. Where, then, is their power? In yourselves…

Demosthenes 21.224

It is a bravura speech, much concerned with the power and enforcement of the laws. The message is clear: laws (customs, really) are only as good as the citizen body willing to enforce them. But what do you do when citizens aren’t willing to listen? When they need to be physically impugned in some way? This creates a paradox. The power may rest in you, citizens, but if you apprehend someone and the jury turns against you, well…How did the Athenians solve it?

The Athenian solution was to use public slaves. Just as all citizens effectively held a share in the state all technically had part ownership of these human beings (hence the appellation demosioi).  Here is one of favourite examples: A scholion on line 22 of Aristophanes’ Acharnenses tells us that citizens caught loitering rather than voting were herded towards the assembly by means of a rope.[4] Democracy was participatory, idiot!; layabouts were fined. The psychology here is self-evident. Slaves were obviously “lesser” beings even as they shamed the citizens. The rope allowed them to forgo the laying of hands. The state expropriated resources via fines etc etc. But not all crimes as are as low energy as loitering. Enter the Scythians.

drax scythi
80% of why this post is late.

The entry for τoξóται, archers, in the Suda (τ771) tells us that these Scythians, sometimes called Speusinoi after their instituter, varied between 300-1000 in number, before being disbanded.[5] We reconstruct their general usage across a broad range of texts, scholia, and artwork. Doubtless had we still Sophocles Scythae (a satyr play?) we would have a much fuller picture of these people.

That they were ethnically marked off from the citizen body seems to me a fair assumption. They always appear in different dress (breeches, Phrygian caps, tattoos, animal patterns) and carried bows. Despite the importance of archery to the actual heroic age (and certain hero cults), the bow seems to be much despised by the hoplite classes who, after all, were rendered largely safe by their amour. That said, having been struck repeatedly with an unstrung bow, I can tell you they would make decent deterrents (I doubt they were literally shooting citizens). Ethnicity and dress aside they were also held physically apart in their barracks. This could hardly have contributed to the fellow-feeling of the citizen body at large, especially because they were quite capable of using restraining force:

οὗτος τί κύπτεις; δῆσον αὐτὸν εἰσάγων

ὦ τοξότ᾽ ἐν τῇ σανίδι, κἄπειτ᾽ ἐνθαδὶ

στήσας φύλαττε καὶ προσιέναι μηδένα

ἔα πρὸς αὐτόν, ἀλλὰ τὴν μάστιγ᾽ ἔχων

παῖ᾽ ἢν προσίῃ τις.

Why are you slouching? take him away

Archer, and tie him to the plank,

Make him stand, guard him, let no one come

near him, but use your whip to

strike any who try approach

Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 930-4

…what…what is the plank for? Aristophanes? Bro?

The above command was issued by a Prytanis, under whose command the archer corps were placed. Other uses in comedy are broadly similar.[6]

Let us sidestep a potential debate here. I have no real reason to suspect the Scythian slaves were not Scythian.  I, personally, think we need to take these ethnic distinctions seriously. There is always a debate as to how “fixed” identities and ethnicities were, but I think sometimes scholars are too keen to apply the models we might use for e.g tribal formations amongst age of migration Germanics or modern cosmopolitans which suggest a high degree of flexibility.

Ethnographic terms can be tricky, over time they themselves become literary tropes e.g when Anna Komnene writes about Roman campaigns against the Scythians (book 7 I think?), she means the Pechnegs (or some such tribe) and her audience was likely to instantly comprehend. In military terms ethnic labels can commemorate where troops were raised, stationed, or recall notable victories (as the Roman legions did). They can even denote stereotypical styles of dress and strategies (Asiatic bows, Samnite gladiators etc). People would be right to be skeptical, but the proliferation of – especially philological – evidence testifies to the deep interaction and exposure of Greeks to these Iranic nomads.


What follows is a brief sketch aimed at establishing that Greco-Scythian interactions, even on the mainland, were longstanding and that the Greeks were just calling a spade a spade when describing the archers.

As @e_pe_me_ri has recently pointed out (cannot find the tweet; no longer recent), the Linear B corpus mentions the word “rose”. In his case it was an ethnonym (and therefore, sadly, probably a slave girl), but the word ultimately goes back to Iranic wṛda. Likewise, the word for bow, also attested, ultimately goes back to Iranic taxša. Nor were these one-off interactions. A previous post detailed how the formation of a Greek noa-word could go back to an Iranic borrowing.  

From a similarly early (but obviously, considerably post Mycenaean) period, Scythians and their Iranic nomad cousins were known enough to the Greeks to warrant ethnic stereotypes in plastique art and literary common places: drinking like a Scythian (e.g wildly, unmixed wine) is attested as early as Anacreon (fr 76) and a verb would form, Σκυθίζειν skythizein (to drink outrageously), analogous to e.g λακωνίζειν lakonizein (to be taciturn) for Spartans. In fact, even the words for Persians and Medes reflect the antiquity of these relationships. At some point, the easterly Greek dialects (Attic-Ionic, mainly) raised the vowel long a to long e (α > η – though Attic would undergo partial reversion of this rule, to the frustration of fledgling classicists). Persians and Medes were originally Parsa and Madha respectively in their own tongues and early Greek pronunciation must have reflected this, prior to the shift.[7]

Some years ago, an article was published to much acclaim. It analysed several “nonsense” inscriptions and concluded that they may be rendered less nonsensical if you translate the characters as foreign names from the black sea region.[8] It is a good article, though I cannot understand the surprise. We already had a more than working knowledge of various Iranian dialects and loanwords in Greek. The amount of work done on this by Russophones is tremendous. Still, the addition of Caucasian evidence (though tentative) makes it worth reading. Likewise, when Scythians do speak in comedy their speech is rendered in a way that is quite consistent with substrate interference from an Iranian dialect e.g aspirated stops (φ, θ) are consistently rendered as their unaspirated equivalents (π, τ); loss of final ν and σ; issues with conjugation and declensional gender etc etc. I do not, sadly, own a copy but Andreas Willi’s book will undoubtedly go over this in more detail.[9] It is amazing how so many of the “mistakes” can be rationalised with the Iranian evidence.

The black-sea region seems to be the likeliest vector for this exchange. In terms of grain, the region was to Athens what Egypt would be to Rome. The area may well have proved a good source of animal goods and human slaves and whilst the litoral area and its immediate hinterland was mineral poor (nobody had any need for crude oil then), Greek craftsmanship was obviously valued at a premium. Some of the most significant plastique objects must have been fashioned by Greek artisans. Clearly, the area was one of great exchange (indeed, a future post will be on the Scythian reception of Homer. Yep). This be seen in Herodotus’ story about the Scythian king Skythes (hm…) adopting Greek rites one of the so called seven sages, Anacharsis. About whom you can read more here.

Suffice it to say, I think the presence of actual Scythians in the archer corps was extremely likely. I think the Athenians would be quite aware of how they looked and how they spoke. I do not think their depiction in art and on stage was some orientalist fantasy divorced from reality. The remaining question is – what happened to them? We know they were eventually disbanded and that citizen youths replaced them on guard duty, at least on the Prytaneion. Why? (I swear this is where we now make this relevant).

In his monumental sociological study of Aristophanes,  Ehrenberg seems to think the Scythians on stage to be a source of fun and that “the comedians hardly ever suggest any resentment on the citizens’ part at the power of the Scythians…the existence of these policemen was generally accepted without any grumbling and without any feeling of humiliation”.[10] In other words, more Hot Fuzz or Thin Blue Line than…oh I don’t know, you know I don’t really know pop culture. Just think of some jokes about policemen and doughnuts.  I am not so sure I would agree. Take this quotation:

τῷ γὰρ εἰκὸς ἄνδρα κυφὸν ἡλίκον Θουκυδίδην

ἐξολέσθαι συμπλακέντα τῇ Σκυθῶν ἐρημίᾳ,

705τῷδε τῷ Κηφισοδήμῳ τῷ λάλῳ ξυνηγόρῳ;

ὥστ᾽ ἐγὼ μὲν ἠλέησα κἀπεμορξάμην ἰδὼν

ἄνδρα πρεσβύτην ὑπ᾽ ἀνδρὸς τοξότου κυκώμενον

How unseemly that a man, bent with age like Thucydides,

should be wrestled and destroyed by this prattling advocate

from the Scythian steppe, this man, Kephisodemos.

so that I wept tears of pity, seeing

an elderly man brutalised by a bowman.

Aristophanes Acharnenses 703-7

This is comedy. It is artificial. But like all good jokes there is something of the truth therein. If you strip away the old comedy tropes (ethnic prejudice, name dropping of famous men) I suspect you may have something very real here. The pattern across comedy does not paint the Scythians in a particularly flattering light.

The central conceit of Athenian democracy was that all men were equal under the franchise. The central conceit of our modern scholarship is the overemphasising on the intensely democratic phase of Athenian history. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War(s). The franchise became smaller and smaller. The government, less democratic. I imagine an atmosphere developed wherein people, deprived, or restricted in their citizen rights, found themselves increasingly associating with one another at an ethnic level. The foreignness of the archer corps would have been more and more apparent. Indeed, it would have been increasingly hard to see the difference between them as a sort of metonymy for the collective power of the state and an oppressive bodyguard, such as Peisistratos’ Thracian guardsmen or the Persian garrisons in Asia Minor. No doubt they, as police always seem to do, made themselves increasingly unpopular too. As Demosthenes said, what is the strength of the laws? Men make them. Men uphold them. Men abuse them.

A similar process occurred with the so-called frumentarii of the Roman Empire. I have had to massively cut the section on Roman policing to save space and your patience. I would refer any interested parties to Fuhrmann, C. J. (2011). Policing the Roman Empire. They formed something of a military police/internal affairs arm. They likewise were set apart physically (in the castra peregrina on the Caelian) and made themselves increasingly unpopular. Eventually they were replaced with the not at all ominous sounding agentes in rebus who…yep, were also abusers of power.

The parallel is rough, but hopefully instructive. I am not suggesting we are in any way going to do away with our police. Britain is incredibly over-surveilled and over-policed as it is. This is unlikely to change. But tensions are increasing, and no doubt will continue to do so as the police abrogate more and more made up powers to themselves. Policing, I think, works well when it is done as part of the community. I do not know when exactly things shifted in Britain. But if I look at the way things are now I am reminded much more of a foreign corps reigning over us than representatives of the citizen body.

Who watches the watchmen? We do. As they defray our rights and upload shit to TikTok, apparently.


O homines ad servitutem paratos: Roman Karens

The top down abuse of power is inevitable. Sadder yet is when members of the demos conspire with them.

Introducing the delatores or the Karens of Ancient Rome if you like.

difficile est saturam non scribere. nam quis iniquae

tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se,

causidici nova cum veniat lectica Mathonis

plena ipso, post hunc magni delator amici

et cito rapturus de nobilitate comesa

it is difficult not to write satire. For who of these injustices

could be so tolerant? So hardened, that he might hold himself

when along comes the brand-new coach of the lawyer Matho

full to its brim with him, and after, an informer on his great friend

and will soon seize whatever is left of the nobility…

Juvenal 1.30-5

To be an informer, a delator, was no great mark of distinction though it must have brought great rewards. You can see by his use of a qualifying adjective (great friend), which to me at least belies a sense of social climbing. People, whom we might identify as middle class, had ample opportunity to enter the confidences of the minor aristocracy and then betray them to the authorities. An odd mix of decadent western bourgeoise and eastern soviet police state. This is one of the dominant concerns of Juvenal’s literary persona. The sense of penetrating an inner sanctum and then betraying your friends, family, or even your acquaintances can also be seen to animate the anxiety of our initial quote (quis custodiet…).  Informers are one of the major classes of people against which satire tended to concern itself. The other being legacy hunters.

cum te summoveant qui testamenta merentur

noctibus, in caelum quos evehit optima summi

nunc via processus, vetulae vesica beatae?

When they move you aside, those who earn their legacies

By night, who are now raised to sky by the best

Road to highest advancement – the guts of a wealthy old lady

Juvenal 1.37-40

Erm, thanks Juvenal, very cool! Love how the metre makes recitation even more uncomfortable.

Informers and legacy hunters were literary common places, but no less real for all that.[11] The original locus classicus for the ancients themselves was the dictatorship of Sulla. Sulla, in the cause of the insane civil unrest during the rail end of the public, wrested control of the republic from the hands of Cinna (Marius has predeceased his chance for a real showdown with his ex-protégé)[12]. In order to shore up his position the dictator began proscribing people. Names were published. Their lives and their estates declared forfeit, with a share of the proceeds going to man who informed on them. It is difficult to downplay the effect this period had on the Roman psyche: when Augustus, M Antonius, and M Lepidus formed their own triumvirate, the attendant purges (in which Cicero died) earned them the nickname of Sulla’s disciples. Attempting to persuade the dictator to lay down his office became a common exercise in Roman rhetorical schools etc.[13] No less than the proposed revolution of the Gracchi did this period make fortunes and feuds amongst the Roman nobles.[14]

The most famous of Sulla’s victims, was one who got away. Julius Caesar had (perhaps through his illustrious uncle, Marius) married the daughter of Cinna. Sulla ordered young Caesar to divorce his wife, who was after all the daughter of his enemy. In what would prove to an incredibly astute move, Caesar refused, and was subsequently proscribed.[15] But Caesar was Caesar, and had powerful friends willing to intercede on his behalf. Eventually, Sulla relented and was alleged to have uttered that in Caesar were many Mariuses: …nam Caesari multos Marios inesse.

The proscriptions of 82 and 43 were the most famous, but as you might intimate from Juvenal’s literary usage they were not the only ones. In fact, this behaviour – albeit at a lower level – became a central part of aristocratic (autocratic) Roman life. I suspect this – along with non-hereditary monarchy – is one of those genuinely Roman survivals idiot barbarians were thinking of when they coined the term “Byzantine” as a pejorative.[16]

I had intended to write in greater detail on everyone’s favourite emperor, Tiberius, and the various doings of his reign. The perfidy of Romanus Hispo (the first Karen?), or the detailed trial of Libo Drusus in book 2 of Tacitus’ Annales. Instead, I found this wonderful clip from I, Claudius with Patrick Stewart’s hair as Sejanus.

What a great scene, even T’s cruentae litterae are featured.

For me, the most horrifying aspect of this was how, according to Tacitus at least (and coronavirus has given me no reason to disbelieve him), willing people were to inform on each other even without the heavy pressure of the state. The formal proscription lists had disappeared from Roman life. They would never again be needed. When Tiberius was himself disinclined to prosecute someone for their alleged disloyalty the senate itself, led by Ateius Capito, called out in distress that the state itself was under assault. O homines ad servitutem paratos decried Tiberius as he left the senate house. “Oh men, rendered fit for servitude”. Not as well-known as o tempora, o mores, but more apt nowadays, I think.

When Aurelian (reigned 270-5) did something about informers (the HA does not tell us what exactly), surely that only served to make him more liked:

idem quadruplatores ac delatores ingenti severitate persecutus est

false-witnesses and informers, he [Aurelian] persecuted with great severity.

Historia Augusta 39.3 (Aurelianus)

But whatever he did, the effect was transitory at best. Indeed, informers would forever be a part of Roman life and they resurface most forcefully in Ammianus Marcellinus’ amazing history. He may be Tacitus’ less sassy understudy, but the stories surrounding Barbatio, Arbitio, Silvanus, and Paulus (nicknamed catena, the chain, for his ability to string cases together) are fascinating reading. It’s like a human centipede of scheming and backstabbing.

Is there a point in your pocket or aren’t you happy to see me?

When Publius Horatius, the only survivor of the duel (triuel?) between the Horatii and the Curiatii, returned home to find his sister weeping over her newly slain fiancé, he killed her on the spot. But he was hardly hailed as a hero. There was a trial. He got off on a technicality. His father, possibly thereafter his family, owed the gods appeasement. Rome had always loved its gods and its state and its institutions (frankly, to Roman eyes this would be a tricolon of tautological inanity), but family and community always came first.

No Roman, no Athenian, would ever understand the ease and speed at which we seem keen to fracture our communities and render our rights up to our governments. But they would have recognised it.

It is a lovely image. But at a time when the police are randomly stopping cars to ask people where they are going (the cowards deleted the tweet. Given the multiplicative nature of contagion those policemen are potentially responsible for at least 124 corona cases.), or trying to determine what counts as an “essential item”; when neighbours are happy to snoop and snitch, I think of men like Ateius Capito adopting democratic forms to mask tyrannical substance, I think of how “equality under law” was proven a lie with every whack of a Scythian’s bow against a poor potter or tanner. A democracy can does not live when people are treated so.

As always, thank you for reading.

Endlings and Suchlike

[1] Far, far, from being some sort of proto-racist reaction (can anyone but an American think so?) Pericles’ citizenship law must be read in this fraught context. Someone like Kleisthenes wielded the power he did so precisely due to his extra-politial relationships on his mother’s side. The resources and panhellenic guest friendships such men could call upon where of phenomenal import. To say nothing of those wielded by genuine tyrants such as Polycrates of Samos and his Egyptian links.

[2] I may be exhibited an unexamined prejudice here. See Fisher, N. (2003) The Law of Hubris in Athens. in P. Cartledge & P. Millett (Eds.), Nomos: Essays in Athenian law, politics, and society. (pp 123-139) for a good summary and a potential case on the historical record.

[3] In this context, read (Pseudo?)Demosthenes 59, against Neaera.

[4] τὸ σχοινίον φεύγουσι τὸ μεμιλτωμένον, “they flee the vermillion rope”. The rope was presumably died (probably a loose, cloying, powder) that would mark them when they turned up.

[5] Numbers vary. If they were used in military contexts as per ceramic evidence, 1000 makes sense. Otherwise…as or the name and its derivation from a Speusippos I am liable to accept the argument in Braund, D. (2006). In Search of the Creator of Athens’ Scythian Archer-Police: Speusis and the “Eurymedon Vase”. Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik, 156, 109-113.

[6] E.g Acharnenses 54 where one is called as a threat; Equites 665 where they drag someone from the assembly; Ecclesiazusae 143 drunks being pulled from the agora.

[7] E.g this fronting is already apparent by the early/mid-7th century. See a graffito on a vase from Cumae: IG XIV 865. Graphically the η is represented as ε, but it must represent a long vowel.

[8] Adrienne Mayor, John Colarusso, & David Saunders. (2014). Making Sense of Nonsense Inscriptions Associated with Amazons and Scythians on Athenian Vases. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 83(3), 447-493. See the work of Nadezda A. Gavriljuk on the Scythians and the slave trade if you want a good slavophonic bibliography and an idea of what philologists were thinking more than 15 years ago. American media can fuck right off.

[9] Willi, A. (2003). The languages of Aristophanes: Aspects of linguistic variation in classical Attic Greek. Oxford

[10] Ehrenberg, V. (1962). The people of Aristophanes: A sociology of old attic comedy. Oxford. Pp175

[11] Horace Sermones 2.5 is probably the best expression of the former.

[12] I was much taken as a student by how tangled party politics seemed to be at this time. We tend to cast them through the teleological lens of Caesar vs Pompey (which we take as populares vs optimates, foolishly). Though old, Christoph Meinhard Bulst. (1964). “Cinnanum Tempus”: A Reassessment of the “Dominatio Cinnae”. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 13(3), 307-337, has massively affected my thinking on this.

[13] in tabulam Sullae si dicant discipuli tres: if Sulla’s three disciplines speak against his conscription (Juvenal 2.28 e.g the hight of hypocrisy); et nos/consilium dedimus Sullae, privatus ut altum/ dormiret: I too have counselled Sulla, to retire and rest on his honour (Juvenal 1.15-7). What can I say? I love this poet…

[14]Erm…  rem publicam dominatione factionis oppressam in libertatem vindicavi: I freed the Republic which had been oppressed by the tyranny of faction. Maybe…maybe Augustus was right?

[15] He needed a wife of patrician family to secure his priesthood. His own father had not risen far (though a relative, Sextus Julius Caesar, had) and marriage to Cinna’s house would have started as a boon and seemingly become a bane. He even lost his priesthood. But there was no guarantee Sulla’s party would have accepted this patrician parvenu and so Caesar immediately won for himself a reputation for integrity and daring. Or maybe she was super-hot, IDK.

[16] Fuck Dandolo. The ultimate delator.


Boris Johnson’s Supreme Law

or, guess who found the verb in Cicero?

PM Boris Johnson has been caught red-handed injecting cillit bang into the veins of orphans being held down by Barry Scott whilst cackling about austerity. “You pleb! You pleb!” he shouts “Amo amas amat! Amo amas amat!” he cackled privilegely “This is Classics! This is Classics!”. Hand in hand, Johnson and Scott skip away from the scene, leaving crumpled up pages torn from first edition Kennedy’s. Or so one might think, given the furor tuiteraticus.

We have covered this topic before and for the most part, the post still stands the test of time. But how often does one see #Cicero trending on twitter?!?! We must commemorate this.

When discussing the ongoing lockdown Johnson was alleged to have quoted Cicero’s De Legibus (3.3.8): salus populi suprema lex esto or “let the health of the people be the supreme law”. Before we jump into the quote, it is worth hovering briefly over the wider work itself. The lack of De Legibus in complete MSS forms must surely be one of the severe blows to our understanding of Roman philosophical and political thought. Laugh at Cicero all you want (his poetry practically begs it), but he held the highest office at Rome and was a major player. Though the work was clearly influential, little direct survives beyond a bit of the third book. The work is, like that of his predecessor Plato and epigone Gemistos Plethon, concerns the legal system of a hypothetical state. Hy-po-thet-ic-al.

Now, back to the tag. You would think Johnson has either mistranslated or said something contemptible. But what that might be, is beyond me. Putting the health of the people first at a time of extreme economic contraction, against the wishes of big corporate interests on one side and protesters on the other, seems…admirable?

Ah, ok. Leaving aside the politeness of excusing yourself in a tweet whilst damning someone for an equally short – or shorter soundbite – (the moral equivalent of fucking someone in the arse whilst giving yourself a reach around), let’s jump in on this. A lot of the aforementioned furor tuiteraticus has concentrated on the ambivalence of salus.

Yes, it is quite true that Cicero is speaking in a political, rather than medical, context and that salus has a wide range of meanings. So what? So do many words in most languages. The word has many meanings; its most general one is health. As when Romans greeted one another (salve, amice), or would pray (cf one of the most antique prayers, the one to Mavors as recorded in Cato), or bless their children (…quod cum salute eius fiat). Roman aristocrats started their day with a salutatio from their amici (few could afford to call them clientes to their faces!). The Romans, following Hellenistic trends, even instituted a temple to Salus on the Quirinal and the Catholics would later latch on to this religious meaning (verba salutis). Perhaps, given the mad exigencies of fate this year, Mr Johnson should have gone with Plautus instead: ut consuevere, homines Salus frustratur et Fortuna, but that is beside the point.

The point is that you can see the obvious semantic framework. We do not need to go on and on. I am not going to do my usual sthick of talking about the PIE root and the cross-cultural meanings of the word in Greek and Sanskrit, because it is not a difficult lexeme. If I were working at the TLL and I got salus when my partner got numen or something, I would be very pissed off. It is on the GCSE Latin word list, FFS.

In fact, the entire phrase already has a history of being used as a tag with the unmarked sense of salus standing in for health and wholeness (its loose Germanic equivalent, btw), rather than the integrity of the body politic. A quick google tells me that it was used as the tag of the Dublin Medical Press and the Medical Circular all the way back in 1839. Fuck it, see this excellent tweet by Armand D’Angour:


Actually spend enough time on #ClassicsTwitter and you’ll quickly learn why D’Angour is simply maestro:

The fact is the tag is perfectly acceptable here. He is in good company. Buildings and medical journals aside, the quote has long been a mainstay of western philosophy. I had thought the tradition in the West had started with Rosseau, but apparently not. See this interesting thread. Either way the use of this line in this context is centuries old. Moreover, the reuse of lines is itself a little-known classical inheritance, a genre of poetry called cento.

Starting allegedly with one Hosidius Geta (who wrote yet another fucking Medea), poets in Latin and Greek started to re-use lines from the Classics (both Latin and Greek) in order to create completely new poems. Obviously, the original context was either thoroughly obviated or reemployed in clever, subtle, ways. The genre is little studied in English letters, and I daresay beyond the work of the Empress Eudokia, of little import nowadays. But, again, Johnson is in good company stretching all the way back to late antiquity.

Well asktchually!!

There must be some greater impetus to this behaviour than simple political disagreement. It is pathological. It is unseemly. Historian Tom Holland has, I think, struck gold with his explanation:

Academia, when it functions well, functions like a midwife. Aiding and abetting understanding, bringing new life to our inherited material. Men and women of previous generations exemplified this: Mortimer Wheeler and Gilbert Murray on the BBC, Betty Radice over at Penguin (again, the unsung hero of 20th century Classics). We have but little of this now, though I massively admire Mary Beard’s fairness whenever these twitter spats come up.

Conversely when academia dysfunctions, it does so rather in the guise of a corrupt priesthood. With their weird shibboleths and incestuous cliques, their whosays over the whatsaids. We are seeing this now. It is not pretty, and beyond the confines of a small echo-chamber, it is just not flying. It stinks of the insecurity of little children upset that others are playing without them. Moreover, what exactly are these people trying to say? If a man can leave Eton and Oxford and not know very, very, basic Latin we as taxpayers have the right – the responsibility – to put every single lecturer in prison for fraud. We are a not a fucking serf class, to subsidise the lifestyles and frivolous, ineffectual, play of a “scholar” class. You utter cunts. If you want to disagree with the PM chaps, have the courage to do so on facts, not on picking nits of your own devising.

Is any of this correct? Is it fair? It all seems precisely the kind of important stuff we such castigate and push back over. Frankly, the current administration needs to be raked over the coals concerning their dealing with China, Huawei, and 5G contracts. But I digress.

I know I keep saying this but put yourself in the shoes of a 16-year-old making subject choices. Why, oh why, (especially in this economy) would you choose a subject that, besides being taught almost entirely by a negative nasty clique, seems to be completely unlearnable sans several years in graduate school and of apparently no relevance whatsoever? It is beyond madness. Even if you were not concerned about skills and employability, it would seem an insane endeavour. One, incidentally, you never see espoused by e.g Mathematicians or Engineers.

As an aside: people really, really, dislike universities right now. I do not think I have met a single person in the City that has anything nice to say about academics and current academic culture. There is serious dislike from the working class at what they see as immense privilege. With the coming economic contraction thanks to COVID-19, people are looking long and hard at the business models employed by these places – the over-bloated staff, the gluttonous senior salaries, tearing out all sense of community to appeal to international students… It would be smart to have the forbearance not to kick up a stink in the current climate. At the very least, it makes things difficult for the good men and women trying their best to conduct their research and teach upcoming generations in an equitable and agreeable manner. You shits.

Patient, long time, readers (all three of them) may be wondering at the header image. Why, after all, did I use that and not a photoshopped image of Boris Johnson as Barry Scott spraying a journalist or something? It is actually the 9/11 memorial, which at the time had its fair sure of naysayers too based on the Virgilian context (here is a wonderful summary). The Bishop of Rome, when not blaming bats (????) has his own share of Latin malapropisms (the brilliant Llewellyn Morgan has recently blogged on this, here). Which is a lesson in and of itself really, isn’t it?

Johnson has more peccadilloes than I care list. For all that, he is an impassioned Classicist, one quite well versed in Greek and Latin, with a genuine love of his, no, of our subject.  As I said, this is just the latest in a string of hysterical overreactions and I would urge anyone interested to check my fuller treatment here.

As always, thanks for reading.

Aristotle’s Coronavirus: Why the Young will Kill the Old

The young are going to kill the old. This post might have been more prescient had I been able to finish it off in March – before the public had fully grasped the potential risk to even young, fit, individuals – but, ok. The young are going to kill the old because in order to protect them, they are being asked to shoulder what is going to be an immense cost to their social lives, personal development, and careers. For a perhaps indefinite period. Regardless, the opportunity cost is massive.

That is a lot to give up. Especially given the real possibility that the virus may be little harder than common influenza for most people in the 20-30s age range. How do you get people to do it? The alignment of crossways competing incentives can be hard enough in a business setting, let alone in a society. Yet I suspect that the ancients accomplished this much more deftly than we.


I owe much of my thinking on this to Aristotle, in particular books one and two of his Politics. His comparisons between the family and city state rise above mere naturalistic or primitivist fallacy. The link between the oikos and the polis is not (just) one of scale, but of various interlocking obligations. I think we can intimate how the ancients would behave in a lockdown. I want to start with an Athenian Law delineating what one owed to one’s parents. This gives us a snapshot of how the Athenians understood familial – and societal – obligation:

εἰ γὰρ ἔζη μὲν ὁ πάππος, ἐνδεὴς δὲ ἦν τῶν ἐπιτηδείων, οὐκ ἂν οὗτος ὑπόδικος ἦν τῆς κακώσεως ἀλλ᾽ ἡμεῖς. κελεύει γὰρ τρέφειν τοὺς γονέας: γονεῖς δ᾽ εἰσὶ μήτηρ καὶ πατὴρ καὶ πάππος καὶ τήθη καὶ τούτων μήτηρ καὶ πατήρ, ἐὰν ἔτι ζῶσιν: ἐκεῖνοι γὰρ ἀρχὴ τοῦ γένους εἰσί, καὶ τὰ ἐκείνων παραδίδοται τοῖς ἐκγόνοις: διόπερ ἀνάγκη τρέφειν αὐτούς ἐστι, κἂν μηδὲν καταλίπωσι.

For if my grandfather were alive and in want of life’s necessities, it would not be our opponent liable for “neglect” but us. For the law demands of us to support our parents, meaning by parents father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother, and their father and mother, if they are still alive: for they are the seed of the family, and their [property] is transmitted to their descendants, and so the latter are bound to support them even if they leave behind nothing.

Isaeus 8.32.2-9

Ok, the context of this immediately makes this a little suspect – it is Attic oratory after all, lying, manipulation, and verbal sleight of hand are all par for the course. I don’t have a commentary to hand, but what immediately stands out is the use of γονεύς for elderly ancestor, which is why I italicised it. Yes, fine in terms of etymology (perhaps) and the wider Greek world, but certainly strange in Attic usage.[1] Hence why the speaker must go on at length to define it. Nonetheless, we know that such a law against neglect and ill treatment towards one’s parents must have existed. It is cited by (Pseudo)Aristotle,[2] and parodied by Aristophanes,[3] and occasionally held by some rhetors to have been Solonian in origin.[4] But this is the locus classicus I remember from my schooling and one that lays out the measure of the law: Parents are owed respect/sustenance by their offspring. The broader context, that this is in part due to the care offered to their young, is left unstated but would be immediately intimated by every right-thinking Athenian. There is a strong sense of reciprocity.

This isn’t just some idle law against elder abuse. It ties into the broader centrality of the oikos to Athenian social theory and praxis. Consider, for example, the law against wasting one’s inheritance, the misappropriation of property/monies taken over via marriage (and therefore rightfully belonging to the wife or her descendants), or the various provisions against leaving some truly intestate. This latter category is particularly well attested in the broader Greek world (Sparta, Gortyna). These laws serve to inhibit the individual for the protection of his wider kin group.

The duty of every free-born Athenian male could be thus summarised: to preserve his inheritance in order to pass it on to his children. To look after his parents,whence he received his patrimony. Nor was this an entirely fiscal, er, transaction, there were wider social and physical provisions.[5] Beyond the oikos there were certainly (weaker) obligations to one’s anchisteia, phratry, and polis (which can’t be covered here). Would an Athenian keep inside to protect the old? Social and legal pressure, perhaps even honest gratitude to what his elders have given him, would make that a likely proposition.

But do we have any of that?

Take instead the atomised modern. What he has inherited? In the year of our lord 2020 someone in their late twenty to early thirties will have been receiving or finishing his education in a time of extreme global recession (and believe me, it was fucking brutal) only to now be experiencing another. Complete with corporate tax-funded bailouts. S/he either paid some £3000 per year for university fees or entered at a time when the government had tripled them to £9000. A government, incidentally, educated at a time when university was free.[6] House prices are – somehow, somehow – absolutely insane, despite lowering birth rates and colonised green space;[7] members of the older generation, meanwhile, may own multiple homes. It is shockingly easy to go on, but I shan’t. Much has been written about the shocking selfishness and expropriation of resources by that particular generation.

Going back to the law cited by Isaeus, yes, there was (potentially) a provision that care was owed κἂν μηδὲν καταλίπωσι (even if they leave nothing), but this was in the face of immense socio-cultural pressure to leave substance and opportunities behind and probably was only invoked in the cases of very poor families. I do not think the ancients could have conceived of the level of intergenerational expropriation that typifies growing up in the modern west.

The 75 Years’ Young Boomer vs The Bad Knee’d Teen

What’s the Ancient Greek for “50 is the new 30?” Μαλακίαι – Such narcissistic posturing would be at best considered to be unseemly and at worst, utter degeneracy.[8] Indeed, much of the humour of Aristophanes’ Clouds depends seeing a grey-haired old man act in the manner of a child, including his enrolment in a frontistirio headed up by our boy Socrates. Strepsiades himself worries how he is going to learn being so slow and old (πῶς οὖν γέρων ὢν κἀπιλήσμων καὶ βραδὺς/λόγων ἀκριβῶν σκινδαλάμους μαθήσομαι; 129-30) and this anxiety and incongruity is picked up by the chorus who address him as an old man, a hunter after the arguments of philosophers (χαῖρ’, ὦ πρεσβῦτα παλαιογενές, θηρατὰ λόγων φιλομούσων. 358). But the apex of this joke comes in a scene familiar to all students. Socrates bids Strepsiades to lay down and think over his problem he asks him repeatedly if he has anything:

Σωκράτης: ἔχεις τι;

Socrates: Have you anything?

Στρεψιάδης: μὰ Δί’ οὐ δῆτ’ ἔγωγ’.

Strepsiades: By Zeus, I’ve nothing.

Σω: οὐδὲν πάνυ;

So: Nothing at all?

Στ: οὐδέν γε πλὴν ἢ τὸ πέος ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ.

St: There is nothing in my right hand besides…my penis

Aristophanes Clouds 732-6

Aristophanes slyly sets up the joke up by having the chorus warn our, err, hero that he mustn’t be soft (οὐ μαλακιστέ 729). The joke (I know, no joke explained is made funnier) works across two semantic levels. That between softness and masturbation should be obvious,[9] the other level is that he is regressing to the level of an unmarried youth. He is not acting his age. The poet plays with these themes elsewhere, as at the end of his Wasps where old man Sosias ends up part of a drunken komos.[10] The crux of the joke is clear: act your age-old man. 

Somehow, Aristophanes anticipated what most of my generation must have felt growing up seeing endless articles of how x age is the new y age, with x and y moving surreptitiously ever decade or so. Just please, shut the fuck up. Do not misunderstand, I am all for the elderly having a good life. Medical advances should make this more possible than ever. My grandfather was literally born in a village, he died slightly short his centenary and enjoyed lifting weights and jogging until his end. His old army mates weren’t much different. My father is pushing 60; I absolutely want him to have the best remaining life possible. But the endless narcissistic prattling of the middle-class elder who just can’t act his age and be thankful is starting to grate.

For fairness, this goes both ways. There is this weird tendency (I’m not going to post pictures, it would be unseemly) for grown men to pose, mouths agape, holding a games system or a Lego set or something. What the fuck is this? It’s like they have been trapped in a state of eternal pubescence. I don’t even mean this in a blameworthy manner, the world has conspired to render the old milestones of life considerably more difficult to achieve. But it does weird me out a little.

It has been noted – first humorously and now increasingly incredulously – that we are seeing something of a reversal, an unfunny paraprosdokian, where youngsters are now having to ask their parents whence and with whom they are going, or admonishing them to take the virus seriously. I can’t believe what I’m seeing outside my window. We have lost school. We have lost work. We have lost – the most sacred place of all – the gym. For what? The young, I reiterate, are giving up their livelihoods so that the old may live. Seemingly for nothing.

cronus eating child ruben
I believe Rubens called this “Modern Economics”

The Greeks were no more strangers to intergenerational strife than any human civilisation at any date. Indeed, when channelled it could be an immense creative force. The emergence of the so-called new music or the neoteric poets, for instance. But this is something more. The culmination of decades of ill feeling and frustration. Researchers are starting to jump on the long-term effects of the pandemic in this regard, and the current generation may well end up defined by COVID-19.[11]

Why will the young kill the old? Because as the ancients would tell us, forbearance – society – is a two-way street. Those who have taken too much for too long can’t, it seems, even now develop anything like self-restraint on a large enough scale. Can’t just stay indoors. Conversely, those who have the most to lose and least to gain by their longanimity are unlikely to persist in this level of self abnegation. If anything, previous generations have created a world where they can’t persist. We have lost sight of what would have been evident to the ancients: society consists of interlocking obligations and privileges to be enjoyed – and yielded – in turn.

I (inevitably) need to end with a caveat, because this is the internet. Just as explanation is not excuse, it is certainly not endorsement. I am by no means undermining the seriousness of this current plague and think every unavoidable death to be lamentable, regardless of age. Nor do I particularly dislike the boomer generation. But just as it is fallacious to apply the stereotypical trend to an individual, it is equally so to exculpate the broader trend based on our individual experience. I have been blessed in my older family members; I have even benefitted with some friendships with interesting older people. That doesn’t erase a very serious intergenerational problem that our grandchildren will struggle to clean up.

I hope this blog will continue to find you well. Wash your hands. Help your community. Look after your family – especially aged members. Stay safe.

[1] See instead τοκεύς e.g Perikles’ speech at Thucydides 2.44.1, which must stand for one’s forebears more generally.

[2] Ath Pol 56.6. That said, I don’t think we can speak with the certainty of some who definitely declare this to have been a graphe rather than a dike on this alone. These were important distinctions on Attic law. Am I missing some vital piece of evidence? Almost certainly.

[3] καὶ μὴ περὶ τοὺς σαυτοῦ γονέας σκαιουργεῖν, ἄλλο τε μηδὲν / αἰσχρὸν ποιεῖν Clouds 994-5

[4] It was not. See above re: Attic oratorical context. Certain speakers, definitely not pointing at some guy with pebbles in his mouth, will brazenly declare things to be Solonian which we know could not have been from, say, context or the epigraphic record.

[5] See the note on Aristophanes above re: generic σκαιουργεῖν; burial rites are a perfect example of this e.g Dinarchus 2.8. The force of this can be especially felt in Sophocles’ Antigone.

[6] It is one thing to kick the ladder away having ascended; another thing entirely to defecate over those still climbing – surely???

[7] My awareness of this madness came from being part of a team looking at derivatives based on the property market. It was a frustrating and insane experience. Incidentally, fuck property futures. Just buy equities like a non-coward.

[8] For this choice of word see e.g Perikles’ words: Thucydides 2.40.1 φιλοκαλοῦμέν τε γὰρ μετ᾽ εὐτελείας καὶ φιλοσοφοῦμεν ἄνευ μαλακίας.

[9] It would eventually become an insult in Greek. Eventually, βλάκα. The link with degeneracy, above, is less obvious to parse – unless you read the citations. I don’t agree that there is meant to be a direct link with κιναιδεία, just a sense of indolence and lack of restraint.

[10] Wasps is an interesting comedy, it comes after a version of the Clouds (not our version, which has been revised) and seems slightly more sympathetic to the old. “Sosias and Strepsiades as Boomers”. Now there is a title for an essay…

[11] Rudolph, Cort & Zacher, Hannes. (2020). “The COVID-19 Generation”: A Cautionary Note. 10.31234/osf.io/c7w3u. Is a good start. Just copy and paste the call number in to find the PDF, it is open access.

*h₂ŕ̥tḱos gon give it to ya: Indo-European Bear Taboos

This is hardly the blog post I have been planning to sit down and sketch out over the past three weeks (on the coronavirus, naturally) now but needs must. You see, lector carissime, I have done it; I have defeated the final boss of Indo-European philology. Look at this glorious meme:

This is it. The height of #cheekychariotbois philology. I want to commemorate this moment in a blog post. They say nobody has ever saved a joke by explaining it, this is true, but – jocularity aside – I do want to expand on it a little. You see, there was no Indo-European bear taboo. There was a bear taboo in certain Indo-European languages (see the meme, above), but that is not the same thing as one being present in the parent language.

I: Proto-Indo-European taboos

What do we mean by taboo? Please forgive the “the dictionary defines this as…” vibe – taboo (antiquated spelling tabu) is a Polynesian word first brought to Western attention by Captain Cook in the 18th century;[1] it is a form of avoidance speech.  If something is marked as taboo it is not to be said or mentioned. It has, at least in Maori, as an antonym noa – we might say a euphemism or perlocution. Think of the logic behind this as something similar to Plautus’ nomen est omen. It’s not so much that naming defines/predicts, but naming something can either summon it (oh no, a bear!) or profane it (Jewish cultic avoidance of the name of god). Noa words therefore arise in order to avoid catching something’s attention, profaning it, or perhaps as a way of appeasing it. Such as the Greek habit of referring to the furies as eumenides (“kindly ones”) or the Black Sea as the euxine (< Εὔξεινος Πόντος, friendly sea).[2]

Actually, I am glad I took the time to define it. Look at the Google NGram results, from Cook’s time onward. Clearly in a society where you can pay people to pee on you in a nightclub in Berlin (seriously Germans? θεός νύ τι καὶ τὰ νεμεσσᾷ), we need to be reminded of the concept of a taboo. Now that is a taboo Hesiod (Works and Days, 758-60) should have listed.

μηδέ ποτ’ ἐν προχοῇς ποταμῶν ἅλαδε προρεόντων

μηδ’ ἐπὶ κρηνάων οὐρεῖν, μάλα δ’ ἐξαλέασθαι:

ἐναποψύχειν: τὸ γὰρ οὔ τοι λώιόν ἐστιν.

Do not ever into the streams of rivers into the sea pouring

or into springs, urinate; much better to avoid it

it is not seemly to relieve oneself therein.

Did the Indo-Europeans have taboos? In the linguistic sense I mean, all cultures have taboos in the physical/cultural sense. Some of these are so deeply embedded they clearly go back to a deep evolutionary kernel long before speech (think of the story of Oedipus), others can not be much younger (the typical Eurasian reaction to the consumption of dogs and cats), whilst others still are evidently much younger and more culturally conditioned (touching wood, Friday 13th). The initial tweet and Hesiod quote show that these were broadly present across the daughter languages. Being a philological blog, we naturally want to discuss words.[3]

One of the strongest pieces of evidence is the development of divine and theophoric names. Whilst some correspondences are apparent across a broad range of languages (PIE: *dyḗws-ph₂tḗr; IIr: *dyā́wš-pHtā́; Greek: Ζεῦ πάτερ Italic: *djous patēr, if you were wondering how the Romans got Iuppiter), in other situations we are left with functionally and cultically cognate deities without tenable reconstructions. It is a fundamentally untestable, but eminently reasonable, that in some cases divine taboos have rendered us unable to find the proper roots and correspondences.

This is best illustrated by Greek, but as I said above it is a requisite of good methodology when working with compranda to illustrate points across language families. We need to be able to distinguish being Indo-European (as in pertinent to the original parent – Proto-Indo-European) and daughter cultures, which are Indo-European in their phylogeny. I am guilty of being loose with my terms here, but I like to think my readers can prise the mens from the madness.

Let’s take Indra, as I have said before my favourite of the Indo-European gods (I swear this is relevant to bears, eventually), as an example of PIE taboos confounding. He is occasionally referred to as Parjánya. Scholars have postulated correspondences with the Slavic Perun and the Baltic Perkūnas we could add to that the Norse Fiorgynn (which requires a glide). The entirety of this data set goes back to associated words for striking (*per) and the oak (*perkʷ-). We might even try to hypothetically recreate a PIE god, *Perkʷuni(y)os.[4]

From a philological standpoint, this is nonsensical. We require special pleading for the Germanic (god, don’t we always?) and such a root in Sanskrit would give us not Parjánya but *Parkunya. The situation is made even more untenable when you look at Baltic variations for Perkons and Perkūnas (in dainos, in Old Prussian, Lettish etc etc). Do we do violence to the our older, better, evidence in order to support our younger and weaker ones? Ordinarily, no. But there is a strong semantic framework involved (especially between Baltic and Indic), and if we allow possible PIE taboos to have existed, we solve some difficulties. We can even account for *κεραυνός as a cultic name with mutation from π/κ as being part of the same divine semantic field. [5]

There may, and I know I am stretching this now, have been some form of taboo avoidance/noa usage in the PIE habit of rendering inanimate objects as deities (fire, friendship/bonds, water etc), but I would not be willing to put money it. This is, briefly, covered in my review of Il Primo Re here.

I think that the Indo-Europeans had linguistic taboos, just like their descendent ethnolinguistic groups, I also think these may have operated enough force to confound philologists. They could therefore conceivably have applied it to the bear, but it is my contention that they did not.

II: The chonkiest of bois: Proto-Indo-European Bears

Famously, we may reconstruct a PIE word for bear. The eventual decipherment of Hittite and other Anatolian languages allows us to render, *h₂ŕ̥tḱos.[6] A perfectly functional o-stem noun. The descendants of this word are particularly widespread: Hittite: ḫartákka; Greek: ἄρκτος; Latin: ursus; Sanskrit: ṛ́kṣa; Brythonic Celtic: arth[7] etc.

The presence of such a productive reflex in Anatolian is significant due to the relative chronology of various Indo-European subfamilies. Anatolian (Hittite, Luwian, Palaic) isn’t just the oldest preserved branch, it represents a very early form of PIE: The laryngeals still have consonantal reflexes (sadly, Saussure did not live to see this), the noun is divided into animate/inanimate rather than the later m/f/n, and the PIE perfect is used to form present tense verbs (which will make sense if you have ever wondered at οἶδα or how the sequence of tenses in Latin works).

You may recall a few paragraphs earlier where I mentioned the importance of moving across language groupings when reconstructing things. Something only present in Greek is not necessarily inherited. Something in a relatively well attested isogloss, like Greek and Sanskrit, may not got back much further than the posited isogloss (sometimes called Greco-Aryan). Likewise, something in historically convergent areas – like Latin or Greek, or Germanic and Celtic – may only represent a much later, shared innovation.[8] The latter ought not ever to be underestimated. The famous centum-satem split is perhaps the most famous example of an innovation taking over an incredibly large area.

Tying this back to bears, the fact that the *h₂ŕ̥tḱos may be found across so many different languages make it 100% certain that the parent language had this word. Meanwhile, let us look at the languages which practice linguistic taboos. We have Germanic words, like our bear, allegedly descending from a root *bʰer- which means something like brown. I say allegedly, because *bʰer- scarcely looks Indo-European. Ringe has argued for a link instead to *ǵʰwer-, wild animal (cf Latin fer; Greek θήρ)[9]. As usual, Germanic requires a host of special fucking pleading. As I have said before, I blame Matt Scarborough.  The taboo here is obviously strong within each culture but cannot be said to hearken back to the parent language or culture.

Bear brother

Next, I’m taking Slavic. Not Balto-Slavic, you wisely ask? Indeed not, as will become clear. The Slavs have arguably the most charming perlocution in all the PIE languages, *medvědь. The actual compound etymology is something like *medu-ēdis from PIE *médʰu and *h₁édti, rendering honeyeater. The charm comes from a folk etymology I wish was the real thing; *médʰu and *weyd- giving us honeyknower. Serious images of Winnie the Pooh.[10]

Baltic is, to be fair, also interesting. In Latvian we have lacis, in Lithuanian lokys which folk etymology sometimes renders from the verb to lick (PIE *leyǵʰ-, Lithuanian laižyti). I am reminded of the classical/medieval myth of bear cubs being born formless and having to be licked into shape by their mothers. Actually, I recently read a poem by someone on this. If you know whose it was, please comment, it was charming. Anyway, an etymology from licking or lapping (Balto-Slavic *lakti) is formally impossible. The presence of an Old Prussian variation with an anlaut in c or t – clokis/tlokis allows us to render an etymology of “hairy one” or “bristly one”. Less poetic, but more descriptive.

So, whilst the Indo-European languages broadly confirm to a word for bear, *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, German has a word of uncertain providence and actual meaning, but is conventionally taken to mean “brown one”; Slavic has “honeyeater” and Baltic has “bristly one”.

Incidentally, yes, we can follow the sound changes in each language to work out what the words would be. The Germanic form would give us something like *urhtaz (if we follow Ringe in allowing the metathesis of /tḱ/ > /ḱt/, modern English would have *ourt) and the Balto-Slavic *irśtvā́[11]. I suppose you’re welcome to go around Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic yelling out these words. No guarantee you won’t get eaten by an *ourt though.

Before I go on to wildly hypothesise how bears were conceived in PIE culture, let us reiterate why we cannot speak of an Indo-European taboo. First, there is a perfectly reconstructable root present in the majority of the languages right from the earliest stages of the language. We know this to be the case because Anatolian is behaving. Secondly, the languages with the taboos all have wildly different noa words.[12] This does not make sense in the case of an inherited taboo. But the strongest piece of evidence is that Slavic and Baltic both, somehow, have different words. Balto-Slavic clearly form an isogloss, and therefore if the taboo had present at any early stage these two at least should share it.

Let me state clearly: in each and every case, the taboo is an unconnected innovation.

The converse just beggars all logic and requires special pleading several orders of magnitude beyond what Karl Popper would allow on his fanciest cocaine binge. It requires that PIE had a bear taboo, that not a single of our genuinely ancient languages inherited, but it may be found amongst our weirdest and of our youngest testified ,[13] moreover not only are all these words different, but an isogloss does the unprecedented thing of creating (at least) two versions of this taboo. A taboo allegedly so strong as to go back to the mother tongue. Hmm.

I’m not going to entertain the idea that the PIE word itself has undergone taboo transformation; that puts far, far, too much weight on the Indo-Aryan evidence. The thinking seems to be that there is a connection with Sanskrit rákṣa (destroy). Except there is no taboo whatsoever about mentioning the various demons given this name, the usage is restricted to Indo-Iranian, and the parent word spreads just as easily – amongst those who don’t have bear taboos. Just as sensible to posit a taboo of hyper protective bears with a root in rakṣ (protect).

So, we can conclude that whilst certain Indo-European peoples had a bear taboo, it was not an inherited one. We can even look at the map and hypothesise that is because they were more likely to run into bears (though that brings the Welsh and the Albanians into questions, what? Where they just…not scared of them?). Which seems sensible. I’d be far more scared of coming across a bear den (berloga in Russian!) on foot in the German forest than I would on horseback out on the steppes…

But can we say anything about bears in Proto-Indo-European culture? After all, the lack of avoidance language does not at all preclude cultic engagement, mythology, and all sorts of ursine goodness.

III:  *h₂ŕ̥tḱoes?? néh₂u h₁moí?? kʷod!?! It’s more likely than you think!

 Little can be said, by me at least, about the Hittite religion. Hittite culture arose in a confluence of “indigenous” Hattic and Indo-European speakers, locally, whilst at the same time partaking in the wider Mesopotamian (Sumerian and Akkadian, later, the Egyptians too; hence Qadesh and Amarna) koine. Sources speak of “thousand gods of Hatti” and they are not wrong! Some gods are transparently PIE,[14] others are simply names of rivers or tutelary deities, others – like the goddess Belat or the god Enlil – are imported, others still must be “indigenous” Hattic deities. So, yes, complex.

Hittite culture seems to be surprisingly legalistic, with firm categories in place between the animal world (divisible into domestic and wild), gods, and men. But such strictures only serve to make liminalities saucier. That said, there seems to be little crossing in a religious sense with animals (and bizarrely well thought legal strictures contra bestiality; was it such a big problem!?). One text speaks of a “bear man”, hartagga, being shot at by a female archer.[15] The text is obviously ritualistic/religious/magical in nature, but there’s nothing about bear veneration here. My gut tells me the main aspect here is to do with the subverting of norms more than anything.[16] Moreover, the text itself is full of Hattic words and may not represent anything at all very Indo-European.

There are examples of theriomorphic deities (or similarities to them) in the Hittite tradition, which certainly have PIE parallels. As in Indic and Baltic, the bull represents the storm god; the god of the hunt/wild, (K)Runtiya seems to be cerviform.[17] But the bear seems not the play a role.

 Hittite has played such a prominent role in this section because, as I said, of the relative chronology of its divergence within Indo-European cladistics. Do not misunderstand: the complicated context (above) would not have exonerated any parallel from the usual philological and structural rules, if anything it would have exacerbated exactitude – but it would have made postulating something in the proto culture a little easier.

Sanskrit (rkṣāḥ; RV 1.24.10) and Greek share an ursine root in their name for the Ursa Major constellation, though the former later replaces it a name meaning “seven seers” with a new myth to match. The Greek name has a myth to go with it (the story of Arkas), I am unaware of any Indic parallel. Doubtless one must have existed at some point. The story of Arkas should be, I think, well known to readers of this blog. Folklorists have long noted that several other cultures have a similar myth of a bear hunt interrupted or pictured in stasis. The broad distribution in time, space, and language rules out even the laxest of areal spreads, we are clearly dealing with several cases of independent invention. Whilst the story (in all its variations – though the Finns win this one) is interesting, it doesn’t tell us anything particular about the Indo-Europeans.

It is a shame that we don’t have an Indic version to compare the Greek to, but as mentioned earlier that would at best give us a Greco-Aryan mytheme and not necessarily one shared by other PIE descendants. #isoglosses matter. A final note on Greek, before I close this section, and the goddess Artemis.

A number of non-specialists unaware of the dialectical variety of Ancient Greek (sadly not just neopagans, esotericists etc, but nowadays even linguists working from data sets rather than learning languages) try to tie Artemis to the root for bear. Alteration of the vowels from i/e (a in Boetian! Unless an error) renders this untenable. Mycenaean iirc even has the variation with i. When Greek does simplify the cluster further, it is the dental that gets eaten.  I don’t have it to hand, but I 100% bet Beekes will say it’s pre-Greek… No idea, but the name can’t come from bear.

But but but what about the sanctuary at Vravrona? Whilst Artemis Brauronia has a heavy bear element (maidens played the part of little bears) it hardly holds that one epichoric shrine, in defiance of all evidence and method, holds the real meaning. I do think there is an element of folk etymology involved, though I dare say if we could question an Athenian priest they would rightly remind us that the major elements of this cult are all to do with its role as a centre of initiation. I do think that divergences amongst the aetiological myths and imagery are really interesting. They just have nothing to do with PIE bears.[18]

 Well. This has been a monster post. We could continue picking individual PIE cultures, but it seems that in addition to there being no inherited taboo, there are scarcely any wide-ranging parallels. Our best candidate – the myth of Arkas (sometimes called “the cosmic hunt” by folklorists) – seems to be so widely prevalent as to tell us little. I hope this has at least been interesting!

Some housekeeping

Perhaps like me you find bears charming. Well, there’s a way you can help! Since 1992 the Greek charity Arcturus has been rewilding bears in Greece. You can head over and see what they have done to date – and what they’re doing (despite fire, economic depression, and now the Corona Virus) at https://www.arcturos.gr/en/. If you like what they’re doing, you can donate. For just £20 you can cover the daily needs of your near own bear. How cool is that? Artemis would be proud.

Waving Bear GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

I am thinking of changing the look of the blog. Long-time reader(s) can probably tell that the cheekily bad photoshopped header images have gone and the posts are slowly becoming more multimedia and linked as I learn. I liked the initial design (especially the main page banner), but think the pages are appearing increasingly cramped with this much text and footnotes. Let me know.

Lastly, if you found this interesting, have questions, absolutely must castigate it…feel free to do so in the comments below. If you *really* like it, like and retweet. At the very least you’ll be able to recruit a bigger mob against me. Pitch forks are cheaper in bulk order. 


 Endlings and suchlike

[1] As per Cook’s diaries (free online and worth your time), he took the word from the Tongans who pronounced it tapu. There are obvious variations across the Polynesian and Oceanic languages with regards to the (de?)voicing of the consonant and the quality of the vowels.

[2] This last may be slightly more complicated. It may be a reaction against the local Iranian name axšaina, blue/turquoise/dark, which sounds as if it has a privative alpha in Greek, Ἄξεινος, unfriendly. This Iranian hydronym does seem fairly widespread see e.g the old name of the Vardar, Ἄξιός, which must come from the same root.

[3] That said through comparison of Latin and Sanskrit sources, we can uncover a staggering amount of ritual taboos, especially as they apply to the Roman flamen and Indic brāhmaṇa.

[4] Should interest exist, I would like to return to the thundergod. Easy enough to write pages and the vast, vast, majority of material online has been written by morons who would benefit greatly from a basic course in Latin.

[5] Hence the master Jakobson on his study of the Slavic god Veles: “a rigorous, pedantic application of…grammatical rules to… hieratic onomastics would be sheer fallacy” in Jakobson, R., & Rudy, S. (1985). Contributions to comparative mythology; Studies in linguistics and philology, 1972-1982. Walter De Gruyter. pp 44-5. Neither free nor online, certainly worth your time.

[6] The importance of Anatolian to this reconstruction can not be overstated, but it absolutely can be boring. No less a luminary than Brugmann argued that the word required a thorn cluster in position final. Anatolian put paid to that and eased our reconstruction for other such important words like the one for earth/ground. Burrows had a fantastic article on this whose name I can’t recall.

[7] I am not as current with my Celtic philology as I should be, I suspect the aspirate is a Brythonic thing and that the o of the o stem should be kept, giving us *art(i)os or *art(i)us. We have an inscription from a Romanised Celt to the deae artioni in the suspiciously convenient city of Bern in Switzerland. Hmm.

[8] This is not the place, but I am nailing my colours to the mast that whilst I think Italo-Celtic is a bs grouping, the widespread genitive singular –i is due to areal convergence. I’d also like to note that all Messapians are cowards. Fuck you.

[9] Ringe, D. (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-germanic: a linguistic history of English: Volume I: A linguistic history of English: OUP. p106

[10] Sanskrit, of course, always be flexing with an actual epithet of honeylicker madhulih, but this is more of a joke. If you’ve watched The Jungle Book, you’ll be familiar with the character baloo (Hindi bhalu) which goes back to Sanskrit bhallūka. This has the sense of ‘lad’. Who the fuck, in ancient India, saw a bear and went “lad”? IIRC it can sometimes be used of cats or dogs too, but that makes it weirder. How can anyone confuse those animals? I say this knowing full well I am destined to die at the hands of a bear, a gypsy cursed me in 2011 with this.

[11] I think Ringe’s comment that these changes causing “baroque alternations” within paradigms is just perfect, by the by.

[12] As usual, Odin himself could not tell us wtf is going on with Germanic.

[13] Even Albanian keeps the root word! art/h

[14] As so often, we risk a false dichotomy here, or at least one that obscures the complexity of reality. PIE *deywós survived in Hittite cult not as a sky or thunder god, but as a god of the sun (Siu-summin or “our sungod”), whereas the god of the storms, Teshub, has his name from the local language despite his PIE trappings: he is a bull, he slays the serpent Illuyanka etc.

[15] Ever after going through Elements of Hittite I *still* have no idea how specialists catalogue their materials. Just search for KUB 58.14. It’s part of CTH 500 (fragments of festival and summoning rituals from Kizzuwatna). You will find it.

[16] Bros, can you imagine what Frazer or Graves would make of it? “A Neolithic survival; the ritual is meant to symbolise some sort of sympathetic magic to bring back the bear – a prime source of early sustenance – the archer is female to the underlying worries about fertility and gestation” etc. Pass the port, chap.

[17] I mention in part (largely) because he lived on well into the Roman period and was often associated with Hermes/Pan. Luwian versions seem to make him capriform, hence Pan. Yes, it’s interesting. You’re welcome.

[18] If you’re interested generally in the cult, Kahil, L. “L’Artemis de Brauron: rites et mystere” AntK 20 (1977) 86-98 if your best start.

Il Primo Re (Review)

N.B I have gone with the original title for ease of access, but I note that various online retailers go for different titles. On Amazon Prime currently the film is listed as “Romulus V. Remus: The First King”.

Il Primo Re is not so much a tale about the founding of Rome as it is about a chance missed by an evidently talented director: It could have been a Roman Apocalypto (and at its best, is close). Though it suffers from a lack of understanding of its sources (philological and historical), it is certainly a good popcorn flick, [1] at the very least. I enjoyed it immensely.

Let me map out the review. I’m not in the habit of confusing nitpicking with philological elan. I don’t like it. Nor do I think criticism ever overwrites the sheer balls it takes to do some creative, especially a local independent film like this. I hate the well akctuallly guys.

Well Actually GIFs | Tenor
So did you know that v was pronounced like w????

Instead, the review is tripartite. Section one details the philological aspects, section two the archaeological/cultural in precis and section three the film itself. I have put that last just in case anyone is really worried about spoilers here. If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll come back and hyperlink the sections and add a sensible further reading section.

The Sound of the Film: Language and Philology.

I feel no real need to go over this in detail. Art is not an academic article, yet it is obvious that the use of “authentic” language was a major point in the film’s marketing abroad. Some of the Italian sources I found writing about it were praising its contribution to the overall realism of the film. According to the director they accomplished this by hiring a “team of semioticians from La Sapienza”.

Look, I try my hardest not to be the typical Classical Philologist when surrounded by other, er, types of linguist but I can’t help but wonder: how that is possible? The language, whilst evocative, was full of the kind of mistakes I would kick a first-year student for making.

Let’s go through things.

First, the pronunciation was (perhaps expected) Italian. So anachronistic for Classical Latin, let alone Proto-Italic. I distinctly recall hearing e.g spiritus in pace te reliquint in the same way one would now in a sermon. But this is uneven across the actors and some are better at speaking (like the unnamed Vestal) than others (Romulus).

Vowel length, likewise, is random. At one-point Romulus attempts to get a despondent Remus to eat. Ede he commands, all quite classical actually, except it sort of comes out like /e:de/ as if a misapplication of Lachman’s law. But as noted the Romulus actor is often incomprehensible.

There are some seriously discordant solecisms that, again, one would not expect someone with access to a good grammar (or internet connection) making. E.g rex meus used as a vocative rather than rex mi; I cannot be certain, but I am sure I hear nemo sciunt more than once.

nuncque? Is that a thing? It sounds wrong to my ear. I’m not going to check, but my memory is good, and I have been through the vast majority of the canon. Idiomatically I would have gone with at nunc. Or, even better, etiamne or nunc etiam? (genuinely old-fashioned e.g nunc etiam quom est, non estur, nisi soli lubet). Maybe they’re trying to keep to etymological force of -que? (< PIE *-kʷe)

Yes, yes, you might say, the latinitas is bad but what about the attempts at Proto-Italic? Setting aside the issues with phonology and enunciation, I’ll make a few quick points.

I am quite happy to accept potiesimos for possumus in the subjunctive and I believe I hear a good few ablatives singular in –od. *h₁n̥gʷnis comes out as engis or egnis. I think this is fair unless we insist on conserving the labiovelar. At one point a character refers to tersa sakra.[2] This is both thematically apropos given the situation and a correct pre-classical rendering of terra from Proto-Italic Proto-Italic *terza. At one point someone attempts to use a jussive subjunctive and, I think (hedging here), we hear a siet/d for sit.

The lack of basic knowledge really reveals itself in a complete lack of awareness of how sound changes work. We are persistently given bhre:ter for Classical frater. Correct, the Latin f does descend from an early bh but then why is the goddess frugiferens and not something closer to *bʰruHgibʰerents?  Why must we cross the flumen? Leaving aside how we date the bh > f. Romulus existing is much more likely than Romulus saying bh instead of f at this point. The entire word is just a mess. I am no expert on laryngeals, but I can’t see how *bʰréh₂tēr would ever render anything akin to bhre:ter: é + h₂ really should get us /a:/ as indeed we get with Latin frater.[3]

I have said too much here, but similar issues abound throughout when it comes to sound changes.

Umberto Eco was a semiotician (and, judging from his engagement with the Latin fathers, a damned fine Latinist to boot); these guys are grifters. Mr Rovere, if you ever make a sequel (please do!), walk past the semioticians and straight into the the Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità at La Sapienza. Avail yourself of the eager, talented, young Italian Classicists!

But, seriously, lest the negative outweigh the positives: I enjoyed the attempt, and whilst clumsy, I could follow the film without looking at the subtitles whenever I was doing something else. We must give a round of applause to some of the actors, especially Remus and the Vestal, who did so much with so little in terms of dialogue.

The Look of the film: Archaeology and Culture.

Did the archaeologists do better than the semioticians? Probably. I find myself wondering at the kinds of clothing worn. Not necessarily from an accuracy p.o.v but in terms of colour. Across the world early man seems to have loved and delighted in colour, why is everything so drab and grey and brown?

The culture of Latium around the alleged time of Romulus and Remus coincides with what we call the Latial Culture, specifically periods LCIII and LCIV. This goes beyond the fluidity of archaeological strata, the Roman tradition itself gave some variance to the tradition date before it settled on 753 BC.[4]

How the Latial Culture interacted with the more famous Villanovan culture (Etruscans) is honestly beyond me right now. I am surprised I can remember any of this from my time as a student. But my understanding is that the general material level ought to be slightly higher? Tufa houses of oval or apsidal shape with heavy thatch roofing. This is around the time we begin to see monumental architecture in the forms of temples take root, with important buildings (like a palace?) having stone foundations.

The putative time of Romulus and Remus is one where the Greeks have already started their post-Mycenaean westward colonisation (Ischia served as a trading post, other settlements to follow) and we have good reason to suspect the Phoenicians were active and using Sardinia as a source for metal and mineral. Do not misunderstand me, most of humanity lived in conditions little better than on display, but the material culture feels a little inconsistent (how are there swords??) and maybe could have had a slight upgrade.

When we pay attention to ancient (perhaps even modern) cultures one of the first things we look at it how they treat childbirth, marriage, and death. Given the context of the film we can ignore the first two, but death is treated weirdly here. There’s a sort of 1970’s pseudo-pagan piety on display. At one point a man (a slave?) is killed and left there in the settlement (an act of great impiety), where villagers sort of…put stones around him? Whilst wailing as if in an Enya song?

The Latial culture is characterised, oddly, with two contrasting funeral practices. Cremation and then internment in an urn that resembles said apsidal/ovular houses (Etruscan influence?) or internment with grave goods.[5] Why make things up? What should be one of the great rituals of life seems plastic and inauthentic.

Funeral hut-urn. Cemeteries, such as at Gabii, are our major source for domestic architecture of the period.

A quick note on the cult as it is shown throughout. I do not think it controversial to say that whilst Roman Religion was quite conservative it was inherently tied up to its urban, civic, context and so that reconstructing earlier, more archaic, versions of rites can be more difficult than things first appear.[6] None the less, we can (especially thanks to philology) say a good deal.

I like the emphasis on the sacred fire as a deity. Jumping back to the parent language for a second, it seems as if Indo-European had an animate/inanimate distinction which was as conceptual as it was grammatical (hi Anatolian!). Fire comes in two forms. On the one hand we have the root *péh₂wr̥ which gives our word fire in English.[7] This is in the inanimate form. Contrast this with the root word *h₁n̥gʷnis which gives us the Latin ignis (the egnis-god of the film), which was animate and worshipped as divine.[8]

There is little room for other gods and characters simply speak of the deiwos, which is fine and mirrors cult speech. There is an attempt at an ablative absolute at one point, divos volentibus, which is…less fine.

Roman tradition has the cult of Vesta instituted by Numa, rather than Romulus. But the film’s version makes more sense – the fire cult was incredibly ancient – and they do steal the vestal from Alba Longa so all is good.

Less good is the weird treatment of haruspicy. This is a late cult, of Etruscan origin. Which is fine, but I wonder at a vestal performing it. The filmmakers seem to believe it was the equivalent of a high fidelity Zoom call. Also, note to self, haruspicy etc were actually rational from an evolutionary perspective. Remember to write blog.

But the use of religion is quite well-done bar some of the caveats above (seriously, very 1970s, very Enya). It’s evocative, respectful, builds the atmosphere and has a sense of internal consistency.

The story of the film: Putting it all together

Mary had a little lamb that was white as snow and…it’s gone. Father Tiber took her. The opening scenes of the film serve as an initiation of sorts: get used to the casual brutality and difficult of life, get used to the pre-eminence of nature. I am not well versed in film, less skilled in criticism, but I often found myself admiring the sense of natural beauty throughout even as it contrasted with human brutality. But nature too, as we see from scene one, can be brutal and so the human urge to propriate/tame natural forces like fire make sense throughout.

The ancient tradition – and unlike a few I do believe the tradition genuinely ancient – may seem sparse on detail but there are two or three fecund elements across most of our versions, and Rovere seems to have fixated on the apparent impiety of Remus. I like this. It’s a good narrative decision. His behaviour could easily degenerate into some modern atheist self-insert or cardboard Nietzschean will power attitude, but it doesn’t. We see and share his sense of the injustice of the gods.

It’s a violent film but then it is a violent story. Alba Longa looms threatening in the background and I recall John Ma’s throwaway tweet that Apocalypto inadvertently shows the expropriating power cities held over peripheral settlements. The violence is well done in most places. We see early just how deadly a dagger (which are not knives!) can be and most carry nothing more than a dagger, club, spear or adze/axe. There are a handful of swords, which seem discordant given the technology displayed in the film. Historically, yes, we spoke earlier about Greek/Phoenician trade and both Etruria and Calabria were metal producing/working at the time to a decent level. But in terms of internal consistency…[9]

The sword fights are kind of terrible and the inevitable final big battle, farcical and tragicomic. Yet when the final duel comes, as we have always known it must, there is an element of pathos. Very well done.

It would have been easy for the writers to resort to a kind of boring, cynical, euhemerism. They do not, instead (perhaps accidentally?) bits and pieces of the source tradition and culture do shine through at times. Remus’ forming of a comitatus/männerbund, his becoming the etymological archetype of a princeps following a hunt,[10] is well done.

Someone, I think Mary Beard, described Romulus as a “shadowy Mr. Rome”. Whilst I disagree as to what the sources can tell us, I love the narrative decision here to focus on Remus.

Much of the acting is incredible throughout. It really shines when the fugitives are just hanging around campfires. Sharpening, cleaning, preparing. You see the furtive, frightened, energy in their movements. The movements remind of those documentaries of early humans, actually, using their teeth as tools and so on and forth. The screen glistened with a flickering blue archaic energy and there were times where, solecisms aside, you felt as if you were at the campfire.

[1] Am I using that phrase right, Americans?

[2] For the avoidance of doubt, because some of you shits will come at me: I am aware that *sākris was originally an i-stem and that in Proto-Italic, as PIE, these were likely adjectives of one termination. However, comparison with Sabellic suggest that how these declensional classes converged is quite complex. I barely care. I doubt the film guys who can’t differentiate meus from mi. Stop being such a nerd.

[3] I thought at once of e.g status from *steh₂- but then recalled datus from *deh₃- and trembled a little. Reader, I fear no man but *h₃, it scares me.

[4] Obviously, settlement at the future site of Rome predates this (to about 1000 BC) and the Romans themselves seemed to have been aware of – and not at all troubled by – the confluence of two accounts of their founding. A single act of founding, a ktisis in Greek terms by Romulus, and a synoikisis of various settlements as celebrated by the septimontia festival.

[5] The possibility of Etruscan influence is not small. Leaving aside the literary tradition and the (much later) Francois tomb, the Etruscans had a similar burial practice during this era. The major difference is the Latins preferred to inter their ashes in mini houses with mini grave goods. This is how we know so much about their housing structures btw.

[6] You have two, and only two, good introductory volumes to Roman Religion: Georg Wissowa’s Religion und Kultus der Römer (1902) or George Dumezil’s La Religion romaine archaïque, avec un appendice sur la religion des Étrusques (1966).

[7] Actually, the situation here is quite complex. Whilst the original animate/inanimate distinction remains valid, the inanimate version did also have some ritual importance (funeral pyres, wedding fires). It simply wasn’t divine.

[8] Cf Sanskrit agníḥ where the animate fire is worshipped first as animate force and then as a deity.

[9] Swords are an important development in archaeological and cultural terms. See my brief note, here.

[10] I wish they had tried to get in words like *prisemokaps.

MAYNIN AYEDE TEA: On PM Johnson and his Homer

PM Boris Johnson saw out the year by bludgeoning a defenceless fox to death with a bat (wooden, not mammalian). Oh wait, that was someone else. Instead ire has been directed at him because he…recited the Iliad? Some time ago? It is all very bizarre, but the usual suspects are saying the usual things via the usual media.

Here is the offending clip.


In terms of rhetoric, it is obviously effective, judging by the response of the audience. As an actual performance whilst it is hardly to my taste, it is hardly poor. Lines are “missing” in line with how oral performances always work. In fact, I have previously written about alternative openings to the Iliad, truncation and expansion, etc etc here. People having to rush over to Perseus Tufts to look up the proem are hardly handing out the gotchas they think they are here.

His performance is not strictly, mechanically, metrical. One can feel the ghost of the rhythm behind it, but that is clearly not the point. The breaks and flourishes are obviously dependent on sense (to anyone who knows the poem) and the rhetorical gestures are just that – rhetorical gestures: the kind that almost certainly accompanied every performance from the mid Roman period onward when it became increasingly harder to reconstruct the classical phonology.[1] In other words, there is nothing new here.

But the detractors aren’t making any sort of philological point, I would bet very, very, few are familiar with how we can reconstruct either the original phonology or performance styles. I say styles because there was almost certainly a multiplication of styles not long after the original composition. How many with even the barest reading of the ancient sources?

It seems to me that outrage has clustered around three main nodes. That Johnson’s performance was bad because 1) accent(uation); 2) that not only is it bad, but said paucity of quality is all the more nefarious because don’t you know that this is really, really, easy, you utter pleb? And finally; 3) this misrepresents Classics and puts people off. The latter is particularly bad, given how opening and welcoming these people claim the field has been. Right? Right?

Let’s start with (or rather, return to) point number one: accent and accentuation. This is a wonderful surprise! It turns out in every corner of twitter you can’t throw a stone without hitting someone who is not only versed in ancient Greek, but the finicky points of historical linguistics and comparative philology to boot. I am sure that when, at the close of the year, numbers are released for book sales, books such as Allen’s Vox Graeca will be edging out E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey[2]. Let’s look at what these geniuses have to say.



Human babies, I am told, develop object permanence – and with it the realisation that things can change – from around six months old; I am not sure what that says about grown adults who seem to think it entirely reasonable that a language won’t change within ca. 28 centuries. Especially when they’ll have been told in school that to get Shakespeare’s metre to work, they’ll have to adopt Elizabethan pronunciation.

Also, of course it’s pigshitthick Greek diasporiots saying this. But it seems that even as Greece gets better, the diaspora insists on going backwards.[3] Perhaps she would have been happier had Johnson pronounced it like this?

For the sake of honesty, and to ward off the inevitable idiots, I do of course admit that 90% of the time I pronounce ancient as I do modern, but in doing so I am making no pretence to accuracy and this is a choice informed by the full range of evidence. That is not the point here.

Sadly, there are a good number of Greek Classicists pointing all this out, but they inevitably shan’t be heard and they will be the ones to suffer in their professional lives from stereotypes.

The ideal, incidentally, would be something Stratakis’ rendition of the opening of the Odyssey here. Note, it too sacrifices metre for rhetorical performance, but I think that that actually hits the right note for most moderns.

I think the best summary of all this is the one found on Mary Beard’s blog, where she calls it:

“…an absurd parody of a Twitter storm: hundreds of people, whom I strongly suspect knew little or no ancient Greek, were passing judgement on the Prime Minister’s competence in Greek, in the face of a few of who did know the damn language.”[4]

After all, in what other instance would we take “I had some experience back in high-school” as definitive on any subject?

Onto the second argument then, that this is easy anyway. Really that’s no argument at all, lots and lots of things are easy – that doesn’t make them less than worthwhile. Good manners are easy, speaking engagingly with a child or earnest youngster (despite boredom) is easy, picking up after oneself is easy. I hope you do these things regardless.


But let’s entertain this argument a moment longer. Some have argued that this feat is easy due to the metrical constraints placed upon the line. Well, I think that is the case for native speakers, which Johnson definitely is not. Anyway, his recitation is hardly strictly metrical as noted above.

Even within (quasi) native speech communities, metre isn’t the great help you might think. The oral transmission of the Rg Veda is a perfect case in point. Unlike the earliest Greek epic, which was a consistently creative tradition, the Rg Veda comes to us from a tradition that was entirely dedicated to (re)producing the text as accurately as possible. Judging by the (small) differences between the continuous oral tradition (stretching back to ca. 1200s B.C…) and the occasional MS (which overwhelmingly stem from the late medieval/early modern periods), this tradition was damn good. Michael Witzel, a famous Harvard Indologist, frequently likens the tradition to being like a tape-recorder.[5]

The Indians have managed to do this by a) dedicating a cast to memorising the texts and; b) “regularising” the original metre and accompanying it with various gestures of hand and head (called mudra in Sanskrit).

The Greeks too in their time made some concession to the difficulties of memorisation. One of the common classical terms for an epic performer was rhapsode. The noun originates from the verb rhapsoidein ῥαψῳδεῖν (to sew), with the sense of stitching songs together. This link between stitching/weaving and poetry was quite alive throughout the entirety of the Indo-European speech world,[6] eventually within Greek it is assimilated to the word for staff, rhabdos ῥάβδος, as these were used as props for the singer to maintain the beat.

Given the above, I think it wise to cut an English speaker who left university before many of us were born, some slack and exercise some forbearance.

There is this consistent assumption that Johnson can’t possibly know anything about the Classics, that this is just a façade or a party trick. Again, this isn’t the brilliant put down people seem to think it is. If you, as a professor on the sufferance of the public purse, can with a straight face tell me someone can go through a university course and still know nothing, then there is only one solution: The complete closure of every single Classics department in the country. No other discipline could countenance, let alone broadcast, such monumental failure and hope to survive.

To those who think this is utterly easy, all I can say is, where is your recording? I mean that honestly and earnestly. One of the broader trends we have been witnessing within Second-language acquisition (SLA) research is the importance of an audio component. All these brilliant amateur rhapsodes are surely doing their field, and their students, a gross disservice by not being forthcoming.

We stand in rapt attendance, the soundcloud tab pre-opened, the volume control turned up, our ears primed for the majestic tones of those who surely could give blind Homer second sight.

For those then who think Johnson simply memorised some random sounds (ignoring both his education and the marriage of meaning and movement in his performance), here is Cicero (de Oratore 2.87.357-58):

verum tamen neque tam acri memoria fere quisquam est, ut non dispositis notatisque rebus ordinem verborum aut sententiarum complectatur…

Nevertheless, hardly anybody exists with so keen a memory that he might retain the order of all the words or sentences without having arranged and noted his facts…

Finally, we reach the third of the arguments against, that this misrepresents or puts people off the Classics.

The first, and most common, iteration of this can be readily dismissed: “Don’t you know that there’s more to Classics than reciting poetry!?!?!?” they shriek. Yes. They do. It is so obvious that it hardly needs stating. Next please.

Some people are extending this to paint the performance as elitist and exclusionary. Oddly, some (many) of these people are also arguing that reciting Greek from memory is effortlessly easy. So, which is it? Either, it is so easy that it can’t be exclusionary because the merest intellectual dwarf can do it; or its quite demanding and the Prime Minister can’t be quite the idiot you are painting him as. Logic, and decency, dictates that you must choose. (The third permutation, that it is simultaneously easy but that we working-class people are so deficient in ability, I shan’t even entertain).

I don’t see how Johnson is in anyway gatekeeping or putting people off. What I do see is a large amount of people who ought to know better signalling that knowledge can’t be divorced from politics, that it does not matter what you know if you don’t satisfy some quasi-occluded character test. What can be more offputting? What can be more exclusionary? On one hand we have a bunch of sneering idiots, on the other a man taking obvious relish in his own recall of Homer.

I don’t really care about his politics here. They are irrelevant. This is the Classics I want. One not dependent on PhDs that will never get read, straight jacketed and kept as the jealously guarded provender of some dragon or goblin (there’s your Harry Potter reference fellow-millennial, now fuck off), but one vivacious and rude and healthy.

Here, incidentally, is an interesting anecdote from someone who really does know a lot better than you or I:

I agree with the talented poet and the brilliant professor.

I fail to see a man so obviously enthralled with antiquity can be a bad thing.

We have to some degree (at least within the constraints of social media), I hope, satisfied ourselves that people are basically talking nonsense. They are either speaking on topics about which they know nothing, or deliberately arguing in bad faith. The question is, why?

In 1955 the British philosopher John Austin gave the William James Lectures at Harvard, the result was a book and a breakthrough in how we think about the link between words and deeds.[7] I am wary of summarising his ideas en passant and would encourage readers to read the first lecture or so. Like many Classicists, I encountered his work through the study of Pindar and mediated through brilliant scholars like Leslie Kurke.

But here is the gist: When we say things, we’re never really, or rarely are, just saying something. Speaking is itself an action. My go to example is saying “I do” at a wedding. On one hand, these are just words, on the other the speaker (hopefully) undergoes a transformational state.

We can, if we’re careful, and a little bit chancy, extend the same idea to all this hullaballoo. The point isn’t to assess the performance but to make a statement about oneself: “Look at me, I belong, big-hair man bad” etc etc.

This is really quite frightening and tracks with what outside observers have been saying about humanities academia for ages, that as time goes on it becomes increasingly divorced from its actual content and more and more politicised.

But I fail to see any other explanation. There’s no real basis in our current understanding either of Ancient Greek phonology, or the reception and performance of the text, for this kind of ire. There is no evidence, no logical basis, for the idea that the PM is a Greekless charlatan either. Quite the opposite. The idea that this can in anyway harm a discipline – that seems to be in constant  freefall since its extirpation from schools and handing over to academics – seems to be likewise without basis in fact. 

But let’s say that you really do hate it, think it poor, that you can do better. Let’s say this comes from a serious place. Honestly, as I say above, please provide a recording. It’s not just public schoolboys who memorise and recite ancient poetry, and I am sure there are hundreds of state-school pupils who could benefit greatly.

Would that it were so here too. The Greeks are infinitely more sensible about this sort of stuff. I hope I have gone some way in explaining the rationale behind the reaction. Though I suppose a video of tribalistic monkeys throwing shit would have been just as efficacious and more elegant. 

Coda, or, joining the Homeredai 

How indeed?

So, what can you do if you want to learn to memorise and recite large chunks of ancient poetry? Sadly, none of the sinecured geniuses have deigned to tell us. What follows below is a cursory, but hopefully useful guide.

Get yourself a copy of Pharr’s Homeric Greek. A copy of the old edition may be downloaded via textkit (this is a PDF link). The lessons are short, bite-sized, and follow the entirety of the first book of the Iliad. I would strongly suggest you skip the composition exercises. Homeric Greek was an artificial, artistic, language. No prose was ever produced in it. Doing so now is a waste of time and will only hamper you if/when you move on to classical Greek proper. Use the time saved to revise or look up Monro’s A Grammar of The Homeric Dialect, which is also available online.  

The Center of Hellenic Studies (not a misspelling, they are American) has a number of videos available on Youtube, including one dedicated to performance and another introducing dactylic hexameter. You may find them useful or at least entertaining. They must suffice until the super genius twitteratti are forthcoming.

Many pronunciation guides are at best inexact (“A like they pronounce what word in which country??!?”) or at worst esoteric, as if you have time to master the intricacies of IPA (not the alcoholic kind). This playlist by Kostas Katsouranis might help. If you’re not a Greek native, pinning the restored phonemes to living Greek equivalents is the smartest way forward.

Memorising poetry is a pedagogically sound, culturally worthwhile, and all-around fun activity. Doing so will neither turn you into a toff (or win you the premiership) or a pencil necked twitter-tosser. What it will do is put you directly in a long line of students who have got their Homer down, for better or worse.

Classics is many, many, things. Let’s try to remember it’s also fun.  

As always, thank you for reading.

[1] And reconstruct the phonology they most certainly did! See Vessella, C. (2018). Sophisticated Speakers: Atticistic pronunciation in the Atticist lexica. Berlin; Also, in this vein, see late(ish) Byzantine authors and their ability to compose very good hexameter, despite the phonological change. Too often we think of restored pronunciation as a modern Western invention rather than a proper Greek one.

[2] Apparently some 15.2 million copies: https://lithub.com/these-are-the-10-best-selling-books-of-the-decade/

[3] Although a family member told me an amusing anecdote this Christmas of being asked by a taxi-driver whether there were any white people left in London before going on to speak of himself as a pure blooded Doric Greek etc etc. But honestly, it has been about 10 years before I have heard anything stupid like this back in Greece.

[4] https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/boris-johnson-and-the-classics/

[5] I actually disagree with W’s assessment. The best expounding of his views may be found in his The Development of the Vedic Canon and its Schools, available online here. (link opens in a PDF)

[6] Cf our own word text < Latin textus, a participle formed from texo, texere (I weave, to weave). Going further back to the proto-language, the same root also eventually (via Greek) gives us our word technique.

[7] Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford, Oxford U. P.

Reading Catullus in the wake of Epstein

The new academic year is almost upon us and, with it, children across the country will be reprising or beginning Latin. This means the usual influx of memes, some funny, some somewhat niche (the weird CLC ones???) and some inevitable. Gaius Valerius Catullus is part of the latter. You all immediately know what I’m talking about: Pedicabo vos irrumabo, etc etc.

I can’t quite place why I don’t find these jokes funny. In part, obviously, because we’ve been hearing them for so many years. I think it’s mainly the pretence of it all, the pretence that this is typical of Roman poetry (or even Catullus, is it? Is it really?), or that this somehow makes the Romans ‘just like us’ Really? Is that how you speak to your friends? Bloody hell, I should hope not.

I think there’s also something so annoying about the fact that these jokes never, or almost never, lead to anything like actual curiosity about Catullus or his Roman world. There are perhaps funnier lines of vitriol from C if that’s your thing (e.g 37, maybe even 112 counts?), that never get read, let alone cited. If you’re really interested in *that* side of Rome, there’s a wealth of art/archaeology and low-brow inscriptions. I guess I’m a little sad that something said to be so arresting and shocking never leads to further exploration.

If that is the case, the Classics really are fututa, given the popularising strategies most utilised by teachers and academics these days.

Take as a counterpoint the interminably brilliant Peter Green on his days as a schoolboy struggling with Juvenal.[1] In an article he talks of how such racy material was handled in the past ‘It took us very little time to discover that all the really racy epigrams had been translated, not into English, but into Italian-thereby, one might suppose, slurring no less than three ethnic groups simultaneously…’. What follows is a brief story of how he and his cohorts between them dedicated themselves to reading and translating Juvenal.

I find it hard to envision such curiosity even amongst the undergraduates of today. Not that my generation was much better, but still.

I’ve been thinking about the recent Epstein case. No, this isn’t the place for performative disavowals and damning, I think any right-thinking person feels all that and expects others to likewise, but I do feel a profound sadness. I’m sad on behalf of the victims, that anyone could do and organise such things, that such wealth effectively puts him and his friends well beyond the reach of the law. Perhaps we should be angry but, ah, miser mi lector, desinas ineptire…

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the recent Epstein case and that has brought the poem and its first word, pedicabo, as well as the latent (lol) sexual threats to mind.

There is an assumption that pedico, pedicare is a borrowing from Greek. The /e/ in this instance representing a subaltern monopthongisation quite familiar from the later stages of both languages. So strong is this belief that some authors (no textual critics to my memory) choose to unnecessarily restore the text to read paedicabo. The etymological force of this should be apparent < Greek παῖς,  παιδός, which has the meaning of both child/boy (undoubtedly its principal meaning[2]) and slave (Cf American usage of boy for slaves).

So, in this sense the verb cares the force of something like ‘use as one would a slave’ or ‘reduce to a slave’ in terms of status. The reading is clear, the implication, unsettling as to the reality of slavery in the Roman world. I don’t have the figures to hand, but I suspect the sheer scale of slavery and its embeddedness within the Roman economic system was something considerably greater than seen previously in the Mediterranean. Quantity must have enacted an effect on quality, or type, or slavery. During the height of the Athenian empire (who were bastards too, don’t forget), obviously these kinds of sexual abuse were also common, but I think the average hoplite qualifying citizen probably had less access to slaves and less opportunity to use them so casually.[3]

But why a Greek verb? Or a verb pretending to be Greek, and where did it come from? Greek vocabulary enters Latin via a handful of routes. The most obvious is borrowed technical vocabulary, which would have come from both the senatorial classes involved in political and philosophical discourse AND highly skilled tradesmen like mosaicists or hypocaust borrowers. The kinds of people one might expect to own slaves.

Then there’s the literary element. We tend to think of this class as belonging with the senators above, but the hyper (over, frankly) educated Hellenistic swilling pencil necked Latin poet is a product of the Empire. Let’s go lower and earlier: L. Andronicus was a slave, Ennius not much better, Terentius most likely (Afer) a freedman, Plautus probably a non-citizen etc. I can’t think of a concentrated study of Graecisms in this stratum of literature off the top of my head,[4] but these elements of society were exposed to Greek via trade and as part of everyday life. Later authors, like Juvenal, would draw on this tradition to comic effect with their neologisms. Plautus can simultaneously declaim foreign mores (tongue in cheek) with verbs like pergraecari and use Greek words throughout.

This is the element of society that seems most likely to introduce the word. How likely where they to own slaves in any large number? The word was certainly in common use amongst the lower classes as can be seen via inscriptions (well, graffiti). We’ve spoken about everyday speech patterns and the Pompeiian evidence before, one of the things I find interesting is how not only do we not (to my cursory knowledge) see paedico, even pedico is written as pidico. How many sound changes are we dealing with here? We’re familiar with monopthongisation (ae > e) and we know of confusion amongst the front vowels (e > i), but this entanglement seems strange to me. Could the etymology from παῖς be a red-herring? Unlikely, but this gives some indication of its commonality in daily speech.

Etymology aside, let’s close by talking about the implication and reading of the threats.

Professors of masculinity (wtf?) who declaim that things like gender are not so simple and straight forward, require expertise and context, whilst simultaneously applying the same models and theories across broad swathes of cultures and history like an aged prostitute with a trowel of makeup, are liable to get excited here. Fuck off.

I’m perfectly happy to accept that the threats in Catullus and the inscriptions aren’t at all literal, and are part of a broader type of Mediterranean masculinity – Northern Europeans (Butter-Euros, ha) often underestimate just how happy Southern Europeans are engaging in scatological and sexual humour without actually meaning the actual things behind it. Aristophanes is much more typical of Greece than many dons would like to admit.

Well, we know they’re not literal. They’re poetry. I mean that Catullus and his readers can take these to be so removed from the everyday experience of slaves that the words barely evoke their meaning. You get what I mean. But what a jarring experience re-reading this poet as the news has broke has been.

[1] Green, Peter. “Juvenal Revisited.” Grand Street 9, no. 1 (1989): 175-96. Honestly just go read that instead of wasting time with this blog ffs.

[2] We should always be careful when claiming primacy for any meaning over an another. But it is easy to see the derivation of one from the other (hence the American example) and the comparative force is compelling. The same root gives us /putrah/ in Sanskrit (so /putras/ in IIr, probably, fuck Avestan who cares?) and words like puer in Latin. Quite likely English few. Moreover, with the abolition of slavery in the oikoumene the word has reverted to its primary meaning.

[3] I suspect most of my thoughts re: this pointless digression are filched from Lewis, D. M. (2018) Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c.800-146 BC (Oxford), which I read about half a year ago. I make no pretense to originality or accuracy.

[4] I honestly just about read enough, e.g Beare on theatre, to pass my exams. I’m sure Adams might have something. Don’t get me wrong, Plautus can be really funny, but academic study of the plays is essentially explaining a joke writ large with citations.



Disclaimer: I am not a Byzantinologist Byzantinist Byzantine specialist. However good my Latin and Greek; I don’t have access to Armenian, Arabic, Syriac etc and that inevitably colours my readings. In terms of secondary sources, I don’t have enough Russian or, indeed, any Slavic language. Make of that what you will.

Anthony Kaldellis is one of the most interesting historians working in our fields today in that he is actively seeking to revise something that needs revising and not needlessly prevaricating (‘problematising’ in current parlance) something for the sake of clicks/citations. Even so, I initially couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the idea of another work on identity. Thankfully, I was wrong.

K’s claim that the Byzantines were really just Romans is obvious to anyone with a smattering of familiarity with antiquity. The interest lays in his asking two fundamental questions:

  1. How has the occlusion of this self-evident fact came about, and why?
  2. What are the implications in how we read late Roman history, esp regarding ruled vs ruler?

Chapter 1 – A History of Denial – is largely concerned with the first of these. K begins by providing a few ‘snapshots’ which he uses to illustrate various arguments throughout. This is intuitive and familiar to both fledgling Classicists (‘gobbet questions’) and consultants etc (‘case studies’).  I am surprised this isn’t used more broadly. The conclusion he draws from these is that the Romans saw themselves as an extended kinship group for a lengthy period (from the election of Anastasius to the 13th century).

One of the most illustrative of these is a letter sent to the Byzantine court by the Frankish emperor Louis II, in 871. Therein, the emperor tries to make the case that the Byzantine’s aren’t really Roman.

What is fascinating is how little the Franks understood what made Romans Roman. Throughout the letter they decry the fact that Emperors are made and elevated by the Senate and the people (where have we heard that phrase before?)[1]. For the Franks, the only model is their own inherited monarchy. The Frankish (later French) kingdom benefited from an unusually uneventful succession in the main Capetian branch all the way down to the unfortunate sons of Philip Le Bel. In contrast, the Roman politics of the Byzantine state must have looked…well Byzantine. I half suspect this is the origin of the term as a pejorative.

The rest of the chapter is dedicated to explaining how this occlusion came about. In short, the Western stereotypes arose out of something like jealousy of anxiety over legitimacy and we have in part inherited this. I was fascinated by K’s mentioning that the Arabs would try to delegitimise the late Romans reasons of their own and wished this was further expanded.

References to Persian literary sources are sadly missing, I know that Rum often served as a romantic setting and that they had a schizophrenic relationship with Alexander ‘the Roman’.[2] But this is hardly a loss given the rest of the book.

I also wish the development of modern Greek identity got more of a showing.[3] One of K’s claims (right to my mind) is that if there was something of a proper modern Roman ethnicity (akin to how we have Jews, Armenians etc) to fight back against academics, none of this occlusion would have happened.[4] Well, the Greeks are the direct inheritors of Rome and the story of how a Greek identity was constructed internally and externally – through historians like Paparrigopoulos and selective readings of aberrant, classicising, authors such as Plethon – would have been useful. K touches on this material here and there, but he is clearly a master and I would be interested in reading further. But for a throw of a dice or two, we could have had a modern Romania or Roumeli.

You need to be warmed up for Chapter 2 – Roman Ethnicity – which introduces a few more snapshots and continues to strengthen the overall argument by referring a broad variety of evidence, readings, and modern theoretical framework.

One point in particular made me put down the book in astonishment: the tendency for scholars to dismiss Roman identity in favour of some atavistic label is…well its racist, or at least racialist and essentialising.

Much of the chapter is spent on fleshing out the Roman ethnicity in its own terms. One of the most interesting parts deals with how Byzantines envisioned their relationship with the Romans of the classical era. Suffice it to say they saw them as ancestors and evoked this past in interesting ways. Students of the early Byzantine period may be familiar with Julian’s Caesars, the antiquarian work of Giannis Lydus, or the classicising references in Procopius’ Buildings, but K undoubtedly makes the case for continued importance of the Roman past throughout Byzantine history.

By any theoretical framework, then, the Byzantines saw themselves as Roman by ethnicity and descent.

The last chapter of part 1, Romanland, is my favourite. Some of the charges against a Roman ethnicity have been to claim that this was only ever elite and at any rate restricted to political language and court ceremony. Again, I find this pretty racialist, the idea that we can see that they really were Greeks. K here lays out the case for a popular sense of Romanitas based at least in part on a good old-fashioned lexical study.

The philological evidence is undeniable. Words like Romania and Roumeli arose strictly in the vulgar tradition and made their way into high cultural discourse against the intensely classicising elite culture. That they managed to do so is surely testimony to the strength of this identity. The key takeaway is that during this period there is a transition from seeing Rome as an empire, ruled by Romans for Romans over non-Romans (imperium Romanorum) to an imagined community of Romans living in the titular Romanland. This is intuitive, and perhaps the expected outcome of changing demographics and the Constitutio Antoniniana. The transition from a Roman world of essentially allied city states, to one conceptual city state (as in the words of Themistios), to something like a nation state is interesting. The fact that academics have systematically avoided talking about this, is telling.

My favourite part, however, relates to the presence of Latin in Byzantium. Honestly, this is something I am incredibly interested in. I loved Planoudis’ translation of Ovid as an undergraduate and the work of Baldwin on Virgil’s Βyzantine reception. Before Greek was ‘cleansed’ it also had a fair few words borrowed from Latin, which makes sense historically.[5] This is really, really, interesting to me. If you’re also interested, here’s a link to a PDF bibliography via HistoryTwerp.

The fact that the Byzantines spoke Greek rather than Latin forms a huge mental hurdle in the minds of we moderns who have only ever known the nation state, for all we talk about diversity and multiformity. The ancient world has many such parallels and I do think this segment, which should have been expanded, could have benefited from a more expansive, comparative, framework. E.g the ancient near East where East-Semitic speakers like the Assyrians (speaking a dialect of Akkadian), inherited a culture in an unrelated language (Sumerian) before their own flourished, only to eventually adopt Aramaic as an everyday language. This would be a great area for sustained study.

The eventual preponderance of Greek over Latin was always going to happen as a matter of demographics. I find the semantic shift for the word Romaika interesting. The Hermeneumata Pseudodostheana use it to mean Latin, but it quickly shifts to mean Greek. Again, as late as the 19th century this was common. It’s used to mean ‘Greek’ through Dumas’ LE COMTE DE MONTE-CRISTO.

On to part two, and I will try to speed things up here. Having established that the Byzantines were Roman, saw themselves as such, the extent of how this ethnicity was imagined, constructed, and continued as well as the causes for its scholarly and popular obfuscation; K goes on to explain the implications of this for viewing Byzantine history. Answering the second of the two fundamental questions I posit at the start of this review.

Chapter 4 – Ethnic Assimilation – makes a few obvious points. We consistently talk about Byzantium being cosmopolitan, assimilating and so on, but for the first time we (by appreciating the majority population) we can accurately begin to see the cause and affects of these assimilatory processes.

The next chapter, The Armenian Fallacy, could just as well be called The Armenian Pathology given the apparent illogical urge for scholars to try and find Armenian ancestry for so many players in Byzantine history. K makes some interesting points, why single out Armenian ancestry and act as if its unusually resistant to Romanisation cf to others such as Greeks, Dacians, S. Italians etc etc? In part, its motivated by special interest groups, but on the whole, this seems unintentionally racist.

I was surprised to find just how little evidence we have for the alleged Armenian ancestry of Heraclitus and that so much in the otherwise brilliant Kaegi commentary is built on supposition. I recall an abject lesson in the reconstruction of epic motifs delivered to me years ago during a tutorial: You can read the evidence and make a conclusion, you’ll be on fairly firm ground, you can’t then continually make things up based on assumption after assumption: That’s castles in the air.

I had honestly thought his Armenian ancestry explained the increase in Greek court usage – though wondered how that tallied with his most important posting being in the Latin west – so, that really is something.

This chapter, which might seem random, is the most important from a methodological standpoint: Once you’ve laid out your framework and your toolset you have to test it on specific cases, and this is a great chapter for that reason.

The last two chapters directly access the concept of empire in the later period. Like the rest of this section, this is more a case of applying the method but are, of course, interesting in and of themselves.

So, as we reach the end, what do we make of this important book? I think it worrying that something so obvious and so consistently well evidenced has been ignored by academics, systematically. I don’t think, necessarily, there’s been a perfidious conspiracy. It’s a combination of inherited biases and training: How many medievalists can read Latin and Greek with anything like the fluency of a classicist? How many are immersed enough in the texts, epigraphy, and papyrological sources of the Roman period enough to understand Roman self-definition before their period? Scant few, I think.

Not that any of that forms an excuse. It is the job of the historian to work beyond such constraints. K goes beyond offering a mere corrective (however sorely needed), and shows an interesting new angle for mainstream byzantology to adopt.

For anyone interested in Byzantine history, for the intellectual history and historiography of working with our sources, or simply what the sons of Romulus were doing in the middle ages, this book is a must buy.

I am not a Byzantinologist Byzantinist Byzantonologos Byzantine specialist. This book almost makes me wish I was.

[1] For the role of popular sentiment and pseudo republicanism, it would also be worth reading K’s THE BYZANTINE REPUBLIC.

[2] We forget how important Greco-Roman antiquity was to the Persians. The Arascids were essentially a post-Hellenistic people, and when the Sassanid’s took over much of their ‘Achaemenid’ heritage was intermediated via Classical sources. Hence why they, e.g, had a special military unit called the ‘immortals’. This isn’t direct continuity! Despite what special interest groups claim.

[3] In a way this is unfair. K has written a whole book on this, HELLENISM IN BYZANTIUM, which is THE text on the topic.

[4] Of course, we would then have to deal with yet another special interest group. Christ preserve us.

[5] E.g ρήγας, king, < rex, regis (still a proper name, see the hero Ferraios), σπιτι, house, < hospitium. Greek assigns foreign verbs its own conjugation based on Latin coniugatio prima – are etc etc. The single best study is E. A. Sophocles’ GREEK LEXICON OF THE ROMAN AND BYZANTINE PERIODS.

Socrates in Love

SOCRATES IN LOVE opens (or rather, is bookended) with a charming vignette: the author as don instructing his tutees. I’d like to offer my own experience, if only to lend some context to my interest in this book.

We were meant to write on the differences and similarities between Xenophon’s and Plato’s accounts on Socrates’ apology. This was probably meant to be our serious introduction to philosophy. I, of course, biffed it: I spent two pages comparing their prose styles and then finished with some inanities on Athenian Law and how it might relate. One colleague (seems too industrious a term for us…) trying to prove himself a wit, made a comparison with Jesus.  

“After all. Both Jesus and Socrates were craftsman. We know nothing of their early lives – before Potidaea and the ministry – both write nothing and had conflicting accounts produced by their students”.


So that’s the challenge D’Angour has chosen to take up. There are precedents. Though Diogenes Laertius’ account has sadly been lost, enough fragments and traditional material survived to provide inspiration for several medieval and renaissance accounts. Perhaps the most famous, Giannozzo Manetti’s Vita Socratis et Senecae, is little read today but a great example of facts never getting in the way of a story.

D’Angour neither writes in that fanciful tradition, nor in line with the recent(ish) popular craze for biographies.[1] Nor, even, is this like Lefkowitz’ magisterial treatise on Greek biographic tradition.[2] It is a wonderful mixture of fact, quellenkritik, and good old-fashioned classical philology (in its proper broad sense). You owe it yourself to get this book. I was constantly in awe not only of his grasp of the material, but his ability to weave it into coherent argument. Even where I remain unconvinced, I am more pensive and thoughtful.

The book stakes out two main claims. One, that the traditional image of Socrates as barefoot, ugly, and lower class is a fanciful construction – a literary trope – made to enforce his image as a philosophical archetype. That the real Socrates was in many ways like the real Alcibiades. Two, that Diotima was actually…Aspasia.

The first seems intuitively true, though I had never considered it in detail before. We know that the ancients often imagined portraits and speeches, and we know that there were all sorts of odd theories about physical appearance and character. Just look at the way Cleopatra is described vs her (probable) numismatic portraits.

D’Angour lays all this out brilliantly, with especial attention to the staging of Aristophanes’ Clouds. I was honestly surprised, I always thought S. looked like your typical satyr in a satyr play (presumably minus the erection). But the reasoning here is unimpeachable.

On his military background, I need no convincing. I still think Plato was playing it up, but service was incredibly important to Athenian men – consider Aeschylus’ tomb stele[3] – and the comic tradition could have been savage to him were he another Archilochus.

D’Angour’s S. has at least quasi oligarchic links. This is, again, intuitive to me: S. was clearly familiar with a wide variety of thought. Most of the ancient world lived fairly subsistence, he would need to be reasonably well off to even stand a chance at encountering the broad swathe of ideas of which he was evidentially familiar. People easily forget this. Stonemasonry was also a considerably skilled trade. Which leads me to the next point, D’Angour’s contextual reconstruction of S’ philosophical training and background is worth the price of admission alone.

We know that S. moved in aristocratic circles anyway – I maintain he was probably killed for his link to Critias – add to that Plato, Xenophon, Pericles (junior), Aspasia etc…it makes sense.

What we are treated to, then, is a tour of how the philosophical archetype was constructed and then a peek under the hood, behind the curtain, in a credible attempt to recover an historical S. The author is in excellent command of his material and we are treated to discussion on the Clouds, Symposium, Republic, and a smattering of other texts. This serves as a great introduction to the intellectual culture of the time. Not the squeaky-clean democratic pastiche moderns think Athens to have beem; but the kind of city where an ex-wrestler could become its greatest philosopher,[4] and a stonemason put to death for atheism, and the son of an aristocrat could make himself strategos for life and claim to uphold the democratic system.[5]

This, for me at least, was where the real value of the book lay.

Now, for the second claim, that Diotima = Aspasia. I think this is very clever, I won’t prejudice you either way here – read the book – but I’m not sure if I am convinced. It is clever. Perhaps more in a NAME OF THE ROSEway than a manuscript stemmatography and that seems to me a problem. It touches the evidence in all the right, if circumstantial, ways, but never quite clicks for me.

What is useful is a reassessment of Aspasia’s status in the Periclean milieu. ‘Hetaira’ in the traditional sense has always seemed unlikely given her aristocratic connections and the legitimate status of Pericles (junior). Its obvious that the status of women in the sources for the era isn’t always clear cut (see also the debate on S’ Xanthippe), and its interesting to see how a more hostile tradition about her arose in the ancient sources. Plutarch, for one, almost seems to confuse her with Neaira or Phyrne.

I have written overlong. There are way too many notes in my copy. I think you get the gist of my review, and I hope I have given a fair assessment without spoiling the arguments therein. D’Angour has produced a wonderful example of stimulating, accessible, scholarship. It is more than the sum of its parts and if its claims are perhaps a little ambitious, they are made in the true spirit of the discipline. You would be advised to read.

[1] Dunn on Catullus and Pliny. Room and Wilson on Seneca. A new translation of Azoulay on Pericles. Natali and (sort of) Hall on Aristotle. Le Bohec on Lucullus.Etc etc.

[2] Anyone interested in how such traditions were extracted from literature, constructed, and propagated, needs to read Lefkowitz.

[3] Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει/μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·/ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι/καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος

[4] Suck it Aristotle. Nobody likes you. You have no friends.

[5] Listen Cicero, not even Plato lived in Plato’s Republic. Romulus’ dungheap is more than good enough.

The First Line(s) of the Iliad

Note: So, this is something I have been thinking of trying out for a while. A series of quick and dirty posts on lines of the Iliad. If I do end up continuing, I will add a meta-page listing the reasoning and the rules for what I decide to comment upon, how best to read these posts, and how I write them. For now, view this as a tester. The first post follows 1-7.

It is a staid truism – and has been since antiquity – that the Iliad starts with ‘wrath’ and the Odyssey with ‘man’. This was probably the main motivating factor for Virgil to unify both themes (‘arma virumque…’). Boring. But we do know that in general oral poems tend to function this way where the first line might function as both as title and a taster of sorts.

Openings and closings of oral poems are particularly vulnerable to contraction and expansion as the unit of measure is not the hexameter or even a thematic section, but the poet’s time with the audience. Therefore, there was ample opportunity to show off, or to have to get on with it, or link your first poem into another one.

Variations exist all over. Take this variation noted by Aristoxenus for example:

ἔσπετε  νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχουσαι​,

Tell me now, you Muses who dwell on Olympos

ὅππως  δὴ μῆνίς τε  χόλος θ᾽ ἕλε Πηλείωνα​

Such was the mania and rage which took the son of Peleus

Λητοῦς τ᾽ ἀγλαὸν υἱόν·  ὃ γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθείς

And the blameless son of Leto, for he was angry with the king

Straight away you can see the parallels with the Odyssey and Hesiod’s work. This is what I would call an example of contraction given that it saves time by adpositioning Akhilleus’ and Apollo’s wrath. Note semantic doubling (μῆνίς…χόλος). The former is more elevated, and this late performer can’t quite shake it off. Don’t be tempted to mock this proem, it’s well-wheeled and a good example of the rhapsode’s craft. It’s just that, well, compared to great Homer…

Θεά This is elevated language. It’s used over θέαινα for metrical purposes. In everyday usage we would simply expect the masc, θεός, to stand in for both god and goddess. The article would stand to differentiate where needed. This makes sense given its etymological roots which were certainly neuter, it is derived from the same PIE root as Latin fanum, temple. If you’re wondering why a neuter would eventually refer to masc and fem things well remember that the original distinction in PIE was animate/inanimate. All the daughter languages retain evidence of this ‘confusion’.

 Cf our own ‘god’ which was neutral in Old English. From an earlier form *guda/goda. This is probably from a verb ‘to revere’. i.e to revere > a revered thing > a god. A priest, the one doing the revering, was a godi. There’s a familiar semantic web here: Old Indic hotar, Old Persian zotar (Modern Persian zut), means a priest in a ritual/ablutions sense. Ultimately this comes from the PIE verb ǵʰew- (pour, shed). Readers of this blog can, I bet, readily supply the Greek version.

Fuck it. This is now a post on Germanic philology.

How common was this stem in earlier forms of Germanic? English mainly uses os (so Oscar, means god’ spear) and Old Norse as (hence aesir). Untagling Germanic religious language and attitude is difficult given the paucity and poverty of the sources. Answers on a post card. Actually, go ask @mattitiahu.

Ok. This is no longer a post on Germanic philology.

Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος When you see thistravesty, this is how you know H-daddy was the real deal. Because anybody else would have had faeces thrown at them for this metrical malapropism…in the opening line.  

Why faeces? Well, I’m not sure how ecologically common apples were at this point this far west. Nor chickens. Greeks and Romans loved cabbage so they wouldn’t waste that on a tin-eared bard. What’s logically after apples, chickens, and cabbage? That’s right, faeces.

The word order may seem illogical, though I suspect, again, that it’s for metrical convenience (and the way the sounds line up when sung in metre). There is PIE precedence in praise poetry for this word order: Old Indic stotra (praise poetry) and Middle Indic inscriptions; Germanic poetry which, again, seems to draw from a praise tradition (but the complicated role of kennings and assonance may muddle things) and; IIRC, somewhere in the Middle Welsh Triads.

In terms of traditionality we know patronymics ending in –δης are relative innovations anyway. The older PIE way of signifying a patronymic was infixing /i/ to the stem and making an adjective. So Πηλεΐων is actually the older form. Cf the Latin name Tullius < ‘descendants of Tullus’. This is borne out both by Linear B and by later inscriptional evidence.

Ἀχιλλεύςis obviously a very archaic name, as are all endings in -ευς, and its obscure etymology gave both ancients and moderns all sorts of trouble. There is no satisfactory explanation for this name’s meaning. There is no solution. You think you have a solution, but you don’t. You have nothing.

οὐλομένην the ou here is either a metrical contrivance or due to problems with transmission. I actually agree with neither but have a half-finished article I hope to one day publish (tbf a lot of this stuff is drawn from something I’m working on, but meh). Aeolic keeps the correct long vowel vs dipthong, ὠλόμενος, see also the verb ὄλλυμαι. This isn’t an interesting point, but I have a feeling I will refer to such textual/metrical chicanery later so do let’s set a precedent.

Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν Porphyry managed to get a paragraph or two out of that. Proof there is no god.

ἡρώων Always controversial how this is used, isn’t it? Are the heroes treated as a separate older race as in Hesiod? (This comes from an influential NE motif that spread west in Greece and east into Iran and India, it even turns up in the Mahabharata, book 3), is it a term of ritual obeisance? Or is just a handy referent to the foci of epic song?

The spread and development of hero cult is one of the most fascinating aspects of archaic Greek history. Bruno Currie has done excellent work on the textual evidence and Carla Antonaccio is a must-read on the archaeological evidence. I don’t have a go to for the re-use of Mycenaean sites. If you take a lot of MDMA it’s worth reading Claude Calame. If you’re more of a cocaine fiend, Irad Malkin’s stuff is good. Note: don’t mix cocaine and MDMA.

πᾶσι vs δαῖτα? 😊 😊 😊

Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή One of the most quoted lines in the PhiloCroc household. This is a very weighty hemistich. In poetic terms, it’s a self-contained bit which adds ‘weight’ to the fast-moving lines above and gives the reciter a good place to rest. I also don’t think it too contrived to say this is simultaneously looking back to the broader epic tradition where Zeus’ plans are a common theme (and for the Troy saga specifically, more on that later); and forward to the great moments in the Iliad where Zeus makes his plan known.

ἐξ οὗ…τίς τ’ ἄρ σφωε etc This is more of a brief point about style, going forwards. One of the most engaging aspects of Homeric composition is its so-called speed and clarity (ἐνάργεια), which has been remarked upon since antiquity. One of the ways this is achieved is through a para-tactical style (παράταξις).

The best way, the only way, to get the sense of this is to sit back and read the text out loud and see how it paints a picture, and how successive words and clauses help build up the story by supplying (and occluding?) information.

Wrath, ok but who’s wrath? What is this story about? Peleus’ son, Akhilleus – excellent, how many such stories were there? We as an audience may know of a few differing wrath stories in general, but what about Akhilleus in particular? We know of an apparent argument between him and Odysseus (Odyssey VIII) but μῆνίς is too strong a word. Ah, it’s a terrible wrath which laid down the souls of many heroes etc. But why? Who caused this? Against whom did Akhilleus set his face? Well it was according to the plan of Zeus. It was Zeus, you see, who set them in strife. At this point we know little about the plan of Zeus, but can guess if we’re experienced listeners. The question remains, however, whom did he set to quarrelling? Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς (The son of Atreus, lord of men Agamemnon and the brilliant Akhilleus). The poem then goes on to provide further details, including Apollo’s role etc etc.

You can see how this oral style works, how the singer is able to deploy the metrical line and the formulaic system to build a story at recitation speed and how the listeners are able to comprehend. There has been a decent amount of discussion – none to my mind satisfactory – about this element of oral poetry. Exactly what are the compositional blocks? Books (or rhapsodies) are, I think, largely artificial. Groupings of books (in terms of themes) work a little better. Type-scenes don’t really seem to match any performative context I can conjure.

Some people think in terms of formula. But the formula is really just a later reification of sound patterns and common phrases, hence why comparative examination of Rigvedic verse and the Aeolic line takes us back to a predecessor which was fluid for most of the line. Hence why κλέος ἄφθιτον is the most marked phrase in PIE but not a formula.

South Slavic bards speak in terms of the rijec (lit word) which can vary from a single word to a line or two. I think this is too lose and undisciplined for the way ancient Greek versification worked, but it is an interesting comparandum.

This is where a comparative approach can get really interesting, but we need much more than 7 or 8 lines under our belts first.

ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Obviously a formula, and a pleasant and easy to use one. In the Iliad it is predominantly used of Agamemnon for the 40-50 times it occurs. Much has been made of the so-called archaism of ἄναξ. It needn’t be. We know it is a word of old, mysterious, provenance (if you think you have an etymology, please see my note above on Akhilleus). It correctly requires a digamma and is found as early as the Linear B tablets.

That it survives in this form is hardly surprising, however. It is a common onomastic component (cf Anaxagoras), was still in use in Cyprus and in cultic contexts. It was even used by the Phrygians (along with lawagetes), hence a Gordian inscription mentioning King Midas (Midai lavagetaei vanaktei). But I guess we can talk more in depth about this later. I *do* have a half finished post on that Phrygian inscription.

If we want to talk about traditionality and innovation, a much more interesting question would be why so few reflexes of PIE *h₃reǵ- made it down to Greek cf’d to…almost every other branch.

And that’s the end. My original aim was to cover around 50-60 lines in three quarters of this word count. By the by, if you feel I missed anything really interesting in these lines or want to add anything, just do so via twitter or the comments below.