When the Athenians were disputing with the Boeotians about the area which they called Sidae, Epaminondas – whilst arguing – abruptly took in his right hand a hitherto concealed pomegranate and, having showed it to them, asked them what they called it. When they said “rhoa” he said “But we call it a sida”. The area contains many these trees, which is how it originally got its name. He won the decision.
There is not much for me to say about this passage in terms of context or philological/historical value. I just found it interesting and wanted to share it. Language, when used as a part of an ethno-linguistic label or to define a speech-community, can have momentous impact in ancient history – think of the shibboleth story. Picture Epaminondas, the victor (well sort of) of Leuctra whipping out fruit and brandishing it at the Athenians. It is curious how the debate came down to one of dialect. Sidae was in the southern part of Boeotia, touching Attica. I would have thought that the locals would just have been Aeolic speakers, but maybe not? Why didn’t Epaminondas just cite the local dialect and leave it at that? Why use linguistics anyway? Why not just argue from descent or ktsis like everyone else?
Language, myth, and genealogy were often a part of how the ancients dealt with disputes and conceived of the world around them. What follows is a brief excursus of some random thoughts on the matter, with some tangential relation to the quotation above. Like I said, I just wanted to share it with you.
If you say “ancient Greek diplomacy” what comes to mind? For most people, probably the Spartan crime of punting the Persian ambassadors into a well (Herodotus 7.133), a (hardly legally rigorous) framework) of mores and customs that held the Greek world together: Don’t punt visitors in wells; don’t attack heralds, proxeny and xenia etc etc. Fair enough, but myth (loosely defined) could also function as a kind of diplomatic framework for the Greeks. I say loosely defined for a reason; the various meanings would not coalesce into anything like our idea of a “narrative” for quite some time.
Occasionally these myths referenced actual physical materia. Perhaps the most famous case being the story of how the Spartans finally defeated the Tegeans, by seizing the bones of Orestes (Herodotus 1.167-8) in obeyance of an oracle. Now, the story here is full of folk tale narrative and often subject to Euhemerist critique (is there anything lower or baser? Due to the size of the “bones of Orestes”: ὑπὸ δὲ ἀπιστίης μὴ μὲν γενέσθαι μηδαμὰ μέζονας ἀνθρώπους τῶν νῦν ἄνοιξα αὐτὴν καὶ εἶδον τὸν νεκρὸν μήκεϊ ἴσον ἐόντα τῇ σορῷ), but it is emblematic of broader Greek thought about myth and history. Myth is often used to tie the untenable together, land (which is eternally static) and humans (who often move around).
The Spartans clearly felt this keenly. Their ancient home played a key part in the epic saga of the Achaeans, yet they themselves overwhelmingly claimed descent from elsewhere. There were various work arounds; the kings, for example, were said to be of Achaean descent, and in semi-mythic kings list Heracles could be put, briefly, before Tyndareus (who could then be said to hold the land in trust for the Heracleidae). You can see why the bones of Orestes could have propaganda value: a ritual reconciliation of Doric and Argive, against their Argive enemies. After all, as Herodotus says, from thence on the Spartans started to beat the Tegeans. Nor is this the only case of Spartans digging up an epic ancestor: Pausanias tells us they likewise appropriated the bones of Tisamenos (7.1), the son of Orestes and Hermione (daughter of Helen, daughter of Tyndareus and therefore a union of Pelopid and Tyndarid, not the wingardium leviosa one).
The above is a physical act (well a pair of them), but I do not think we can divorce it from the context of myth. After all it is myth which lent the context – and impetus – to the actions, and the Spartans were just realising the kind of anxieties we see in the ever-varied genealogical poetic fragments. Arguably a far better response than Kleisthenes of Sicyon (grandfather of that Kleisthenes) outright banning of Homer.
The Athenians, if somewhat less eager to be whipping out shovels and disinterring bones, were no less inclined to use myth this way. Tragedy could be a beautiful venue for this. Sometimes such things had a more decidedly internal focus. One may read in Sophocles’ Ajax, the final conversation between the eponymous er, hero, (himself seen as a tutelary ancestor to the Athenians) and his son, Eurysaces, something like a propagandic snapshot of a father departing for a war and leaving behind an underage son – effectively in the care of the state (hence asking the community to look out for, 565). Such things could not be too on the nose, however; Phrynichus’ play on the fall of Miletus was apparently so moving it was banned and the author fined (Herodotus 6.21.10), and anyway they would certainly have been at risk of ridicule from the comic poets. The cultural prestige of Athens and her festivals meant that drama was also an excellent opportunity to propel messages outward. Euripides took advantage of this in a typically heavy-handed manner. We have mentioned, in connection with Sparta, the Heracleidae above and Euripides’ play of that name concerns a mythic episode where Athens looks after and defends the direct ancestors of Sparta’s kings. Likewise, his Ion can be profitably read in the context of Athens’ claims to have been the metropolis for all of Ionia.
We have looked at examples from Athens and Sparta since they were Greece’s most famous cities, but this use of myth also worked across other poleis. This should not surprise, the mythic tradition that poets were manipulating, recasting, and reusing was inherently international (or at least Panhellenic) and if a poet hankering after a prize would discretely have to have to alter a myth he sang in Thebes if he was singing in Syracuse, well…that was neither here nor there. This international context of poetry was written into the language itself: the development of an epic kunstsprache was a direct result of, and did not precipitate, this. There is, as always, an excellent example of this in Herodotus (read Herodotus!!): The Tegeans and the Athenians are arguing over who will command a place of honour in the assembled phalanx at Plataea. The Spartans adjudicate (9.26-8). The Tegeans list their own accomplishments back in the time of the Heracleidae and finish references to more recent deeds. The Athenians respond with an expectedly bravura display of rhetoric, inverting the mythological paradigm, adding to it, and ending with the trump card of Marathon. The result?
So they answered, and the entire Lakedaimonian camp shouted that the Athenians were worthier to hold the horn [as in wing of phalanx] than the Arkadians. Such was the way in which the Athenians were preferred to the Tegeaeans.
(note the Homeric colouring).
Basically, two distinct polities – the Tegeans and the Athenians, could shore up and use myth to win an argument. Admittedly, this gambit did not quite work out against the Syracusans (7.161.3). When the Persians were saying (or being alleged to have said – Herodotus 7.150) that they were kinsmen to the Argives, descendants of Perseus, is really just a form of international relations. Likewise, Indians claiming their city to have been founded by Dionysus (Arrian Anabasis 5.1). We could dismiss this stuff as entirely fictive or folk etymology, or we could instead choose to see it in its cultural context.
We are straying a bit from our original quotation though, aren’t we? What really strikes me about this passage is the use of linguistics, even if in an extremely crude form. Greek Dialectology is not simple, even now. The categories of Greek dialect the ancients themselves used owed more to the mythological tradition than to any serious philological work. They had Ionic (whence we separate Attic); Doric; and Aeolic. We moderns add another subgroup, Arcado-Cypriot (ironically also supported by myth!). Though we rarely see fit to overturn the entire system, we have made strides and bounds since Ahrens founded the discipline on a scientific basis.
Ἕλληνος δ᾿ ἐγένοντο φιλοπτολέμου βασιλῆος
From Hellen the battle-loving king sprang
Δῶρός τε Ξοῦϑός τε καὶ Αἴολος ἱππιοχάρμης.
Doros and Xouthos and Aiolos, who delighted in horses.
Hesiod frg 9 M-W
This should not be surprising. Terms like “Aeolic” or “Ionic” are inherently abstractions. One might instead notice the speech of Sparta, or Lesbos, or Macedon. Such theorising always extends out of mythological and genealogical speculation (e.g Strabo 8.1.2, who puts Arcadian under Ionic). If Greeks did really think of these as more concrete groupings, I suspect it started with Doric which was strikingly different from the easterly Greek dialects in some ways and from a relatively early period had its own literary koine. It would be easy to then start thinking of the other dialects in that way, via analogy. I think Doric also offers the earliest evidence we have of Greeks thinking in terms of convergent/divergent sound changes. You might have noticed how all our editions of Alkman have σ pro θ which was certainly a distinct feature of Spartan speech (cf Aristophanes), yet doubtless such a change happened too late for it to appear in Alkman’s poetry. Instead, this is likely a Hellenistic editorial decision based on knowledge of this sound change.
Elsewhere, Greeks might note dialectical variation based on vocabulary. Hesychius – an understudied author – is a good example of this, noting some of the variant Macedonian vocabulary without sitting down and teasing out the sound rules. (but let us leave the Macedonians for another post). Interestingly, Epaminondas did not argue on level of sound change. E.g Attic-Ionic raised the inherited long a to a long e sound (α > η), though there was a reversion when this was combined with certain letters. The Attic (and broader Ionic) form would have been σίδη which actually survives in some Pontic dialects. Would a difference in vocabulary be more notable to everyday Greeks than accent/phonology?
Anyway, there is no conclusion to be had. Maybe I’ll come back in and edit it. As I said, this is a short note. Enjoy your weekend!
 Not that such distinctions ultimately matter. The Achaeans were happy to admit the Aeginetians into the Achaean league at one point. Athens’ interests closer to home expanded into the (potentially) Doric speaking Megarid and, as per its treaty with Plataea, into the Aeolic Boeotia from a fairly early date.
 Do I owe this formulation to Malkin? Calame? Either way, it is mine now.
 For Spartan anxiety and the kings’ list, see Claude Calame’s work and also (somewhat) Irad Malkin. This post is a ‘short note’ and so I’m not terribly motivated to cite articles from edited volumes (which take aaages), unless pressed.
 Ion and Xouthos have been ably treated by Jan Bremmer in at least two places (and Athenian mythic propaganda more generally) for Ajax, and the Dionysia generally, Goldhill, S. (1987). The great Dionysia and civic ideology. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 107, 58-76 (brilliant article).
 200 years past people were still throwing out terms like “Romaic,” “Graikika,” and “Aeolo-Doric” as dialectical categories as if they were anything other than the results of crack-addled fever dreams. At least the ancients had cool myths ffs. In fact, within Greece, things were insane until Chatzidakis came along and beat the shit out of everyone with his work on dialects. Mackridge has a good article on this, search “mothers and daughters” and his name.
 We never quite see the kind of highly abstract, productive, rules we find in e.g Panini’s Astadhyayi, but I don’t know, I think the Hellenistic editors are going beyond mere stereotype?
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:
Cambridge police taking copies of the Iliad out of peoples’ trolleys as it’s a “non-essential item”, finally killing the concept of the literary canon pic.twitter.com/q4Q8z2Ej8A
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). 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. 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. 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.
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…
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
There’s a wo-de-we-je-ja (*Ϝορδεία) on MY V 659; we also have the adjective wo-do-we, *ϝορδόϝεις, at Pylos (PY Fr 1230, pictured). Linear B also has τόξον and related works (to-ko-so-ta, τοξότας/ Att. -ης, KN V 150; to-ko-so-wo-ko, *τοξοϝοργός, bowyer, PY An 207). pic.twitter.com/95yF4wU0uk
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.
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. 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. 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”. 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.
Two people: *eat some chips together on a deserted beach*
Police: *take out batons and teach them a lesson they won’t soon forget*
Hundreds of people: *gather on Westminster Bridge so people can see how great they are for clapping*
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.
I do wish the police, while menacing people standing around in the park in my square, would devote even a fraction of that devotion to menacing the duo walking around that park while smoking dope.
The top down abuse of power is inevitable. Sadder yet is when members of the demos conspire with them.
I am going to stop going on about the moral lowness of corona snitching on neighbours / police state – I promise. BUT my closing note: my Mum just told me someone dobbed her in for dropping food to vulnerable neighbours who can’t get out the house. The police called her yesterday
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…
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
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. 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). 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. No less than the proposed revolution of the Gracchi did this period make fortunes and feuds amongst the Roman nobles.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to poll you, not to praise you. What is a more honest way of getting obscenely rich? – arguments, anecdotes, details!
— Ye Olde Philologer Cokedril (@PhiloCrocodile) May 11, 2020
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. 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.
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.
What a brilliant photo. Beautiful setting, the finger wag, the social distancing, Johnson’s face… I think it’s just the visual reminder that we live in a democracy pic.twitter.com/fAgot0gg9l
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
 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.
 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.
 In this context, read (Pseudo?)Demosthenes 59, against Neaera.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Willi, A. (2003). The languages of Aristophanes: Aspects of linguistic variation in classical Attic Greek. Oxford
 Ehrenberg, V. (1962). The people of Aristophanes: A sociology of old attic comedy. Oxford. Pp175
 Horace Sermones 2.5 is probably the best expression of the former.
 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.
 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…
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?
 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.
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.
I urge everyone under 30 to read and retweet this thread. Young people are the ones spreading the #coronavirus. You must stay at home. Cancel weddings, don’t mingle in the park, don’t go to house parties, no dinner parties, no team sports. https://t.co/OB9rB5XTXV
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:
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.
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. 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, and parodied by Aristophanes, and occasionally held by some rhetors to have been Solonian in origin. 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. 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?
Great point. You have nothing except the Lindy Table. Where's your "community?" Where's your "church?" Where's your localism? Where's your culture? It doesnt exist or its closed. https://t.co/p1TtIj1VKR
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. House prices are – somehow, somehow – absolutely insane, despite lowering birth rates and colonised green space; 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. 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 (οὐμαλακιστέ 729). The joke (I know, no joke explained is made funnier) works across two semantic levels. That between softness and masturbation should be obvious, 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. 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.
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.
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.
 See instead τοκεύς e.g Perikles’ speech at Thucydides 2.44.1, which must stand for one’s forebears more generally.
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.
 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.
 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.
 It is one thing to kick the ladder away having ascended; another thing entirely to defecate over those still climbing – surely???
 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.
 For this choice of word see e.g Perikles’ words: Thucydides 2.40.1 φιλοκαλοῦμέν τε γὰρ μετ᾽ εὐτελείας καὶ φιλοσοφοῦμεν ἄνευ μαλακίας.
 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.
 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…
 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.”
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.
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 rhapsoideinῥαψῳδεῖν (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, eventually within Greek it is assimilated to the word for staff, rhabdosῥάβδος, 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 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. 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.
I honestly can't understand the whole "Boris Johnson recites the Iliad" thing. In Greece, any politician reciting poetry gets eyerolls, vitriolic remarks about the choice of poet and a few mentions in the media. It doesn't descend to footstamping and shouting "we hates it!".
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
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.
 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.
 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.
 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)
 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.
 Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford, Oxford U. P.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Etymologies are fascinating. Often, they are redundant in terms of actual historical analysis (see e.g Latin cohors) but fascinating none the less. Here’s a brief post on Sanskrit loan-words in English, which I am very roughly demarcating, like Gaul, into three parts.
This is a brief post because I haven’t had much time to write. It is by no means exhaustive, just a bit of fun with words.
This isn’t really a category, but it’s best to get it out of the way first. Pseudo-etymologies are exactly what you would expect from the name. Sometimes these arise from almost correct parallels e.g taking Sanskrit mātṛ and English mother and arguing that the latter is progeny of the former. Sanskrit is one of those languages which attracts a lot of pseudo-linguistic nationalist nonsense. Greek too, see below:
II Words for specifically Indian things
Most of these were acquired during the period of the Raj, these were words taken over to describe unique Indian things. E.g Brahmin, Guru, Pandit, Banyan tree and so on. Still, there are some interesting ones such as:
Bandana – bandhana (tied, bonded)
Candy – I suspect this has been a round about one! Ultimately from Skst khaṇḍaḥ but passed through Persian and then back into Hindi before being borrowed via French. Cf Punjabi khand for sugar, which I suspect comes from the Persian which comes from the Middle Indic…
Dinghy – dinghi (a small boat).
Loot – Ultimately from the verb luṇṭhati (he steals) which drops the n-infix in verbal nouns (luta, a stolen thing). Interesting semantic web here along with mugger, thug etc.
Mugger – actually, this gets its own lemma. From makara (sea animal), often used of crocodiles. From an early period has the sense of our ‘mugging’. Eg a crocodile is a magaramachchh from makara and matsya (fish). A crocodile is a fish mugger! (when not writing on its blog). I suppose if I write one more post about Sanskrit I should change the blog name to makara vyakaranya.
Orange – naranga (orange). I have tweeted about this before. In English it has undergone rebracketing, e.g we thought the initial n was attached to the indefinite article: a narang > an arang > an orange. See also nick name: an eke name > a neke name > a nick name. Common sound change in English!
Thug – From Hindi thug and ultimately Sanskrit stagha (a scoundrel, thug, bandit). Not the dropping of the initial s, common in Indo-European sound changes, hence Latin toga rather than stoga. Sanskrit does this a lot actually with p and t. E.g spy is spas from the verb pasyati (he sees, watches).
III Words transmitted through the Classics
We’re not used to thinking of India in the classical world outside of Alexander’s brief foray. Yet, the conqueror didn’t just leave an indelible mark on the sub-continent in the form of the Indo-Greek kingdoms, his conquests opened new avenues of trade and the passing of ideas. Even before that, the Achaemenid Empire served to connect Greece and India – though it would hardly do to overstate the strength or importance of these connection. Here’s a handful of words:
India – Yes, that’s right, the modern name for the country comes to us via Greek. Ultimately from Sanskrit sindhu (river) whence it passed into Old Persian as Hi(n)duš and thence into Greek. Note, the shift from s > h is common to both Old Persian and Greek but not to Sanskrit, so for example the number seven (7) in Latin is septem, Greek hepta, Old Persian hapta, and Sanskrit sapta. All ultimately from PIE *septḿ̥. It must have passed into a psilotic Greek dialect in order to lose the rough breathing, from there into Latin and then slowly down into English.
India remains the name of the country today. Oddly, sindhu as river seems to have died in modern Indo-Aryan. So ancient sapta sindhu (seven rivers) becomes modern Panjab (five rivers) from the Persian. See also Doab (two rivers). Whereas we’d expect something like pancha sindhu if the native wording was preserved. (Two rivers having dried up).
Ginger – Greek zingiberis from Sanskrit singabera. Once a much-valued spice prized by Rhodian merchants. Now we just pretend to like it in our tea.
Musk – Greek moskhos from Sanskrit muskas.
Nard oil – Greek nardos from Sanskrit nalada.
Pepper – Greek piperi from Sanskrit pippari.
Rice – This one always got me. Greek oryza ultimately comes from Sanskrit vrihi(s), meaning rice. I believe, oddly, this route has died out in all modern Indo-Aryan languages.
Sandalwood – Greek sandalion from Sanskrit candanam/candalanam.
Sugar – this is the classic one! From Sanskrit sharkara we get Greek zakhare and several derived terms such saccharine.
Ideally, I’d go on to a 3.2 and discuss Greek loans into Sanskrit. I can’t think of many from the top of my head. There is, of course, Yauna meaning Greek (from Ionians, via Persian) and, wonderfully, the Macedonian dialect word for spear – kontos – is used in Sanskrit for cavalry lance (kuntah), but that’s about it.
If you’re interested in reading more about Sanskrit and the Classics, I have a slightly more in depth post here.
A day (or two, or few, depending on when I finish this) ago, it was announced by the Greek ministry of culture that a new find from Olympia can claim to be the oldest fragment of the Odyssey found to date.
Herein is the official announcement, whatever one thinks of the claim of being the ‘earliest yet found in Greece’, at least it’s a fairly sobre text. From theGuardian, for example, we learn that on some authority while the Odyssey was composed in the 8th century, it was only later ‘transcribed during the Christian era on to parchment of which only a few fragments have been discovered in Egypt.’
If this represents the level of popular awareness of papyrology (and for all its fault, the Grauniad is usually good on the literary stuff), we can understand the level of confusion permeating every news source.
To be clear, this is not the first material testimony we have for the Odyssey. We have an ostrakon (piece of fired pottery) from Olbia, around the 5th-4th century BC. Provenance here. In fact, the number of pre 3rd century AD testimonies is reasonably high (around 50). This is all the more impressive given that throughout antiquity the Iliad was (rightly!) much more widely read and copied.
Papyri, not clay or parchment, was the most commonly used writing material in antiquity. Cheap, reasonably durable, and mass producible, this ubiquitous material was how most ancient Greeks and Romans would have read their texts. A monopoly on it within Egypt was one of the ways the Ptolemids retained and expanded their wealth. Trade wars (ooh, topical) between Pergamon and Alexandria were what allegedly led to the wider scale adoption of the more expensive parchment in the ancient world.
In fact, the transfer from papyrus roll to parchment codex is one of the watershed moments in the nachleben of any antique text. It’s why we have what Pindar we have. It is also, partly, the reason so much literature is lost or lacunary.
Parchment was expensive and elegant, worthy of illumination (see the fantastic Vergilius Romanus from the ancient world). We often recover papyrus from midden heaps or mummies. In fact the Homeric fragment P.Oxy. 67.4633 was literally used as toilet paper.
To bring everything back round, anyone interested in the early papyri of Homer should read Stephanie West’s ‘The Ptolemaic Papyri of Homer’. For those without access to the book, this link may be more amenable – though be warned, it’s not a straight account like West’s.
So, the new find is not the earliest found. So what is it? What’s interesting about it?
For starters, that it’s been inscribed (that may be too technical a word) in clay and deposited in a sanctuary, and a major one at that.
As you may have surmised from the above, clay wasn’t the most common writing material in the Aegean, at least not since the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation. It was used throughout the near east – indeed, we even have bilingual Greek/Akkadian texts – but, within Greece, its use seem to have been limited to trainee writers.
We know from certain festivals, such as the Athenian Arkteia (celebrated at Brauron), that those on the cusp of man/womanhood might ‘sacrifice’ their childhood possessions to the temple in a ceremony. The shedding of these childhood accoutrements were meant to signify the crossing into adulthood, the exchange of dependency for rights and responsibilities.
This is incredibly unlikely here. This is the temple of Zeus, at Olympia, not a place for initiation ceremonies.
Do we know of other instances of texts being deposited in temples? Why, yes, we do. Herakleitos (‘The obscure’) deposited his entire oeuvre within a temple as a bulwark against the exigencies of time. The library at Alexandria was, above all, a temple complex. Elite Romans would deposit their wills at the temple of Vesta. We can detect a close link between text and temple from Kinaithos and his hymn to Apollo onward.
But this is not a personal will or a complete text in need of safe keeping. What is the most likely explanation, which combines materium with provenance?
II – Elementary, Dear Watson?
Here’s my solution: How about a rhapsodic votive offering?
Votives were objects left in temples (either deposited away or displayed) in a fulfillment of a vow or as a sort of prayer for the future. For a much better write up, here’s a page on votives from the Akropolis museum.
There’s a very archaic human urge for votive offerings, we have evidence of them from our neolithic past to contemporary times: I’ve seen more than one church (on the island Tinos?) were people have affixed plaster/bronze/wood effigies of ailed limbs in hopes of treatment. As you may imagine, votives formed an important part of Greco-Roman cultic practice.
Olympia itself was a famous site for some extravagant votive offerings. Rather than link an article, I’d invite anyone interested to read the relevant section from Pausanias.
When we discuss Greek literature, we forget all too often both the performative element and the antagonistic aspect. Poets vied with one another as much as those men of any profession (to paraphrase Hesiod), for both material gain and word-fame. Competitions could be as serious as athletic games and indeed were often held in similar(ish! …we need to put that ‘ish’ or Xenophanes will come back from the dead and throttle us) esteem.
Could this then not be a fledgling rhapsode vowing something of himself, his art, to the god before a contest? It seems to make intuitive sense to me. This isn’t a rhapsode’s text, marked up for performance or an expensive codex. The lines (Odyssey 14.7-13) are hardly what one would expect from a schoolboy exercise, which tended to be dominated by proems.
On the other hand, if the rhapsode was competing/partaking in a sort of Homeric relay, where singers each sang a book in succession, and he had been allotted book 14, it makes sense for these lines to come to mind. Perhaps this clay tablet is the votive offering of a nervous singer, breathing out the first lines that came to mind, scribbling them into the clay (the voice, the performance, not the medium, is pre-eminent here) and dedicating it to the gods.
‘Zeus, father of gods and men: if ever I have burnt for you the fatty thigh upon your altar; if I have always treated strangers fairly and with their due, may I sing well and lift the bronze tripod in your name this day’
That sort of thing.
What do you think? It’s hardly perfect, by nature circumstantial and reconstructionist. A blog post is not the place for a lengthy expansion on my reasoning, but I think I’ve given a fair few thrusts even if I’m defective on the cuts.
Let me know what you think.
Many of the things touched upon here regarding papyri and literacy are best encountered in Peter Parson’s incredibly enjoyable book, ‘The City of the Sharp Nosed Fish’
I am eagerly awaiting ‘Homer in Performance’ edited by Jonathan L. Ready and Christos C. Tsagalis this August. If anyone from UoT press is reading this instead of working, feel free to lose a copy my way.
If you’re interested in Homer, be sure to follow this blog since I’m starting a new series in the very near future on the Iliad.
I don’t know if you follow Paul Cooper’s twitter account. You really should, and not just because Rivers of Ink is one of the best new pieces of historical fiction I have encountered. Cooper has a predilection to ruins and frequently posts interesting ones. Why am I writing about this? Because a few weeks ago a wonderful capriccio of Grecian ruins got me thinking of how Greece and ruins always seem to go together.
I thought at first of Keat’s famous lines, ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard | Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on’ but, like a lot of Romantic poetry, they just rang hollow. The point of these sorts of vignettes isn’t that they’re silent but that they’re filled with the wrong kinds of sound. Can you imagine a temple in full use? The sounds (and smell!) of animals, chanting priests, playing children and, sorry to say, toiling slaves. Quite different from disjointed birdsong and rustling leaves.
John Kittmer suggested that the right poem would be Cavafy’s Ionikon and re-reading the poem sort of threw everything into place about how these places often make me feel. I’ll provide the poem below along with a rough translation (I’m a really shitty poet, sorry).
Cavafy has always been a poet of lost worlds. He was writing at a time when the last vestiges of the Roman identity were slowly falling away, and Greeks were by then strongly re-asserting an identity predicted around the classical past.
I’ve always wondered how Cavafy mediated these identities, both clearly had a powerful pull on him. After all, he was a native of a part of the world that, yes, was originally settled by Alexander but grew to be incredibly Romanised. After all, it is in the Roman period (not the Hellenistic, certainly not the Persian) where the native drink of choice in Egypt swaps from beer to wine. The see of Alexandria would be incredibly important in the late Roman world, only beginning to lose eminence to Constantinople when the orator John Chrysostomos was patriarch.
Roman history plays a uniquely important part in Cavafy’s historical poetry. I’m not quite aware of anyone else, Greek or otherwise, who demonstrates such an in-depth knowledge or adroit use of the classical past whether writing about Kaisarion or otherwise nameless minor officials.
Cavafy, then, occupied a very odd space historically. A Greek by descent, language, and education he lived far from the mainland. He was, we have good reason to believe, a homosexual and lived in a culture both eminently orthodox and quite cosmopolitan (his poetry bears influence from many fonts, English, French, Italian…). It is frequently suggested that his recourse to classical motifs in his poetry, particularly in poems concerning young men, allow him to mediate his desires in this culture.
Maybe. Likely even. We tend to take homosexuality amongst the Ancients as read, but this was not always the case. Take the Nomoi (laws) of Gemistos Plethon for example, ostensibly pagan, his recriminations towards homosexuality belay obvious Christian influence. Is it even worth mentioning the readings of the past offered by the Greek far right?
So, Cavafy is the poet of lost worlds – for the irrecoverable splendour of antiquity, for the aching loss of social acceptance, for the collapse of the last vestiges of the Byzantine world, which saw Greeks in Asia minor, the black sea, and Egypt. Ionikon is a great example.
Γιατί τα σπάσαμε τ’ αγάλματά των,
γιατί τους διώξαμεν απ’ τους ναούς των,
διόλου δεν πέθαναν γι’ αυτό οι θεοί.
Ω γη της Ιωνίας, σένα αγαπούν ακόμη,
σένα η ψυχές των ενθυμούνται ακόμη.
Σαν ξημερώνει επάνω σου πρωί αυγουστιάτικο
την ατμοσφαίρα σου περνά σφρίγος απ’ την ζωή των·
και κάποτ’ αιθερία εφηβική μορφή,
αόριστη, με διάβα γρήγορο,
επάνω από τους λόφους σου περνά.
Although we have broken their statuary,
and drove them from their temples
there’s no reason at all for their gods to be dead.
O land of Ionia, they love you still,
it’s you their souls ever remember.
When over you an august dawn awakens
Your atmosphere takes vigour from their lives
And, occasionally, an ethereal ephebe’s form,
indeterminate, stepping swiftly,
makes its way along your hills
Ionia has always had a strong place in Greek cultural memory. We probably have enough evidence to prove early settlement by the Mycenaeans, many of the big names of classical Greek science and culture (Herakleios, Homer, Herodotos, Panyassis, Xenophanes etc etc) came from there, the area was of colossal importance from the Hellenistic to the Byzantine periods and even post Ottoman conquest, Greeks lived there (and formed the most productive part of society) until suffering genocide at the hands of the Turks.
Reading the poem made me think first of the great death of the archaic world. The Greeks beat the Persians, but the result was a reduction of importance of Asia minor and a substantial change in panhellenic Greek culture. Poetry became gradually less oral, neoteric forms like tragedy took over.
I’ve always thought this a great shame. The fact is Greek tragedy just…well it’s ok. There are some brilliant bits. But compared to Sappho? Homer? Come on.
The second death? Who knows. The Romans brought rejuvenation to the area. Perhaps after Manzikert and the capture of Romanos Digenes? The gradual reduction of Byzantine suzerainty was a new kind of death: The transition from archaic to classical was somewhere between re-incarnation and a c-section. Turkification, a moribund plague or cancer. Naturally, the Latins hardly helped things.
Then there is the final death, which I feel neither like being flippant about nor terribly want to ruminate deeply on. The Greek genocide and population exchange. After years of Turkokratia this engendered an abrupt change, a sundering, in the life and culture of the region.
Refugees naturally fled westwards, to the mainland, and many Greek cities have neighbourhoods now named after areas in Ionia (Nea Smynri, Pefki, Nea Ionia, tend to be common). Traces of Ionia can still be found in popular folk songs, in food, and in familial histories.
I’ve long dissolved into rambling here, maybe this isn’t quite what Cavafy had in mind when he wrote Ionikon, but it’s immediately what I think of.
If you’re not too bored, I’d implore to scroll back up and take another look at the poem. Or better yet, find an actually poetic translation. What a wonderful invocation of the past that is: the form of a youth – vigorous and gravid with possibility – none the less frozen in place. At once visible but ultimately intangible. Compare that with Byron’s overwrought “cold relic of departed worth”.
A recent twitter thread on the iconography of Zeus’ thunderbolt reminded me of earlier musings of mine on the rough similarities between Greek and Indian depictions of thunder-weaponry. Sometimes in ancient Greek art, Zeus’ thunderbolt is very much drawn as a few zigzagging lines – think of how Roman coinage and shields display Jupiter’s thunder or a child might draw lightning – other times it looks like a magic club. That’s what we’re currently concerned with.
Quickly routing around through the Beazley archives will give you an example of what I mean. I’m including links to #6996 and #10683 here, and an image from the British Museum below, since they have a less restrictive usage policy.
For comparison, here is an Indian variant. Note, the original Indic depiction has since, via the spread of Buddhism, generated variants in Thailand, China, Tibet, Nepal, Japan et al. The word for thunderbolt, vajra, is also a very fecund onomastic element across these cultures, historically.
Zeus and Indra
Let’s provide a bit of context before we go further. I suspect, quite strongly, that the Indo-European connection here is more than well known to anyone reading this but it can’t hurt to go over this in precis.
While Greek Zeus is cognate with Dyauṣ Pitṛ, in many ways they’re functionally distinct. ‘Indian Zeus’ is a very laid-back kind of king, mentioned largely in archaising ‘riddling’ hymns in the Rg Veda, like 1.64. In terms of activity, for all intents and purposes his son Indra is in charge.
Like Zeus, Indra originally seems to have been largely a rain god. It may also have been near eastern influence that emphasised his role as god of thunder. The earliest depictions have him going around with his mannerbund, the maruts (minor storm deities), and fighting various great beasts: as Zeus fights Typhon, he slays the engulfing wyrm Vritra. The story is detailed in hymns 1.32 and 4.18, much the greatest heroic poetry in any ancient Indo-European language. If there’s any interest, I’ll do some translations here on the blog. Within Indo-European studies, these stories (along with Thor vs Jormungandir and Teshub vs Illuyanka) have accrued a lot of interest over the years.
Later poetic versions have Indra act a little like the Zeus of pop culture, quaffing rivers of mead, soma (an intoxicant? A brew made of ephedra root and honey?) and despoiling the wives of priests. None the less, he is still the king of the gods and not a force to be trifled with.
There are some similarities in their divine armament too. Both wield thunderbolts made by divine smiths and are described in similar terms. Famously, the bolts of Zeus are made by the cyclopes and entrusted to him in thanks for freeing them from bondage:
and the thunderbolt, which monstrous Earth had hitherto concealed
Trusting to these, he reigned over both gods and men.
Hesiod, Theogony, 503-6
The earlier, explanatory, (interpolated?) lines about the cyclopes even gives them names to do with thunder and lightning (Brontes, Steropes, Arges, ll139). Between the cyclopes and lightning then, there was evidently a very close link. Later sources (e.g Pseudo-Apollodoros, Kallimakhos) confirm this and extend to them a more general divine handiness.
Indra’s vajra is made by a divine smith called Tvastr, whose name means something like craftsman/artificier. It is arjuna ‘bright’ (cf. ἀργής ) and the effect it has on Indra’s enemies is very much like the fate of Typhon described by Hesiod in the Theogony.
As an aside, Indra vs Vritra and Zeus vs Typhon is one of the most interesting set of compranda in Classical Philology. Both because it’s brilliant poetry, and because of the interpretive challenges. While there is most likely an Indo-European, or at least a Greco-Aryan, ‘template-myth’ here, the Greek version has been heavily influenced by near Eastern traditions, like Marduk vs Tiamat.
These parallels are both surprising, given the time depth, and underwhelming given that these are two closely related languages. I’m not necessarily positing any sort of genetic filiation between these two sets of (physical) iconography, just because the poetic language is similar. Years ago, M. West managed to convince me of a sort of lateral influence from the near East being the likeliest culprit. I wish I took notes since I can’t remember his reasoning or his evidence in anything like detail.
Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if one might posit a more direct route? From Greece to India during the Hellenistic age. After all, we know of the immense influence Hellenistic form and figuration had on Gandharan art. Who knows? it’s a possibility. I’ll end with an image of someone whom specialists often refer to as an Indian depiction of Herakles. Apart from being beautiful to look at, it’s a perfect example of ancient Greek influence on Indian artwork.
Herakles here is a stand in for a strong, protective, companion of the Buddha in early Buddhist folk-lore, often thought to be a semi-secularised adaption of Indra – Indic thought after all is one big continuum, and though the Vedic pantheon may have lost prominence, they’re still important. He’s not wielding thunder, but like Herakles (and Meleagros) he is wielding a club with which to defend his guru.
His name by the way, was Vajrapani, or in English, Thunderbolt-Hand.
I write this – after a long absence that has no doubt seen my paltry writing skills atrophy rather than improve – having enjoyed an interesting discussion yesterday, the kind that represents the best of Classics twitter. I want to expand upon some of the short comments I earlier because I worry I came off as a bit short and terse and wish to explain myself a bit better. Besides, we rarely get to discuss such things from a British perspective (for a discussion of American treatments, click here).
Here is the initial tweet, since the original post is well worth reading – as are the discussions on Aramaic and Akkadian with attendant bibliographies.
This 👇is what I see (or perhaps, what I would *like* to see) happening in university Classics Depts in the fairly near future. pic.twitter.com/2KPqQrFYnp
My response essentially came down to a) the vision being improbable if not impossible and; b) some aspects of it unwittingly carrying the potential to offend. You’ll hopefully note I don’t disagree with any of the assertions being made, I’d quite like all of them to come true. I just don’t think any of them likely.
I think the improbability comes down simply to the fact that universities are increasingly failing to properly teach Latin and Greek. We take it, bizarrely, as read that we’re increasingly less able than our 19th and 20th century predecessors (hence the above reference to ‘19th C philology’). This isn’t just a hackneyed trope, some traditional veneratio offered to our predecessors as a way to abase ourselves with false humility whilst simultaneously claiming our place in the great academic chain of being that descends from Zenotodus and Aristarchus to Wolf, Wilamowitz, and West. It’s a sad, discomforting, fact.
Sad because there’s truly never been a better time to learn Latin or Greek. Previous generations started earlier, had more time, but we eclipse them in efficiency by orders of magnitude. Students have a phalanx of textbooks to choose from, computer generated word lists, easy access to texts, readers, and even audiotools. We should, in fact, be making our predecessors look like gentlemen dilettantes with regards to their technical skills if not their insights.
One of the original points was that…”the world needs more specialised departments based on our Classical model”. Does it? What can we truly offer, say, Sanskrit scholars? I’m choosing Sanskrit because it’s the ancillary language I know best and because it has an incredible tradition behind it (of which most Classicists are sadly completely ignorant).
Indologists may avail themselves of at least one functional tradition akin to our philology, vyakarana (something like grammar) as well as several theoretical frameworks for assessing texts (I think the most famous in the west is probably mimasa). The study of the language has been not just rejuvenated but elevated by contact with western philology. After all, it was Saussure and his laryngeals which rendered Sanskrit’s intense verbal system fully understandable, British explorers and orientalists who kick-started epigraphy and paleography while fleshing out more fully the filitation between Sanskrit and early Indian vernaculars (the so called prakrits).
This is, notably, well in the past.
Indologists, on one hand, may read their texts with the aid of utterly brilliant Sanskrit commentaries. Meanwhile in 2018 it’s possible to graduate with a Classics degree not having fully read Virgil or Homer, let alone become acquainted with Servius or Eustathius.
I suspect Classics departments no longer have the intellectual, perhaps even moral, substance to offer anybody any sort of example on how to do anything. Ironically, it was those 19th century philologists and not modern comparative literature departments which furnished the inspiration for those studying Indic or Semitic (Sino-Tibetan, Finno-Urgic, Kartvelian etc etc) philology. What can we offer other scholars? Perhaps the ability to point out when someone is dead, white, and male? To turn ‘patriarchy’ from a sociological descriptor to something akin to a taboo word?
This is what I mean by potentially offensive. The days are gone when the Classicist could casually expound the rules and sound changes of Germanic philology more adroitly than the English DPhil, for example.
Another point considered widening the temporal horizon of the discipline until the fall of the Roman Empire in 1453. In some sense, Classics has already traditionally done this. After all, textual criticism by its very nature involves delving into the work of Carolingian monks, the intellectuals of the Byzantine renaissances (under the Macedonians and Palaeologi) and the Italian humanists.
I would love for this to happen to some degree, but again the basis for this has to be a sound grasp of the languages. Lorenzo Valla’s study of the false DonatioConstantini is one of the highpoints of our subject, but like all humanists his Latin can be difficult. The Greek of Laonikos Chalkokondyles is entertaining and electrifying but not for the faint of heart anymore than his subject matter.
As an aside there’s recently been a very interested guest post on Sententiae Antiquae on the merits of including post classical Latin as part of our curricula, which I link here. Unfortunately I can’t think of any similar post on reading post second sophistic Greek to link.
Can we ever engender a return to philology? On one hand I recall the resurgence of philologia propria in China after the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Under the Ming dynasty, critique and interpretation of texts and history had become dogmatically Neo-Confucian. Subsequently, disenchanted scholars found themselves eventually turning to more traditional methods in order to actually try and comprehend the past. Who knows? Maybe McKenna is right to be optimistic. I don’t think so. Out of the academy, none of my colleagues with similar backgrounds also working in black-letter professions (commercial law, finance, and I guess we should include the bloody consultants) seem to think so either. Nor do our bosses who have long since dampened their enthusiasm for hiring people with Classics degrees. Ah well.
The original post ended with an emphatic assertion that “there must be brilliant stuff out there” and I absolutely agree. In fact I’m going to end this blog post by recommending something, the Heike Monogatori. This epic, based on the struggle for dominance between two 12th century Japanese clans, has a strong claim for the best opening lines in world literature. Moreover, its compositional history make it a must read for any Classicist. It is, I hope you’ll agree, brilliant stuff.
The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. — Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation
In an ideal world, I’d go back and re-work the above post, citing and commenting upon the below articles and books in order to strengthen points and provide more entertaining reading. Please accept my apologies and this slightly annotated bibliography instead.
Much the best scholar writing on this questions is Sanskrit Professor Sheldon Pollock. His 2014 article ‘Future Philology’ has been incredibly influential and his shorter 2015 article ‘Liberating Philology’ is at once precis and expansion. For a broader, more multicultural, understanding of what’s at stake see the 2015 edited volume World Philology.
For the Byzantine Renaissances see Cyril Mango’s own contributed to the 2002 edited volume The Oxford History of Byzantium.
For an introduction on the (potential) similarities between Japanese and Greek epic see Naoko Yamagata’s article in Greece & Rome Vol. 40, No. 1 (Apr., 1993). I myself am partial to the Tyler and Watson translation.
I have made at least two cack-handed allusions herein. I have cheekily titled this post after Wilamowitz’s famous tirade, an English translation of which may be found here. Secondly, I alluded to Said’s article “Return to Philology” which can be found here.