What I read in 2021

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

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

Seneca Epistulae 1.2.2

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

Umberto Eco Baudolino

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

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

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

Tom Holland Dominion

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

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

Camilla Townsend Fifth Sun

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

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

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

James Hankins Virtue Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julian Maxwell Heath Warfare in Neolithic Europe

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

Robin Waterfield The Making of a King

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

Ian Rutherford Hittite Texts and Greek Religion

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

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

Richard Eaton India in the Persianate Age

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

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

Marie Favereau The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World

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

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

Coda: Reading in the New Year

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The hideous weakness of the modern classicist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass[10]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Chapter 14 p206

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

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

[12] Mark 10:18.

Filling the Neophytes Library (Ancient History)

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

           Steven Pinker (Chronicle)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the Classical Mediterranean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Do not blame him for his shitty epigones)

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

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

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

Ancient Rome

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

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

Daube, D. (1969). Roman Law. TX.

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

I mean…what is the competition?

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

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

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

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

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

Hahaha yeah, eat shit Cicero

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

Late Antiquity

(It is an inevitable category)

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

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

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

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

All Our Broken Idols (Review)

The mournful cry of a dying lion, the smooth hand of a mason, the sour smell of a poor man’s breath, belly brewed with hunger… I enjoyed this book. Paul Cooper is a talented writer and lovers of Antiquity, Mesopotamia, and historical fiction like Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things will find much to enjoy here.

All Our Broken Idols is Paul Cooper’s second book, I am not sure if it is my favourite (I really loved River Of Ink), but I am glad serious historical fiction, unafraid of being literary, is still being produced. It tells the story…well, really, it tells two stories which interact and intersect in interesting ways. The first of these is about two peasant children in the Assyrian empire at the time of Ashurbanipal. The story opens with the dull flatness of the interior, where the chance encounter between Sharo and Aurya, a lion (really my favourite element), and the king himself set off the chain of events which drive the novel. The other story, concerns Katya, an archaeologist (palaeobotanist?) caught up in fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014.

This conceit of using two distinct timelines, really one story told diachronically, is an interesting part of the book and as I write this I am struggling to think of the last time I saw this used in a memorable manner. Perhaps Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – thought that book had a much more truncated timeline (WW1 to the present) and therefore much more immediacy between both halves of the story. Cooper makes excellent use of this device and both “halves” intersect and resonate with one another in ways that only serve to enhance the story. Some of these resonances occur on a basic, pragmatic, level (e.g both take place in Nineveh/Mosul), others are more thematic (lions, belonging, memory…), and they certainly encourage the reader to go back and re-read earlier chapters more carefully.

One of the best of these resonances is the use of the Gilgamesh epic. This seems to be emerging as a trait of Cooper’s historical fiction, though the use of the epic is less direct and more subtle than the use of the Shishupalavadha in River of Ink. This makes sense, since the earlier book directly concerned itself with the translation of that text. In All Our Broken Idols, the text instead is referenced by the characters throughout, often at times which serve to highlight broader plot points narrative themes: The movement from the wilder hinterland to the more “civilised” city, law vs want, the whims and duties of kings, the potency of loss, and even the nature of storytelling itself. The author’s use of the test stays firmly within the realm of the metapoetic and never reaches levels of smarminess.

‘Five years to tell a story, and it ends with no one getting what they want?’

‘They got something else though’

For Sharo and Aurya, the Gilgamesh epic has been handed down by their mother; for Katya, it has been picked up as a book from an Iraqi bazaar. Where does Cooper get his? The excerpts seem much more novel like than I remember from my struggling Akkadian, and the end note suggests that they are the author’s own creation, assembled from various translations. Like a modern Sîn-lēqi-unninni. If you are interested in listening to the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian, click this link to go a wonderful collection of recordings. If, like Katya (and most of us) you want to read the epic I can happily suggest e.g Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia as a good starting point.

I suppose a brief note on each of the different timelines is warranted here.

Sumerian was a language isolate. It was used for such a long time that, like any natural language, it would have changed faster than the differences we see in the written standard. When Akkadian (a Semitic language) speakers took over, they must have brought some first language interference with them to their work in Sumerian. At some point, not only has Sumerian died out, but Akkadian has started to change and may well be giving way to Aramaic in the spoken realm. How much can we really construct of Mesopotamia? Even with our evidence? Is this a boon or a bane to the historical novelist? None the less, the author does a wonderful job in evoking the period. Even little details such as the names for months/seasons, the type of food eaten, the prayers and curses as well as the stories told; all add to this verisimilitude.

Of the two stories, this is my favourite. Perhaps unjustly, for me it is the “real” story. Sharo, and Enkidu, have my sympathies and my interest. Some of the most arresting moments in the book occur in this half of the story. There was a scene, long foreshadowed in the book itself, and easily anticipated by anyone familiar with Assyrian art, that when it happened, I had to put the book down for a moment. Elsewhere, Ashurbanipal strides off the page. His inscriptions have always flickered with his personality, and it would have been easy to get him wrong, paint him as some two-bit Thersites, but instead we get a character that is genuinely kingly. Do we like him? (maybe) do we hate him? (maaaybe?). Either way, he is complicated and interesting. The Assyrian part is really the meat of the story for me, with the present day one mainly interesting when it (or Cooper via it) uses its archaeological remains to tell a story.

Katya’s story begins the best part of 27 centuries later, in the context of an archaeological dig. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the archaeology was done. There was no Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider silliness, nor does it fall for the anachronistic trope of archaeologists picking up and reading inscriptions or documents (let’s name this trope after Boardman, who was brilliant): in fact the one dig site member who can fluently read Akkadian is held in suitable awe. Instead, we get careful descriptions of soil analysis, cataloguing find spots, establishing layers and digging test trenches. Nor does the author shy away from current debates in archaeology about provenance, ethics, and ownership. The archaeological team is, justly, worried about looters and the threat they pose to the past but western academics and collectors are hardly much better. The bitterness, scepticism, and mistrust the locals feel is clearly somewhat warranted. The author handled all this deftly.

‘Just catalogue the damage for now. Piece together the fragments, try and put a story together.’

One thing leapt out at my, and I suspect I am reading too much into this, is Katya’s position within this context. Despite her name, she is not Russian but Half British/Half Iraqi. From a narrative standpoint this makes sense, it allows the author to gird her with a sense of emotional investment in Iraq and its antiquities beyond academic specialism. Her father was an Iraqi reporter who was made to disappear (this is not a spoiler) and this obviously drives her. Where is she on the scale between native and western interloper/academic? At one point a crisis is approaching and she gets into an argument with a native archaeologist on what to do with a find. “It’s my history too” she complains, only to be told to “fucking act like it” if that is the case. On at least one occasion a character comments on her terrible Arabic. Again, I am probably reading too much into this, but I think this is incredibly interesting given the themes of identity and ownership throughout. I shan’t spoil what happens, but I left the book thinking that there is a very real dissonance between Katya as is and Katya how she would like to paint herself. Maybe you need to be a bilingual/immigrant/third-culture kid to see it. Of the modern characters, it is Salim (with his studied nonchalance) and Dr Malik who really stand out.

In June 2014 ISIS took Mosul. That is a story in and of itself, and not a nice one. Cooper pulls few punches (the reality was even worse), and a few things need to be said here. The link between antiquities looting and ISIS was (is?) very real and we know of at least one brave man who died hoping to protect antiquities. Bravo for not shying away from this. If you have the time (and if you are reading this, you probably do) please take a second to read up on Khaled al-Asaad (whom I think Cooper sort of pays tribute to?). The age of heroes is not wholly over.

Lola, one of the best drawn characters in the book, happens to be a Yazidi girl. Few have suffered at the hands of ISIS quite like the Yazidi. It would be easy to focus on how Cooper imbues this character with a kind of quiet, wounded, stoicism, it is harder – but ultimately more right – for us to remember that the Yazidi still exist in a very beleaguered state. I would like to draw your attention to two groups that function as charities and for raising awareness:

Yazda – A multi-national Yazidi global organization established in the aftermath of the Yazidi Genocide in 2014, to support the Yazidi ethno-religious minority and other vulnerable groups.

The Amar Foundation – Runs support for the Yazidi, and other groups, ousted and targeted by ISIS.

It is odd to see ISIS mentioned in historical fiction, but it struck me to what degree historical fiction is conditioned by (dependent on, really) its contemporaneity. I do not mean the old, obvious, canard of any historical enquiry telling us about the present. I mean that, perhaps ironically, in the aftermath of the looting of places like Mosul and Palmyra, with the wounds from ISIS still fresh and ongoing, this may well be the only point in history this story could be told with such poignancy.

It would be terrible to end the review here, on the omnipresence through human history of suffering, on the arbitrariness of violence and hate…especially when the book itself at times strikes some hopeful notes. Memory, family, stories, all these things are real too. All Our Broken Idols is Paul Cooper’s second book, I am not sure if it is my favourite, I certainly hope it is not his last. It is more than recommended.

‘All those people would be dead by now anyway.’

‘That doesn’t matter when you’re reading it. Every time you read it, they come back to life all over again’

Il Primo Re (Review)

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

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

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

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

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

The Sound of the Film: Language and Philology.

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

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

Let’s go through things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Look of the film: Archaeology and Culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The story of the film: Putting it all together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romanland

Romanland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Socrates in Love

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

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

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

Quite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Over the Garden Wall and its non-Classical aesthetic

Alternative title: How does this work? Seriously?

Despite the title, this is only tangentially related to anything remotely classical, sorry. For anyone interested in how modern (literary) forms actually drawn from classical precedents, feel free to close this and read N J Lowe’s The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative.

Also, it’s almost All Hallow’s Eve and since I don’t fell well enough to make it all the way up to Manchester, you guys can have this in lieu. (Sorry L, I know this is the 2nd year running…)

I was reminded the other day of the existence of a cartoon I enjoyed some time back. I wish I had the time to sit down and revisit it. What struck me about it was hardly the plot (which is lapidary), or the illustration (cute and kitsch), or indeed the voice acting (for the most part, meh), but the overall aesthetic.

There’s something there that really appeals to me. You could term it ‘gothic’ but that doesn’t quite fit and conjures the wrong connotations. Are there percolating influences from, say, Sheridan le Fanu or Lovecraft? Maaaybe? I don’t know. The thing is, this pseudo-gothic aesthetic is incredibly non-classical. It’s the time of year when idiots are trying to pretend that e.g the werewolf passage in Petronius or the odd story of a lamia possess some consonance with our own modern sense of horror. But neither the Greeks nor the Romans had anything like this. If you really mess with the translation, you could maybe claim there are elements in the Sanskrit text Vikram and the Vampire, but you would be pushing it.

The part fantasy part horror aesthetic is entirely modern. I’ll try to describe it and then list some things that I think are similar. I expect to fail badly here, since a lot of them will be sci-fi/fantasy and I believe I’ve made my dislike of those genres well known again and again.

To return to Over the Garden Wall, firstly I’d say there’s a weird sense of nostalgia. If it were live action (please no…) many of the set pieces and sartorial accoutrements would be from a sort of Victorian-1920’s timeline. There’s also a very crooked forlornness that permeates the background, it intrigues and unsettles.

The cartoon plays with expectations a little bit. Again, not in the Greek sense – like some sort of paraprosdokian – but it’s continually like looking at the mundane through a murky window. All this is offset by humour, of course.

I actually don’t know why I’m trying to describe it. I clearly can’t. I actually tried, a while back, writing some short stories in this vein for a friend. I never got as far as I intended and re-reading them I’m continually surprised by how bad I am at prose. Clearly I just don’t get it. Anyway, here are some similar works for All Hallow’s Eve.

Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake  – No explanation necessary, surely? If we were to draw up a phylogentic treebank, so much of this stuff would stem from Steerpike’s adventures.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman – Begrudgingly included.

Tailchaser’s Song – Tad Williams – Less of the horror aspect, though it exists, but the overall crooked vision works. I’ve loved this book ever since I picked up a battered old paperback at a book fair as a child. Look, it’s about the secret world of cats. With magic. Of course it’s great.

Shadowbridge – Gregory Frost – Think Gaiman, if Gaiman could write. Weird gods, puppeteers etc.

The Luck of Relian Kru – Patricia McKillip – There’s a permeating, frustrating, sense of horror throughout one of the few SF/F books I’ve read that I have really, really, enjoyed. I would recommend this to anyone.

WTF even is this post? I think I’m going to click ‘publish’ regardless.

A smorgasbord of pseudobookreviews

Writing requires the confluence of time and discipline. For me, those two are very much like Romeo and Juliet – it’s not that the twain shall never meet (I mean… hello, nursey ԅ(≖‿≖ԅ) ), just rarely and with disastrous consequences.

So here are a series of rapid one or two sentence reviews of books I’ve recently read or re-read.

Sally Rooney NORMAL PEOPLE

Oh, god, am I a cunt?

Sally Rooney CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS

Yes, yes I am.

Tim Leach SMILE OF THE WOLF

Honour is like an angry wolf. (Will actually review, soon).

Anne Fadiman EX LIBRIS CONFESSIONS OF A COMMON READER

Hopefully Anne you shan’t find out divorcing libraries is infinitely more horrendous than marrying them.

Monaldi and Sorti SECRETUM

Eunuchs have balls too. Oh, god, Dottore Eco we miss you.

Hiro Arikawa THE TRAVELLING CAT CHRONICLES

Turns out I do have a heart…and it’s broken. I KNOW WHO’S TO BLAME.

John Carey THE UNEXPECTED PROFESSOR

Oxford was always broken. Also, Donne is cool.

Rainier Maria Rilke DUINO ELEGIES

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?

Rainier Maria Rilke LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET

I should write more.

Ted Hughes COLLECTED POETRY

I should write less.

 

The Ancient World in Fiction: A Brief List

Here’s the original Guardian article which spurred this. The Twitter response has been interesting if not always fair (It’s a brief list guys! It can’t get all our favourites in!). Reading the article has only served to remind me how poorly I’ve fulfilled my promise to produce more book reviews (I have three almost done, I swear…). Well maybe this will help, I’m producing several in one post in order to demonstrate the kind of books available on the ancient world.

If we take the ancient world to have extended from the rise of the palatial societies to the loss of Rome’s eastern territories to the Arabs, that’s some significant temporal distance. While there are a lot of historical novels out there, most tend to fall into a handful of categories: Late Roman Republic to Early Empire, Christianisation under Constantine, or Classical Athens. Many tend to focus in a few geographical areas, such as Rome herself or Britannia.

Most, incidentally, are shit.

I’m not here to debate the literary qualities of the historical novel. I’m taking it for read that most are pulpy and not worth a second reading. The few I’m recommending have more in common with literary fiction than your typical genre novel, for no other reason than that’s my taste. Whilst, needless to say, these aren’t going to be replacing Tolstoy on your bookshelf, they’re edifying and enjoyable.

If you are interested in the literary merits of historical fiction then see this discussion in the New Republic and/or this controversial LitHub piece arguing against the label.

Ancient Greece

The Praise Singer – Mary Renault

Unlike many, I was never truly captivated by Renault’s Alexander saga as a boy. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I remember it finding it flighty. When I went to university my reading list on Alexander was made up of the ‘three B’s’ (Badian, Borza, Bosworth), which only served to confirm my impression of Renault’s characterisation as highly unlikely.

The less said about the Graves’ inspired ‘The King Must Die’, the better.

I was prompted to return to her by none other than Simon Hornblower, who suggested that in many ways her ‘The Praise Singer’ would flesh out some of my research interests in novelistic form. Surprisingly, I fell in love. This is much the best novel on the list.

It follows the life of Simonides – with wonderful cameos from Anakreon, Peisistratos et al – and is the single best depiction of a Greek singer in novel form. Renault was a sensitive reader of Greek poetry and every other page is imbued with something from the Classics.

Tyrant/The Long War – Christian Cameron

I’m surprised I ever read this, the cover alone was enough to put me off, but I’m terribly glad that I did. Billed originally as a military adventure, Cameron’s ‘Tyrant’ is incredibly evocative of the early Hellenistic age.

Athenians seethe with resentment at being cast aside by Alexander or writhe in confusion at their admiration. Phokion and his realpolitik are an important part of the background. The genius of the novel is to cast in periphery, not centre, by focusing on the black sea region.

A wonderful depiction of Greek military practice, gentlemanly culture, and the Greek religious Weltanschauung. This latter aspect really shines through, almost unique amongst historical novels.

I do not care for the sequels.

His second series, ‘The Long War’, follows Herodotus and is a fun read. That’s unfair actually as Cameron is a judicious reader of Herodotus and seems to share my love of the archaic period. If you have time and inclination, I suggest you read them too.

The Last King of Lydia – Tim Leach

Herodotus has always been an excellent font of stories and in his debut novel, Tim Leach taps into that rich vein with profit.

Leaving aside the story, surely known to all readers of this blog, Leach employs a rich and reflective prose style throughout which make this worth re-reading. There’s something quasi-Aristotlean about the way he has rooting for Croesus despite mistake after mistake.

Warrior in Bronze – George Shipway

I’m including this in part for @e-pe-me-ri, but it’s very good.

An almost sympathetic depiction of Agamemnon, who is more wily than wise and more calculating than compassionate. Shipway is rather creative with his historical sources be they literary, mythological, or archaeological. Yes, the depiction of the bronze age Aegean and Mycenaean palatial society may well be antiquated, but it has an air of antiquarian learning I find enjoyable and the human portraits therein are realistic and engrossing.

Clytemnestra steals the show. That’s all I’ll say without spoiling it.

Throughout, Shipway employs a muscular prose which matches Agamemnon’s voice and is sadly disappearing from modern fiction.

Rome

Cast Not the Day – Paul Waters

Imagine being Macrobius. He couldn’t have had all the data we have now about the twilight of the Roman Empire: Cows are shorter at the haunches, spices are rarer and more expensive, the army gradually shrinking, tax revenues depleting never to be restored etc etc, but any Roman with a classical education could have sensed the decay.

Waters captures this sense delicately; the book feels like iron fixings rusting on marble columns, all drawn in a concise and strong prose style.

This is probably the best depiction of homosexual relationships in antiquity (yes, better than Renault’s ‘Last of the Wine’), is reasonably even handed about the rising power of the church, and a great depiction of provincial life.

Eagle in the Snow – Wallace Breem

By far the best novel ever written on the Romans. I’ve heard Gladiator was based on this, which makes no sense because that film is rubbish.

‘Behind me I left my youth, my middle age, my wife and my happiness. I was a general now and I had only defeat or victory to look forward to. There was no middle way any longer, and I did not care.’

How can you not be hooked? One of the things I loved about this novel was the way Maximus changed as narrator throughout, each shock and setback making his description just a little more gravid. The few instances of joyous reminiscence therefore shine all the brighter. It may be an odd comparison, but I think fans of Sutcliffe may enjoy this.

This is another book set towards the end of empire and (originally) in a province.  and successfully alternatives suspense (the novel starts with Ammianus’ conspiratio barbarica) and forlorn sadness.

East of Rome…

One the great things about Classics is the tendency to situate Greco-Roman antiquity in a wider, global, context. At its worst, this impulse is typified by middle class monoglot morons yelling about ‘Eurocentrism!’ as if that will make their parents love them. At its best, this results in contextually grounded comparative work that truly elucidates and is a pleasure to read.

Why not throw a few books from elsewhere around the world in tribute to this?

The Assyrian – Nicholas Guild

There are tangible links to Greece (and Cyprus) here, sure, and I’m sure others will have spoken disapprovingly about any ‘orientalist’ tropes such as harem politics. Nonetheless, this is an example of a great book not always being a great evil.

Golden Fire – Jonathan Fast

The Gupta era is often considered to be India’s second classical age (after the Mauryan). Much of what we associate with Indian culture was either born or codified in this time, and philologists have much to thank the scholars of the Gupta court for when it comes to Sanskrit texts (especially that of the Mahabharata).

Fast’s evocative novel is full of detailed ritual and court ceremonial that really bring India alive at times, even if the novel doesn’t quite hit its literary aspirations passim.

The Egyptian – Mika Waltari

If you read only one novel on ancient Egypt (and fair enough), make it this one. There is a reason it has lasted for so many decades.

The parallels with the story of Sinuhe only serve to make the book feel more Egyptian. The clash of idealism and pragmatism forms a central theme in the book and its very, very, easy to just get lost.

Further Reading

Obviously brief lists like this could be extended ad nauseam, but if you have any suggestions, let me know below or on Twitter.