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

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

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

I: Proto-Indo-European taboos

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

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

μηδέ ποτ’ ἐν προχοῇς ποταμῶν ἅλαδε προρεόντων

μηδ’ ἐπὶ κρηνάων οὐρεῖν, μάλα δ’ ἐξαλέασθαι:

ἐναποψύχειν: τὸ γὰρ οὔ τοι λώιόν ἐστιν.

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

or into springs, urinate; much better to avoid it

it is not seemly to relieve oneself therein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some housekeeping

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

Waving Bear GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

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

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


 Endlings and suchlike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has Athens to do with Pataliputra?

A recent twitter thread on the iconography of Zeus’ thunderbolt reminded me of earlier musings of mine on the rough similarities between Greek and Indian depictions of thunder-weaponry. Sometimes in ancient Greek art, Zeus’ thunderbolt is very much drawn as a few zigzagging lines – think of how Roman coinage and shields display Jupiter’s thunder or a child might draw lightning – other times it looks like a magic club. That’s what we’re currently concerned with.

Quickly routing around through the Beazley archives will give you an example of what I mean. I’m including links to #6996 and #10683 here, and an image from the British Museum below, since they have a less restrictive usage policy.

Pottery: red-figured neck-amphora: Zeus in pursuit. Reverse: a woman.


For comparison, here is an Indian variant. Note, the original Indic depiction has since, via the spread of Buddhism, generated variants in Thailand, China, Tibet, Nepal, Japan et al. The word for thunderbolt, vajra, is also a very fecund onomastic element across these cultures, historically.

Image result for vajra

Zeus and Indra

Let’s provide a bit of context before we go further. I suspect, quite strongly, that the Indo-European connection here is more than well known to anyone reading this but it can’t hurt to go over this in precis.

While Greek Zeus is cognate with Dyauṣ Pitṛ, in many ways they’re functionally distinct. ‘Indian Zeus’ is a very laid-back kind of king, mentioned largely in archaising ‘riddling’ hymns in the Rg Veda, like 1.64. In terms of activity, for all intents and purposes his son Indra is in charge.

Like Zeus, Indra originally seems to have been largely a rain god. It may also have been near eastern influence that emphasised his role as god of thunder. The earliest depictions have him going around with his mannerbund, the maruts (minor storm deities), and fighting various great beasts: as Zeus fights Typhon, he slays the engulfing wyrm Vritra. The story is detailed in hymns 1.32 and 4.18, much the greatest heroic poetry in any ancient Indo-European language. If there’s any interest, I’ll do some translations here on the blog. Within Indo-European studies, these stories (along with Thor vs Jormungandir and Teshub vs Illuyanka) have accrued a lot of interest over the years.

Later poetic versions have Indra act a little like the Zeus of pop culture, quaffing rivers of mead, soma (an intoxicant? A brew made of ephedra root and honey?) and despoiling the wives of priests. None the less, he is still the king of the gods and not a force to be trifled with.

There are some similarities in their divine armament too. Both wield thunderbolts made by divine smiths and are described in similar terms. Famously, the bolts of Zeus are made by the cyclopes and entrusted to him in thanks for freeing them from bondage:

οἳ οἱ ἀπεμνήσαντο χάριν ἐυεργεσιάων,
δῶκαν δὲ βροντὴν ἠδ᾽ αἰθαλόεντα κεραυνὸν
καὶ στεροπήν: τὸ πρὶν δὲ πελώρη Γαῖα κεκεύθει:
τοῖς πίσυνος θνητοῖσι καὶ ἀθανάτοισιν ἀνάσσει.

They remembered with gratitude, his kindly deeds

and gave him thunder, dazzling lightning

and the thunderbolt, which monstrous Earth had hitherto concealed

Trusting  to these, he reigned over both gods and men.

Hesiod, Theogony, 503-6

The earlier, explanatory, (interpolated?) lines about the cyclopes even gives them names to do with thunder and lightning (Brontes, Steropes, Arges, ll139). Between the cyclopes and lightning then, there was evidently a very close link. Later sources (e.g Pseudo-Apollodoros, Kallimakhos) confirm this and extend to them a more general divine handiness.

Indra’s vajra is made by a divine smith called Tvastr, whose name means something like craftsman/artificier. It is arjuna ‘bright’ (cf. ἀργής ) and the effect it has on Indra’s enemies is very much like the fate of Typhon described by Hesiod in the Theogony.

As an aside, Indra vs Vritra and Zeus vs Typhon is one of the most interesting set of compranda in Classical Philology. Both because it’s brilliant poetry, and because of the interpretive challenges. While there is most likely an Indo-European, or at least a Greco-Aryan, ‘template-myth’ here, the Greek version has been heavily influenced by near Eastern traditions, like Marduk vs Tiamat.

These parallels are both surprising, given the time depth, and underwhelming given that these are two closely related languages. I’m not necessarily positing any sort of genetic filiation between these two sets of (physical) iconography, just because the poetic language is similar. Years ago, M. West managed to convince me of a sort of lateral influence from the near East being the likeliest culprit. I wish I took notes since I can’t remember his reasoning or his evidence in anything like detail.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if one might posit a more direct route? From Greece to India during the Hellenistic age. After all, we know of the immense influence Hellenistic form and figuration had on Gandharan art. Who knows?  it’s a possibility. I’ll end with an image of someone whom specialists often refer to as an Indian depiction of Herakles. Apart from being beautiful to look at, it’s a perfect example of ancient Greek influence on Indian artwork.

Herakles here is a stand in for a strong, protective, companion of the Buddha in early Buddhist folk-lore, often thought to be a semi-secularised adaption of Indra – Indic thought after all is one big continuum, and though the Vedic pantheon may have lost prominence, they’re still important. He’s not wielding thunder, but like Herakles (and Meleagros) he is wielding a club with which to defend his guru.

His name by the way, was Vajrapani, or in English, Thunderbolt-Hand.

Image result for vajrapani gandhara



I write this – after a long absence that has no doubt seen my paltry writing skills atrophy rather than improve – having enjoyed an interesting discussion yesterday, the kind that represents the best of Classics twitter. I want to expand upon some of the short comments I earlier because I worry I came off as a bit short and terse and wish to explain myself a bit better. Besides, we rarely get to discuss such things from a British perspective (for a discussion of American treatments, click here).

Here is the initial tweet, since the original post is well worth reading – as are the discussions on Aramaic and Akkadian with attendant bibliographies.

My response essentially came down to a) the vision being improbable if not impossible and; b) some aspects of it unwittingly carrying the potential to offend. You’ll hopefully note I don’t disagree with any of the assertions being made, I’d quite like all of them to come true. I just don’t think any of them likely. 

I think the improbability comes down simply to the fact that universities are increasingly failing to properly teach Latin and Greek. We take it, bizarrely, as read that we’re increasingly less able than our 19th and 20th century predecessors (hence the above reference to ‘19th C philology’). This isn’t just a hackneyed trope, some traditional veneratio offered to our predecessors as a way to abase ourselves with false humility whilst simultaneously claiming our place in the great academic chain of being that descends from Zenotodus and Aristarchus to Wolf, Wilamowitz, and West. It’s a sad, discomforting, fact.

Sad because there’s truly never been a better time to learn Latin or Greek. Previous generations started earlier, had more time, but we eclipse them in efficiency by orders of magnitude. Students have a phalanx of textbooks to choose from, computer generated word lists, easy access to texts, readers, and even audiotools. We should, in fact, be making our predecessors look like gentlemen dilettantes with regards to their technical skills if not their insights.

One of the original points was that…”the world needs more specialised departments based on our Classical model”. Does it? What can we truly offer, say, Sanskrit scholars? I’m choosing Sanskrit because it’s the ancillary language I know best and because it has an incredible tradition behind it (of which most Classicists are sadly completely ignorant).

Indologists may avail themselves of at least one functional tradition akin to our philology, vyakarana (something like grammar) as well as several theoretical frameworks for assessing texts (I think the most famous in the west is probably mimasa). The study of the language has been not just rejuvenated but elevated by contact with western philology. After all, it was Saussure and his laryngeals which rendered Sanskrit’s intense verbal system fully understandable, British explorers and orientalists who kick-started epigraphy and paleography while fleshing out more fully the filitation between Sanskrit and early Indian vernaculars (the so called prakrits).

This is, notably, well in the past.

Indologists, on one hand, may read their texts with the aid of utterly brilliant Sanskrit commentaries. Meanwhile in 2018 it’s possible to graduate with a Classics degree not having fully read Virgil or Homer, let alone become acquainted with Servius or Eustathius.

I suspect Classics departments no longer have the intellectual, perhaps even moral, substance to offer anybody any sort of example on how to do anything. Ironically, it was those 19th century philologists and not modern comparative literature departments which furnished the inspiration for those studying Indic or Semitic (Sino-Tibetan, Finno-Urgic, Kartvelian etc etc) philology. What can we offer other scholars? Perhaps the ability to point out when someone is dead, white, and male? To turn ‘patriarchy’ from a sociological descriptor to something akin to a taboo word?

This is what I mean by potentially offensive. The days are gone when the Classicist could casually expound the rules and sound changes of Germanic philology more adroitly than the English DPhil, for example.

Another point considered widening the temporal horizon of the discipline until the fall of the Roman Empire in 1453. In some sense, Classics has already traditionally done this. After all, textual criticism by its very nature involves delving into the work of Carolingian monks, the intellectuals of the Byzantine renaissances (under the Macedonians and Palaeologi) and the Italian humanists.

I would love for this to happen to some degree, but again the basis for this has to be a sound grasp of the languages. Lorenzo Valla’s study of the false Donatio Constantini is one of the highpoints of our subject, but like all humanists his Latin can be difficult. The Greek of Laonikos Chalkokondyles is entertaining and electrifying but not for the faint of heart anymore than his subject matter.

As an aside there’s recently been a very interested guest post on Sententiae Antiquae on the merits of including post classical Latin as part of our curricula, which I link here. Unfortunately I can’t think of any similar post on reading post second sophistic Greek to link.

Can we ever engender a return to philology? On one hand I recall the resurgence of philologia propria in China after the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Under the Ming dynasty, critique and interpretation of texts and history had become dogmatically Neo-Confucian. Subsequently, disenchanted scholars found themselves eventually turning to more traditional methods in order to actually try and comprehend the past. Who knows? Maybe McKenna is right to be optimistic. I don’t think so. Out of the academy, none of my colleagues with similar backgrounds also working in black-letter professions (commercial law, finance, and I guess we should include the bloody consultants) seem to think so either. Nor do our bosses who have long since dampened their enthusiasm for hiring people with Classics degrees. Ah well.

The original post ended with an emphatic assertion that “there must be brilliant stuff out there” and I absolutely agree. In fact I’m going to end this blog post by recommending something, the Heike Monogatori. This epic, based on the struggle for dominance between two 12th century Japanese clans, has a strong claim for the best opening lines in world literature. Moreover, its compositional history make it a must read for any Classicist. It is, I hope you’ll agree, brilliant stuff. 

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. — Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation

Recommended reading

In an ideal world, I’d go back and re-work the above post, citing and commenting upon the below articles and books in order to strengthen points and provide more entertaining reading. Please accept my apologies and this slightly annotated bibliography instead.

Much the best scholar writing on this questions is Sanskrit Professor Sheldon Pollock. His 2014 article ‘Future Philology’ has been incredibly influential and his shorter 2015 article ‘Liberating Philology’ is at once precis and expansion. For a broader, more multicultural, understanding of what’s at stake see the 2015 edited volume World Philology.

For the Byzantine Renaissances see Cyril Mango’s own contributed to the 2002 edited volume The Oxford History of Byzantium.

For an introduction on the (potential) similarities between Japanese and Greek epic see Naoko Yamagata’s article in Greece & Rome Vol. 40, No. 1 (Apr., 1993). I myself am partial to the Tyler and Watson translation. 

I have made at least two cack-handed allusions herein. I have cheekily titled this post after Wilamowitz’s famous tirade, an English translation of which may be found here. Secondly, I alluded to Said’s article “Return to Philology” which can be found here.

Short Note: Classics and Languages

For the first time in weeks I’ve found the time to do a little writing. I’m in the midst of writing a series of posts on Classics and the East and so naturally this means I need to check Twitter, where I came across an interesting conversation on an article by Paul Lay. The article may be found here. It concerns the lamentable poverty of our language learning here in the UK and the affect that this has on history as a discipline.

Do languages help the would be historian? The answer should be a resounding ‘yes’ but I’m having a little trouble seeing that they do. Even as my fingers hit the keys, I know that to be a heretical statement but I can’t help but feel its one leaden with reality. There is a far cry between the prescriptive and descriptive reality of that statement!

My take on this is slightly tongue in cheek, completely ensconced with Classics as a discipline (hence the ancient focus), and a little bit of this:


On one hand, of course languages ought to be a serious boon to any would be historian. From a research perspective they magnify what you’re able to access. I really could not imagine studying Homer without German or French. That’s not to say the English material isn’t absolutely wonderful but German, for example, has opened up a wealth of technical resources (such as the LfgrE) and differing point of views (I quite like the stronger neo-analytical tint to German scholarship. Sshh! don’t tell anyone!).

There’s also the human element to additional languages. Since graduating, some of the more memorable classical conversations I’ve had have been in Greek (Spartan law and culture) and French (the formation of the aorist). Think back to the second world war and the refugee scholars flocking to the UK from Germany. How much poorer scholarship would be without that commingling of different linguistic traditions. (Incidentally, these scholars are the subject of a wonderful edited volume).

In any historical discipline, it’s important to be aware of one’s biases and social conditioning and being able to draw on resources in other languages helps with that. (Note: there are caveats, we’re not discussing these here though).

What about primary sources? Familiar ground for those defending language as part of historical study. After all how can you study a period if you don’t at least know its language? Interpretation of a foreign culture is hard enough as it is, why add another layer of imperceptibility between you and your sources?

Classicists, however, shudder at the simple primary/secondary dichotomy (I’ll leave to what degree we might call Cassius Dio or Aurelius Victor, for example, primary sources to some Historical Crocodile) and even the idea of an ‘original’ text can cause consternation. Reading ‘original’ texts is tied up with specialist directors, grammars, classes on palaeography and editorial technique.

I’m going to, in a move that would infuriate textual critics, quote West quoting Fraenkel who was writing an introduction to Leo to illustrate this:

West comment for blog

As West surmises ‘textual criticism is not the be-all and end-all of classical scholarship….But it is an indefensible part of it’. When we pour through manuscripts and try to find out whether someone wrote δε or τε, or which line is an interpolation, or whether the o in subito keeps its natural length in this instance what we’re really asking is “what did x really write?” which is actually a separate issue altogether from “what did x want his audience to hear” and “how was this received?”.

Readers, all three of them, will have noticed that nothing I’ve said so far supports the idea that languages aren’t important to Classicists. If anything, all I’ve done is give some mean preview to just how important languages are to the discipline. After all Classics is essentially Classical Philology which by its very nature is focused on language and its usage. Epigraphy, palaeography, textual emendation etc, all these stem from the same vital skills which begin when learning how to conjugate amare. If anything, language is much more important to us than other disciplines.

Well, whip out your handbooks of classical rhetoric if you can’t see what’s coming. I did say there is a difference between the reality of the statement ‘language is important to history’ and its actual, pragmatic, reality.


What if you wish to become an historian? (in this case pro historian lege classicist) how useful are languages then? There’s a social dictum against speaking like this about academe, at least amongst the middle classes: Academic jobs are meant to be seen as callings, not subject to the same criteria as others. On the other hand, I’m a working class lad and work in a brusque no nonsense sector. I’m hardly above such questions.

Moreover, ‘historian’ is more or less an academic position nowadays unless you possess a near wondrous mix of skill and luck. Seriously, find a friend in publishing and ask them about the Nielsen ratings for the vast majority of history books….ouch….

Simply reviewing the products of the last handful of generations of scholars shows a serious reduction in the breadth of languages engaged with. Hebrew was the first casualty as the bible has lost its previous vaunted position amongst us. One would think that languages of areal importance (e.g Akkadian, Aramaic etc) or genetic affiliation (Sanskrit stands out) wield some impact in the Classics but…not really. Sure, there was a brief flourishing of interest but nowadays outside of UCLA or, to some degree Harvard, Classicists have moved away from Indo-European studies.

This isn’t all bad, a lot of comparative work was pretty outrageously general and tepid in its applicability. The focus of the Classics department must absolutely remain on Greek and Latin. We’re not a world philology department. Such a goal is unattainable and undesirable (though you should watch this regardless).

We’re long past the days of Classicists glibly commenting on the Mahabharata or how thinly drawn characters are in Akkadian literature. That’s a good thing. But we’ve lost the ability to use these comparanda to better understand the context of what we study. One would hope that this reduction in scope would bring with it a renewed, tighter, focus on Greek and Latin but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

If you look at recent monographs, articles, or theses recently submitted or in progress, work requiring a broad variety of ancient languages is out. Work requiring detailed mastery of Latin and Greek is also, by and large, out. You’re much better off focusing on something with ‘reception’, ‘environment’ or ‘feminist’ in the title. A ‘plea for polyglots’? That hardly seems to be the case. The trend has been a steady reduction in philological rigour towards more theoretical projects.

Whether this trend is something good or ill I leave to you to decide, I’m not willing to comment. Perhaps its too early to tell. By some ironic twist of fate it’s the more linguistically dexterous Classicists I know who ended up outside the academy. It’s an intellectually fulfilling past time and helps one engage with the ancient world. It’s just not very likely to help you become an historian…


On Haccents in the Roman World

…sit quaedam certa uox Romani generis urbisque propria…

…there is a certain voice (=accent) peculiar to the Roman people and city…

Cicero, De Oratore 3.44

What can we say about accents in the Roman world? We know, can see around us, that eventually Latin would diversify into the modern Romance languages. Are we then to imagine senators from Gaul twirling their moustachios and swapping out hon hon hon for Plautus’ hae hae hae? What about the inevitable interference from languages elsewhere in the Empire (Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Etruscan etc etc etc)?

You can throw a pin at the Roman map and find something interesting to talk about linguistics wise. Even within Rome itself social stratification would have rendered a few different accents, the same as any city at any time. This is an interesting topic (both in terms of subject matter and in trying to avoid being too technical) and I think it might be one I return to again and again.

We need to heavily narrow the terms of our enquiry and so I’d like to posit we examine aspiration as a loose nexus. In doing so, we can look at the phenomenon within Latin and as affected by non-native speakers. Aspiration seldom occurs alone and so, naturally, we’re going to look a little at aspirated consonants and a few vowels via both literary and inscriptional evidence and attitudes towards this linguistic diversity. This is hardly an essay, but a hodgepodge of connected musings.

Let’s select a passage from Catullus to get us started:

Chommoda dicebat, si quando commoda vellet

dicere, et insidias Arrius hinsidias,

et tum mirifice sperabat se esse locutum,

cum quantum poterat dixerat hinsidias.

credo, sic mater, sic liber avunculus eius.

sic maternus auus dixerat atque avia.

Hadvantages, Arrius would say whenever he meant to say

advantages. Ambushes, too, [he called] hambushes.

Then he was hoping he had spoken wonderfully

when he said hambushes as much as he could

Thus I believe his mother spoke, his free uncle

his maternal grandfather and grandmother.

Catullus 84 1-6

Even without its famous punchline, the humour of the poem is the product of more than slapstick over poor pronunciation (but seriously go read it). The use of imperfect tense suggest a repetitive action, deliberately taken over and over. In colloquial English we might say that Arrius is ‘putting it on’ and are meant to laugh at this parvenu incapable of aspirating correctly.

But what’s the linguistic implication? Either (as seems most likely) Arrius is a native speaker of a Latin dialect which has lost the /h/ sound or he’s a second language speaker unable to replicate the Roman sound. I must say, the latter was my initial reaction. After all, why else the reference to his family speaking the same way? The reference to a ‘free uncle’ clearly is meant to contrast with former slave status. Certain textual critics have even tried (untenable) to correct liber into a non-Roman name. It’s easy to imagine Catullus’ disgust at the product of the recently free making his way around high society and failing to blend in due to his poor speech.

Against that, however, is the fact that this Arrius (Harrius, surely? … sorry) is most likely the Q. Arrius we know from elsewhere, famed for his ostentatious failed bid at the consulship. Under Sulla various ex-slaves did well (cf. Chrysogonus) but it would have been unthinkable to aim for the consulship.

Either way, it seems that his dialect( /interference from first language) gave him trouble with aspirating hence his over compensating. This is a process known in linguistics as hyper-correction (see the link below) and we can safely conclude that there were Latin dialects where the aspirate was inconsistently applied.

In the context of philology, processes such as hyper-correction and analogy are studied as matter of course, but in a sociolinguistic context we might say something about the attitude present. In other words, we’ve established that this variation exists – but why is Arrius so keen to falsify his mode of speech?

The answer, I think, is obvious. He’s trying to fit in with the other upper-class Romans and so needs something approaching Cicero’s vox Romana. Poor aspiration, however, seemed to be a particular signifier of poor speech as a fragment of the grammarian Nigidius Figulus, who was active around the same time, suggests: rusticus fit sermo, inquit, si adspires perperam (speech becomes rustic, he says, if you aspirate wrongly).

It’s notable there’s a kind of urban bias here. M. Clodius Pulcher the “patrician tribune”, famously affected a plebian pronunciation hence his name being Clodius and not, as would be proper, Claudius. Someone of his station could get away with this idiosyncrasy and, besides, he spoke with an accent of the city and not the hinterland. Conversely, in the Imperial period, both Hadrian and Septimius Severus (Hispania and Africa respectively) could be castigated for their speech despite belonging to the upper echelons of society. They were, after all, provincials.

Biases regarding pronunciation are rational in so much as we are able to discern that reasons exist (e.g urban vs rural) but they rarely are logical or reasonable. I want to illustrate this with a brief interlude from Eddie Izzard, which also concerns aspiration.


Not to detract from Eddie Izzard’s joke, but our (British) pronunciation of /h/ here is in fact an ‘error’. The Americans have it right in so much as the traditional English pronunciation should eschew h in the same way we do for honour or when (ostensibly, I don’t personally) pronouncing the name of the letter itself. Yet somehow Izzard’s pronunciation would be seen as more high status. Attitudes trump reality.

The case in Latin is similar. In many cases consistent aspiration amongst even the learned classes was a fairly recent phenomenon. Ennius had pulcer not pulcher, triumphus was originally triumpus (of Greek origin, via Etruscan) and so on. Actually, philology can triangulate interferences between these three languages (Greek, Etruscan, Latin) to note that there is a shift from Greek to Etruscan that involves devoicing (b > p, g > k etc) and therefore conclude that since the Etruscan ear was less sensitive to voiced consonants, they would have likewise struggled with these in Latin.

H seems more or less always to have been weakening in Latin (although even by St. Augustine’s time people are still insisting on it). Many of the word initial h’s had a fuller sound in the parent language: homo, man, was  *ǵʰmṓ in PIE, reduced to *hemo in proto-Italic (nemo, nobody, < *nehemo, it was commonly lost between letters) and of course the modern romance languages have continued this trend and reduced h further: omo (Italian), homme (French, etymological h), hombre (Spanish, etymological h) etc.

Even Cicero (Orator 160) can’t be consistent and ends up following popular usage. Learned speech likewise permits stray h’s via hypercorrection: humidus was properly umidus for example, but anyone pronouncing it was such would have been labelled by men like Nigidius Figulus as a bumpkin.

Poor Arrius! Who can keep up?!

We could go on piece by piece focusing on different sounds in different Latin accents, but let’s keep with the h theme, only this time we’ll look briefly at a foreign accent – that of Greek. Unsurprising, Greek gives us our greatest amount of evidence for second language interference in Latin both in textual and inscriptional terms. Admittedly, most discussions of foreign interference tend to focus on either a) lexical borrowing or b) morpho-syntactical peculiarities (properly termed solecisms) e.g incorrect case usage. That’s just the nature of the evidence, but it is possible to talk a little about accent.

This inscription, or graffito rather, from Pompeii is a good jump off point. I’m…eh…not going to translate it for obvious reasons given what it says:

Tiopilus, canis,

cunnu lingere no-

li puellis in muro

CIL IV 8898

Tiopilus here stands for the Greek name Theophilos; the differences in rendering here are elucidating and we can take them section by section. Given this post’s focus on aspiration, I’m sure we can all see why this was chosen.

Aspiration in ancient Greek wasn’t like its modern counterpart, where θ is pronounced the same as English th. In fact, though I don’t have the figures to hand, this is a rare phoneme hence when jokes are made about German accents in English the definite article is always rendered ‘ze’. Originally, φ, χ and θ were simply aspirated stops: imagine a subtle expulsion of breath after each consonant. Later, these became the fricatives we all know and love. This is why the Romans spelt philosophy philosophia and not *filosofia despite widely employing f: because the Greek sound was different.

So, we can conclude that this is an area where a Greek speaker might have trouble. In fact Quintilian tells us of a case where a Greek witness was unable to pronounce the name Fundianus and came out with Hundianus. This makes sense, f was missing from Greek’s phonemic inventory and his native accent would have permitted poor speakers to utter either *Pundianus or *Hundianus.

The other letters are equally interesting even if not really germane to our h theme. What in Latin script has been rendered as ‘i’ are actually two difference sounds in the Greek (ε and ι). How big a difference existed between these letters in Latin? Learned speech kept them distinct, but even so we know of many instances of ‘e’ standing in for ‘i’ (the historian Livy’s accent would have merged these sounds), the distinction must have been difficult for Greeks.

As for os vs -us for endings well this is a typical equivalent. Even now, everyone knows Latin names end in us and Greek in os e.g Constantinus to Κωνσταντῖνος but this confusion isn’t always learned and occurs elsewhere e.g in the so called Colloquia, remnants of bilingual texts for teaching Latin or Greek, secunda is rendered as σεκονδα or even σεκοντα (ντ for δ is a whole different kettle of fish).

Even in Latin, the distinction wasn’t always obvious. Yes, we all know the myriad ways in which U > O became in Romance but one even comes across inscriptions with spellings like apud loco. Loco? I hear you ask, how can this be? Is this evidence for the later collapse of the case system in Latin?

Well, yes, but more importantly it’s evidence for the phonological underpinnings of these changes. Apud takes the accusative and therefore one would expect apud locum. Interestingly final m is often left off in more casual inscriptions (as in the 2nd line of the inscription above) because m was nasalised. Because the remaining sound wasn’t quite either a u or an o (try it out for yourself) it made sense for less learned writers to shift the spelling this way. This isn’t an error in case usage but an accurate rendering of spoken habit.

Given this propensity to change this vowel sound depending on what follows by native speakers, It’s easy to imagine Greeks not necessarily accurately mapping their u’s and o’s to their Latin equivalents either. After all, subtleties like this are the most common stumbling blocks in language acquisition.

In fact, we can go further. Modern Greek pronunciations of Latin retains some elements of the accents Romans would have heard. Emphasis on some, Greek has experienced its own significant changes, as we’ve had cause to note above. Vowel quantity has been lost, but there is still a sense of breadth to remaining vowels and, yes, including confusion in articulating ‘e’ vs ‘i’ in speech. Most Greek dialects (Cypriot a sometime exception) no longer distinguish between geminated and singular consonants (e.g ss vs s) and we know that Roman writers from the Imperial period commented on this. Ok, two examples are not a lot, it’s easy to overstate the case, but you must admit it’s cool to realise that you can hear something close to what the Romans did just by observing a Latin lesson in Greece.

Can we offer a quick conclusion? We haven’t, obviously, come anywhere near the point in this post where we could posit the full Greek accent of Latin (by what speakers? At which period? etc) or gone into great depth about regional Latin pronunciation (same questions) but I hope I’ve given a reasonably satisfying glimpse of what’s out there. So, when thinking about the Latin heard in Roman streets perhaps now you’ll contrast the ‘correct’ pronunciation we’re taught in school with the unaspirating rustic hawking his fish or the smooth consonant-broad vowelled Greek visitor. Perhaps something for us to come back to.

Further Reading


Any introduction will do but I enjoyed:

Wardhaugh, R (2009) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford

Perhaps the best way into seeing these applied to the ancient world are:

McDonald, K (2015) Oscan in Southern Italy. Cambridge. Especially chapter 2

Latin specifically

Literally anything by J Adams, even his grocery list will probably teach you some hitherto unknown fact about the accentuation of the plu perfect passive by Sarmatian horsemen stationed in Eboracum but my thinking on this subject is specifically indebted to:

Adams, J. N (2007) The Regional Diversification of Latin. Cambridge

Linguistic terms

http://www.odlt.org/ this is a place holder until I find better, specific, links. Until then just ask or consult the brilliant Oxford Linguistics Dictionary.

Ancient Texts

Quintilian and Cicero (especially De Oratore, Orator, Brutus) are brilliant first stops for thinking about how language was used and consequently thought about in the Roman world, besides them there is:

Keil, G (1855-80) Grammatici Latin. Leipzig (8 volumes) = once an absolute obsession of mine, brilliant collection but if you’re new to this start here:

Lord, F. E (1894) The Roman Pronunciation of Latin. Boston, MA. Yes, it’s old and methodologically out of date etc etc κτλ κτλ but the point is, it’s an easy to read collation of sources. Remember! nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset!


Which Leftist Killed Homer and Stole Sappho?

I recently came across two intriguing posts within the space of a few hours. One on Eidolon by Eric Adler on classicism and the classics, and another by Edith Hall in response to a recent publication. Hence the title – an arguably shoddy attempt at stitching these issues together. In the former, Adler brings up an infamous book published way back in the 90’s called Who Killed Homer and the question of whether that book is worth anything has caused a bit of a flurry on twitter.

Note the use of past tenses rather than present continuous. I’d originally meant to write this blog post when I first saw the posts in question but I’ve been slow off the mark. I’m sure the time where this would be read has passed but never mind. You see, that’s the great irony of the Classics: We study texts produced thousands of years ago but a blog post a week ago or a book from a few decades past? With the obvious exception of classic treatises, old news – hence way back in the 90’s…

I’d like to take a second and think about the infamous Who Killed Homer? and some of its political accouterments. I’m not particularly interested in discussions about the ‘fall’ of the discipline – as Mary Beard says every generation has thought that to be the case since the 2nd century A.D – but whether or not I can rehabilitate my view of the book a tiny bit.

So, what about Who Killed Homer? (WKH?). In (at least) two real senses I’ve no way of evaluating this book: It’s an American book in an American context, written back when I was a child, but I think the arguments it makes are, rightly or wrongly, still being made and its an interesting snap shot of times past. Second, I’ve no intention of going through my storage boxes and re-reading it. In an ideal world I’d carefully re-read the book and all the pertinent reviews and chase up some of the more interesting bibliography and so on. In present circumstances, that means I’ll never get around to writing anything on it. Sorry, but don’t worry, I think I have an excellent memory (or is it terrible? I forget).

I recall that when I first encountered the book I was singularly unimpressed. It made a few claims that either rang untrue or plain silly. Claims which even now stick out in my memory. For example, one of the central themes is that teachers themselves are too unlike the Greeks for their subject to be truly successful. Another section attacks Menander and Polybius (and, I think, Callimachus), another derides British philologists as ‘butlers’, another makes the impossible claim about someone (Eugene Vanderpool?) speaking better (modern) Greek than the (modern) Greeks – an impossibility that basically showcases the odd way in which modern Greek is treated in the Classics (and I’ll post on that later).

Despite all that, even though I still massively disagree with the book and side firmly with e.g Peter Green’s Arion review, I think my attitude to the book has softened slightly. At least in one or two areas.

Back then, I wondered how anybody could recommend we read Virgil, Livy, Euripides or whatever and yet denigrate Menander, Polybius, Apollonius and Callimachus. How can anyone possibly understand Virgil without his Hellenistic predecessors? Or Roman historiographical practice without recourse to Polybius? I felt the authors were fetishising the classics, simplifying them, transforming the variegated complexity of the classical world into little cultural badges.

But what I failed to grasp back then was how different the American context is. Over there modules on Greek and Latin have to fight against a dozen different credit options. I hated, hated, most of the archaeology I had to take…but I had to take it, there was no option to throw it in for intermediate Biology or whatever. I guess in a context like the book describes it might be somewhat fair to emphasise Virgil and Homer. I don’t agree with it, I understand it a little better.

Elsewhere, the claims of politicisation of education also rang hollow. Now, it could be my being on the left had inoculated me towards noticing the obvious. It could be that leftist political culture ran rampant in the 90’s and I obviously wouldn’t have known. It’s possible…but unlikely. So that was another strike against the book.

Except that now with all the debate about pronouns, appropriation, trigger warnings and so on it seems that the book might have been a bit right all along. There is a definite tendency to assume that conservatives misappropriate, distort and abuse whereas what we do is just scholarship. Plain, unmarked, scholarship. Yet under the shade of objectivity all sorts of biases flicker. Look at this tweet for example:

Yes, what the TLS is advocating for here are political positions and in the world of modern classical studies things are hardly different. Studies on the ancient world and, say, diversity, multiculturalism, gender representation and identity are similarly political. Think about it. A careful study of the languages of ancient Italy or social distinctions within a single language is quite different from trying to fit the ancient world into a distinctly modern political framework, though both talk in some way about the multiplicity of cultures. I recently read an interesting article on the discovery of a new Mycenaean tomb . It was fascinating, but cue odd comments about the origins of European culture and something about Donald Trump. What?

That’s not to say these are always failed heuristic models. Take De Ste Croix’s study of class in archaic Greece. This work clearly depends on modern, Marxist historiography but its not less useful for that The point is be honest. Like the tweeter above, people notice and when you simultaneously call for a discipline to be more feminist, intersectional or to include more social justice while decrying the conservative equivalent? People notice that as well. It’s hypocritical and self defeating to only call out the opposite side, I dare say it’s partly what leads to books like WKH? in the first place.

There’s a little book written contra WKH? that I don’t recall ever seeing mentioned. It’s called Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives by Page duBois. duBois is a good classicist, I heartily recommend her book on polytheism, and I wanted to like this book too but its emblematic of commingling the scholarly with the political in the way I’m talking about.

The book starts strongly; duBois outlines the way in which Greek culture is simplified and appropriated by conservative writers and attempts to show the actual complexity of the ancient world. It’s erudite and much more contemporary on topics such as sex, labour differentiation, slavery and a welter of issues. But look at the discussion of Afrocentrism, where DuBois spends more time calling out writers like Lefkowitz for her apparent racism in debunking Afrocentrists than highlighting that the Afrocentrists are, in fact, grossly wrong.

What DuBois gets wrong is that it was never the job of people like Lefkowitz to do anything but point out the truth (Sokrates wasn’t black, philosophy was not ‘stolen’ from Egypt etc). The particularly nasty treatments African Americans have traditionally received from mainstream American society of yore is, frankly, shamefaced and reprehensible but the Classics aren’t some form of grievance counselling. In acting this way, she’s doing the same thing she rightfully castigates conservatives for. If people are really interested in Ancient Egypt point them towards Allen’s Middle Egyptian! If you want to be a cheeky salesman for your subject maybe given them a Greek textbook and Manetho…

In their heyday the cultures of antiquity were mighty coursing rivers. We’ve inherited error riddled MSS, rotten papyri, ostraka etc… a muddy stream in other words. We can’t afford to obfuscate things further.

Back to WKH? I think my most interesting response to the book has concerned neither politics nor its epistemological framework, but its aesthetic claims. See, the authors make two claims in particular. The first, which I’m going to rapidly dismiss, is that Classicists have to be like Greeks. First, what? Why Greeks and not Romans? Which Greeks? In what way? (again, see duBois’ book for this kind of deconstruction, or better yet Mary Beard’s, in the further reading section). That’s a ludicrous assertion. Classicists don’t have to be like anything, it’s an area of study like anything else – You don’t see people calling for Zoologists to be more like cows.

The other is that the Classics are in some objective sense superior. This is a value/political judgement as much as anything else and one I’m also wary of. In part because I know there’s so much stuff out there in so many languages that’s so good – Gilgamesh is amazing in Akkadian, I love Sanskrit love poetry, even in translation the African oral poetry collected by Finnegan is wonderful, so how can you make such a stark statement? – and also because I don’t place much value in aesthetic statements in and of themselves. It doesn’t matter how many languages I study or how much I read, I’ll never scratch the surface of human creativity, my aesthetic opinion is basically groundless.

Which leads us to the recent review by Edith Hall of a book called The Lesbian Lyre I can’t claim to have fully read Duban’s book – it’s bloody huge – but the central idea is that Sappho has been misrepresented by popular culture. Hence the second part of this post’s title. There is a link between Duban’s new book and WKH? in that both may be called conservative and said to have been written in reaction against broader, more liberal, trends. Indeed, Victor David Hanson even supplies one of the praise quotes.

Hall makes the point that Duban is unashamed to state how much he really, really, values Sappho. There’s no apologetics, words like problematic being thrown around or anything like that at all, instead we find words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘sublime’. Conversely, I think the only time I’ve ever used the word ‘sublime’ was in translating Longinus, so am I one of those leftists Hall is talking about? Can I appreciate literature?

Obviously! I’ve even given a few hints of the stuff I like above. I just don’t think we need some sort of… aesthetic preaching, I have this vague feeling that such things will easily devolve into the same kind of political/advocacy statements we’ve discussed above rather than produce serviceable scholarship. (It’s also just not as interesting)

So, if I disagree with Professor Hall about that (and I do) and I also disagree with the claims of WKH? why study Greco-Roman antiquity? I mean that’s the question at the end of the day, right? It’s an eternal, clichéd question but I’d like to think we can justify the subject without over the top claims about direct links to antiquity or an innate brilliance not found elsewhere. There’s no space to get into that here.

As for Who Killed Homer? I’m glad the recent spate of blog/twitter activity gave me the opportunity to reconsider it and I’ve come to think of the book as a bit of a warning for the future. I only wish I could have written something a bit better, sooner, and fuller, in response.

Further Reading

Hanson, V. and Heath, J. (1998). Who killed Homer? New York.

Hanson, V., Heath, J. and Thornton, B. (2001). Bonfire of the humanities. USA

DuBois, P. (2001). Trojan horses. New York

Duban, J. (2016). The Lesbian Lyre. New York

For the attendant American (political) context see:

González García, F. and López Barja de Quiroga, P. (2012). “Neocon Greece: V. D. Hanson’s War on History” in  International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 19(3), pp.129-151.

For a British perspective see:

Beard, M. (2014). Confronting the Classics. London.

On the net:





Naturally, when Eric Adler’s new book is out that will be worth reading. It’s also been mentioned:


Given the political aspect of this post it’s only fair to give a shout out to Nick Clegg’s new book too.