Saturnalia Woes?

Usually late December, early January, would be the time where bloggers – back when blogs were still a thing – where bloggers take the time to set out a year in review and declaim some goals for the upcoming year sed anno voluto non satis feci. Ah well. Maybe I will give it a go before January ends. Instead, here a sequence of disjointed thoughts held together by the illusion of the paragraph system. Just as a shoal of fish can convince a predator that it is a mighty shark, so to can a hoard of sentences convince the reader they are dealing with paragraphs and logical coherence. Anyway.

My major aim this year was to hit a hit a target of one post per month, ideally on a classical theme. When that became untenable, I told myself that (temporary) omissions would be allowed, only to be made up later e.g it would be perfectly fine to skip a post in February should I write two in March. That too swiftly proved to be unworkable and my drafts folder has grown fat with everything from bullet pointed ideas, half begun (hardly well done) drafts, completed but unformatted pieces, and so on.[1] Ultimately only me, myself, and I are to blame. Reader, I failed. However, I think certain trends and circumstances over the past year or so have compounded my natural laziness.

Corona virus! This is an unexpected one. COVID-19 drove everyone online (arguably we are now too online, we have all become some unholy mix of boomers and zoomers)[2] and this combined with the increase in free time – whether from furlough or a dearth of commuting – should have birthed the perfect environment for posting. I can not but help think of some lines of Juvenal’s which seem apposite.

anxietate carens animus facit, omnis acerbi

inpatiens, cupidus siluarum aptusque bibendis

fontibus Aonidum. neque enim cantare sub antro

Pierio thyrsumque potest contingere maesta

paupertas atque aeris inops, quo nocte dieque

corpus eget: satur est cum dicit Horatius ‘euhoe.’

a soul lacking anxiety, unfeeling of all bitterness,

makes him: he longs to, and is fit to, drink from

the Heliconian spring. For sad poverty can neither sing

beneath the Pierian cave nor touch the thyrsus,

it is poor in the means which the body needs, night and day:

Horace was well sated when he said “euhoe!”.

Juvenal 7.57 – 62

I love these lines. In fact, for all its textual troubles I love the entire poem. But these lines I love especially. The mixture of learned vocabulary, poetic imagery, wordplay (satur est, well done!)[3] and message combine to great effect. Generations of readers have, rightly, homed in on the central message: creative work is unlikely to happen when the author lacks basic subsistence.[4] True enough, and one our own feckless arts funding councils might want to consider in future (more on free school meals and libraries, less po-mo nonsense that only serves money-laundering and/or “elites” sniffing their own effluence). However, I want to focus on the idea that a poet can be made only by an animus anxietate carens. If I was a good classicist, and had access to such things, I might try and hit up the TLL, some commentaries and secondary literature, etc to see the philosophical connotations of anxietas and how it relates to Ciceronian and Lucretian ideas such as securitas and its transformation under the empire.[5] But I have no access to such things and if I wanted philosophy in my satire I would read Persius.

“Mutta Krokotiili-herra! Are you saying you have not posted because corona made you anxious!?” Truth, no. I think that would be a reasonable excuse for any sort of cessation, but I myself have not been made particularly anxious. I do not think I am at risk or that, at any time throughout the pandemic, I have been at risk. But the world around me is so laden cum anxietate. Everywhere you see (parts of) sullen faces, down-cast eyes, furtive expressions. This has naturally translated to, perhaps been echoed and increased by, the online spheres in which we, dear reader, move. Everything has seemed grey and foreboding and nobody seems very engaged. It has all felt a little pointless.[6]

Maybe that’s a big stretch to get that Juvenal quote in there. Maybe I should have just used the vulgate: non in solo pane vivat homo (“man doth not live by bread only”).[7] Maybe this is just a poor excuse, I don’t know. To be fair, these are not the only reasons for my inarticulacy. Work has been rather insane, and I have been nursing a fair few injuries (physio is mind numbingly boring). What little free time I have had I have sought to spend in reading (Libanius, Julian, Ausonius, if you’re interested).[8]

Not the only reason, but a big one. I am also increasingly sceptical of the idea that the internet, #ClassicsTwitter, or whatever, can serve as a conductor for a rude and healthy discussion of the Greeks and Romans. Why do I still hold out on this? At heart I am an idealist and can still remember the lean teenaged times when a book (!!) was a precious thing and scholars were far off (I had never met a single person with a degree, let alone a doctorate) and high minded. My time in university had dented, but not destroyed, this idea but I do not see how it can weather twitter. “Scholars”, such as they are, are cliquey and cattish (apologies to any cats reading this) and evince no real interest in our texts. Everything, anything, can and must be sublimated to The Discourse ™. It is tiresome not just because it is boring but because normal minded people must get involved now and then, if only to make us look a little less insane as a discipline.[9] Is this our discipline still? With the focus removed from skills and contexts and placed firmer and more firmly on job titles, I am unsure. etiam si soror mea Graece nescit, ego quoque…sed professor sum sedem universitate tenens seems to be the rule of the day. Ahw ell.

There you have it friends. Thank you for the kind words and wonderings after my health, I have been around and I have been trying to tweet more these past few days. Hopefully that little lanx satura explains some of the reasons why I have been quieter than usual. Basically, I’m lazy.

But what next? Well there is a week and a half left of this year so I shan’t pretend that there will be another post ere we must give Veiovis his nanny goat – unless its another improvised piece like this. I intend that 2022 will finally be the year wherein I manage 12 posts in succession, and that it will be a year even fuller and more bountiful with memes both philological and classical. In short, I expect to do enough to warrant a “year in review” type post. To try and do my bit in dispelling rather than simply ignoring the cloud of malaise and inertia that is enveloping our little corner of the internet. But what about you? What classically themed things are you up to? What are you reading? Either way, I hope you and yours will have a lovely time this Christmastide. What else, after all, is there to do?

Sed quid agam potius madidis, Saturne, diebus,

quos tibi pro caelo filius ipse dedit?

Vis scribam Thebas Troiamve malasve Mycenas?

‘Lude,’ inquis, ‘nucibus’. Perdere nolo nuces.

But what else am I to do these sodden days, Saturn?

which your son himself gave you in return for the heavens?

Do you want me to write [blogs] of Thebes, Troy, or evil Mycenae?

“Play with nuts!” he says. But don’t want to lose mine!

Martial 14.1 9-12

[1] Not a single reader would deign to believe that I proof-read and edit, fine, but surely the quality of the memes proves I at least format? Cast your eyes back to some of the glorious photo-shoppery.

[2] What would Hesiod have made of boomers? “they have hands like shovels and eyes like lamps for the seeking and scooping of wealth; the world is there’s but no dish sates them like the flesh of their children and grand-children: a cursed race whom cloud-gathering Zeus would slay, too late, too late”. Fuck boomers.

[3] qui non edistis, saturi non fite fabulis! In your face Plautus you fatfooted jongleur bitch. P.s I love you. 

[4] There is a very strong grex verborum here to this effect: paupertas, corpus eget, aeris (aes is oft used metonymically for anything purchasable by base currency) and the clever juxtaposition of being cupidus for the forests and whatnot rather than avaricious for material reward. A true poet.

[5] I doubt the 3rd century barracks emperors were reading Lucretius when they had securitas hammered into their, erm, asses but one never knows.

[6] T. Greer’s piece on the world that twitter made, which looks back a more genteel and engaged internet is a good read on this:

[7] Deuteronomy 8: 2-3. Yes, yes, I know. The bible in Latin? On this blog? I genuinely possess no copy of, nor do I know how to find freely online, the Septuaginta. 

[8] The books actually remain the same even if you’re not interested.

[9] I also harbour the suspicious that classical texts can have interesting things to say about the cotidiana providing we do not start by reading it into them. Insane, I know.

With friends like these…

Have you heard? In a PCP and coke fuelled rage,[1] ragamuffin, vagabond, and all round roisterer about YOUR town Gavin Williamson has broken into Battersea dogs’ home, killed all the puppies and then interrupted a WWII veteran’s funeral playing an instrument of his own design nomine ass-trumpet. This has been roundly condemned by the most accomplished, most virtuous, members of our society: Surgeons have stopped midway through Aortic Dissection Repairs, Conservationists from freeing trapped animals,[2] and Firemen stand in contrite silence against the roaring backdrop of a house ablaze. “No” they tell themselves, “No, we will not put out this fire only for Williamson to set a yet greater one”. Suntne lacrima rerum?

At least that is what you would think.

Instead, Williamson has managed to earmark a minor amount of money for a rather important aim:  getting a little bit more Latin into the country. The dismissive people I can understand. They are dysgenic, degenerate, and dysfunctional. They represent nothing we should wish to strive to be or cultivate. We can mark them as enemies and move on. Society needs such people. It is the so-called friends of the subject who are dangerous. The ones who have wormed their way into positions due to the impotent acquiescence of its so-called guardians, who now wear all of the subject’s trappings like some sort of skin suit, who constantly presume to speak for us when all they want is to speak at and not with we polloi.

“OH NO NOT THE HECKERINOO UNIVERSITIES!?!” is it not always the same refrain? “What about us! What about us!”. Even if we have reached (surpassed?) Tony “ethnically cleansing Iraq” Blair’s target of 50% students heading to universities,[3] how many end up in the Humanities? How many of those end up in Classics? Listen, by any reasonable metric Classics departments in universities are over, not under, funded. Yes, you heard that right. The amount of PhD studentships, early career fellowships, expensive EU, AHRC, etc etc funded research projects is unconscionable in light of the current rates of enrolment and all forecasted trends. Twitter has taught me that PhD’s are uniquely resistant to understanding market economics – I suppose they need that brain space for social striving – but looked at objectively, this is patently true. Depts. now graduate fewer people with markedly worse skills in Latin (let us not mention Greek!) annis volventibus but, hey, at least we have studies like The Eroticism of Foot-fetishes in Terence’s Andria and Noli me tangere: The Racial Politics of Hair in the Later Roman Empire.[4]

Classics depts. have singularly failed at their core functions, and we are sick of being treated like tax-serfs, forced to subsidise mediocrities. There are good scholars, geniuses really, somehow still teaching at the tertiary level. We must, however, cut out the canker, trim the fat, balance the pocketbook.  If this was not apparent before, it should be now (ἦτε γάρ ποτε σκότος, νῦν δὲ φῶς) when you see the serried ranks of those arrayed against what is really a tiny expenditure and a modest tincture, meant to give some glimmer of culture and opportunity to our least privileged. Who could honestly be against this? How much do you have to actively hate the poor?

Yes, why this disjunction? Part sheer cravenness (people desperate to get their share of an ever-shrinking pie) and part status anxiety. Teach enough people Latin, give them direct access to antiquity and suddenly they can see how feckless and useless most of the current batch of academics are. They were meant to serve as midwives and handmaidens of our classical patrimony – and it is our patrimony[5] – instead they have set themselves up as the worst kind of malignant, doddering, clerisy. Even a smattering of Latin, some time carved out with the Greco-Roman past, will expose them, and allow we unwashed masses to eschew their little narratives. Gone will be the dreaded cry of “historian/classicist/ancient historian here!”; gone, too, the attempts to copyright Galla Placidia’s birthday and bugmen “well aktschyyalallylylyl…” may be met per force with “well, in the text…”. It will be hard to justify not being able to read a page of Latin, unaided, until well into your PhD years when an increasing number of school children can do so with ease. Classics, incidentally, is the only discipline where we accept this. Students of French or Russian are not afforded the same privilege.

The special interest groups of course carry on unabated in the face of all this.[6] I mean are you really funding Classics if you’re not burning more money on the altar of whatever pseudo-intellectual cause du jour? The following is symptomatic:

I am not even 100% against this idea in principle,[7] however the correct response right now is really just “WTF?”. This, this is going to get bums in seats and kids interested? Not Miltiades and the lads charging down the Persians at Marathon, not the unlikely life and conquest of Alexander, nor Caesar weeping at things not yet done, but…this? No, it is not just the theoreticians, but even the real philologists are being stupidly obtuse. I also came across a tweet of some idiot lamenting that Latin is taught “without context” and we should make space for linking it to the broader PIE family (!!!) and teach the basics of linguistics. Elsewhere people are excitedly discussing the chance to utilise medieval and neo-Latin. This is…almost charming in how naïve it is. But now is not the time for charming.

Have…have you ever set foot in an underfunded working class school? I honestly do not know where to begin with these people. They are so out of touch as to the conditions on the ground (which I am told have worsened since I was a student – and we used to literary fight the teachers). Do you point out that personal research interests are no basis for a national curriculum? That underfunded and understaffed faculties, fighting for resources and scraping by on two or three periods a week, can barely cover the language as it is? Do you remind people that it is the ancients and not their valour stealing commentators who interest people? Where? Ah never mind. These people are convinced they can close the hermeneutic gap between themselves and the ancient Mediterranean but can’t even understand the situation affecting their poorer countrymen.[8]

baina Krokodilo Jauna what about politicisation? Ah yes, the same people who claim “everything is political” are the first to use “politicisation” as a derogatory term. Take the following:

Burnham is, of course, living proof that sortition is likelier superior to voting for choosing elected officials. Yet, even by the standards of the anti-Semitic Labour party this is some low rhetoric. Where are the Tory boys politicising this? Believe me I have tried to find them. Instead, there are seemingly endless Labour/LibDem/#FBPE people keen to turn tribal. Incidentally this trifling support of Latin comes as part of a wider package where foreign languages such as Mandarin are given a commensurately larger share of the pie. So much for Little Englander Tories vaunting Latin’s superiority! People reacting with this unseemly petulance really need to sit down and ask themselves a few questions. I will highlight two I find somewhat pressing.

To be fair you do kinda suspect a homophobe to hate the Greeks and Romans. Points for consistency.

For starters, if you unflinchingly associate Latin/Classics with the Conservatives – why? What does it mean that there are never any equivalent movements of support from successive left-wing governments, funding bodies, and think-tanks? This is not an idle question. If this is a one-sided political issue, why?

Secondly, why do you feel that giving into your tribalism, that flying your team colours (“eeww nasty party bad, we good!”) is more important than supporting one of the handful of teeny tiny opportunities for poorer students to gain some exposure to the ancient world? I am not here to critique your priorities – though for the record I absolutely do not share them, I obviously think the Classics more important than political tribalism – but you should at least own them and be transparent about them.  

Who can disagree with this?

I think it is time to start wrapping up. I can only say that as someone who came from a horrendously deprived background, I would have welcomed a similar initiative during my schooling. There were no such programmes, no emphasis on outreach, diversity, recruitment etc etc. The UK has come a long way. This programme will not change much, but if we are lucky it holds within it the seeds of a gradual transformation. If UK Classicists (stop looking towards the US!!) can come together, offer support and encouragement, do whatever to help make this a success then in future years we might create an environment where no child will think the treasures of the past beyond their reach.

How have the professional guardians of the discipline failed to remember this? I recently saw a tweet that said something like “discourse is only discourse if you let it be” and…they’re right. Even on this blog, it is easy to get weighed down with the sniping and the fighting and the defensiveness and lose sight of why so many of us got into Classics in the first place: not because we were unable to get into PPE or English, not because we saw a decrepit old field of which we could take advantage…but because it is fascinating, and enthralling, and challenging. It is time to get back to that joy, to eschew the niggling little telchines – νήιδες οἳ Μούσης οὐκ ποτέ ἐγένοντο φίλοι – and focus once more on the ancient world herself.

The study of antiquity is a demanding field, but there are few more rewarding and doubtless none more interesting. To those students about to commence on its study for the first time, I wish the absolute best. You will learn things that delight and shock you, you will discover why in the face of civilisational collapse, Viking raids, Arab piracy, religious persecution, revolution, and war monks, scholars, and scribblers fought to keep the light of learning burning. As for the naysayers, well…

[1] For the avoidance of doubt, do not mix these. I disavow.

[2] Not an ascending tricolon but much like Catullus 56 (pro telo rigida mea cecidi) it is the central element that counts.

[3] Don’t look away, coward. What exactly do you think Western governments were up to? “nation building”?

[4] Did you Google those? Fucking lol, your dad was right about you.

[5] Another unpopular opinion. I say that if something has been a fairly central preoccupation of your country’s intellectual climate for centuries, drawn a large share of the public purse in funding, and animates your culture….it is part of your intellectual inheritance.

[6] “group” is too ill defined. They are a group in so far as they share interests in the same topics being advanced. Why am I writing this note? Because some quasiliterate will always attack such comments as proof of an illogical belief in some shadowy cabal behind the scenes. There is no cabal, no conspiracy, mere cowardice, greed, and idiocy.

[7] Yes, hello, please, hello: can we decolonise European Classics’ depts. from this American garbage please?

[8] Congratulations you have found the secret footnote.

Passio Mariae Barbae

***So, some of you guys are clearly illiterate and seem to be thinking the take away is that you can be mean to transpeople/old women/whatever. No. Treat human beings, whoever they are, with the same dignity that you yourself would want. This is not, should not be, a difficult concept to understand. You can’t harass people for looking different. You can’t harass people for something they have not said.***

Was S. Severus a persecutor of Christians?[1] You see I write this on the cusp of the Ανάσταση and, as always during this time of year, the role of suffering in faith and the development of Christianity under the Roman boot/aegis (delete depending on the century of your reading) is much on my mind. Though we debate the frequency, severity, timbre, and cause, persecutions were a major part of Christianity’s entstehung. If anything, such things are still a part of Christianity. In large swathes of the world Christians are still persecuted and, indeed, there have been periods (are still periods?) where the Christians were the ones doing the persecuting. Who now, after all, remembers the Albigeois? The women of Salem and elsewhere we reduce to a meme or a tourist attraction, and it seems that only a few dictionary botherers care for the summary extinction of Baltic paganism nowadays. The foot in the boot has changed, the kickings remain the same.

Which brings us back to Severus, whom later Christian tradition sometimes remembers as one of the persecutors along with Decius and Diocletian.[2] One of the people persecuted and martyred during his reign was a young noblewoman called Vibia Perpetua. How do we know this? A text survives from the period which details her suffering. Called the Passio Perpetuae, the bulk of the text is seemingly her own prison dairy with some sort of homily appended to the beginning and an account of her death and that of her maidservant affixed to the tail. I think the little work has become something of an internet sensation. Certainly, I had never read it until a few years ago. Along with Sulpicia’s poetry, it must be amongst the earliest female authored Latin texts that we now possess. It is an interesting read and well suited to current tastes.[3] Anyway, in the text Vibia Perpetua, along with her maidservant Felicitas, are apprehended by the authorities and put into prison, awaiting execution.  Vibia Perpetua’s father is evidently a man of note and tries to intercede on her behalf, but she is intransient:

Parce, inquit,[4] canis patris tui, parce infantiae pueri. fac sacrum pro salute imperatorum. et ego respondi: Non facio. Hilarianus: Christiana es? inquit. et ego respondi: Christiana sum. et cum staret pater ad me deiciendam, iussus est ab Hilariano proiciet uirga percussus est. et doluit mihi casus patris mei quasi ego fuissem percussa; sic dolui pro senecta eius misera. tunc nos uniuersos pronuntiat et damnat ad bestias; et hilares descendimus ad carcerem.

“Spare” he said “your father’s grey hairs, spare the infancy of the boy.[5] Make sacrifice for the wellbeing of the Emperors”. And I responded, “I shall not”. Hilarianus asked “you are a Christian?” and I responded, “I am a Christian”. And then, when my father stood by for the casting down [of my faith], he was ordered thrown down and beaten with a staff by Hilarianus. The fall of my father saddened me as if I myself were beaten and I was saddened too by his miserable old age. Then he passed sentence on all of us: we were damned to the beasts, and happily went down to the prison.

Passio Perpetuae 6.

There are two relevant bits of the text to the current Mary Beard situation (and I swear, they are relevant)[6]: The command to just sacrifice to the emperors and Perpetua’s absolute stubbornness in both proclaiming her Christianity and refusal to perform a simple gesture. This little scene, the exasperated Roman governor, the fanatical Christian, is repeated across our sources and is misunderstood as often as it is commented upon.[7] “You see!” says the modern commentator “this is proof that the pagan Romans were orthoprax as opposed to orthodox!”. In other words, believe what you like, just behave like we do. How cosmopolitan and modern! They probably voted Liberal Democrat in the local elections, too. Utter fucking nonsense. If there was no belief in the efficacy of ritual, they would not be at such pains to ensure it done. In addition to the religious, there was also a transparently secular motive, the kind we can recognise in any imperial project. The Romans knew, as we have forgotten, that orthodoxy follows orthopraxy.

Arch of Trajan, Beneventum: sacrifice (detail)
Arch of Trajan, Beneventum. Photo by Roger Ulrich. The scene is one of sacrifice, presumably for the health of the Emperor.

Perpetua’s refusal to sacrifice (non facio), her repeated confession of her faith (Christiana sum) is a powerful gesture, again, not well understood in the modern world. We talk endlessly of inclusivity, but such things always by definition exclude someone or thing. In an environment where there are competing group interests, signifying your status vis a vis in and out groups can be costly, as poor Perpetua found out. Again, our modern society is anodyne. If I ask you to picture someone with tattoos you are much more likely to picture some risible hipster or even somehow you know rather than a hardened lifer. You, presumably, do not need to worry whether your shirt and tie combo signifies membership of a rival gang when walking to your office. Not so for much of human history.[8] “Conform” says Hilarianus, “show us that you belong, submit to our power structure, or…”. Just burn a little incense. Just bow your head. Just say the words. Go on, go on. And what does Perpetua say? Christiana sum “fuck off”.

This, then, is not an example of two groups speaking across one another. Both are speaking the same language: power.[9]

“The Discourse”

Which brings us, finally, to Mary Beard. A few days ago, someone traduced Beard as a transphobe. Well, not exactly. Someone noted that Beard follows or is followed by transphobes. This certainly should cause eyebrows to raise. Not because Beard is above reproach (who could or would vouch that?) but because there is something inherently distasteful about guilt by association – especially when phrased in such a weaselly way. Anyway, surely something so basic could be quickly cleared up? Of course. Not

et intelleximus passionem esse futuram, et coepimus nullam iam spem in saeculo habere.

And we knew the future to be a passion [lit: a suffering], and we began to have no hope in this age.

Passio Perpetuae 4.

To bewildered onlookers, I suggest that the power dynamics present in the Passio Perpetua help you make sense of all that is happening. I am focusing on power, which always seems venal, because the go to defence of people called on their bullying on twitter (and it is bullying) is always that you should be more mindful of power structures. One, in other words, should not punch down. Just what is up and what is done is highly contentious and amorphous. Schrodinger’s cardinal direction if you will. Miraculously, people in the accuser’s in group are always being punched down and always punching up. As an outsider of no account, I often look upon this with a mixture of sadness and bereavement. I much rather nobody punches anyone, but ok, fine.

So, what ought Beard to have done when faced with this accusation? Certainly not write a TLS piece defending herself (“wielding institutional power”) or try to explain herself (“a nopology”) to the twitter mob. Even so much as addressing her accuser was taboo (“punching down”; “orchestrating a pile on”).

She stands accused (esne Christiana?) and she has two options. Either she affirms the charges and damns herself to the beasts or she gives in to the demands, makes the sacrifice, says the words, bows her head (fac sacrum pro salute imperatorum). Those were apparently the only options. The power dynamics were naked for all to see. You would have to be an academic to miss them. Beard, however, did the equivalent of ignoring the procurator and walking out of the courtroom. The fallout from this has been the predictable thunderstorm in the tea-cup that erupts over #ClassicsTwitter every fortnight or so. There are several accounts signalling their own in group status apropos of seemingly nothing with all the forcefulness of Perpetua’s Christiana sum.

Make no mistake, Perpetua, Euplus et al who affirmed their faith did so in an environment which meant they would at the very least face censure and most likely death. They were purposefully doing the equivalent of wearing the wrong gang colours in the wrong area,[10] all these accounts are doing is forming a mob. The equivalent of the imperial functionary and his cronies. There is no faith, no virtue, in these demands on Mary Beard. Just power. What must this look like to outsiders, I wonder? Certainly not support of trans people. For that one might look to various practical measures such as this support meeting (I don’t see the link, so I will post the tweet for any of my trans readers interested in joining).

Instead, to outsiders and quasi(?)-outsiders like myself, the current kerfuffle looks like a lot of bullying of one elderly professor and a lot of status-signalling from people who are otherwise untouched. It also stinks of envy and a complete lack of charity to one of your own.

Which leaves us to wrap up this short piece. I am sorry for the clumsiness, but for a while now it has increasingly seemed to me that the kind of behaviour we see our corporations, universities, and governments behave is religious in nature and I thought that parsing this through the lens of a religious text and the model of intra-religious conflict might prove, if not elucidating, interesting.

Is Beard a transphobe? I would like to think such an eminent Classicist does not have it in her to set her face against anyone based on their personal characteristics. But who can read the heart of another? Who should? Who is entitled to know? Certainly twitter seems to think itself entitled to judge. I, like many others, am sick of all this performative virtue from a group of people who would step over the still twitching corpses of their friends for a shot at a TT job. I am sick of the Spanish Inquisition like nastiness. The lack of grace, the base meanness. I do not know if Beard is a transphobe, but I do know that she is brave[11] Let the incense remain unburnt. Let the creed remain unspoken. Let us have good deeds rather than pretty words. Hilarianus can go fuck himself.  

Τί οὖν; προεχόμεθα; οὐ πάντως…καθὼς γέγραπται ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν δίκαιος οὐδὲ εἷς.

What then? Are we better? Not at all…as it is written that there is no one just, not one.

Romans 3:9-10

[1] imperator, not potions master, you fucking millennial.

[2] Decius has suffered the impotent ignominy of being completely forgotten by any public, Diocletian had his body turfed out of his own palace in Spalatum. A crime of which many of the modern inhabitants with whom I have spoken are proud. I do not doubt that Christians were persecuted under Severus, but I could say not off the top of my head whether he took a more Trajanic or a more Decian involvement.

[3] Perhaps not really the place, but for anyone looking for more female authored Latin texts, @SkyeAShirley has set up a group which is worth checking out: go read some Latin! By tastes I mean both the attempt to diversify and extend our cannon and in the increasing integration of Christian/Late Antique texts into mainstream curricula.

[4] The speaker is one Hilarianus, a procurator. The title is quite general. Think of him as a minor functionary who did not himself wield imperium. He does seem a right shit, however.

[5] Both Perpetua and Felicitas had recently given birth, the former is still nursing and has her baby with her for a good part of the text. In jail. Yes…

[6] They are probably not relevant. Shhh. Just keep reading.

[7] The locus classicus optimus is Pliny Epistulae 10.96-97. The first of these is Pliny’s lengthy description of the procedures he uses to deal with Christians, the second is Trajan’s reply. Also, the Jewish writer Philo has an interesting account of an embassy to Gaius Caligula which underlines how threatening this demand can be. Jews (despite getting off to a rocky start with the Romans, thanks Pompey!) were often otherwise exempted from these trials, but then the sovereign is he who decides when, where, and how falls the exception.

[8] As you can tell from my examples, not so for a good part of modern society either once you step outside that middle class bubble.

[9] This may not be the tweed and ivy girt analysis you are used to, but it comes from the experience of both the slums and the boardroom and I dare say it is indeed the correct one.

[10] This is an Americanism that I may not entirely be getting right. From my own background one tended to get jumped for a) being of the wrong ethnicity or b) from the wrong post-code. Americans, a post-code is like a zip-code but more functional and sensible.

[11] Seriously. Bigger fish than her have been, er, scalped. Look at the current kerfuffle over Richard Dawkins and J. K. Rowling. Classicists routinely overestimate their own importance at a time when entire departments are disposable.

[13] Congratulations. You have found the secret 13th footnote. Tomorrow morning you will wake up to find $3 underneath your pillow.

There are many Johnsons in this Marius

λέγεται δὲ τὰς Ἄλπεις ὑπερβάλλοντος αὐτοῦ καὶ πολίχνιόν τι βαρβαρικόν, οἰκούμενον ὑπ’ ἀνθρώπων παντάπασιν ὀλίγων καὶ λυπρόν, παρερχομένου, τοὺς ἑταίρους ἅμα γέλωτι καὶ μετὰ παιδιᾶς „ἦ που“ φάναι „κἀνταῦθά τινές εἰσιν ὑπὲρ ἀρχῶν φιλοτιμίαι καὶ περὶ πρωτείων ἅμιλλαι καὶ φθόνοι τῶν δυνατῶν πρὸς ἀλλήλους;“ τὸν δὲ Καίσαρα σπουδάσαντα πρὸς αὐτοὺς εἰπεῖν· „ἐγὼ μὲν <μᾶλλον ἂν> ἐβουλόμην παρὰ τούτοις εἶναι μᾶλλον πρῶτος ἢ παρὰ Ῥωμαίοις δεύτερος“.

…it is said that, whilst crossing the Alps, and passing by a small barbarian village, all together wretched and inhabited by a few men, his companions asked with laughter and jest “even here are there ambition for rule, contests for primacy, and the jealousies of the powerful towards one another?” Caesar, with all seriousness, said to them “I would rather be first amongst these, then second at Rome”.

Plutarch Caesar 13-14

First man at Rome, what a dream that was! The outsized success of Caesar’s nephew (the “grandson of a provincial banker” as per Syme) and Virgil’s masterpiece perhaps obscure how great a dream this might be. For all the vaunted divinity of the gens Iulia, the Caesareswould have had precious few consular ancestor masks to wear in any funeral,[1] and Caesar had yet to win his place in the fasti. The Claudii or Fabii they were not.[2]  This is not the place to go over Caesar’s biography or his life’s achievement, seemingly legions of books are published every year, a few of them are even worth reading, simply to state that Caesar was the kind of man who needed his brilliance reflected on the face of others.

This urge towards reconciliation, albeit on unequal terms, is key to understanding Caesar’s character and career. As a popularis (if we must use party terms) he had an ample support base, and through manipulation of the tribunate some constitutional trickery with which to achieve his goals. He could have tried to do what the brothers Gracchi, M. Aemilius Lepidus (the consul of 78, not our triumvir), or even L. Sergius Catilina attempted. I do not think Caesar’s aversion to this was just the shrewd judgement of history – if anything it is more in line with his character to believe that he could succeed where others had failed – or that his deal making with Pompey and Crassus was mere expediency. Pompey was, for all intents and purposes, a new man with his feel still wet from the Sullan slaughter (adulescentulus carnifex), but he was nonetheless the first man in Rome; Crassus may have stank from some of the same taint, but he was a member of the gens Licinia. A Plebeian gens to be sure but one from the hoary bearded days of the early Republic and with at least 7 consular masks in hanging in the atria. Patrician Caesar could think himself in good company.

Caesar’s clemency, already characterised by Cicero as being deceitful (clementia insidiosa Ad. Atticum 8.16), can be read in this light. By sparing his opponents after Pharsalus, Thapsus, and Munda he was not simply displaying his superiority, highlighting the impotence of the optimates, but stacking the stage with witnesses to his greatness. He wanted to be the culmination of Roman tradition, not its overthrower. Not for nothing did Caesar weep when brought the dead Pompey’s signet.[3] How radical was Caesar, really? The early manoeuvrings over land distribution had precedent not just in the (abortive) plans of the Gracchi but the traditional land grants of the Roman Republic, large commands had been issued before in times of great need, even the dictatorship – which Tacitus tells us was taken up when and as needed (dictaturae ad tempus sumebantur Annals 1.1) – had been recently revived by Sulla. True, as Tacitus tells us, these unusual offices were usually geared towards a specific task and thereafter surrendered but how often in the Fasti does one see rei gerundae causa entered (“for the sake of doing something”)? Caesar even had elected with him a magister equitum. This was not one-man rule. Ah, I hear you say, but did he not long for the kingship? That is true. It is equally true that as much as the Romans disliked the name “king”,[4] many of patricians drew their prestige from predating the Republic (and thus could handily survive its actual demise); king was an office of hoary antiquity.[5] It is not hard to detect Caesar’s sentiment here either: a descendent of Aeneas and of Ancus Marcius, why should he not be king? Even this was not an innovation comparable to, say, the kingships of the Diadochi after the death of the last Temenid.

Suetonius gives us an anecdote about Caesar’s heir upon his deathbed, wherein he likened his life to being an actor. It has a very Shakespearian ring to it, and may even have inspired the bard’s own take,[6] but I cannot help but feel that in many ways these words would have been more apt for Caesar.[7] Not that he was any less genuine, but the performative nature of much of his actions could never have occurred within a vacuum. We all too often confuse Caesar the man with the Caesarian party, the person with the phenomenon.

supremo die…admissos amicos percontatus, ecquid iis videretur mimum vitae commode transegisse, adiecit et clausulam:

Ἐπεὶ δὲ πάνυ καλῶς πέπαισται, δότε κρότον

Καὶ πάντες ἡμᾶς μετὰ χαρᾶς προπέμψατε.

on (his) last day…he asked his admitted friends whether he seemed to them to have played the comedy of life well, and he added this bon mot:

since well (our part) has been performed, give applause!

and all of you dismiss us with grace

Suetonius Augustus 99

Look, I am not naïve. What I am suggesting is that Caesar was a problem of ambition and scale, not a new and unprecedented monster. To paraphrase our Plutarch, Caesar wished to be πρῶτος παρὰ τοῖς Ῥωμαίοις, οὐ μόνος, that is first, not only. Perhaps in time the Republic could have re-asserted itself – certainly the liberatores attempted a republican style solution in murder – just as it had done in the past against Sp. Cassius Viscellinus, M. Furius Camillus, Scipio Africanus, Marius, Cinna, Sulla, and even Pompey.[8] The liberatores treated Caesar as something unprecedented, monstruous, unreconcilable and look where that got them. Did the survivors (ha!) of Perusia, or Philippi, or even Actium feel as if a wise choice had been made? In “preserving” the Republic, they ended it. The blood of the tyrant watered the seed of destruction, not liberty (etc etc).

Ὁ μέγας αὐτοῦ δαίμων, ᾧ παρὰ τὸν βίον ἐχρήσατο, καὶ τελευτήσαντος ἐπηκολούθησε τιμωρὸς τοῦ φόνου…

However, his [Caesar’s] great guardian spirit, whose help he had enjoyed through life, followed him even in death as an avenger of his murder…

Plutarch Caesar 69

Gaius Octavius, later to take Caesar’s name and then to supplant it with something even grander – Augustus, was something else entirely. What was said of him by Cicero – that he was to be raised, praised, and displaced (laudandum adolescentem, ornandum, tollendum Ad Fam 11.20) – could typify Augustus’ own strategy towards the Roman state and constitution. I think we overemphasise to what degree he utilised the various outwards elements of the Republic whilst ignoring the practical reality of this disjunction. Superficially, Augustus looks like Caesar turned up to 11, in reality he was a different kind of beast. The free use he made of others’ wives whilst pushing ridiculous marriage and impropriety laws, his seemingly arbitrary combining of powers (at least Clodius went through the farce of an adoption to be eligible for the tribunate), the violating of Vesta’s temple and its opisthodomos to rouse the state against Antony, the attempt to pass on primacy within the state as if a family heirloom (first to Agrippa, then to Marcellus and Lucius…), the raising of a teenager to the consulate…

There is a bit in the Aeneid, near farcically humorous when read in an Augustan context. Book 10, our hero Aeneas has been removed from action and Turnus has been laying waste to the Trojan camp. All looks lost when, suddenly, Aeneas’ ship appears down the river and he is described:

iamque in conspectu Teucros habet et sua castra

stans celsa in puppi, clipeum cum deinde sinistra

extulit ardentem. clamorem ad sidera tollunt

Dardanidae e muris, spes addita suscitat iras,

and now he has the Trojans and his ramparts in view,

standing on the high stern, with his left hand he lifts

the burning shield. From the walls the Trojans raise

a shout to the sky: new hope freshened their fury

Aeneid 10.260-4

Why, besides the cinematic coolness of this scene, does this matter? The impact of Augustus’ reign and Virgil’s great epic is well known, as is the complex ways in which its hero, Aeneas, can at times foreshadow Augustus.[9] Virgil was writing an epic, not composing one in the traditional manner of Homer, and so was not at all reliant upon repetitive, formulaic, language. When he does reuse whole phrases there is clearly a reason behind them. Virgil here mirrors an earlier description of Augustus himself, on Aeneas’ shield.

hinc Augustus agens Italos in proelia Caesar

cum patribus populoque, penatibus et magnis dis,

stans celsa in puppi, geminas cui tempora flammas

laeta vomunt patriumque aperitur vertice sidus.

Here is Caesar [Augustus] standing on the high stern,

leading the Italians into battle, with the Senate,

the people, the household gods, the great gods, his happy brow

shoots out twin flames, and the star of his fathers’ [Iulii] shown

Aeneid 8.678-81

Why? Virgil clearly intends for the reader to recall these lines. I think Virgil aims to remind future generations of a fact lost, buried, after Actium (which is portrayed in the scene above). The clue is in the vastly different situations Aeneas/Augustus finds himself in. In Book 10, the Trojans find themselves against the bulk of Italy, not leading them as in the propagandic ecphrasis in Book 8. What happened at Actium? Was it really the unification of Italia against the Eastern hordes lead be treacherous Marc Antony and his unnamed harpy-queen? Eh, no. Until the last moment, more or less, the number of men of consular standing following Octavian was miniscule. Marc Antony was the man to back. Instead, Octavian is surrounded by men like M. Agrippa and T. Statilius Taurus, novi homines, men whose atria would stink of fresh plaster and shine with a conspicuous lack of consular ancestor masks. We often underestimate just how effective the propaganda of Augustus – and Virgil – has been. If Caesar was (an attempt at) the culmination of the Roman tradition; Augustus was a radical outsider.

So, what is the point? Have I just tried to get you to read ca. 2000 words just to call Augustus a billy-no-mates? Not really.[10] Let us put Caesar and Augustus in contrast. It was the latter who instigated true revolution, who went above and beyond any potential Roman precedent, who tore apart the state and wore its skin as some sort of fetish mask, parading its corpse to its former masters and their descendants. For all his propaganda (divi filius, indeed!) Augustus was an outsider (the “grandson of a provincial banker”) with an outsider’s disdain for the inherited mores of the Roman ruling class. Of course he was willing to put it to fire and sword to achieve his goals. 

Now then, here is my hypothesis. I do not believe that either the current PM or American President is very much like Caesar or Augustus. I find the numerous articles comparing Trump to Caligula or Nero somewhat nauseating. If your reading of history never digs up anything counter-intuitive, contra your political assumptions, then you are not engaging in anything like scholarship. Sorry #ClassicsTwitter. No, I do not think these to be perfect parallels, but they do furnish useful heuristics.

Let us turn to our current PM. Mr Johnson (I refuse to call him “Boris”, I am not his friend to use his Christian name, it is clearly the worst sort of marketing – I make memes, I do not suffer them) has been the subject of two previous blog posts (here and here) and given his classical proclivities I suspect he shall be again. Much muck has been made over his use of the Classics by people who could not conjugate δίδωμι, when it comes to his use of Caesar and Augustus specifically, I think this piece by Mary Beard is the kindest of them but still degenerates into “well akstualllllyy!11!” territory. Anyway, we are interested in what we can make of these parallels, not Johnson.

Look at the language used about him. The leader of the opposition has recently described him as “single biggest threat to the future of the United Kingdom” (where else?); the media was falling over itself to call him a dictator over the prorogation non issue; we are constantly being told that either he is a racist or an English nationalist (though why the latter is a bad thing, and why Scottish nationalism is a good thing, we are never told). In short, Johnson is consistently said to be a threat to the Res Publica Commonwealth, at least by the incontinent press. The new, arbitrary, establishment of tiers and the poor handling of covid-19 (20, now?) hardly help matters. If we look at the Caesar parallels, we can, perhaps, intimate why Johnson is not only unlikely to be the deathblow to the realm but is unlikely to even want to be. He is inextricably tied to it, just as Caesar was, and his personal values are far too aligned with the plaudits on offer. The archetypical insider.  Mr Johnson strikes me as this kind of man; one who needs to bask in the admiration of others. There is something about his character, his pally behaviour on HIGNFY, the over earnest way he “plays” sport, his prose style,[11] perhaps even his insistence on reading Greats rather than PPE at Oxford. laudandus, ornandus, tollendus indeed.

I am writing this just having entered the new Tier 4 lockdown. This is obscene over stretch of government powers (and there is nothing so long lasting as temporary measures the government has awarded itself), and the hysteria has once again started over Johnson and his ambition. But let us keep things in perspective, the new measures are hardly proof of his dictatorial ambition, merely his ineptitude and our complacence. That is the real story here.

Where is that British spirit? It is a sobering thought. Whether speaking of the recent(ish) immigrants who partook in two world wars and crossed the ocean for a better life, the Huguenots who did likewise, a hardly obscure offshoot who declared independence over a stamp tax in 1776, Norman adventurers and chancers or, indeed, Hengist and Horsa’s founding stock itself? It is considered old fashioned to talk about this stuff now, perhaps even in bad taste, usually by the kind of people who would be happy to see citizenship scrapped and we subjects treated as happily swappable economic units for the all mighty GDP (always an obsession for the dyscalculic chancers who make up our fourth estate). Perhaps, in fact, the real story is not even our complacency, but that the kind of grand gestures of the Roman world – crossing the Rubicon, Philippi, Actium – are no longer needed. The truth is we are scarcely a nation, just an appendage to one of the worst and most dysfunctional health services in Europe.

I am tired, so tired I certainly no longer have it in me for any meaningful civil disobedience, so tired I can scarcely finish this post. I should end this on something with energy, or at least mention Trump – after all the man attracts considerably more hysteria than Johnson (indeed, I suspect much of this is our press playing copycat). Trump, it seems, is going through something of historical moment. Perhaps not Actium, nor even Perusia, but people are throwing around the word “Rubicon” a lot, and it seems all are awaiting with bated breath. Hmm. Look, it does not matter whether you believe that Trump lost the election or a seemingly 12 Σ event happened and Biden won in defiance of all norms, it seems obvious that Trump will be leaving office come January. Indeed, the Biden administration – in its masterful handling of the press (“the office of the president elect”, office? With a seal?), already reaching out to foreign powers for discussion, etc etc – is putting into play one of Caesar’s earliest lessons: There is a time for the trappings of power, and a time for its exercise. 

Where is Trump in all this? Where has he been? The oddly focused vigour with which he now actually accomplishes things serves only to highlight how little he has managed to accomplish. The military-press-political-insider complex (his “swamp”) remains as strong as ever, stronger really given its complete capture of every single American cultural institution (would Obama have let that happen?), his economy (and it was his economy you idiots) has been obliterated by the plague. The press and the twitterati are frothing at the mouth, after all this is his Caesar moment. Time for a coup. The culmination of his Nazi-Stalin-Giga-Hitler four years in office. But what has he done to warrant this suspicion? Utilised Obama’s illegal immigrant camps? Enforced a modicum of peace in the Middle East? Started no new wars? He is crass, to be sure, but that is no crime and a far shot from dictatorship. Future historians are,[12] if anything, likely to be wonder at the sheer gall of the press. Trump the president is not at all akin to Trump the farcical, fictional, character they have created.

Anyway, to return to our thesis, I think Trump – like Caesar – is far too attached to the norms (and plaudits) of the Republic to act the Augustus and overthrow it. I think he lacks even the energy, determination, and ambition of Caesar to cross the Rubicon. Perhaps I am wrong. But looking at the way the press has treated Mssrs Johnson and Trump I cannot help but wonder yes, but what about the next guy?

Suetonius tells us that when Julius Caesar was on the run from the dictator Sulla (he was the nephew of his great rival, Gaius Marius, and refused to divorce his wife, the daughter of Cinna – Marius’ colleague), claimed he could see many Marius’ in Caesar. Racist, fascist, Nazi, Russian plant, incompetent, dictator, tyrant…do these words mean anything anymore? They are increasingly looking like the strictures of a dying polity; one whose elites have failed their citizenry time and time again. Empty words applied to people without any reference to deed or action.  I am, as I said, tired beyond all exhaustion but it is easy to imagine someone looking at all this (in either country) and feeling not tired, but angry, driven, not weary. The feeble columns of our political norms have been shattered and like Sulla I am growing to fear the coming man.

Satis constat Sullam, cum deprecantibus   amicissimis et ornatissimis viris aliquamdiu denegasset atque illi pertinaciter contenderent, expugnatum tandem proclamasse sive divinitus sive aliqua coniectura: vincerent ac sibi haberent, dum modo scirent eum, quem incolumem tanto opere cuperent, quandoque optimatium partibus, quas secum simul defendissent, exitio futurum; nam Caesari multos Marios inesse.

It is known that Sulla had long denied the wishes of his most loyal and eminent men, and when they forcefully persisted he, at last worn out, proclaimed (either divinely inspired or else conjecture) that they had won, and might have it their way, so long as they knew that he, whom they had wished so eagerly to be safe, would one day be a death to the aristocracy, which they had defended alongside him, for “in this Caesar, there are many Mariuses”.

Suetonius Julius Caesar 1

[1] Just four in my cursory count (I do not have institutional affiliation, where are the fucking “Classicists” when you need something useful???): A Sex. Julius Caesar in 157, his son (grandson?) in 91, a L. Julius Caesar in 90 and his grandson, our Caesar’s cousin, another L. Julius Caesar in 64. His own father died having “only” achieved being elected praetor.

[2] Prosopography has yielded some truly fascinating insights into Roman history and cannot be merely be dismissed as the fetish of a class obsessed British academy. How many of the early/mid Repulican gentes make it to the empire? Where were the Furii, Pinarii, Valerii etc etc? Do any Republican families besides the Anicii produce any emperors in late antiquity? The social upheavals this entails are, if anything, underappreciated.

[3] The anecdote is from Plutarch’s Pompey and whilst it may seem hammy to us, it is certainly in line with the expected behaviour of a Roman noble and Caesar specifically: Καῖσαρ ἐλθὼν εἰς Αἴγυπτον ἄγους τοσούτου καταπεπλησμένην τὸν μὲν προσφέροντα τὴν κεφαλὴν ὡς παλαμναῖον ἀπεστράφη, τὴν δὲ σφραγῖδα τοῦ Πομπηΐου δεξάμενος ἐδάκρυσεν· A well known TV series from the early noughties is probably the most famous bit of modern reception, note too the use of Catullus 101 during the funeral:

[4] “nomen regis audire non poterat” Cicero Republic 2.52 Of course this did not stop people, like Spurius Cassius, occasionally giving it a damn good go.

[5] Again, we concentrate overmuch how by the Second Punic War the old Patrician/Plebeian divide had weakened in favour of a new nobilitas based on fiscal potency and success on the cursus honorum. True, to an extent, but have you ever known a snob not to seize upon the slightest pretext for superiority? Decent from the city fathers was a scarce, and thus increasingly valuable, commodity.

[6] All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts – As You Like it Act II Scene VII.139-42

[7] Caesar’s dictatorial predecessor, Sulla, was said to have been fond of actors and actresses to an unseemly degree. There is some argument to be made that this conditioned his political comportment: Garton, C. (1964). Sulla and the Theatre. Phoenix, 18(2), 137-156

[8] Pompey’s relationship with the Republican aristocracy, much like his settlement of the East and its nachleben, is something I have yet to find satisfactory reading on. It strikes me that his wish to be accepted was an incredible weakness on his part.

[9] “For a country to have a great writer…is like having another government. That’s why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.” Solzhenitsyn (1968) The First Circle ch. 57, tr. M. Guybon. Clearly, The Julio-Claudians, Flavians, and Antonines disprove this.

[10] Yes, really.

[11] Incidentally, not at all bad, just clearly an affectation. His Dream of Rome is actually a considerably better example of using his classical training on offer than any of his detractors have managed to produce.

[12] What a fucking bugman phrase. Who cares? Our current crop of historians are semiliterate baboons at best, why would the future be better?

The Philology of Epaminondas

ἀμφισβητούντων Ἀθηναίων πρὸς Βοιωτοὺς περὶ τῆς χώρας ἣν καλοῦσι Σίδας, Ἐπαμινώνδας δικαιολογούμενος ἐξαίφνης ἐκ τῆς ἀριστερᾶς μεταλαβὼν κεκρυμμένην ῥόαν καὶ δείξας ἤρετο τί καλοῦσι τοῦτο. τῶν δ᾿ 651εἰπόντων ῥόαν, “ἀλλ᾿ ἡμεῖς,” εἶπε, “σίδαν” (ὁ δὲ τόπος τοῦτ᾿ ἔχει τὸ φυτὸν ἐν αὑτῷ πλεῖστον, ἀφ᾿ οὗ τὴν ἐξ ἀρχῆς εἴληφε προσηγορίαν), καὶ ἐνίκησεν.

When the Athenians were disputing with the Boeotians about the area which they called Sidae, Epaminondas – whilst arguing –  abruptly took in his right hand a hitherto concealed pomegranate and, having showed it to them, asked them what they called it. When they said “rhoa” he said “But we call it a sida”. The area contains many these trees, which is how it originally got its name. He won the decision.

Athenaeus 14.650f-651

There is not much for me to say about this passage in terms of context or philological/historical value. I just found it interesting and wanted to share it. Language, when used as a part of an ethno-linguistic label or to define a speech-community, can have momentous impact in ancient history – think of the shibboleth story. Picture Epaminondas, the victor (well sort of) of Leuctra whipping out fruit and brandishing it at the Athenians. It is curious how the debate came down to one of dialect. Sidae was in the southern part of Boeotia, touching Attica. I would have thought that the locals would just have been Aeolic speakers, but maybe not?[1] Why didn’t Epaminondas just cite the local dialect and leave it at that? Why use linguistics anyway? Why not just argue from descent or ktsis like everyone else?

Language, myth, and genealogy were often a part of how the ancients dealt with disputes and conceived of the world around them. What follows is a brief excursus of some random thoughts on the matter, with some tangential relation to the quotation above. Like I said, I just wanted to share it with you.

Extent of Theban hegemony under E

If you say “ancient Greek diplomacy” what comes to mind? For most people, probably the Spartan crime of punting the Persian ambassadors into a well (Herodotus 7.133), a (hardly legally rigorous) framework) of mores and customs that held the Greek world together: Don’t punt visitors in wells; don’t attack heralds, proxeny and xenia etc etc. Fair enough, but myth (loosely defined) could also function as a kind of diplomatic framework for the Greeks. I say loosely defined for a reason; the various meanings would not coalesce into anything like our idea of a “narrative” for quite some time.

Occasionally these myths referenced actual physical materia. Perhaps the most famous case being the story of how the Spartans finally defeated the Tegeans, by seizing the bones of Orestes (Herodotus 1.167-8) in obeyance of an oracle. Now, the story here is full of folk tale narrative and often subject to Euhemerist critique (is there anything lower or baser? Due to the size of the “bones of Orestes”: ὑπὸ δὲ ἀπιστίης μὴ μὲν γενέσθαι μηδαμὰ μέζονας ἀνθρώπους τῶν νῦν ἄνοιξα αὐτὴν καὶ εἶδον τὸν νεκρὸν μήκεϊ ἴσον ἐόντα τῇ σορῷ), but it is emblematic of broader Greek thought about myth and history. Myth is often used to tie the untenable together, land (which is eternally static) and humans (who often move around)[2].

 The Spartans clearly felt this keenly. Their ancient home played a key part in the epic saga of the Achaeans, yet they themselves overwhelmingly claimed descent from elsewhere. There were various work arounds; the kings, for example, were said to be of Achaean descent, and in semi-mythic kings list Heracles could be put, briefly, before Tyndareus (who could then be said to hold the land in trust for the Heracleidae). You can see why the bones of Orestes could have propaganda value: a ritual reconciliation of Doric and Argive, against their Argive enemies. After all, as Herodotus says, from thence on the Spartans started to beat the Tegeans. Nor is this the only case of Spartans digging up an epic ancestor: Pausanias tells us they likewise appropriated the bones of Tisamenos (7.1), the son of Orestes and Hermione (daughter of Helen, daughter of Tyndareus and therefore a union of Pelopid and Tyndarid, not the wingardium leviosa one).[3]

The above is a physical act (well a pair of them), but I do not think we can divorce it from the context of myth. After all it is myth which lent the context – and impetus – to the actions, and the Spartans were just realising the kind of anxieties we see in the ever-varied genealogical poetic fragments. Arguably a far better response than Kleisthenes of Sicyon (grandfather of that Kleisthenes) outright banning of Homer.

The Athenians, if somewhat less eager to be whipping out shovels and disinterring bones, were no less inclined to use myth this way. Tragedy could be a beautiful venue for this. Sometimes such things had a more decidedly internal focus. One may read in Sophocles’ Ajax, the final conversation between the eponymous er, hero, (himself seen as a tutelary ancestor to the Athenians) and his son, Eurysaces, something like a propagandic snapshot of a father departing for a war and leaving behind an underage son – effectively in the care of the state (hence asking the community to look out for, 565). Such things could not be too on the nose, however; Phrynichus’ play on the fall of Miletus was apparently so moving it was banned and the author fined (Herodotus 6.21.10), and anyway they would certainly have been at risk of ridicule from the comic poets. The cultural prestige of Athens and her festivals meant that drama was also an excellent opportunity to propel messages outward. Euripides took advantage of this in a typically heavy-handed manner. We have mentioned, in connection with Sparta, the Heracleidae above and Euripides’ play of that name concerns a mythic episode where Athens looks after and defends the direct ancestors of Sparta’s kings. Likewise, his Ion can be profitably read in the context of Athens’ claims to have been the metropolis for all of Ionia.[4]

We have looked at examples from Athens and Sparta since they were Greece’s most famous cities, but this use of myth also worked across other poleis. This should not surprise, the mythic tradition that poets were manipulating, recasting, and reusing was inherently international (or at least Panhellenic) and if a poet hankering after a prize would discretely have to have to alter a myth he sang in Thebes if he was singing in Syracuse, well…that was neither here nor there. This international context of poetry was written into the language itself: the development of an epic kunstsprache was a direct result of, and did not precipitate, this. There is, as always, an excellent example of this in Herodotus (read Herodotus!!): The Tegeans and the Athenians are arguing over who will command a place of honour in the assembled phalanx at Plataea.  The Spartans adjudicate (9.26-8). The Tegeans list their own accomplishments back in the time of the Heracleidae and finish references to more recent deeds. The Athenians respond with an expectedly bravura display of rhetoric, inverting the mythological paradigm, adding to it, and ending with the trump card of Marathon. The result?

οἱ μὲν ταῦτα ἀμείβοντο, Λακεδαιμονίων δὲ ἀνέβωσε ἅπαν τὸ στρατόπεδον Ἀθηναίους ἀξιονικοτέρους εἶναι ἔχειν τὸ κέρας ἤ περ Ἀρκάδας. οὕτω δὴ ἔσχον οἱ Ἀθηναῖοι καὶ ὑπερεβάλοντο τοὺς Τεγεήτας.

So they answered, and the entire Lakedaimonian camp shouted that the Athenians were worthier to hold the horn [as in wing of phalanx] than the Arkadians. Such was the way in which the Athenians were preferred to the Tegeaeans.

(note the Homeric colouring).

Basically, two distinct polities – the Tegeans and the Athenians, could shore up and use myth to win an argument. Admittedly, this gambit did not quite work out against the Syracusans (7.161.3). When the Persians were saying (or being alleged to have said – Herodotus 7.150) that they were kinsmen to the Argives, descendants of Perseus, is really just a form of international relations.  Likewise, Indians claiming their city to have been founded by Dionysus (Arrian Anabasis 5.1). We could dismiss this stuff as entirely fictive or folk etymology, or we could instead choose to see it in its cultural context.

Potential distribution mainland Greek dialects.

We are straying a bit from our original quotation though, aren’t we? What really strikes me about this passage is the use of linguistics, even if in an extremely crude form. Greek Dialectology is not simple, even now. The categories of Greek dialect the ancients themselves used owed more to the mythological tradition than to any serious philological work. They had Ionic (whence we separate Attic); Doric; and Aeolic. We moderns add another subgroup, Arcado-Cypriot (ironically also supported by myth!). Though we rarely see fit to overturn the entire system, we have made strides and bounds since Ahrens founded the discipline on a scientific basis.[5]

Ἕλληνος δ᾿ ἐγένοντο φιλοπτολέμου βασιλῆος From Hellen the battle-loving king sprang
Δῶρός τε Ξοῦϑός τε καὶ Αἴολος ἱππιοχάρμης. Doros and Xouthos and Aiolos, who delighted in horses.

Hesiod frg 9 M-W

This should not be surprising. Terms like “Aeolic” or “Ionic” are inherently abstractions. One might instead notice the speech of Sparta, or Lesbos, or Macedon. Such theorising always extends out of mythological and genealogical speculation (e.g Strabo 8.1.2, who puts Arcadian under Ionic). If Greeks did really think of these as more concrete groupings, I suspect it started with Doric which was strikingly different from the easterly Greek dialects in some ways and from a relatively early period had its own literary koine. It would be easy to then start thinking of the other dialects in that way, via analogy. I think Doric also offers the earliest evidence we have of Greeks thinking in terms of convergent/divergent sound changes. You might have noticed how all our editions of Alkman have σ pro θ which was certainly a distinct feature of Spartan speech (cf Aristophanes), yet doubtless such a change happened too late for it to appear in Alkman’s poetry. Instead, this is likely a Hellenistic editorial decision based on knowledge of this sound change.[6]

Elsewhere, Greeks might note dialectical variation based on vocabulary. Hesychius – an understudied author – is a good example of this, noting some of the variant Macedonian vocabulary without sitting down and teasing out the sound rules. (but let us leave the Macedonians for another post). Interestingly, Epaminondas did not argue on level of sound change. E.g Attic-Ionic raised the inherited long a to a long e sound (α > η), though there was a reversion when this was combined with certain letters. The Attic (and broader Ionic) form would have been σίδη which actually survives in some Pontic dialects. Would a difference in vocabulary be more notable to everyday Greeks than accent/phonology?

Anyway, there is no conclusion to be had. Maybe I’ll come back in and edit it. As I said, this is a short note. Enjoy your weekend!


[1] Not that such distinctions ultimately matter. The Achaeans were happy to admit the Aeginetians into the Achaean league at one point. Athens’ interests closer to home expanded into the (potentially) Doric speaking Megarid and, as per its treaty with Plataea, into the Aeolic Boeotia from a fairly early date.

[2] Do I owe this formulation to Malkin? Calame? Either way, it is mine now.

[3] For Spartan anxiety and the kings’ list, see Claude Calame’s work and also (somewhat) Irad Malkin. This post is a ‘short note’ and so I’m not terribly motivated to cite articles from edited volumes (which take aaages), unless pressed.

[4] Ion and Xouthos have been ably treated by Jan Bremmer in at least two places (and Athenian mythic propaganda more generally) for Ajax, and the Dionysia generally, Goldhill, S. (1987). The great Dionysia and civic ideology. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 107, 58-76 (brilliant article).

[5] 200 years past people were still throwing out terms like “Romaic,” “Graikika,” and “Aeolo-Doric” as dialectical categories as if they were anything other than the results of crack-addled fever dreams. At least the ancients had cool myths ffs. In fact, within Greece, things were insane until Chatzidakis came along and beat the shit out of everyone with his work on dialects. Mackridge has a good article on this, search “mothers and daughters” and his name.

[6] We never quite see the kind of highly abstract, productive, rules we find in e.g Panini’s Astadhyayi, but I don’t know, I think the Hellenistic editors are going beyond mere stereotype?

Boris Johnson’s Supreme Law

or, guess who found the verb in Cicero?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Well asktchually!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading.

‘In autumn a friend sent an apple’: On a Japanese poem.

I think this is the translation she showed me. Nonetheless, it’s one that still floors me, even if different. That’s the funny thing about reading in translation (and I’ll never have Japanese in anything other than translation); without recourse to the source, we’re just reading reflections of reflections.

I suppose as a classicist, whenever I think of translation and translation theory I should be thinking of L. Andronicus and Homer. Instead, I often think of the literary arguments about various translations of the great Russian books from Garnett onwards. Regardless of Garnett’s quality, her prose has helped ossify our idea of what a Russian novel is in English.

Here’s the translation taken from the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse.

Autumn in jail – Tsuboi Shigeki

In autumn a friend

Sent in an apple.

I made to eat it

All at once.

Red: too red.

In my palm, heavy:

Heavy as the world.

All of Shigeki’s poems in this collection are worth a lengthy train ride ruminating over. What strikes me about the translation – especially as a poet prone to prolixity – is the sheerness of it. It’s fatless and neat, yet evocative and kind of torturous.

Who hasn’t been that person, so locked up inside themselves (guessing nobody here has been to jail!) that the kindness of a friend, or any sort of intrusion of the ‘real’, seems like technicolor against gray-scale?

What a cruel poem.

By the way, I know this has been neither classical nor anything akin to philological, but I’m clearly not writing much anyway and wanted to share this regardless.

Oldest Odyssey fragment?  No, but what is it?

I – The Case

A day (or two, or few, depending on when I finish this) ago, it was announced by the Greek ministry of culture that a new find from Olympia can claim to be the oldest fragment of the Odyssey found to date.

Herein is the official announcement, whatever one thinks of the claim of being the ‘earliest yet found in Greece’, at least it’s a fairly sobre text. From the Guardian, for example, we learn that on some authority while the Odyssey was composed in the 8th century, it was only later  ‘transcribed during the Christian era on to parchment of which only a few fragments have been discovered in Egypt.’

If this represents the level of popular awareness of papyrology (and for all its fault, the Grauniad is usually good on the literary stuff), we can understand the level of confusion permeating every news source.

To be clear, this is not the first material testimony we have for the Odyssey. We have an ostrakon (piece of fired pottery) from Olbia, around the 5th-4th century BC. Provenance here. In fact, the number of pre 3rd century AD testimonies is reasonably high (around 50). This is all the more impressive given that throughout antiquity the Iliad was (rightly!) much more widely read and copied.

Papyri, not clay or parchment, was the most commonly used writing material in antiquity. Cheap, reasonably durable, and mass producible, this ubiquitous material was how most ancient Greeks and Romans would have read their texts. A monopoly on it within Egypt was one of the ways the Ptolemids retained and expanded their wealth. Trade wars (ooh, topical) between Pergamon and Alexandria were what allegedly led to the wider scale adoption of the more expensive parchment in the ancient world.

In fact, the transfer from papyrus roll to parchment codex is one of the watershed moments in the nachleben of any antique text. It’s why we have what Pindar we have. It is also, partly, the reason so much literature is lost or lacunary.

Parchment was expensive and elegant, worthy of illumination (see the fantastic Vergilius Romanus from the ancient world). We often recover papyrus from midden heaps or mummies. In fact the Homeric fragment P.Oxy. 67.4633 was literally used as toilet paper.

excerpt from the  Vergilius Romanus (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3867)

To bring everything back round, anyone interested in the early papyri of Homer should read Stephanie West’s ‘The Ptolemaic Papyri of Homer’. For those without access to the book, this link may be more amenable – though be warned, it’s not a straight account like West’s.

So, the new find is not the earliest found. So what is it? What’s interesting about it?

For starters, that it’s been inscribed (that may be too technical a word) in clay and deposited in a sanctuary, and a major one at that.

As you may have surmised from the above, clay wasn’t the most common writing material in the Aegean, at least not since the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation. It was used throughout the near east – indeed, we even have bilingual Greek/Akkadian texts – but, within Greece, its use seem to have been limited to trainee writers.

We know from certain festivals, such as the Athenian Arkteia (celebrated at Brauron), that those on the cusp of man/womanhood might ‘sacrifice’ their childhood possessions to the temple in a ceremony. The shedding of these childhood accoutrements were meant to signify the crossing into adulthood, the exchange of dependency for rights and responsibilities.  

This is incredibly unlikely here. This is the temple of Zeus, at Olympia, not a place for initiation ceremonies.

Do we know of other instances of texts being deposited in temples? Why, yes, we do. Herakleitos (‘The obscure’) deposited his entire oeuvre within a temple as a bulwark against the exigencies of time. The library at Alexandria was, above all, a temple complex. Elite Romans would deposit their wills at the temple of Vesta. We can detect a close link between text and temple from Kinaithos and his hymn to Apollo onward.

But this is not a personal will or a complete text in need of safe keeping. What is the most likely explanation, which combines materium with provenance?

II – Elementary, Dear Watson?

Here’s my solution: How about a rhapsodic votive offering?

Votives were objects left in temples (either deposited away or displayed) in a fulfillment of a vow or as a sort of prayer for the future. For a much better write up, here’s a page on votives from the Akropolis museum.

There’s a very archaic human urge for votive offerings, we have evidence of them from our neolithic past to contemporary times: I’ve seen more than one church (on the island Tinos?) were people have affixed plaster/bronze/wood effigies of ailed limbs in hopes of treatment. As you may imagine, votives formed an important part of Greco-Roman cultic practice.

Olympia itself was a famous site for some extravagant votive offerings. Rather than link an article, I’d invite anyone interested to read the relevant section from Pausanias.

When we discuss Greek literature, we forget all too often both the performative element and the antagonistic aspect. Poets vied with one another as much as those men of any profession (to paraphrase Hesiod), for both material gain and word-fame. Competitions could be as serious as athletic games and indeed were often held in similar(ish! …we need to put that ‘ish’ or Xenophanes will come back from the dead and throttle us) esteem.

Could this then not be a fledgling rhapsode vowing something of himself, his art, to the god before a contest? It seems to make intuitive sense to me. This isn’t a rhapsode’s text, marked up for performance or an expensive codex. The lines (Odyssey 14.7-13) are hardly what one would expect from a schoolboy exercise, which tended to be dominated by proems.

Greek lyra player

On the other hand, if the rhapsode was competing/partaking in a sort of Homeric relay, where singers each sang a book in succession, and he had been allotted book 14, it makes sense for these lines to come to mind. Perhaps this clay tablet is the votive offering of a nervous singer, breathing out the first lines that came to mind, scribbling them into the clay (the voice, the performance, not the medium, is pre-eminent here) and dedicating it to the gods.

‘Zeus, father of gods and men: if ever I have burnt for you the fatty thigh upon your altar; if I have always treated strangers fairly and with their due, may I sing well and lift the bronze tripod in your name this day’

That sort of thing.

What do you think? It’s hardly perfect, by nature circumstantial and reconstructionist. A blog post is not the place for a lengthy expansion on my reasoning, but I think I’ve given a fair few thrusts even if I’m defective on the cuts.

Let me know what you think.

Further reading

Many of the things touched upon here regarding papyri and literacy are best encountered in Peter Parson’s incredibly enjoyable book, ‘The City of the Sharp Nosed Fish’

I am eagerly awaiting ‘Homer in Performance’ edited by Jonathan L. Ready and Christos C. Tsagalis this August. If anyone from UoT press is reading this instead of working, feel free to lose a copy my way.

If you’re interested in Homer, be sure to follow this blog since I’m starting a new series in the very near future on the Iliad


#Neverbyzantium? We would be so lucky

The antipathy between ‘Byzantium’ (here used as convenient shorthand for the surviving Roman Empire) and the ‘West’ is longstanding indeed. One can trace it, perhaps, in the machinations of the various Germanic tribes who are once mimicking the trappings of civilisations engendered by the Romans – with about as much understanding as a parrot has of a poem. Certainly, this is in evidence by the time of Charlemagne.

Let us be clear. There never was a zweikaiserproblem. Instead, the Bishop of Rome found his ecclesiastical throne to sit on a very mundane plinth indeed: Rome, alone of the ancient sees, stood in the West and thus wielded immense auctoritas. But the mitre and crook was hardly proof against the Lombard’s sword or local politicking, the Emperor’s presence in Italy was hardly to felt and so Leo turned to another protector.

The rest, as they say, is history and resulted in the founding of a state neither Holy, Roman, or in any sense an Empire.

Now, we could talk about how awful the west was. Forgeries such as the false Donatio Constantini, the differing Germanic law-codes which granted native Romans less than second citizen status (why else assimilate?). We could venerate the bravery of honest Romans like Boethius or the dream of Belisarius and Justinian. These things shouldn’t need repeating.

The real antipathy began in 1054, with the bizarre excommunication of the East. Bizarre in the sense that one still can’t understand just how this happened. Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian I and II had all proved decisively that the Emperor, not any single bishop, is the head of the church. On what authority was this carried out? On whose? Part of the reasoning was the omission of flioque in the creed. Omission! That’s #fakenews for you.

We in the West have had several reasons, both temporal and ecclesiastical, to castigate and malign the medieval Roman Empire. I think any putative connection to Russia is a new one, unlearned and pathetic even by the low low standards one holds what passes for the American press these days. 

‘Oh but the workings of the state were ones of occlusion and complexity!’ This from a state which literary hoards terabits of data on both its and foreign citizens. From a state with entrenched civil servants, where corporations may count as personages and wield more influence than federated states. Hmm.

Ah, Byzantium – it’s hard to see what so many could hate about it. The dedication to learning as evidenced by the great academies, monasteries, and law school? The pandidakterion was as much a university as Bologna or Oxford. The welcoming attitude to (assimilating) foreign populations? (I thought this was a virtue we shared?). The wonderful art, poetry, and music? Have you heard the hymns of Kassia?

Even the traditional image, of autocracy and despotism, may not be wholly true as recently argued by Kaldellis in his excellent ‘The Byzantine Republic’. Going by recent news stories, is our democracy really that much better? 

In short, there is much to love and admire about Byzantium and little to castigate from our glass houses. Spitting on the toe of a giant doesn’t make you big, it just makes you uncivilised.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in Byzantium, you’re lucky to have three wonderful introductions. Averil Cameron’s ‘Byzantine Matters’ is a thematic history, characterising the best of recent scholarship. Cyril Mango’s edited volume, ‘The Oxford History of Byzantium’ (section on the Macedonian dynasty is very strong), is of a similar vein. Jonathan Harris’ ‘Constantinople’ is ostensibly about the city herself but reveals a lot about wider history and culture.

If you would like a more narrative driven account, Timothy E Gregory’s addition to the Blackwell Ancient History series is up to date and emphasises the Roman connection beautifully. Ostrogorsky’s ‘History of the Byzantine State’ is old but remains a classic.

Of course if you want to physically experience Byzantium, head to your nearest Orthodox church.

On Cavafy’s Ionikon

I don’t know if you follow Paul Cooper’s twitter account. You really should, and not just because Rivers of Ink is one of the best new pieces of historical fiction I have encountered. Cooper has a predilection to ruins and frequently posts interesting ones. Why am I writing about this? Because a few weeks ago a wonderful capriccio of Grecian ruins got me thinking of how Greece and ruins always seem to go together.

I thought at first of Keat’s famous lines, ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard | Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on’ but, like a lot of Romantic poetry, they just rang hollow. The point of these sorts of vignettes isn’t that they’re silent but that they’re filled with the wrong kinds of sound. Can you imagine a temple in full use? The sounds (and smell!) of animals, chanting priests, playing children and, sorry to say, toiling slaves. Quite different from disjointed birdsong and rustling leaves.

John Kittmer suggested that the right poem would be Cavafy’s Ionikon and re-reading the poem sort of threw everything into place about how these places often make me feel. I’ll provide the poem below along with a rough translation (I’m a really shitty poet, sorry).

Cavafy has always been a poet of lost worlds. He was writing at a time when the last vestiges of the Roman identity were slowly falling away, and Greeks were by then strongly re-asserting an identity predicted around the classical past.

I’ve always wondered how Cavafy mediated these identities, both clearly had a powerful pull on him. After all, he was a native of a part of the world that, yes, was originally settled by Alexander but grew to be incredibly Romanised. After all, it is in the Roman period (not the Hellenistic, certainly not the Persian) where the native drink of choice in Egypt swaps from beer to wine. The see of Alexandria would be incredibly important in the late Roman world, only beginning to lose eminence to Constantinople when the orator John Chrysostomos was patriarch.

Roman history plays a uniquely important part in Cavafy’s historical poetry. I’m not quite aware of anyone else, Greek or otherwise, who demonstrates such an in-depth knowledge or adroit use of the classical past whether writing about Kaisarion or otherwise nameless minor officials.

Cavafy, then, occupied a very odd space historically. A Greek by descent, language, and education he lived far from the mainland. He was, we have good reason to believe, a homosexual and lived in a culture both eminently orthodox and quite cosmopolitan (his poetry bears influence from many fonts, English, French, Italian…). It is frequently suggested that his recourse to classical motifs in his poetry, particularly in poems concerning young men, allow him to mediate his desires in this culture.

Maybe. Likely even. We tend to take homosexuality amongst the Ancients as read, but this was not always the case. Take the Nomoi (laws) of Gemistos Plethon for example, ostensibly pagan, his recriminations towards homosexuality belay obvious Christian influence. Is it even worth mentioning the readings of the past offered by the Greek far right?

So, Cavafy is the poet of lost worlds – for the irrecoverable splendour of antiquity, for the aching loss of social acceptance, for the collapse of the last vestiges of the Byzantine world, which saw Greeks in Asia minor, the black sea, and Egypt. Ionikon is a great example.

Γιατί τα σπάσαμε τ’ αγάλματά των,

γιατί τους διώξαμεν απ’ τους ναούς των,

διόλου δεν πέθαναν γι’ αυτό οι θεοί.

Ω γη της Ιωνίας, σένα αγαπούν ακόμη,

σένα η ψυχές των ενθυμούνται ακόμη.

Σαν ξημερώνει επάνω σου πρωί αυγουστιάτικο

την ατμοσφαίρα σου περνά σφρίγος απ’ την ζωή των·

και κάποτ’ αιθερία εφηβική μορφή,

αόριστη, με διάβα γρήγορο,

επάνω από τους λόφους σου περνά.

Although we have broken their statuary,

and drove them from their temples

there’s no reason at all for their gods to be dead.

O land of Ionia, they love you still,

it’s you their souls ever remember.

When over you an august dawn awakens

Your atmosphere takes vigour from their lives

And, occasionally, an ethereal ephebe’s form,

indeterminate, stepping swiftly,

makes its way along your hills

Ionia has always had a strong place in Greek cultural memory. We probably have enough evidence to prove early settlement by the Mycenaeans, many of the big names of classical Greek science and culture (Herakleios, Homer, Herodotos, Panyassis, Xenophanes etc etc) came from there, the area was of colossal importance from the Hellenistic to the Byzantine periods and even post Ottoman conquest, Greeks lived there (and formed the most productive part of society) until suffering genocide at the hands of the Turks.

Reading the poem made me think first of the great death of the archaic world. The Greeks beat the Persians, but the result was a reduction of importance of Asia minor and a substantial change in panhellenic Greek culture. Poetry became gradually less oral, neoteric forms like tragedy took over.

I’ve always thought this a great shame. The fact is Greek tragedy just…well it’s ok. There are some brilliant bits. But compared to Sappho? Homer? Come on.

The second death? Who knows. The Romans brought rejuvenation to the area. Perhaps after Manzikert and the capture of Romanos Digenes? The gradual reduction of Byzantine suzerainty was a new kind of death: The transition from archaic to classical was somewhere between re-incarnation and a c-section. Turkification, a moribund plague or cancer. Naturally, the Latins hardly helped things.

Then there is the final death, which I feel neither like being flippant about nor terribly want to ruminate deeply on. The Greek genocide and population exchange.  After years of Turkokratia this engendered an abrupt change, a sundering, in the life and culture of the region.

Refugees naturally fled westwards, to the mainland, and many Greek cities have neighbourhoods now named after areas in Ionia (Nea Smynri, Pefki, Nea Ionia, tend to be common). Traces of Ionia can still be found in popular folk songs, in food, and in familial histories.

I’ve long dissolved into rambling here, maybe this isn’t quite what Cavafy had in mind when he wrote Ionikon, but it’s immediately what I think of.

If you’re not too bored, I’d implore to scroll back up and take another look at the poem. Or better yet, find an actually poetic translation. What a wonderful invocation of the past that is: the form of a youth  – vigorous and gravid with possibility – none the less frozen in place. At once visible but ultimately intangible. Compare that with Byron’s overwrought “cold relic of departed worth”.

No contest.