Lars Porsenna vs the Roman Taliban

“per hunc,” inquit [L. Iunius Brutus], “castissimum ante regiam iniuriam sanguinem iuro, vosque, di, testes facio, me L. Tarquinium Superbum cum scelerata coniuge et omni liberorum stirpe ferro, igni, quacumque denique vi possim, exsecuturum nec illos nec alium quemquam regnare Romae passurum.”

“By this” he said “blood most pure – before its royal defilement – I swear, and you gods I call upon as witnesses, that I will drive out Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, his sordid wife, and his progeny with steel, fire, and with whatever strength I am able. I will not suffer them [the Tarquinii] or any other to reign in Rome.”

Livy 1.59.1

A heavy oath: Brutus died for it. Certainly heavier than the one sworn by his feckless descendent still wet with Caesar’s blood.[1] The traditional account of the founding of the Republic should be familiar to all readers of this blog, even if only in Tacitus’ bravura precis (“urbem Romam a principio reges habuere; libertatem et consulatum L. Brutus instituit”). The Tarquinii were expelled, no single man would ever again hold power due to a genius mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy,[2] and the nascent Republic won legitimacy in the only political theatre that actually matters, the battlefield.[3] But the Romans were about to find out what the Athenians recently did with King Cleomenes’ feet upon the sacred concrete soil of the Acropolis and what many would be revolutionaries have found out since:[4] internal revolutions seldom stay, well, internal.

Lars Porsenna was king of the Etruscan city Clevsi (Latin Clusium, Italian Chiusi),[5] whose life seemed to have echoed and rhymed with that of many archaic age aristocrats up and down the Italic peninsula. The exact manner of relationship between Lars Porsenna and Tarquinius Superbus, his actions in and around Rome, and their aftermath is of course lost to time. Classicists have diligently teased out a (perhaps) more creditable narrative than what the tradition has handed down to us but, whilst that is an interesting story in and of itself, it is not the purpose of this blogpost. For our present needs, we are going to more or less work with the traditional narrative.[6] Porsenna seems to have struck some sort of deal with the exiled Tarquin, correctly intimating that there would be some aristocratic elements at Rome who would not entirely welcome the new Republic. With this in mind, he set out for Rome with his army, Tarquin in the train, hoping to intimidate them into acquiescence. Not a bad strategy and not at all alien to the classical Mediterranean: The Persians had old man Hippias in tow as they set out to subdue Athens; The Spartans loved installing puppet oligarchies; Alexander would force cities to accept their own exiles as a sort of fifth-column/domestic terrorists in waiting. Ah well, plus ça change

Instead, the Romans decided to fight. Livy’s account presents a larger-than-life narrative with colourful heroes who were once current amongst our educated classes. Horatius Cocles at the bridge; the unfortunately named C. Mucius Scaevola; Cloelia. None of it is true, but none of it is unimportant either. Porsenna’s forces must have been an intimidating sight. It is a rhetorical commonplace to state that kings in the archaic period were little more than thugs. But these were thugs with good equipment, discipline, and numbers. They struck like lightning and soon held the Janiculum. This was disastrous. The Romans must have thought that between their hills and the Tiber they could mitigate some of the enemy’s strength. They thought wrong. It soon looked like the Etruscans would take the Pons Sublicius, a bridge that forded the Tiber and gave easy access to the Aventinus and to the Roman heartland. Horatius Cocles had other ideas and having ordered his men to break the bridge he set to defending it by himself.

circumferens inde truces minaciter oculos ad proceres Etruscorum nunc singulos provocare, nunc increpare omnes: servitia regum superborum, suae libertatis immemores alienam oppugnatum venire.

There, casting his grim eyes about threateningly at the leaders of the Etruscans, now he challenges them single file, now he insults them all at once,[7] for their servitude towards proud kings, heedless of their own liberty, they have come to oppress that of another people’s.[8]

Livy 2.10.8

A heroic moment. Perhaps English and Norwegian readers will be reminded of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, though in this case Horatius got away at the last minute under a hail of missiles.[9] You can see why painters and poets have been inspired by this story. Nevertheless, Porsenna was victorious in the field and the remaining Romans now locked behind their gates (“Porsenna ad portaaaas!”). The Romans had been beaten on the field. Trickery might do. Since the Romans had inherited a congenital allergy to wooden horses, they decided that the next best thing would be to send a youth into Persona’s camp to assassinate the king.

Gaius Mucius slipped into the king’s camp unnoticed. After all, there were quite a few Latins on Porsenna’s side, who would notice one more? He chanced to be there when the king was distributing salaries to the soldiery. As an aside, I am struck by how eternal this image of warlord personally redistributing wealth would be in Italy. Germanic ring givers, Anglo/Italian condottieri captains, Garibaldi and his merry …it is the later Roman bureaucracy that is the rare aberration. Anyway. Mucius, however, has no idea which man is the king and mistakenly kills the secretary instead.[10] He is, of course, apprehended and brought before the king. Porsenna at least was a man and instead of squirrelling young Mucius to some proto-Guantanamo and lying about it to the Tyrhennian Observer, he addresses him directly. The response is intransigent.

hostis hostem occidere volui, nec ad mortem minus animi est quam fuit ad caedem: et facere et pati fortia Romanum est. nec unus in te ego hos animos gessi; longus post me ordo est idem petentium decus. proinde in hoc discrimen, si iuvat, accingere, ut in singulas horas capite dimices tuo, ferrum hostemque in vestibulo habeas regiae.  hoc tibi iuventus Romana indicimus bellum. nullam aciem, nullum proelium timueris; uni tibi et cum singulis res erit.”

“I am an enemy and wanted to kill an enemy. I will not face my death with less courage than I would in killing you. To act and suffer bravely, this is Roman nature. I am not alone in girding my soul against you: there is a large number after me seeking the same honour. So then if it pleases you, proceed in this contest wherein you must fight for your head every hour and withstand an armed foe in your palace. This is the war that we Roman youth declare against you. You will fear no formation, no pitched battle, the war will be between you and each one of us singly.”

Livy 1.2.9-12

Non iam acta est fabula. After having demonstrated a seemingly endless enmity, sworn the Roman youth to forever war, and threatened guerrilla warfare, Mucius then thrusts his right hand into the altar fire. He calls this self-immolation a great glory and his descendants will forever carry the name “Scaevola” (lefty) in honour of this. The king, of course, is horrified and impressed in equal measure and dismisses G. Mucius Scaevola from his camp. He would soon withdraw. Porsenna had the numbers, he had the equipment, he even seems to have had the tactical nous. But he did not have victory. Who could hope to win against such a people? After all, they were suckled on wolf’s milk.

What was Porsenna’s mistake? In Livy’s bed time story I mean. In reality, he seems to have stormed Rome, reduced it to slavery, used it as a launch pad for his raids before abandoning it after a defeat or two. One might say that his mistake was underestimating his enemy and pursuing an unwinnable war. But, following Livy, Porsenna seeks a cessation of hostilities with the Romans more or less as soon as he realises that they can’t be reduced in war. No, his mistake was that neither he nor his staff (nor the traitorous Tarquin in his train) seemed to know the Romans in any meaningful way.

Livy was a Roman writer, writing for Romans. We might chalk up his depiction of the Roman character here to mere chauvinism, especially given what we (think we) know about the actual events of the archaic age. It is true that all peoples at all times lionise themselves and their national character in this way. Herodotus, for example, as an Asiatic Greek had more experience of the Persians than most, yet all throughout his Histories he has them marvel at the Hellenic character. Consider the reaction he ascribes to the Persians upon their discovery of the Olympic games:

πυνθανόμενος γὰρ τὸ ἄεθλον ἐὸν στέφανον ἀλλ᾽ οὐ χρήματα, οὔτε ἠνέσχετο σιγῶν εἶπέ τε ἐς πάντας τάδε. ‘παπαῖ Μαρδόνιε, κοίους ἐπ᾽ ἄνδρας ἤγαγες μαχησομένους ἡμέας, οἳ οὐ περὶ χρημάτων τὸν ἀγῶνα ποιεῦνται ἀλλὰ περὶ ἀρετῆς.’ τούτῳ μὲν δὴ ταῦτα εἴρητο.

For, learning that the prize was a crown [of laurel leaves] and not money, he could not hold his silence and said to them all: “Oh Mardonius! What sort of men have you brought us to war against? They do not contend for money, but for virtue!”. In this way he spoke.

Herodotus 8.26.3

In fact, this may even be the literary inspiration behind Livy’s depiction of the events we are currently discussing. The major difference is that all our historical data point towards there being some truth in Livy’s patriotic scribbling. Consider Pyrrhus’ victory, Aurelian’s resurgent empire, Aetius’ grinding resistance to Atilla, Justinian’s Reconquista, Heraclius’ generational war against the Persians…all the way to Constantine XI at the walls of Constantinople and perhaps to the klephts in the hills beyond. There is something fundamental, foundational, to the Roman character that could be found in pseudohistorical archetypes like Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola. As I said earlier, these stories contained in Livy’s early books are false historically, true in the ways that matter.[11]

This brings us, at last, to recent events. If others too see reflections of the Romans’ contumacy, dissolution into guerrilla warfare, and willingness to literally self-immolate in the Taliban, good. I have feinted clumsily at this. I do not draw this parallel with any sense of approbation, I certainly do not think the Taliban are just a bunch of good chaps hard done by, but I do think Livy offers us a good hermeneutic framework with which to play about. Does that make the US Lars Porsenna? With the same caveats I have just laid out – I think that too is a helpful parallel. Certainly, they both committed the same fatal flaw as not knowing their erstwhile enemy.[12]


Why did I write this? The telchines will crow that no matter what I post, they are of no account. When I first put that poll up (pretend I did not forget about the blog and posted this within 3-5 days…) I suspect many where expecting something a bit more historically grounded. After all, I have a variable but serviceable grasp of some of the ancient languages pertinent to the area: People will kind hearts, big brains, but low pattern recognition might have expected me to produce something on the Hellenistic kingdoms or the Kushanas or even the Sasanids. It was tempting, it still is, but part of the vitality of a discipline like Classics relies on the ability of its practitioners (whosoever they may be) to make credible links with the present and offer us. The Romans, who knew a thing or two about empire, colonisation, and assimilation proved to be an irresistible source of comparison.

The link, with however light a hand it was done, between the early Romans and the Taliban will doubtless prove too provocative for some. The Romans represent for much of us all that is best, foundational, to Western civilisation and the Taliban its antonym. But I put it to those offended that If your reading of the past only ever reinforces your current worldview, if the broad stretch of history looks like a series of steps leading comfortably to your own politics, then you are not doing history, you are constructing just so stories. If 20 years of Western failure in Afghanistan has proven anything, its that self-indulgence is ever more than merely self-destructive.

History is never truly dead.

[1] “De li altri due c’hanno il capo di sotto/ quel che pende dal nero ceffo è/ vedi come si storce, e non fa motto!” Dante Inferno 34.64-66 enjoy asshole. His ancestor is, of course, listed amongst the honourable pagans (4.127-9) along with poor Lucretia.

[2] Shhh.

[3] You can rig elections; you can’t rig wars. War is a horrid, lamentable, and sadly unavoidable phenomenon. Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι πάντων δὲ βασιλεύς.

[4] Hillary Clinton upon the smoking bones of Libyan children…

[5] Anecdotally, this is one of the few Etruscan toponyms I remember since one of the textbooks I used pointed out that what we take to be the Etruscan endonym – rasna – simply meant people in their tongue and was more often compounded with toponyms e.g Rasneas Clevsinsl. I said it was an anecdote, not an interesting anecdote.

[6] I genuinely hate this kind of disclaimer and feel that this is getting close to detestable academic hedging. But one must ward off the bugmen. Please, if you are reading this, stop assuming I am unfamiliar with the books on your first-year reading list. Spend the time you waste sending e-mails learning Latin or Greek instead.

[7] For those of you who cannot yet read Latin, use the use of now, nunc, is translated literally despite the subject matter being something you would expect to be very past tense. This is an affectation that helps build a sense of vivacity. I know right? Read Livy.


[9] He even, unlike Achilles, had the good manners to address the river in prayer before jumping in.

[10] We moderns take this to be evidence of a certain oriental effeteness about Porsenna and his court. Artists love this theme. Look at the pampered Asiatic despots against the hardy, simplistic, Roman sons of the soil. Not only is this moronic and ahistorical, it belies a complete ignorance about the role of a secretarius in ancient armies. Likewise, Hellenistic “historians”, stop writing about the “soft Eumenes of Cardia”. Imbeciles.

[11] Why yes, I do subscribe to the Lucanian school of historiography. How can you tell?

[12] Secret footnote. Good job.

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?

Reading Catullus in the wake of Epstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Classics Love Poem Cup – A reading list

The Poetry Society recently ran an amazing ‘world cup’ of poetry ending, thankfully, with Keats as the winner. I tried to webscrape the longlist and match the links against it, but lost the data. Oh no. So, instead, have the preliminary shortlist for the upcoming Love Poem Cup while I try to recover said data. It’s a damn good list, even if I already know whom I want to win…

  1. On Marriage, Gibran
  2. After the Lunch, Wendy Cope
  3. The Present, Michael Donaghy
  4. How do I love thee? Browning
  5. I carry your Heart, Cummings
  6. She Walks in Beauty, Byron
  7. The Farmer’s Bride, Charlotte Mew
  8. True Love Hath Made my Heart, Philip Sidney
  9. Love After Love, Walcott
  10. Warming her Pearls, Carol Ann Duffy
  11. My Dear and Loving Husband, Anne Bradstreet
  12. Symptoms of Love, Robert Graves
  13. Variation on the Word Sleep, Atwood
  14. Wild nights – Wild nights! (269), Dickinson
  15. One Cigarette, Edwin Morgan
  16. Having a Coke with you, O’Hara
  17. True Love, Sharon Olds
  18. Badly Chosen Lover, Rosemary Tonks
  19. Wanna be Yours, John Cooper Clarke
  20. Love’s Philosophy, Shelley
  21. Atlas, UA Fanthorpe
  22. Mad Girl’s Love Song, Plath
  23. When You Are Old, Yeats
  24. A Birthday, Rossetti
  25. Westron Wynde
  26. Meeting at Night, Browning
  27. The Sun Rising, Donne
  28. One Perfect Rose, Dorothy Parker
  29. Bright Star, Keats
  30. A Red, Red, Rose, Burns
  31. Wedding, Alice Oswald
  32. If You Forget Me, Neruda

What has Athens to do with Pataliputra?

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

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

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


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

Image result for vajra

Zeus and Indra

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

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

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

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

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

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

They remembered with gratitude, his kindly deeds

and gave him thunder, dazzling lightning

and the thunderbolt, which monstrous Earth had hitherto concealed

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

Hesiod, Theogony, 503-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for vajrapani gandhara


Quot Homines, Tot Sententiae: Why learn Classical Languages?

A blog by nature is ephemeral (this one more than most) so it doesn’t hurt to provide some content for my ramblings. I had a rare free Saturday morning, and was reading through Manutius’ prefaces to Greek and Latin texts, when I remembered twitter still existed. Logging on, I found an interesting article by a Theology student on what value they’ve gained studying a classical language (in this case Latin).

I’m linking it here since it’s worth reading, if only to catch something of the evident pleasure this student gets from studying Latin. In all these discussions about Ovid and rape culture, or how apparently white statues make scholars racist, it’s a nice reminder that more than anything else these languages are interesting. 

I found the article, as I find so many interesting classical nugatae lately, in the twitter feed of Olivia Thompson. OT, as always, had her own interesting take and wrote about the application of classical languages to the historian:

Compare that with the bewildering entitlement displayed in another article by a fledgling student, this time from Columbia, doing the rounds a few weeks ago. I will, of course, link the entire thing here.

This post isn’t going to convince anybody as to the worth of studying Latin and Greek – though Ironically I’ve had an easier time of doing that without the university than within – but do let’s look briefly at three small questions on offer here. Are classical languages interesting? are they in anyway useful? and (vis a vis the article above) are they, well, elitist?

Now, I think the fact that myself and many other alumni still read Greek and Latin without the Damoclean deadlines of university exams hanging over us speaks to delight and joy these languages can bring. Indeed, I spoke of classical languages – not just Latin and Greek, because there’s something about the discipline which inculcates a need to ferret out other ancient languages: I was considered unusually multilingual by my tutors at Oxford, but I know so much more now. It is the same with my course-mates, I know a non-negligible number who have gone on to pick Arabic, Classical Chinese, even native American languages.

Utility – ah utility! You capering nymph never to be seized! you shy little boat drifting always just off the jetty! – Yeah,I’m not going to even try to tackle that properly. You’re welcome to go down that rabbit hole without me. Here’s Boris Johnson. Here’s someone championing Latin for literacy. Here is the inestimable Mary Beard giving a more level headed and engaging view. Have fun, Dominus vobiscum.

Instead let’s take utility in the narrow sense implied (or at least I infer it) by the first article I cited and Thompson’s response. Do the languages offer utility outside their directly immediate areas of study?

I think we have something of an answer from the young student of Theology. Thompson’s tweet (above) does that beautifully for history.  My model for a historian in this sense has always been John Ma who is probably the most impressive Greek historian you’ve never read.

Ancient history, divorced from strict linguistic study, is often heralded as a great equaliser. I think the truth is that all it does is impoverish student and discipline alike. Which leads me to the third point of consideration and the one raised by the second linked article. Are these languages elitist? Is it too much to expect students from certain background to learn them?

As counter intuitive it may seem, I would argue quite the opposite. There is no doubt that students from private schools have an advantage when it comes to becoming Classicists. These advantages are, in some part, the kind of reasons that cause parents to spend large amounts of money on educating their brood. That students from these backgrounds all but monopolise positions in the academy is another problem all together and more to do with the incestuous nature of British universities. None the less, let’s point out the obvious that, yes, little Tristan and Isabella who have years of Latin and Greek (or Arabic, or Russian, or Mandarin…) will have an easier job of getting good at Latin and Greek in the three or four years they are at university.

Let us also make it clear that little Wayne or Jodie, who may not even have taken French, will have a more difficult time. But that difficulty exists up to a point. Universities like Oxford administer aptitude exams meant to be (haha, oh god we still claim this, haha) subject agnostic. The point of tertiary study is that you’re in a specialised environment with time and resources on your side to master whatever esoterica comes your way, and last – but not by any means least – you have like minded friends. The latter I think can make more of a difference than even the most well-meaning lecturer.

Study and mastery over these languages also helped to provide something like an objective yard-stick. Others more perceptive than I have pointed out how the movement to reception and classics in the modern world replaces core competencies (textual criticism, papyrology etc) with softer class distinguishers.

Coming from a working-class background, there have been a few impediments to my studying Classics. The languages certainly were not one of them. If anything, growing up multilingual and in a multi-ethnic area where I constantly heard other languages, I took to them rapidly. I think the complete lack of cultural baggage meant I never developed any fear of them. Sure, ‘smart people’ knew Latin but Maths and Science were also meant to be very difficult and as everyone tells you, anyone can learn their lessons if they try hard enough.

I worry, I really do, when people start moving their politics and personal tastes (in terms of the books and films they enjoy) into the curriculum and start grading on them. A working-class kid from Birmingham or Hounslow is never going to have quite the same performative version of feminism as you do, is never going to have read or watched the same things, hasn’t had the kind of experience which would engender the same politics.

It is, moreover,  insanely unfair to expect us to. That is not social contract we signed up to on matriculation. But a verb is a verb and Osthoff’s law or Lectio difficilior potior remain equally valid in estuary English or brogue. Objectivity’ isn’t much more definable than ‘utility’ when it comes to marking and comparing students, but there are grades of fairness.

Why must we be guardians of Latin and Greek? Well that’s a grandiose way of putting things but I can’t help but think that when we guard them, they guard the discipline.

Further reading

Links scattered throughout will be alphabetised and appended here when I can be bothered. I’ll also add some links of interest, not cited, as per usual. Meanwhile enjoy the Daily Mail (who else?) on ‘chav’ names here and the Tatler on posh baby names.

Short Note: Classics and Languages

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

West comment for blog

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Newell 2017: Holland, Grayling, & the origins of Humanism

What better way to alleviate the shoulder wearying stresses of a Thursday than a lively debate? This years Newell Classics Event offered just such a locus amoenus. The topic was nothing less divisive than the origin of our modern humanistic values. Given that these are the values likely shared by myself and the five or so readers of this blog, you can imagine how it piqued my interest.

On one hand (μεν) was historian and hedgehog enthusiast Tom Holland arguing for a Christian basis while on the other (δε) stood philosopher Anthony Grayling who tended to favour a classical origin. Arguments were marshalled with wit and verve and – I dare say – both were wrong and both were right. (Boo! Cop out! …leave me alone).

Holland’s delivery was in many ways, perhaps ironically, the kind of stuff we’d recognise form classical handbooks on rhetoric: the gesticulation, the lowering of the voice to draw one in, the odd quotation or two delivered as if an exemplum and so on. Grayling I saw as something akin to a 19th century “Christian Gentleman” in demeanour (a construction he argued had at least as much to do with humanism as Christianity). He was pleasantly loquacious with his puns (CofE = Christmas and Easter), jokes (bathtub Aristotle anyone?), and his sardonic quotations of scripture.

Or perhaps that was just my fanciful take on things…

Many were the cuts and thrusts exchanged throughout. I shan’t try to replicate every single point each made but I’ll try to give a fair impression with some observations strewn throughout.

Holland focused, interestingly, on the inherent alien nature of Graeco-Roman civilisation. But whereas Dodds famous treatise focused on rationality and so on, Holland drew the salient differences between us and them as being down to the Christian values we’ve subsequently developed. In charity, kindness, in the revulsion we feel for the dead babies cast down the Tagytos, lie the origins of our modern western Weltanschauung.

That is not to say that these values weren’t and aren’t present elsewhere: To my mind there’s much to be said for the role of evolutionary behaviour in promoting kind/mindful behaviours. On the other hand, I immediately though of how the Emperor Julian’s (regnavit 360-3) failed idiosyncratic attempt at a religion (calling it tradition is a misnomer) found itself having to co-opt and emulate Christian institutions such as the hospital to win over converts.

The Romans were apex predators in Holland’s words, and while we might admire them we should be conscious of our distance and differences. He went on to claim that the very universalism humanism claims to derive directly from Christianity and contrasts it with other world religious systems, such as Islam.

Grayling’s own presentation took a different tack and focused in part on the apparent infeasibility of Christian doctrine when it comes to eschewing the material world, planning not for the morrow and so on. He focused on its need to borrow from “a richer, older, tradition” (his words) several times. There were some interesting philosophical comparisons between Jesus’ preaching and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to illustrate this.

If I had to summarise his argument, and I fully admit doing so is always a kind of butchery, I’d say it came down to Christianity not being able to stand on its own two feet and humanism being born when European scholars started turning to the Classics for inspiration. Whereas Holland argued humanism was Christianity (Anglicanism?) light, Grayling argued it wasn’t capable of providing the foundations in the first place.

I almost got the impression he might have gone on to argue that both humanism and Christianity are mutually divergent descendants from Classical thought.

I was struck by how radically different both speakers’ view of antiquity was. Given the classical focus of this blog I’ll indulge a little by writing about it. Holland was very much concerned with straight cause and affect in the same way a Philologist would discuss filiation and derivation. He boldly focused on our differences and the ruptures between our (post-)Christian world and the classical past.

Grayling’s entire conception of antiquity seemed to me to be so much like a 19th century gentleman’s that I was forcibly reminded at the huge yawning gap between what Classicists write (or did, before insipid theory-mania) about and public perception of antiquity.

Christianity might have borrowed from earlier, richer, traditions but so did the Greeks and Romans. It’s why Classicists pay so much attention to the near east and have developed sophisticated models of cultural interaction. I’m not so sure Christianity (though hardly my cup of tea!) was necessarily poorer either. Boethius seems to me just as good as Aristotle, Claudian was certainly a Christian, writers like Iuvencus wrote on New Testament themes and so on.

In fact, what both speakers seemed to veer away from admitting was that while Christianity did affect Classical antiquity (for H, making it kinder; for G obscuring it) in turn our very conception of antiquity has a Christian bent. Why did Grayling cite Aristotle and not, say, Herakleitos? The man known to later Judeo-Christian tradition simply as “the Philosopher” owes just as much for his lengthy nachleben to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic commentators as his own brilliance.

I just don’t see how we can clearly discern the routes of humanism from amongst the tangled, obscure origins of western culture. We’ve all read our Scheid and Ando and Dumezil… for me at least there’s nothing secular about the Roman Empire: If anything I’d argue it was only Christianity’s partial break with the Classical tradition that enabled a secular culture to form in the first place. How can we entangle all of that to assign pride of place to either or?

Anyway, these are thoughts for another time. Suffice to say it was an enjoyable and stimulating event and that I’m glad I attended.