Filling the Neophytes Library (Ancient History)

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

           Steven Pinker (Chronicle)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the Classical Mediterranean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Do not blame him for his shitty epigones)

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

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


Ancient Rome

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

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

Daube, D. (1969). Roman Law. TX.

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

I mean…what is the competition?

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

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

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

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

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

Hahaha yeah, eat shit Cicero

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

Late Antiquity

(It is an inevitable category)

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

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

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

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

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?

Museum Closed: On the Desecration of the Hagia Sophia

You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, they say. Who wants more flies? Well if this blog is honey (or vinegar) perhaps Twitter Classicists are flies; they certainly have been absolutely rolling in faeces lately. Let me explain. You see the transformation (rape…defilement…) of the Hagia Sophia by tinpot wannabe genocidal dictator Erdogan has been met with the kind of twee, historically uninformed, illiterate twaddle most of us have come to expect from any “Classicist” with an institutional affiliation nowadays. My particular favourites have been attempts to compare this to the consecration of the Parthenon or Pantheon as churches. This, incidentally, is an excellent litmus test for our classical courses. If you do not know why, when, how and under whose aegis those buildings became churches, you do not know even Roman History to teach the next generation.

It would have been one thing to say nothing, but this batch of classicistuli has the insane urge to comment on anything and everything related to Greece for some reason. It is a bit like their habit of capping speeches or exchanging pleasantries in badly accented (both meanings!) Greek at conferences and events. Why? What is this? Do people do this with Italian? Does reading about Pompeii vs Sertorius give me especial insight on Spanish politics? Should I wish people happy birthday in Tamazight because I am up on the Punic wars? There is no substance here, only signalling. “Oh, look how detached, clearheaded and above it we all are! Can’t they see this is no different from x, y, z”. Disdainful, supercilious, fools.

This is what I am going to do here. I am going to attempt to flesh out the context, of the significance of this gesture and attempt to give some sense of the weight behind it. In a comparatively short piece. I am not an expert. Late Byzantine, Ottoman, Modern Greek Studies and Diplomacy are very much their own fields, with their own epistemological frameworks, arcane languages, foundational texts, and highly trained experts. A few of these experts may even be found on twitter, who offer some pretty good takes on this. I am reluctant to wade into this, I know full well this will lose me even more readers (oh no, stop, come back…), but I write this in the hope that some people will be chastened and even more will be informed.

…ἔστιν οὗ σιγὴ λόγου There is a time when silence may be stronger than
κρείσσων γένοιτ᾿ ἄν, ἔστι δ᾿ οὗ σιγῆς λόγος. speech; but sometimes speech is stronger than silence

Euripides Orestes 638-9

The Church


To understand the Hagia Sophia you need to understand a little bit about Constantinople herself. How historians assess Constantine’s decision to build a new city on the Bosporus depends largely on how they assess his character – cynical self-aggrandiser or strategic genius? For the former, Constantine’s new religion and outsized sense of self must have sat poorly with the built environment of Rome.[1] Building anew allowed him to leave his mark in marble. Suetonius tells us that Augustus could truly boast himself to have marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset, that is “to have left behind marble where he had found mud-brick” and it makes sense that Constantine, armed with a new religion and dusting off the tetrarchy, could set himself to rival this.[2] After all, we know that for some time yet sis felicior Augusto, melior Traiano would remain the accessional chant for new emperors.[3]

Against this is common sense. Constantine was happy to dress his Christianity in a Roman guise, needed to keep the traditional aristocracy on side, and at best issued toleration.[4] Rivalry with the past was all well and good, it was practically expected of Roman emperors, but he still needed to perform. The building of Constantinople must have been in no small part a practical decision. Ensconced as it was in Latium, Rome had increasingly become less viable as a capital for a state that stretched from Britain to Mesopotamia. The multiplication of emperors under Diocletian to match an increasingly complex and varied theatre of operations naturally necessitated several bases.[5] In addition to Rome, Milan, Nicomedia, Trier, Ravenna, and Antioch would all serve as imperial residences for extended periods of time. Constantinople would prove a genius choice. Its Greek predecessor, Byzantium, had held out against Septimius Severus for years and once properly fortified it would withstand siege after siege, whilst being able to maintain its supply lines.[6] Constantinople’s very success at defence tends to obscure how good a decision this was. Rome, and the West, fell to Germanics but the city held out against its own equivalent threat(s) like the Isaurians,[7] Avars, Arabs, etc etc.

This was the city Justinian inherited. Rapid expansion and adornment had, by the 6th century, given it a sense of importance but it was still hardly a rival for Old Rome (or even old civic centres like Alexandria and Antioch). Justinian, who deserves to be remembered as well as Augustus or Trajan, would make renovatio the watchword of his reign. He would return old imperial provinces (including the Italian heartlands) to the fold, supervise the standardising of Roman Law, and embark on an empire wide rebuilding that would not have been out of place in the time of the Antonines.[8] He would attempt to be a third Augustus, a second Constantine.[9]

Hagia_Sophia_Southwestern_entrance_mosaics_2 - Copy
Justinian, left, offering the Hagia Sophia. Constantine, right, offering the City. 

Naturally, Constantinople too benefited from rebuilding, and when the church situated on the site of Hagia Sophia was burnt down during the Nika riots of 532,[10] Justinian saw his chance. The new building would not only surpass the old, it would surpass every single church then (or, frankly, since) in existence.  Here is what frenemy Procopius had to say on the church:

τῷ τε γὰρ ὄγκῳ κεκόμψευται καὶ τῇ ἁρμονίᾳ τοῦ μέτρου, οὔτε τι ὑπεράγαν οὔτε τι ἐνδεῶς ἔχουσα, ἐπεὶ καὶ τοῦ ξυνειθισμένου κομπωδεστέρα καὶ τοῦ ἀμέτρου κοσμιωτέρα ἐπιεικῶς ἐστι, φωτὶ δὲ καὶ ἡλίου μαρμαρυγαῖς ὑπερφυῶς πλήθει. φαίης ἂν οὐκ ἔξωθεν καταλάμπεσθαι ἡλίῳ τὸν χῶρον, ἀλλὰ τὴν αἴγλην ἐν αὐτῷ φύεσθαι, τοσαύτη τις φωτὸς περιουσία ἐς τοῦτο δὴ τὸ ἱερὸν περικέχυται.[11]

For it proudly reveals its mass and the harmony of its proportions, having neither any excess nor deficiency, since it is both more pretentious than the buildings to which we are accustomed, and considerably more noble than those which are merely huge, and it abounds exceedingly in sunlight and in the reflection of the sun’s rays from the marble. Indeed, one might say that its interior is not illuminated from without by the sun, but that the radiance comes into being within it, such an abundance of light bathes this shrine

(1.1 29-32)

θαυμάσειε γὰρ ἂν εἰκότως τῶν μὲν τὸ ἁλουργόν, τῶν δὲ τὸ χλοάζον, καὶ οἷς τὸ φοινικοῦν ἐπανθεῖ καὶ ὧν τὸ λευκὸν ἀπαστράπτει, ἔτι μέντοι καὶ οὓς ταῖς ἐναντιωτάταις ποικίλλει χροιαῖς ὥσπερ τις ζωγράφος ἡ φύσις. ὁπηνίκα δέ τις εὐξόμενος ἐς αὐτὸ ἴοι, ξυνίησι μὲν εὐθὺς ὡς οὐκ ἀνθρωπείᾳ δυνάμει ἢ τέχνῃ, ἀλλὰ θεοῦ ῥοπῇ τὸ ἔργον τοῦτο ἀποτετόρνευται· ὁ νοῦς δέ οἱ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ἐπαιρόμενος ἀεροβατεῖ, οὐ μακράν που ἡγούμενος αὐτὸν εἶναι, ἀλλ᾿ ἐμφιλοχωρεῖν μάλιστα οἷς αὐτὸς εἵλετο.

For he would surely marvel at the purple of some, the green tint of others, and at those on which the crimson glows and those from which the white flashes, and again at those which Nature, like some painter, varies with the most contrasting colours. And whenever anyone enters this church to pray, he understands at once that it is not by any human power or skill, but by the influence of God, that this work has been so finely turned. And so his mind is lifted up toward God and exalted, feeling that He cannot be far away, but must especially love to dwell in this place which He has chosen.

(1.1 60-2)

οὐ χρήμασι δὲ αὐτὴν ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐδείματο μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ πονουμένῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ καὶ τῇ ἄλλῃ τῆς ψυχῆς ἀρετῇ,

But it was not with money alone that the Emperor built it, but also with labour of the mind and with the other powers [virtues] of the soul

(1.1 67-8)

It is hard to give a sense of place, of physical reality, solely with text. Procopius somehow manages to combine imperial veneration, ekphrasis, and an almost Pausaniasque tour guide sense of place. His work on buildings is undoubtedly under read, understudied, and underappreciated and I would happily recommend it to readers. His preface situates the work quite well. It is classicising and meant to exult the emperor and his renovation, especially after the Nika riots. It would be easy to dismiss this as mere propaganda were it not for the sense of reverence Procopius has for the church. He seems quite earnest in thanking god for bringing together Anthemius, Isidore, and Justinian (the latter must have been happy to share credit) and whilst he makes frequent reference to the church’s height this is never done in a boastful manner. I hope the above selections give some sense of what it must have been like to see it. Most of the description is technical in nature, I went for the sense of wonder.

We will never be able to see the church as they did. The broader architectural complex and its Roman context has long been changed, demolished, built over. The church itself, raped and ruined. Threatened by minarets on the outside, the inside is bereft of the decoration Procopius and others mention. What few mosaics there are, were saved by Thomas Whittemore (excellent blog post on that, here); instead of glittering gold we have vomit and diarrhoea yellow paint, and the images of Roman and biblical history have been replaced with attempts at Islamic art. Anyone who has been spoilt by the clever geometry and naturalism of Iranian painters will be, at best, bemused.[12] So much for sight, but did not God give you four more senses just to annoy me?

The aim of the project, performed by Acapella Romana and supported by various scholars, to try and recreate the acoustic properties of the Hagia Sophia, something many thought lost to the mists of time. More information may be found on the project, here. It is a wonderful mixture of art and science, and really an example of what the various historicising disciplines can do best. “Ah, but Croc” I hear you say, “Justinian was born in the Balkans, Byzantine chant had not yet been formalised, what would he have heard?”. Actually, we do have some sense of that.

Led by Marcel Pérès, the Ensemble Organum has attempted to recreate what Pre-Gregorian chant sounded like. The musical evidence is scant (Westerners were as keen to eject tradition for modernity as ever), and even though the languages themselves offer some help, a fair bit must be said to be speculative. Nevertheless, this is as good a recreation as we are going to get to experiencing something similar to what Justinian (or at least Heraclius) did. Think about this for a minute: you are sharing an experience with the Romans. If that does not excite you, you are on the wrong blog.

So that was the church that became simply known as the great church or monastery in everything from official laudatory orations to illiterate peasant poetry.

The Fall


Depending on how much emphasis you put the continuity of government as a perquisite there are two possible “falls” of the Roman state. The first, to Latin crusaders during the fourth Crusade, in 1204 remains a watershed date: Despite (in fact, because of – they were keen relic hunters) their Christianity, the Latins were happy to loot and quite a bit of what makes Venice’s built environment remarkable. The Latins did not have to be as brutal as the Ottomans to be, well, brutal. Nowadays the primary difference seems to be that academics are quite happy to line up and criticise the Catholic Latins yet remain silent on the Ottomans. Even the Bishop of Rome apologised. A good, no a great, source on this is the work of Niketas Akominatos, surnamed Choniates (it was a demonym).[13]

It is difficult to overestimate how much this one sack changed things.  I think the world that resulted was a little less Roman. What Alexios tried to do with Boniface and Baldwin – use outside barbarians to secure the purple – seems to have become a time-honoured stratagem by the late empire. Think of Zeno and his Isaurians , whatever the fuck the Valentiniani were trying to do with the Goths and Huns (???), the Heracleans with their Avars, Slavs etc etc. But if Alexios was hoping to find a Stilicho, he got an Odoacer instead. The empire was broken down, partitioned, brought further in line Frankish culture (brutal feudalism over the citizenship that had existed since Caracella’s time and against what Kaldellis sees as a nascent nation state), and this would greatly effect the successor states. In fact, I can not help but wonder if at least part of the reason the Palaeologoi ruled for so long was due to the influence of this new Western model of kingship.[14] The previous tendency towards short lived dynasties (or no dynastic succession at all) is what prompted the Western use of “Byzantine” as a pejorative. I have never failed to be amused as the supreme irony of this, given that this is an utterly Roman behaviour.[15]

Let us leave off here, it is sufficient to say that even after the reconquista 0f 1261, the empire was fractured, weak, and not in a position to put up much of a fight. I do not say that the city was worthless! There is persistent strain of Ottoman apologetics that seems to argue this against all common sense and evidence. This is not the place for extensive source criticism and apologetics, but I should state that after the recapture of the city population numbers began to soar and some scholars even speak of a Palaeologan Renaissance. Maybe this term is too strong, but the period is marked by an intense engagement with the classical past and vibrant cultural production. It was not a rotting apple waiting to be plucked by an Ottoman hand.

Theofilos_Palaiologos - Copy
Theophilos Hatzimihail Constantine Palaeologos

Ah. 1453. The other, more traditional, date for the fall. What needs to be said? Runciman produced probably the most popular and well-known account in English, even if not the most clinical, and recent academic work has improved on the technical details of the siege.[16] The Ottomans had rapidly passed from subject allies to rivals to overlords, and Mehmet saw his chance. The siege was brutal and the aftermath more so. The sources are fairly unambiguous about this, again, despite Ottoman apologetics with no basis in source or facts. There are four commonly cited historians: Laonikos Chalkokondyles, Michael Critobolos, George Sphrantzes, and Doukas. I have deliberately put them in that order. Laonikos and Critoboulos arguably belong together as the most intensely classicising, whereas whilst Sphrantzes and Doukas were both well educated, they adopt a more vernacular style and more or likely to lift from the bible and church father’s than Thucydides.[17] All authors were intimately connected with the city and its fall.

Normally I would copy paste in the Greek/Latin text and translate. But I am having to rely on the poorly scanned, low res, Patrologica Graeca. So instead I will rapidly translate/summarise one of the accounts to give you a flavour of the fall. I am going to choose Doukas because I like his Greek style and he is actually close to a hostile witness. He seemed to at least partially blame the fall on the inability of the Palaeologoi to make the reunification of the churches more fact than fiction. He is also happy to castigate the poor showing of the Romans, wherever relevant, and praise the Italian mercenaries led by Giovanni Giustiniani.

Sections 39-41 of the chronicle describe the fall and its immediate aftermath. The Emperor falls as a common soldier, the Turks break in. The great ancient monasteries are looted, the women are raped. Some Romans fall back to the Hagia Sophia but even that gets sacked. Doukas is reticent to speak “how shall I describe it…. I am unable to breathe” but describes the way holy icons are hacked apart and golden and silver carried off. At one point the sultan stops a soldier from smashing a church “for the faith” not out of piety but because he is now in possession of the city (40). The sultan seems to vacillate between playing the magnanimous conqueror, on one hand, and raping the only surviving son of Loukas Notaras on the other. “Oh, City, Oh City” (41) he ends, and I think that cry has echoed down the ages. George Sphrantzes’ account is similar, with the addition of a sad personal anecdote. His family are amongst those enslaved and he tries to track them down to ransom them. By then, his wife had been sold to a Turkish cavalry commander and his son and daughter to the royal harem.

There are endless amounts of such stories. You do not have to delve into folk poetry (girls and boys held and raped at the altar, the priest and deacon disappearing mid service to return, the last emperor becoming marble etc) to find them. In accordance with Islamic tradition, the Sultan gave his soldiers three days to sack the City and they seemed eager to do a century worth of harm.

What of the City? The monasteries and churches were looted and or torched. It would be a while before some of the monumental architecture disappeared completely – travellers a century later still saw Justinian’s equestrian statue, and in fact a few mosaics also lasted another two centuries. The initial rape was violent and sudden, the residual molestation and abuse more protracted. Like Doukas I find it hard to speak here. Not out of any religious sense, but because I genuinely have no idea where to begin. The famous Stoudios  Monastery now became the Imrahor Mosque, Constantine’s Church of the Apostles was demolished to make way for Fetih (Conquest) Mosque, they did not even bother rebuilding over the St. Mary of Blachernae…the list goes on and on and on and on. It is easier to simply mention that one church was left standing as a church, St Mary of the Mongols – though it was still looted.

Before we return to the Hagia Sophia I just want to take a second to talk about Constantine’s Church of the Apostles. The process of converting churches into mosques was often architecturally violent, we have to rely overmuch on artwork and travellers account, but there is ample evidence that the similarly named church at Venice was built to resemble it. So that is something. Worse to me is that this was where several Roman Emperors from Constantine onward were buried. Their graves were desecrated, sarcophagi looted and smashed etc, but we have a few remaining.

1200px-Istanbul_-_Museo_archeologico_-_Sarcofagi_imperiali_bizantini_-_Foto_G._Dall'Orto_28-5-2006_2 - Copy
Who is buried there? Constantine? Anastasius? Justinian? (well no, they smashed his corpse for the gold), Theodosius? JULIAN? Who knows? There they are for the wind to buffet and dogs to piss upon.

Back to the great church that started all this. It was, as I said, turned into a mosque. Here is a great thread by @History_Twerp detailing the ways in which the Ottomans used temple conversion and minarets to psychologically humiliate and mock conquered populations. The academic citations talk about Aleppo etc, but strategy is the same:

The loss of the great church as loomed large in the Greek folk tradition. Greek folk poetry is interesting, amongst Classicists Homeric specialists might be tangentially familiar with it due to the work of J Notopoulos on Crete, here is some quick context for everyone else. It is composed in “political” metre named not for any especially political theme but for the City. Just as in Latin Urbs is always Rome and in English City is always London, likewise in Greek Polis is always Constantinople. There is ample evidence that this oral metre goes back to the middle/end of the Byzantine period. It is 15 syllables across with a typical caesura at the eighth beat. Anyway, here is one version of a popular lament for the church. I include it because it has a reflex in many versions in many Greek dialects, and because specialists argue that it goes back to the fall of the city.[18]

I am conscious as to my lack of space, but the final couplet jumps out. After lamenting the fall of city and church and accepting that is gods will, the mourners sing:

“Hush now, lady maiden, neither cry nor weep

Again, with years and time, it will belong to thee”

Maybe. Hopefully. Unlikely. There certainly was not a god when Mehmet made his way through the City. He had a poem of his own. We are unsure whether he uttered these words at Hagia Sophia, the Chora, or even the Apostoleion Church where generations of Caesars were buried. Either way, they have come down to us:

“The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars;

The owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.”

It is perhaps ironic that the death knell of the Roman state was a Persian couplet. But I do not think, had they any way of knowing, the sons of Sassan would be smiling…

Fetih Redux


We have covered, at an admittedly rapid pace, some of the history and context of the initial conquest in 1453. I am now going to untangle some of the language and context behind the recent decision, which will require us to get our hands dirty with Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics. But there you go.

It would facile, however fitting, to point out the humour behind this. Erdogan reciting a poem he did not write, in a language he does not speak, to celebrate the desecration of something another culture built. Cruel commentators might even highlight the juxtaposition between doughy, pig-eyed, Erdogan and the trim, handsome, Ottoman and Safavid princelings who grew up hawking, hunting, and composing poetry with one hand tied behind their backs. But this is a serious statement as to Erdogan’s intent and vision for his administration, this co-option (or, to use fashionable modern language, appropriation) of the poetry of Mehmet the Conqueror sends a clear message. It would be laughable were his supporters not so widespread and violent. His attempt to portray himself as a new sultan has gone so far as to prompt his wife to openly praise the Ottoman harem. Hmm.

Despite the limp-wristed international condemnation, Erdogan’s move will certainly prove to be an astute one with much of the Turkish population offering at least tacit approval.  “As the grandchildren of Mehmet the Conqueror, seeking the re-opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque is our legitimate right” said one youth leader.[19] There have been protests towards this for years. Perhaps the name itself is cursed. There are at least seven such named churches in Turkey, two in Constantinople (both are now mosques), and five outside. Most of these are mosques, including the dilapidated Hagia Sophia at Nicaea (I am unsure about the recently restored one at Trebizond).[20]

One should not underestimate the inherently international nature of this gesture either. Erdogan is adept at speaking from both sides of his mouth and the Turkish bet that idiotic westerners will neither learn foreign languages nor check foreign press has, overall, proven to be a good one. How many are commenting on this? How many know the relevance? The Al-Aqsa was built directly on the old temple complex as ritual humiliation of the city’s native population, it has proven to be a serious source of unrest between Israel and Palestine. These sorts of promises serve not only to enflame his base but to signal to the broader Muslim world that he is ready to take on the role of Caliph as his Ottoman predecessors did upon taking Constantinople.

Imperial states are inherently supranational and much of Turkish foreign policy has been cast in this imperial mode. You might recall the recent opening of a mosque at Cambridge.[21] Sensible watchers might wonder why a head of a foreign government was visiting the opening of a minority religious structure (well, it seats 1000), in a provincial town. If so, they are far too intelligent to work for any of our news agencies. Erdogan turned up in state, and Cambridge found itself hosting both Turks from all over the country and protestors (Armenians, Kurds, Turkish liberals/secularists etc etc, interesting how the news has erased these voices). The same year saw similar behaviour in Bosnia, with the addition of his bodyguards clashing with local police over giving up their guns.[22] Those with slightly longer memories might recall a similarly, violent, kerfuffle outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in the US.[23] In the US. Ah well, what are laws or sovereign states to an emperor, am I right?

Similarly, the heating up of the Eastern Mediterranean should be cause for alarm for us all. The constant violation of Greek air and sea space, the weaponization of refugees (can there be anything fucking lower? Really?), interference in Libya and Syria, clashes with France over the former… this will not end well.[24] So this is the context of the recent Hagia Sophia decision. Not because Turkey needs another mosque (it really, really, does not) but because history can be powerful, and the “reconquest” of the great church is replete with Ottoman imagery and sends a powerful message to those who know how to read it. Sometimes they are as blatant as this:

Sometimes you need to know a little history. Take this:

That almost sounds lovely, does it not? No, I am joking, if you for one moment thought so please take yourself to the nearest primary school and enrol in a Mathematics course you moron.  The land currently known as Turkey can boast two of the five ancient pentarchy sees (Constantinople and Antioch), as well as all seven churches of revelation.[25] Asia minor in particularly was, for well over a thousand years, the most significant Christian built environment. Even with the whole scale conversion and destruction of churches, do you have any idea how much genocide you have to commit to get a ratio like that? Ask an Armenian. If you can find one.

The Greeks have been involved in Asia Minor almost as long as there have been Greeks. We do not necessarily know where Ahhiyawa was, whether it included any land in Asia (though Miletus – Milawanda – seemed to be in their orbit), though it seemed like the king of Luwian Troy had a Greek name. They were there after the bronze age collapse.[26] They were there to borrow Assyrian words, to mingle with Persians and Medes before either had an empire, to trade stories in a pan East-Med tradition that goes back to the Sumerians. They are not there now. How do you think that happened? Besides a cheeky bit of genocide and forced conversion, there was also forced “repatriation” (a silly word here, given history!). Let me reinforce the recency of this. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were more Greeks in Constantinople and Smyrna than Athens. Again, it is no coincidence that the church will resume duties on the 24th of July, the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. This date celebrates the mass exodos of Greeks and the formal handing over of Constantinople from the Allies to the Turks. This is a provocation, a threat, and a nod and a wink to certain domestic voters.

Ok, let us sit back a second before finishing off. Now, if after all of this, you can see any similarities with a Roman emperor like Phokas or Constans II or Justinian handing over public buildings to the ecclesiastical authorities to become churches, please let me know. I honestly can not see it. It is the difference between your grandfather handing you sweets and someone breaking into his house, killing him, burning the house and taking the sweets for himself. I wonder whence this malaise of thinking. Perhaps because we are not used to thinking of the Romans as Christians (or later Rome at all), we assume that Christianity came as foreign and violently as did Islam. I think this is western chauvinism as much as it is illiteracy. We associate ourselves with the pagan Romans, convinced we are just like them. Turks are going to Turk. They are a sovereign nation state, and nobody expects better. It is, however, particularly annoying when hordes of academics – self professed experts in their fields insist on spewing such bull shit. Congratulations! You can now add not speaking Modern Greek to your CV alongside not knowing Latin or Ancient Greek! I marvel at the kinds of intellect which can sit there at the British or American Schools at Athens, drinking overpriced “coffee”, thinking themselves so wise and seeing so little. It would be funny if the rest of us did not have to have our taxes scalped to pay for it. You are at best useful fools and at least contemptuous of the past. You should be ashamed.

I am going to end now with an explanation of why Turkey is behaving the way it is, with a deep schizophrenia towards its history. But rest assured this is not over. Turkish irredentism towards the Ottoman Empire and former Caliphate (however they choose to define it, hence constant references to Al Andalus) is only intensifying, the treatment of the historical record is a reflection this. True, I have focused here on the Greco-Roman past – because that is what I know – we could just as easily talk about the ruinous damming of the nearly 12,000 years’ old Hasankeyf site or a dozen others…

The schizophrenia of Turkey lies in the fact that its extensive non-Turkish past is a source of both tourist revenue (which it depends upon) on one hand and shame on the other hand.  Let me explain. Classicists often have cause to study the way peoples write themselves into their environments. It is counter intuitive, but there is no real inexorable link between humans and their land anymore than there is for other animals. So, we study the ways in which people draw up aetiological myths, complicated genealogies, the way they name or build upon natural features.[27] These histories are often not factual: did the Greeks know, for example, that various “Cyclopean” structures were built by their Mycenaean ancestors? Does it matter? The way we interact with history, with the past, builds our present and sets the timbre for the future.  Turkey’s past is emphatically non-Turkish. For a vibrant, productive, confident civilisation this is scarcely a problem. England can roll its non-Germanic elements into its sense of self. Rome’s careful shepherding of Anatolia is a brilliant example of this and the focus of some interesting recent studies.[28] The Romans were caretakers of the various ancient cultures and not just the Greek elements. The Isaurians may, ironically, have spoken an Indo-European language related to Luwian, the Palaelogoi probably took their eagle (for all its reminiscences of Ianus) from Hittite reliefs, you find men with names like Trokondas well into our common era.[29]

Turkey has chosen another way. Dismissive, brutal, rapacious, conquering. Almost a decade past a film was released, Fetih 1453, which typifies this attitude. You can read the limpid Guardian review here in full (or just watch the film). It is a hilariously violent, racist, chauvinistic film. Naturally, it was critically acclaimed and widely viewed in Turkey. To put this in perspective, Americans still make sympathetic films about the Natives, Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi could win awards, and even the Russians moderate their Soviet history. This would be the equivalent of the Germans releasing a film which starts with Hitler defecating in front of a synagogue and winking at the camera. Movies not enough for you? Want something more interactive? Why not visit the Panorama 1453  Museum and relive the conquest in all its glory? At least they are honest about their mission statement: “We hope that your enthusiasm for the conquest remains as fresh and permanent as is, and gives inspiration for the conqueror of the future…[30] Now, to my knowledge, the British Museum does not have a life-sized cardboard cut out of Lord Elgin with his dick out in front of the marbles and a “get fucked, losers” speech-bubble – though I will admit none of the museum trustees will reply to my e-mails on this allegation. Erdogan’s insanity does not exist in a vacuum.

Did it have to be this way? Historians love employing counterfactuals (because you do not have to cite anything), in and around the carnage there do seem to be brief glimpses of a different world. Nothing will mitigate the brutality of conquest and the subsequent subjugation of a broad swathe of peoples, of course, but see that Mehmet was also able to utilise the language of Greco-Roman mythic diplomacy (declaring himself a Trojan against Greeks, very clever) and whilst a popular recent study on “Classics” and the “East” inevitably descends into Western guilt ridden navel gazing,[31] diligent readers can see the way “Easterners” were able to use these texts to define themselves on their own terms. It is tempting to point to Islam as the distinguishing factor here, there is certainly some truth to that, yet better models of Islamic kingship could be found all over the Persianate world. The Mughals could produce blood thirsty Babur and open, pluralistic Akbar.[32] The magnanimity of Alp Arslan has passed into legend. Some of this penetrated later Ottoman culture too. Who can forget Evliya Çelebi’s honest appreciation of the Parthenon or his ability to sympathise with the various peoples of the empire? It is to this nativist strain, as much as Western Humanism, that Ataturk’s moderation belonged. It could have been so different. Oh, but that too has failed.

Alkinoos, play us out.

[1] Zosimus, arguably the last pagan historian, somewhat takes his direction. IIRC Constantine partially has to leave Rome because he made himself persona non grata to the resident aristocracy. Yeah, Z was not a fan.

[2] I am not entirely au fait with the archaeology of early Constantinople (but then, who is?), but I think even with the heavy appropriation/destruction we can have some slight sense of the early capital.

[3] “be thou luckier than Augustus, [and] better than Trajan”. Eutropius 8.5. Incidentally, Eutropius was a member of Julian’s comitatus and had firsthand experience of late imperial attitudes. See also Julian’s Caesars for similar attitudes (though predictably, given the author, M. Aurelius comes out on top). “Lucky” is a poor translation of felix, something like “propitious” or “well omened” might be more like it. It may even be a pun on Augustus as, well, being august.

[4] It would take Theodosius to really put the knife into the old faith(s).

[5] Listen, no emperor ever really solved this. The tetrarchy, the limes, field armies, themata etc were all attempts of various success at various times. Nobody has ever solved this problem.

[6] Mere lists do not tell a story (unless you are Homer, I guess), but look at this:

[7] Though, ok, they did put a dynasty on the throne…that worked out great. Amazing. Yuge benefit.

[8] Justinian and Hadrian’s building policies would make a good comparison. For the philologist, Justinian’s age saw a gigantic outpouring of texts. If not Augustan, it was at least Neronian in its scope here.

[9] These three names really do belong together. Constantine very quickly became someone to be emulated throughout the (post)Roman world. The letters of the quisling Cassiodorus, the coinage, legal issue, and building of the Frankish kings (if only more Merovingian stuff survived…), even the Anglo-Saxon coronation ceremony all derive from this era. Despite the insistence of Greekless popular “historians” that this marks an Eastern break from Rome (???). Likewise, Constantine IV named his son Justinian (second of that name, 685-695, 705-11) in hopes of further renovatio. Tbf, he did famously renovate his own face, so that was something.

[10] Procopius literally calls it stasis, the same word we use for civil war. Whether this is because he was classicising, or he had a better sense of the danger than we moderns, who knows? Either way – Justinian and Theodora faced the rioters down.

[11] Call it laziness, call it expediency, I am taking text and translation directly from Dewing’s Loeb (because it is online). I have excerpted heavily from the sections on the great church. The translation is actually not that bad, outside of the technical bits, the text hardly that insane. Nice.

[12] I will leave specific recommendations to experts. As a child I owned and enjoyed Canby, S. R. (1993). Persian painting. London: British Museum Press. It was decently illustrated and I found the bits on Timurid/Mongol influence interesting.

[13] I am going to assume this is widely available. I mean it is easy to get Geoffroi de Villehardouin’s account, which was composed in a barbarous language of little account.

[14] 192 years! Even if we – as we should – add the Theodosian and Valentinian dynasties together we get 92 years, and almost half of that is Theodosius II. This is such an outlier in Roman history of any period.

[15] Our western conception of kingship is literally barbaric, in the sense that it has Germanic origins. In fact, other non-Germanic Western languages often take their vocabulary for kingship from Germanic. E.g Lithuanian karalius (king < Charlemagne), kunigaikštis (duke < kuningaz); Finnish kuningas (<kuningaz); Polish król (< Charlemagne).

[16] Runciman, S. (1965). The fall of Constantinople 1453. Cambridge University Press; Philippides, M., & Hanak, W. K. (2017). The siege and the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Routledge

[17] The former should be of great interest to Classicists.

[18] The argument here is based on how the various versions depict the final service. One effect of 19th century national formation is that Greek academia has taken folk lore studies (laography, laistics) very seriously, and produced a lot of good work.

[19] literally the first such quote I found, there are a ridiculous amount of these.



[22] ; guns


[24] So my predominant knowledge of these important current events, sorry, comes from the financial markets, but honestly the FT special report on Turkey and the Arab world is a good place to start. As are most Greek language newspapers for the Greek aspects.

[25] Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Sardis, Laodicea, Philadelphia, Thyatira.

[26] J Latacz (2001) Troia und Homer. Berlin remains the best source on this for classicists. You can also find English translations of the Ahhiyawa letters and Alaksandu treaty quite easily.

[27] Hydronomy is for this reason an incredibly fecund source of myth. A good example of myth applied to natural environs might be the Peloponnese (< the island of Pelops) or how the Gibraltar straits became the Pillars of Herakles. Built, rather than natural, is probably a bit more intuitive. From Scythian grave mounds, to Stone Henge, to the Parthenon…

[28] Rojas, F. (2019). The remains of the past and the invention of archaeology in Roman Anatolia: Interpreters, traces, horizons. Cambridge University Press; Thonemann, P. (2013). Roman Phrygia: Culture and society. Cambridge University Press.

[29] Trokondas son of Trokondas son of Atteous was named after the bronze age Anatolian stormgod. Compare that to the fate of Greek speakers in modern Turkey. Yeah…

[30] they have made the mistake of directly translating the Turkish, breaking a Turkish state rule of saying one thing to the west and another to the east.

[31] Toner, J. (2013). Homer’s Turk. Harvard University Press.

[32] The best appreciation of Akbar, and those like him, remains Truschke, A. (2016). Culture of encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal court. Columbia University Press.

Nero and the Punic Internet Scam

It has been a while. Admittedly, time constraints aside, I had a series of posts that I scuppered because they did not seem like they would be read charitably in this environment (on memory and statuary). I neither wanted to waste the time editing them to include current events, nor ignore them completely. If you have been missing these posts, you can find one of my reviews here. Meanwhile, I was happily reading Tacitus (book one excerpted, lol) when I came across the following interesting little anecdote, which has set me down a path of some philological detective work.

Fair warning: I am quite sleep deprived and probably less coherent and certainly less well edited than usual. I will clean this post up in a few days.

inlusit dehinc Neroni fortuna per uanitatem ipsius et promissa Caeselli Bassi, qui origine Poenus, mente turbida, nocturnae quietis imaginem ad spem haud dubiae rei traxit, uectusque Romam, principis aditum emercatus, expromit repertum in agro suo specum altitudine immensa, quo magna uis auri contineretur, non in formam pecuniae sed rudi et antiquo pondere.  lateres quippe praegrauis iacere, adstantibus parte alia columnis; quae per tantum aeui occulta augendis praesentibus bonis. ceterum, ut coniectura demonstrabat, Dido Phoenissam Tyro profugam condita Carthagine illas opes abdidisse, ne nouus populus nimia pecunia lasciuiret aut reges Numidarum, et alias infensi, cupidine auri ad bellum accenderentur.

Nero now became the sport of fortune as a result of his own credulity and the promises of Caesellius Bassus. Punic by origin and mentally deranged, Bassus treated the vision he had seen in a dream by night as a ground of confident expectation, took ship to Rome, and, buying an interview with the emperor, explained that he had found on his estate an immensely deep cavern, which contained a great quantity of gold, not transformed into coin but in unwrought and ancient bullion. For there were ponderous ingots on the floor; while, in another part, the metal was piled in columns — a treasure which had lain hidden through the centuries in order to increase the prosperity of the present era. The Phoenician Dido, so his argument ran, after her flight from Tyre and her foundation at Carthage, had concealed the hoard, for fear that too much wealth might tempt her young nation to excess, or that the Numidian princes, hostile on other grounds as well, might be fired to arms by the lust of gold.[1]

This story is carried over into the next two paragraphs, which I have neglected to include due to reasons of space. Interested readers very much ought to read the whole selection (16.1-3), but here I shall give a precis. Like many a speculator, Nero rushes ahead without his due diligence, he commits a great deal of resources (in the form of triremes) and the size of the treasure is magnified by rumour. When Bassus is unable to find the treasure he (and this is a typical Neronian theme, is it not?) either kills himself or has his property confiscated.

Throughout this passage, Tacitus is never too far from his best and the language and characterisation would definitely repay further study. Nero, for example, is elsewhere characterised as being avaricious and gold seems to be an ironic characteristic of his reign. We might ask ourselves why and how he fell for such a trick. I think there are two reasons, one obvious and the other less so. For the first, the story is repeated with some variation in Suetonius. This should not be surprising: Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny and Martial all must have more or less moved in the same circles and traded the same kinds of stories. In Suetonius (Nero 31-2) we learn that Nero’s failed venture left him unable to pay the soldiers and that he subsequently resorted to robbery and skimming from wills. We’re perhaps meant to laugh at Nero’s poor fiscal management, personally I think Suetonius and Tacitus probably have put the cart before the horse: it was poverty – from extravagance (Nero’s and Claudius’[2]) and e.g the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 – which made Nero susceptible to this scheme. Everything about this stinks of a “fuck it, double down” kind of move that typifies some of the funniest trading stories I have heard.[3] Like most people caught in a scam, he ultimately persuaded himself. This seems to me to cover why, what about how?

There are a lot of questions here, as much about the roles of memory, myth, literature, and history as the prosaic ones at the Neronian court. Think what this presupposes. That Dido existed. That she fled Tyre. That she left encumbered with gold she did not use. Why? Where did this come from?

Domus aurea: Sala Octogonal (menjador) | Octagonal Room (din… | Flickr
Nero’s domus aurea. He loved gold, subsequent emperors found this complex unseemly.

I suspect the ultimate source of the myth may well be Virgil. Mid-way through the first book of the Aeneid, Aeneas, and crew (well, seven remaining ships’ worth) have arrived at a promontory somewhere in Africa. Aeneas and Achates set off hunting and stumble across Venus in the guise of some sort of Amazonian local. I suppose the poet is aiming for a funnier version of the scene with Odysseus and Nausikaa, but what is more interesting for us is the way in which Virgil uses Venus to give us, his readers, some rapid exposition. These lands are ruled by Dido, who was (like Bassus) origine Poena from the city of Tyre.[4] Her brother Pygamlion murdered her husband out of avarice and lied to her, pacifying her with hope…

ipsa sed in somnis inhumati venit imago But in sleep came the very ghost of her unburied
coniugis; ora modis attollens pallida miris husband, raising his pale face in wondrous wise,
crudelis aras traiectaque pectora ferro the cruel altars and his breast pierced with steel
nudavit, caecumque domus scelus omne retexit. he exposed, unveiling all the blind horror of the house.
tum celerare fugam patriaque excedere suadet Then, he persuades her take speedy flight and leave her country,
auxiliumque viae veteres tellure recludit and as an aid to her road, he revealed long kept in the earth
thesauros, ignotum argenti pondus et auri. treasures – a weight gold and silver, unknown.
his commota fugam Dido sociosque parabat. Moved by these things, Dido prepared both flight and company.

Aeneid 1.353-60

I strongly suspect that these lines were the direct origin of the rumour Nero fell for in Tacitus and Suetonius. Note that in Virgil the treasure is presented as an auxilium viae rather than something to be hidden in the earth for future generations. This is obviously more logical, but I wonder also whether Virgil’s own sad experience with land appropriation and resettlement made him more attuned to the physical requirements thereof. Dido did not originate with Virgil, but this really seems to me to be the kind of Virgilian invention.

Just how firm is the tradition behind Dido anyway? Wolfgang Kullman speaks of a faktenkannon, that is to say, a series of hyper-traditional facets/actions of any given character that oral tradition cannot reasonably alter. This is one of those useful German neo-analytical heuristics that sadly is rarely used in Anglo scholarship.[5] As time goes on and orality becomes less productive, these strict bounds loosen, but there are still some rules. Some sense of canon. Achilles can have a secret meeting with Helen, but he cannot actually sack Troy any more than Patroclus can.

Troy (2004) Achilles Heel (explanation in comments) : MovieDetails
It is not Orlando Bloom, but the epic tradition which is killing Brad Pitt.

I mention this partly to funnel interested readers towards Neo-Analytic scholarship but largely to establish that the level of variation open to Virgil was quite, well, varied within these constraints. The fewer extant sources, the better. That the legend of Dido originated with actual Semitic speakers seems to me largely probable. “Dido” is not, to my (limited) knowledge, analysable as Semitic but the alternate name provided by the tradition – Elissa – seems to have Canaanite origins (e.g Elishat, the Greek even retains stress on the first syllable). Nevertheless, it is also obvious that much of the myth shows heavy Greek influence: the characterisation of eastern royal harem politics, Punics as wealthy, greedy, schemers, even the origin of the so called Dido problem betrays Greek etymological games (the name for the Carthaginian hinterland, Byrsa, comes from the Greek for hide).[6] We can rule out direct Punic influence for the broader details, though now I am really sad that the pseudo-Aristotelian Carthaginian Constitution did not come down to us. It is obvious that the major sources for the myth must have been Greek, though we are scarcely better off here.

Timaeus, writing in the 3rd century BC, scarcely survives. We tend to assume that Dionysius of Halicarnassus reused much of his work, but his section on Aeneas (1.44-75) does not mention Dido or Carthage at all. If Timaeus spoke of Dido at length (and he may have)[7], there was at that time no link with Aeneas. Another historian, the fantastically named Pompeius Trogus, goes into greater detail on Dido’s story but likewise omits Aeneas. Well, as far as we can tell – he survives only in epitomes. It may be significant that both Pompeius Trogus and Dionysius were writing during the Augustan era, and that they reflect the timbre of antique learning at court. Who knows?

So, whilst it looks like the antiquity of Carthaginian Dido is without question, it seems like Virgil may have invented the meeting between Dido and Aeneas. The one potential exception is Naevius (or Apple-Bro, if you like). Naevius wrote an epic on the Punic Wars and so would have had ample opportunity to talk about the putative ancestors of the Carthaginians. What is more interesting, is that we know he mentioned Aeneas. Does the Virgilian version begin with Naevius, then? It is possible, even probable, but far from certain. After all, there is no reason to suppose that Naevius’ Aeneas and Dido ever met, besides artistry.[8] It is entirely possible Naevius did little more than enumerate separate founding myths to contextualise the two warring sides before bringing them together (sort of like Herodotus). Nor are the assurances of commentators/excerptors/rudebois like Servius and Macrobius that such and such a bit of Virgil translatus est especially reassuring. God alone knows what their criterion is, how consistent they are, or whether they have even read the Republican era poetry to which they are referring.[9]

Instead, much hangs on a possible reading of a single fragment (fr. 23) of Naevius, saved by the late grammarian Nonius Marcellus:

blande et docte percontat Aenea quo pacto Troiam urbem liquisset With charm and learnedness s/he asked in what manner Aeneas left behind the city of Troy.

You can see how ambiguous this is. The bibliography is larger than I am willing to tackle, but my sense is that the communis opinio doctorum assumes that the speaker is Latinus. Certainly the new Loeb seems to think so, which re-orders the fragment as 19 and pairs it with the birth of Romulus at 20, nisi fallor. Maybe my mind is clouded by Virgil but this does not seem right to me. Blande may or may not be marked vocabulary, but it is used of Dido by Virgil (blandiisque…vocibus) and it hardly seems fitting for a rugged, rustic, king like Latinus.[10] Likwise docte seems to suit Dido more than he. Who can forget Dido’s confident questioning of Aeneas? As she herself says: non obtusa adeo gestamus pectora Poeni. Surely the whole point of Latinus and his aborigines is that they aren’t at the centre of events post Trojan war?

Maybe I am just suffering from a Virgilian mirage, and it is now impossible to think of Latinus and Saturnian Italy outside of this. Ah well. There are worse diseases. Whatever the case, I think it is clear that Virgil built up his Dido – and the relationship between her and Aeneas – significantly more than any previous Greek or Latin source. Whilst his has came down to us at the dominant version, it may not necessarily have been held as such by the cognoscenti:

si proponam eis interrogans, utrum verum sit quod Aenean aliquando Carthaginem venisse poeta dicit, indoctiores nescire se respondebunt, doctiores autem etiam negabunt verum esse

if I question them, asking whether what the poet says is true, that Aeneas ever came to Carthage, the poorly educated will reply that they do not know, while the better educated will indeed say that it is untrue 

Augustine Confessions 1.22

Augustine was a Punic by descent and may even have known of some local legends about characters like Elishat and Pumayyaton. But then he probably pronounced his /s/ like /sh/. What a nerd.[11] What is amazing is that a throwaway, explanatory, piece of the Aeneid could end up defrauding the Emperor of Rome. Especially given the time scale. Let’s say the Aeneid was “published” in 19 BC, and that Nero fell for this between 65-8 AD. That is a shockingly quick turnaround. Admittedly, the success of the Aeneid was by any definition shockingly quick. Caecilius Epirota must have burnt his hands snatching it from the funeral pure; Horace had Livius Andronicus beaten into him one generation, the next saw Roman school children the empire over learning arma virumque cano. Years and years ago I read a book (Gowing’s Empire and Memory) which argued that Nero’s generation was the first to grow up without a functional memory of the Republic, its institutions, mores and – now I add, literature – it was convincing back then, and I can’t help but think that this whole situation might have been avoided if Nero and his gang just #ReadTheirTexts.

[1] Due to the sheer size of the text and paucity of time, I am taking the translation directly from*.html

[2] To be honest, I am rarely confident I am on sure footing indicting Claudius’ fiscal administration like this, it feels right but I would not test my reading in a court of law. But then few Roman emperors besides Anastasius (491-518) showed anything like fiscal restraint or common sense….

[3] Had Caesar been born in the late 20th century, I guarantee he would have become an options trader and/or cocaine addict.

[4] Incidentally, I may be leaning too hard on this name as evidence for Punic ancestry (outside Tacitus’ wry comment; Suetonius simply calls him an eques – not an equus as I excitedly thought at 4am ☹). But aren’t several people named Bassus/Bas(s)ianus associated with the Severans all the way down to Junius Bassus in the 4th c?

[5] With the passing of men like West and Burkert, it seems like Homeric scholarship is destined never to rise above the level of “but mommy said it’s all oral tradition uwu uwu uwu”. Ugh. These people certainly do not understand the concept of “tradition”. I would venture likewise for “oral” too, except they’re consistently trying to self-fellate within their scholarship so, yeah, they understand that word.

[6] Does anyone outside of the classically trained refer to it as the Dido problem? My senior school Maths teacher did, but then he went to a local grammar. Most seem to refer to it as the Isoperimetric Problem. Thanks Jacob Steiner… if you want more on this, start here:

[7] I think it incredibly likely. Dido – we have said, based on her alternate name – almost certainly had Semitic providence. As do several other Punic characters like Pygmalion. Timaeus probably followed a more antique tradition that puts Dido a generation or three later than the Trojan war.

[8] Personally, I think Naevius was more than capable of this. I think much of his reputation has been coloured by Ennius’ cruel and bitchy dismissal…

[9] There is nothing unique about this in classical literature. A lot of our commentating authors are considerably less well read than we might at first seem. Though I think only Homerists have worked this out systematically…for Republican Latin poetry see Jocelyn, H. D. (1964). Ancient scholarship and Virgil’s use of republican Latin poetry. I. The Classical Quarterly, 14(2), 280-295 and sequel. For Naevius see Luck, G. (1983). Naevius and Virgil. Illinois Classical Studies, 8(2), 267-275

[10] Is it often/at all used of men? As a student, this is the sort of thing you would assiduously check on TLL…

[11] When will PhDs and theologians finally accept than when God told Augustine tolle et lege the first part was an injunction to lift some fucking weights? “oh, I don’t want to go the games”.

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?

All Our Broken Idols (Review)

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

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

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

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

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

‘They got something else though’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Guards the Guards? Scythian Police in Cambridge

Quis custodes custodiet? Like many witty apothegms from Latin literature (Horace’s carpe diem being the most famous – see Lugubelinus), this has taken on an afterlife of its own far beyond its original context. Juvenal originally meant to call to mind the worry of every husband in a sexually licentious Rome. Here are the surrounding lines, though you ought to read the entire poem. Actually, you ought to read all of Juvenal:

“pone seram, cohibe.” sed quis custodiet ipsos

custodes? cauta est et ab illis incipit uxor.

“Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who will guard

the guards themselves? The wife is cautious and begins with them.

Marital fidelity was of crucial import to the ancients. There was no XXIII mecumque, and the need to carry on the patrilineal line safely was paramount (and indeed would have been symbolically enacted at every funeral via a process wearing imagines, Roman death masks). It is true that adoption was not considered an entirely shameful option, but it really is hard to overwrite biology in this way. No less capable an emperor than M. Aurelius gave the empire over to his biological son and farting Vespasian gave way to impaling Domitian.

Rome began, doubly so really, with a rape, yet marriage and the family (not the state) were the heart of Rome, and its violation was no laughing matter. When Suetonius tells us Augustus’ friends alleged him to have committed adultery for political rather than carnal reasons (excusantes sane non libidine, sed ratione commissa 69) he is not painting him as some effete limp …er…wristed striver, but some sort of violator and emasculator in chief. Especially when coupled with his stringent anti-adultery/pro-marriage laws (see the treatment of his freedman Polus at 67.2; the moralising legislation at 39).

This is not a post about adultery, incidentally. Given the current state of the lockdown how would you even get away with it? Even if you were Zeus and could turn yourself into her husband…anyway.

Who guards the guards indeed? But, as I said, the original context has much got away from us and the phrase’s nachleben has generated some interesting readings. Perhaps the most popular being Alan Moore’s Watchmen which treats it as a political statement. Admittedly the Romans had difficulty telling fucking and politicking apart, but this is the sense most of us know the phrase. Recent events across the country during the corona virus lockdown bring this latter usage to mind:

Putting Orwell and Huxley on the senior school reading lists since time out of mind seems to have encouraged an obscene number of faceless bureaucrats to take them as instructional manuals. Who is watching over these morons? What recourse do we as citizens have, in the wake of failing institutions? We started with a quote from Juvenal, who has been dismissed as a serious author since antiquity:

Quidam detestantes ut venena doctrinas, Iuvenalem et Marium Maximum curatiore studio legunt. nulla volumina praeter haec in profundo otio contrectantes, quam ob causam non iudicioli est nostri.

Certain people hate learning as if poison and read with careful attention only Juvenal and Marius Maximus. In their profound idleness they handle no books besides these, for what reason it is not for me to judge.

Ammianus Marcellinus 28.4.14

But his work has attracted no less serious a mind than Housman and I have always found Satire generally to be a genre conducive to understanding antiquity on the ground, as it were. Regardless, this question has been one that has plagued societies from antiquity onward. We will hear more from both Juvenal and Ammianus later. For now, we are going to consider the implications of our original quotation in light of recent events. It is not a mere question of oversight and responsibility, but how do we define and devolve power? Who gets to hold it? What are they entitled too?

A quick note. You will notice from the date on the tweet that I had meant to get this out a…brief while ago. Apologies if this now seems a little stale. More importantly, many people are tweet-deleting cowards (especially the police!). This means a) I have lost a lot of material because it never occurred to me to take pictures and b) I am relying on those smart cookies, like the above, who did take them.

Setting Wolves to Guard Sheep: The Athenian Solution

The central conceit of Athenian democracy was that all men were equal under the franchise (Greekless political scientists have tried to make formulations such as isonomia and isegoria more problematic than they were). For this to function in practice the status of citizenship had to be something inviable and jealously guarded. The disquiet one senses throughout the Pseudo-Xenophontian Old Oligarch is effectively concerned with this and the consequences of widening the suffrage (10-11) to where freeborn males can be in material state equivalent to slaves (how do you know whom to beat!?!). Several Athenian laws are concerned with the makeup, treatment, and privilege of the citizen body (in addition to its continued propagation)[1]. The most pertinent, for us, must be the so called graphe hybreos.

That such a law existed is almost certain but, equally, we have no firm evidence for it ever coming to trial.[2] The crimes and behaviour it concerned were broad ranging but may be (roughly) summarised as those affecting the personage and status of a citizen. Rape, for example, came under this as it compromised the wives and daughters of citizens.[3] As did the accosting, apprehension, and striking of a citizen. This then underlies the Old Oligarch’s concern over how things were in democratic Athens. Striking a slave was one thing, a citizen something else entirely – with loss of citizenship or even death on the line.

Civilisation (in its etymological sense, as urbanisation) practically foments and invites crime.

ἡ δὲ τῶν νόμων ἰσχὺς τίς ἐστιν; ἆρ᾽ ἐάν τις ὑμῶν ἀδικούμενος ἀνακράγῃ, προσδραμοῦνται καὶ παρέσονται βοηθοῦντες; οὔ: γράμματα γὰρ γεγραμμέν᾽ ἐστί, καὶ οὐχὶ δύναιντ᾽ ἂν τοῦτο ποιῆσαι. τίς οὖν ἡ δύναμις αὐτῶν ἐστιν; ὑμεῖς

And what is the strength of the laws? If one of you, having been wronged, cries out, will the laws run up and be present, assisting? No; they are only written texts and incapable of doing such. Where, then, is their power? In yourselves…

Demosthenes 21.224

It is a bravura speech, much concerned with the power and enforcement of the laws. The message is clear: laws (customs, really) are only as good as the citizen body willing to enforce them. But what do you do when citizens aren’t willing to listen? When they need to be physically impugned in some way? This creates a paradox. The power may rest in you, citizens, but if you apprehend someone and the jury turns against you, well…How did the Athenians solve it?

The Athenian solution was to use public slaves. Just as all citizens effectively held a share in the state all technically had part ownership of these human beings (hence the appellation demosioi).  Here is one of favourite examples: A scholion on line 22 of Aristophanes’ Acharnenses tells us that citizens caught loitering rather than voting were herded towards the assembly by means of a rope.[4] Democracy was participatory, idiot!; layabouts were fined. The psychology here is self-evident. Slaves were obviously “lesser” beings even as they shamed the citizens. The rope allowed them to forgo the laying of hands. The state expropriated resources via fines etc etc. But not all crimes as are as low energy as loitering. Enter the Scythians.

drax scythi
80% of why this post is late.

The entry for τoξóται, archers, in the Suda (τ771) tells us that these Scythians, sometimes called Speusinoi after their instituter, varied between 300-1000 in number, before being disbanded.[5] We reconstruct their general usage across a broad range of texts, scholia, and artwork. Doubtless had we still Sophocles Scythae (a satyr play?) we would have a much fuller picture of these people.

That they were ethnically marked off from the citizen body seems to me a fair assumption. They always appear in different dress (breeches, Phrygian caps, tattoos, animal patterns) and carried bows. Despite the importance of archery to the actual heroic age (and certain hero cults), the bow seems to be much despised by the hoplite classes who, after all, were rendered largely safe by their amour. That said, having been struck repeatedly with an unstrung bow, I can tell you they would make decent deterrents (I doubt they were literally shooting citizens). Ethnicity and dress aside they were also held physically apart in their barracks. This could hardly have contributed to the fellow-feeling of the citizen body at large, especially because they were quite capable of using restraining force:

οὗτος τί κύπτεις; δῆσον αὐτὸν εἰσάγων

ὦ τοξότ᾽ ἐν τῇ σανίδι, κἄπειτ᾽ ἐνθαδὶ

στήσας φύλαττε καὶ προσιέναι μηδένα

ἔα πρὸς αὐτόν, ἀλλὰ τὴν μάστιγ᾽ ἔχων

παῖ᾽ ἢν προσίῃ τις.

Why are you slouching? take him away

Archer, and tie him to the plank,

Make him stand, guard him, let no one come

near him, but use your whip to

strike any who try approach

Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 930-4

…what…what is the plank for? Aristophanes? Bro?

The above command was issued by a Prytanis, under whose command the archer corps were placed. Other uses in comedy are broadly similar.[6]

Let us sidestep a potential debate here. I have no real reason to suspect the Scythian slaves were not Scythian.  I, personally, think we need to take these ethnic distinctions seriously. There is always a debate as to how “fixed” identities and ethnicities were, but I think sometimes scholars are too keen to apply the models we might use for e.g tribal formations amongst age of migration Germanics or modern cosmopolitans which suggest a high degree of flexibility.

Ethnographic terms can be tricky, over time they themselves become literary tropes e.g when Anna Komnene writes about Roman campaigns against the Scythians (book 7 I think?), she means the Pechnegs (or some such tribe) and her audience was likely to instantly comprehend. In military terms ethnic labels can commemorate where troops were raised, stationed, or recall notable victories (as the Roman legions did). They can even denote stereotypical styles of dress and strategies (Asiatic bows, Samnite gladiators etc). People would be right to be skeptical, but the proliferation of – especially philological – evidence testifies to the deep interaction and exposure of Greeks to these Iranic nomads.

What follows is a brief sketch aimed at establishing that Greco-Scythian interactions, even on the mainland, were longstanding and that the Greeks were just calling a spade a spade when describing the archers.

As @e_pe_me_ri has recently pointed out (cannot find the tweet; no longer recent), the Linear B corpus mentions the word “rose”. In his case it was an ethnonym (and therefore, sadly, probably a slave girl), but the word ultimately goes back to Iranic wṛda. Likewise, the word for bow, also attested, ultimately goes back to Iranic taxša. Nor were these one-off interactions. A previous post detailed how the formation of a Greek noa-word could go back to an Iranic borrowing.  

From a similarly early (but obviously, considerably post Mycenaean) period, Scythians and their Iranic nomad cousins were known enough to the Greeks to warrant ethnic stereotypes in plastique art and literary common places: drinking like a Scythian (e.g wildly, unmixed wine) is attested as early as Anacreon (fr 76) and a verb would form, Σκυθίζειν skythizein (to drink outrageously), analogous to e.g λακωνίζειν lakonizein (to be taciturn) for Spartans. In fact, even the words for Persians and Medes reflect the antiquity of these relationships. At some point, the easterly Greek dialects (Attic-Ionic, mainly) raised the vowel long a to long e (α > η – though Attic would undergo partial reversion of this rule, to the frustration of fledgling classicists). Persians and Medes were originally Parsa and Madha respectively in their own tongues and early Greek pronunciation must have reflected this, prior to the shift.[7]

Some years ago, an article was published to much acclaim. It analysed several “nonsense” inscriptions and concluded that they may be rendered less nonsensical if you translate the characters as foreign names from the black sea region.[8] It is a good article, though I cannot understand the surprise. We already had a more than working knowledge of various Iranian dialects and loanwords in Greek. The amount of work done on this by Russophones is tremendous. Still, the addition of Caucasian evidence (though tentative) makes it worth reading. Likewise, when Scythians do speak in comedy their speech is rendered in a way that is quite consistent with substrate interference from an Iranian dialect e.g aspirated stops (φ, θ) are consistently rendered as their unaspirated equivalents (π, τ); loss of final ν and σ; issues with conjugation and declensional gender etc etc. I do not, sadly, own a copy but Andreas Willi’s book will undoubtedly go over this in more detail.[9] It is amazing how so many of the “mistakes” can be rationalised with the Iranian evidence.

The black-sea region seems to be the likeliest vector for this exchange. In terms of grain, the region was to Athens what Egypt would be to Rome. The area may well have proved a good source of animal goods and human slaves and whilst the litoral area and its immediate hinterland was mineral poor (nobody had any need for crude oil then), Greek craftsmanship was obviously valued at a premium. Some of the most significant plastique objects must have been fashioned by Greek artisans. Clearly, the area was one of great exchange. This be seen in Herodotus’ story about the Scythian king Skythes (hm…) adopting Greek rites one of the so called seven sages, Anacharsis. About whom you can read more here.

Suffice it to say, I think the presence of actual Scythians in the archer corps was extremely likely. I think the Athenians would be quite aware of how they looked and how they spoke. I do not think their depiction in art and on stage was some orientalist fantasy divorced from reality. The remaining question is – what happened to them? We know they were eventually disbanded and that citizen youths replaced them on guard duty, at least on the Prytaneion. Why? (I swear this is where we now make this relevant).

In his monumental sociological study of Aristophanes,  Ehrenberg seems to think the Scythians on stage to be a source of fun and that “the comedians hardly ever suggest any resentment on the citizens’ part at the power of the Scythians…the existence of these policemen was generally accepted without any grumbling and without any feeling of humiliation”.[10] In other words, more Hot Fuzz or Thin Blue Line than…oh I don’t know, you know I don’t really know pop culture. Just think of some jokes about policemen and doughnuts.  I am not so sure I would agree. Take this quotation:

τῷ γὰρ εἰκὸς ἄνδρα κυφὸν ἡλίκον Θουκυδίδην

ἐξολέσθαι συμπλακέντα τῇ Σκυθῶν ἐρημίᾳ,

705τῷδε τῷ Κηφισοδήμῳ τῷ λάλῳ ξυνηγόρῳ;

ὥστ᾽ ἐγὼ μὲν ἠλέησα κἀπεμορξάμην ἰδὼν

ἄνδρα πρεσβύτην ὑπ᾽ ἀνδρὸς τοξότου κυκώμενον

How unseemly that a man, bent with age like Thucydides,

should be wrestled and destroyed by this prattling advocate

from the Scythian steppe, this man, Kephisodemos.

so that I wept tears of pity, seeing

an elderly man brutalised by a bowman.

Aristophanes Acharnenses 703-7

This is comedy. It is artificial. But like all good jokes there is something of the truth therein. If you strip away the old comedy tropes (ethnic prejudice, name dropping of famous men) I suspect you may have something very real here. The pattern across comedy does not paint the Scythians in a particularly flattering light.

The central conceit of Athenian democracy was that all men were equal under the franchise. The central conceit of our modern scholarship is the overemphasising on the intensely democratic phase of Athenian history. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War(s). The franchise became smaller and smaller. The government, less democratic. I imagine an atmosphere developed wherein people, deprived, or restricted in their citizen rights, found themselves increasingly associating with one another at an ethnic level. The foreignness of the archer corps would have been more and more apparent. Indeed, it would have been increasingly hard to see the difference between them as a sort of metonymy for the collective power of the state and an oppressive bodyguard, such as Peisistratos’ Thracian guardsmen or the Persian garrisons in Asia Minor. No doubt they, as police always seem to do, made themselves increasingly unpopular too. As Demosthenes said, what is the strength of the laws? Men make them. Men uphold them. Men abuse them.

A similar process occurred with the so-called frumentarii of the Roman Empire. I have had to massively cut the section on Roman policing to save space and your patience. I would refer any interested parties to Fuhrmann, C. J. (2011). Policing the Roman Empire. They formed something of a military police/internal affairs arm. They likewise were set apart physically (in the castra peregrina on the Caelian) and made themselves increasingly unpopular. Eventually they were replaced with the not at all ominous sounding agentes in rebus who…yep, were also abusers of power.

The parallel is rough, but hopefully instructive. I am not suggesting we are in any way going to do away with our police. Britain is incredibly over-surveilled and over-policed as it is. This is unlikely to change. But tensions are increasing, and no doubt will continue to do so as the police abrogate more and more made up powers to themselves. Policing, I think, works well when it is done as part of the community. I do not know when exactly things shifted in Britain. But if I look at the way things are now I am reminded much more of a foreign corps reigning over us than representatives of the citizen body.

Who watches the watchmen? We do. As they defray our rights and upload shit to TikTok, apparently.

O homines ad servitutem paratos: Roman Karens

The top down abuse of power is inevitable. Sadder yet is when members of the demos conspire with them.

Introducing the delatores or the Karens of Ancient Rome if you like.

difficile est saturam non scribere. nam quis iniquae

tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se,

causidici nova cum veniat lectica Mathonis

plena ipso, post hunc magni delator amici

et cito rapturus de nobilitate comesa

it is difficult not to write satire. For who of these injustices

could be so tolerant? So hardened, that he might hold himself

when along comes the brand-new coach of the lawyer Matho

full to its brim with him, and after, an informer on his great friend

and will soon seize whatever is left of the nobility…

Juvenal 1.30-5

To be an informer, a delator, was no great mark of distinction though it must have brought great rewards. You can see by his use of a qualifying adjective (great friend), which to me at least belies a sense of social climbing. People, whom we might identify as middle class, had ample opportunity to enter the confidences of the minor aristocracy and then betray them to the authorities. An odd mix of decadent western bourgeoise and eastern soviet police state. This is one of the dominant concerns of Juvenal’s literary persona. The sense of penetrating an inner sanctum and then betraying your friends, family, or even your acquaintances can also be seen to animate the anxiety of our initial quote (quis custodiet…).  Informers are one of the major classes of people against which satire tended to concern itself. The other being legacy hunters.

cum te summoveant qui testamenta merentur

noctibus, in caelum quos evehit optima summi

nunc via processus, vetulae vesica beatae?

When they move you aside, those who earn their legacies

By night, who are now raised to sky by the best

Road to highest advancement – the guts of a wealthy old lady

Juvenal 1.37-40

Erm, thanks Juvenal, very cool! Love how the metre makes recitation even more uncomfortable.

Informers and legacy hunters were literary common places, but no less real for all that.[11] The original locus classicus for the ancients themselves was the dictatorship of Sulla. Sulla, in the cause of the insane civil unrest during the rail end of the public, wrested control of the republic from the hands of Cinna (Marius has predeceased his chance for a real showdown with his ex-protégé)[12]. In order to shore up his position the dictator began proscribing people. Names were published. Their lives and their estates declared forfeit, with a share of the proceeds going to man who informed on them. It is difficult to downplay the effect this period had on the Roman psyche: when Augustus, M Antonius, and M Lepidus formed their own triumvirate, the attendant purges (in which Cicero died) earned them the nickname of Sulla’s disciples. Attempting to persuade the dictator to lay down his office became a common exercise in Roman rhetorical schools etc.[13] No less than the proposed revolution of the Gracchi did this period make fortunes and feuds amongst the Roman nobles.[14]

The most famous of Sulla’s victims, was one who got away. Julius Caesar had (perhaps through his illustrious uncle, Marius) married the daughter of Cinna. Sulla ordered young Caesar to divorce his wife, who was after all the daughter of his enemy. In what would prove to an incredibly astute move, Caesar refused, and was subsequently proscribed.[15] But Caesar was Caesar, and had powerful friends willing to intercede on his behalf. Eventually, Sulla relented and was alleged to have uttered that in Caesar were many Mariuses: …nam Caesari multos Marios inesse.

The proscriptions of 82 and 43 were the most famous, but as you might intimate from Juvenal’s literary usage they were not the only ones. In fact, this behaviour – albeit at a lower level – became a central part of aristocratic (autocratic) Roman life. I suspect this – along with non-hereditary monarchy – is one of those genuinely Roman survivals idiot barbarians were thinking of when they coined the term “Byzantine” as a pejorative.[16]

I had intended to write in greater detail on everyone’s favourite emperor, Tiberius, and the various doings of his reign. The perfidy of Romanus Hispo (the first Karen?), or the detailed trial of Libo Drusus in book 2 of Tacitus’ Annales. Instead, I found this wonderful clip from I, Claudius with Patrick Stewart’s hair as Sejanus.

What a great scene, even T’s cruentae litterae are featured.

For me, the most horrifying aspect of this was how, according to Tacitus at least (and coronavirus has given me no reason to disbelieve him), willing people were to inform on each other even without the heavy pressure of the state. The formal proscription lists had disappeared from Roman life. They would never again be needed. When Tiberius was himself disinclined to prosecute someone for their alleged disloyalty the senate itself, led by Ateius Capito, called out in distress that the state itself was under assault. O homines ad servitutem paratos decried Tiberius as he left the senate house. “Oh men, rendered fit for servitude”. Not as well-known as o tempora, o mores, but more apt nowadays, I think.

When Aurelian (reigned 270-5) did something about informers (the HA does not tell us what exactly), surely that only served to make him more liked:

idem quadruplatores ac delatores ingenti severitate persecutus est

false-witnesses and informers, he [Aurelian] persecuted with great severity.

Historia Augusta 39.3 (Aurelianus)

But whatever he did, the effect was transitory at best. Indeed, informers would forever be a part of Roman life and they resurface most forcefully in Ammianus Marcellinus’ amazing history. He may be Tacitus’ less sassy understudy, but the stories surrounding Barbatio, Arbitio, Silvanus, and Paulus (nicknamed catena, the chain, for his ability to string cases together) are fascinating reading. It’s like a human centipede of scheming and backstabbing.

Is there a point in your pocket or aren’t you happy to see me?

When Publius Horatius, the only survivor of the duel (triuel?) between the Horatii and the Curiatii, returned home to find his sister weeping over her newly slain fiancé, he killed her on the spot. But he was hardly hailed as a hero. There was a trial. He got off on a technicality. His father, possibly thereafter his family, owed the gods appeasement. Rome had always loved its gods and its state and its institutions (frankly, to Roman eyes this would be a tricolon of tautological inanity), but family and community always came first.

No Roman, no Athenian, would ever understand the ease and speed at which we seem keen to fracture our communities and render our rights up to our governments. But they would have recognised it.

It is a lovely image. But at a time when the police are randomly stopping cars to ask people where they are going (the cowards deleted the tweet. Given the multiplicative nature of contagion those policemen are potentially responsible for at least 124 corona cases.), or trying to determine what counts as an “essential item”; when neighbours are happy to snoop and snitch, I think of men like Ateius Capito adopting democratic forms to mask tyrannical substance, I think of how “equality under law” was proven a lie with every whack of a Scythian’s bow against a poor potter or tanner. A democracy can does not live when people are treated so.

As always, thank you for reading.

Endlings and Suchlike

[1] Far, far, from being some sort of proto-racist reaction (can anyone but an American think so?) Pericles’ citizenship law must be read in this fraught context. Someone like Kleisthenes wielded the power he did so precisely due to his extra-politial relationships on his mother’s side. The resources and panhellenic guest friendships such men could call upon where of phenomenal import. To say nothing of those wielded by genuine tyrants such as Polycrates of Samos and his Egyptian links.

[2] I may be exhibited an unexamined prejudice here. See Fisher, N. (2003) The Law of Hubris in Athens. in P. Cartledge & P. Millett (Eds.), Nomos: Essays in Athenian law, politics, and society. (pp 123-139) for a good summary and a potential case on the historical record.

[3] In this context, read (Pseudo?)Demosthenes 59, against Neaera.

[4] τὸ σχοινίον φεύγουσι τὸ μεμιλτωμένον, “they flee the vermillion rope”. The rope was presumably died (probably a loose, cloying, powder) that would mark them when they turned up.

[5] Numbers vary. If they were used in military contexts as per ceramic evidence, 1000 makes sense. Otherwise…as or the name and its derivation from a Speusippos I am liable to accept the argument in Braund, D. (2006). In Search of the Creator of Athens’ Scythian Archer-Police: Speusis and the “Eurymedon Vase”. Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik, 156, 109-113.

[6] E.g Acharnenses 54 where one is called as a threat; Equites 665 where they drag someone from the assembly; Ecclesiazusae 143 drunks being pulled from the agora.

[7] E.g this fronting is already apparent by the early/mid-7th century. See a graffito on a vase from Cumae: IG XIV 865. Graphically the η is represented as ε, but it must represent a long vowel.

[8] Adrienne Mayor, John Colarusso, & David Saunders. (2014). Making Sense of Nonsense Inscriptions Associated with Amazons and Scythians on Athenian Vases. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 83(3), 447-493. See the work of Nadezda A. Gavriljuk on the Scythians and the slave trade if you want a good slavophonic bibliography and an idea of what philologists were thinking more than 15 years ago. American media can fuck right off.

[9] Willi, A. (2003). The languages of Aristophanes: Aspects of linguistic variation in classical Attic Greek. Oxford

[10] Ehrenberg, V. (1962). The people of Aristophanes: A sociology of old attic comedy. Oxford. Pp175

[11] Horace Sermones 2.5 is probably the best expression of the former.

[12] I was much taken as a student by how tangled party politics seemed to be at this time. We tend to cast them through the teleological lens of Caesar vs Pompey (which we take as populares vs optimates, foolishly). Though old, Christoph Meinhard Bulst. (1964). “Cinnanum Tempus”: A Reassessment of the “Dominatio Cinnae”. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 13(3), 307-337, has massively affected my thinking on this.

[13] in tabulam Sullae si dicant discipuli tres: if Sulla’s three disciplines speak against his conscription (Juvenal 2.28 e.g the hight of hypocrisy); et nos/consilium dedimus Sullae, privatus ut altum/ dormiret: I too have counselled Sulla, to retire and rest on his honour (Juvenal 1.15-7). What can I say? I love this poet…

[14]Erm…  rem publicam dominatione factionis oppressam in libertatem vindicavi: I freed the Republic which had been oppressed by the tyranny of faction. Maybe…maybe Augustus was right?

[15] He needed a wife of patrician family to secure his priesthood. His own father had not risen far (though a relative, Sextus Julius Caesar, had) and marriage to Cinna’s house would have started as a boon and seemingly become a bane. He even lost his priesthood. But there was no guarantee Sulla’s party would have accepted this patrician parvenu and so Caesar immediately won for himself a reputation for integrity and daring. Or maybe she was super-hot, IDK.

[16] Fuck Dandolo. The ultimate delator.

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.

Aristotle’s Coronavirus: Why the Young will Kill the Old

The young are going to kill the old. This post might have been more prescient had I been able to finish it off in March – before the public had fully grasped the potential risk to even young, fit, individuals – but, ok. The young are going to kill the old because in order to protect them, they are being asked to shoulder what is going to be an immense cost to their social lives, personal development, and careers. For a perhaps indefinite period. Regardless, the opportunity cost is massive.

That is a lot to give up. Especially given the real possibility that the virus may be little harder than common influenza for most people in the 20-30s age range. How do you get people to do it? The alignment of crossways competing incentives can be hard enough in a business setting, let alone in a society. Yet I suspect that the ancients accomplished this much more deftly than we.


I owe much of my thinking on this to Aristotle, in particular books one and two of his Politics. His comparisons between the family and city state rise above mere naturalistic or primitivist fallacy. The link between the oikos and the polis is not (just) one of scale, but of various interlocking obligations. I think we can intimate how the ancients would behave in a lockdown. I want to start with an Athenian Law delineating what one owed to one’s parents. This gives us a snapshot of how the Athenians understood familial – and societal – obligation:

εἰ γὰρ ἔζη μὲν ὁ πάππος, ἐνδεὴς δὲ ἦν τῶν ἐπιτηδείων, οὐκ ἂν οὗτος ὑπόδικος ἦν τῆς κακώσεως ἀλλ᾽ ἡμεῖς. κελεύει γὰρ τρέφειν τοὺς γονέας: γονεῖς δ᾽ εἰσὶ μήτηρ καὶ πατὴρ καὶ πάππος καὶ τήθη καὶ τούτων μήτηρ καὶ πατήρ, ἐὰν ἔτι ζῶσιν: ἐκεῖνοι γὰρ ἀρχὴ τοῦ γένους εἰσί, καὶ τὰ ἐκείνων παραδίδοται τοῖς ἐκγόνοις: διόπερ ἀνάγκη τρέφειν αὐτούς ἐστι, κἂν μηδὲν καταλίπωσι.

For if my grandfather were alive and in want of life’s necessities, it would not be our opponent liable for “neglect” but us. For the law demands of us to support our parents, meaning by parents father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother, and their father and mother, if they are still alive: for they are the seed of the family, and their [property] is transmitted to their descendants, and so the latter are bound to support them even if they leave behind nothing.

Isaeus 8.32.2-9

Ok, the context of this immediately makes this a little suspect – it is Attic oratory after all, lying, manipulation, and verbal sleight of hand are all par for the course. I don’t have a commentary to hand, but what immediately stands out is the use of γονεύς for elderly ancestor, which is why I italicised it. Yes, fine in terms of etymology (perhaps) and the wider Greek world, but certainly strange in Attic usage.[1] Hence why the speaker must go on at length to define it. Nonetheless, we know that such a law against neglect and ill treatment towards one’s parents must have existed. It is cited by (Pseudo)Aristotle,[2] and parodied by Aristophanes,[3] and occasionally held by some rhetors to have been Solonian in origin.[4] But this is the locus classicus I remember from my schooling and one that lays out the measure of the law: Parents are owed respect/sustenance by their offspring. The broader context, that this is in part due to the care offered to their young, is left unstated but would be immediately intimated by every right-thinking Athenian. There is a strong sense of reciprocity.

This isn’t just some idle law against elder abuse. It ties into the broader centrality of the oikos to Athenian social theory and praxis. Consider, for example, the law against wasting one’s inheritance, the misappropriation of property/monies taken over via marriage (and therefore rightfully belonging to the wife or her descendants), or the various provisions against leaving some truly intestate. This latter category is particularly well attested in the broader Greek world (Sparta, Gortyna). These laws serve to inhibit the individual for the protection of his wider kin group.

The duty of every free-born Athenian male could be thus summarised: to preserve his inheritance in order to pass it on to his children. To look after his parents,whence he received his patrimony. Nor was this an entirely fiscal, er, transaction, there were wider social and physical provisions.[5] Beyond the oikos there were certainly (weaker) obligations to one’s anchisteia, phratry, and polis (which can’t be covered here). Would an Athenian keep inside to protect the old? Social and legal pressure, perhaps even honest gratitude to what his elders have given him, would make that a likely proposition.

But do we have any of that?

Take instead the atomised modern. What he has inherited? In the year of our lord 2020 someone in their late twenty to early thirties will have been receiving or finishing his education in a time of extreme global recession (and believe me, it was fucking brutal) only to now be experiencing another. Complete with corporate tax-funded bailouts. S/he either paid some £3000 per year for university fees or entered at a time when the government had tripled them to £9000. A government, incidentally, educated at a time when university was free.[6] House prices are – somehow, somehow – absolutely insane, despite lowering birth rates and colonised green space;[7] members of the older generation, meanwhile, may own multiple homes. It is shockingly easy to go on, but I shan’t. Much has been written about the shocking selfishness and expropriation of resources by that particular generation.

Going back to the law cited by Isaeus, yes, there was (potentially) a provision that care was owed κἂν μηδὲν καταλίπωσι (even if they leave nothing), but this was in the face of immense socio-cultural pressure to leave substance and opportunities behind and probably was only invoked in the cases of very poor families. I do not think the ancients could have conceived of the level of intergenerational expropriation that typifies growing up in the modern west.

The 75 Years’ Young Boomer vs The Bad Knee’d Teen

What’s the Ancient Greek for “50 is the new 30?” Μαλακίαι – Such narcissistic posturing would be at best considered to be unseemly and at worst, utter degeneracy.[8] Indeed, much of the humour of Aristophanes’ Clouds depends seeing a grey-haired old man act in the manner of a child, including his enrolment in a frontistirio headed up by our boy Socrates. Strepsiades himself worries how he is going to learn being so slow and old (πῶς οὖν γέρων ὢν κἀπιλήσμων καὶ βραδὺς/λόγων ἀκριβῶν σκινδαλάμους μαθήσομαι; 129-30) and this anxiety and incongruity is picked up by the chorus who address him as an old man, a hunter after the arguments of philosophers (χαῖρ’, ὦ πρεσβῦτα παλαιογενές, θηρατὰ λόγων φιλομούσων. 358). But the apex of this joke comes in a scene familiar to all students. Socrates bids Strepsiades to lay down and think over his problem he asks him repeatedly if he has anything:

Σωκράτης: ἔχεις τι;

Socrates: Have you anything?

Στρεψιάδης: μὰ Δί’ οὐ δῆτ’ ἔγωγ’.

Strepsiades: By Zeus, I’ve nothing.

Σω: οὐδὲν πάνυ;

So: Nothing at all?

Στ: οὐδέν γε πλὴν ἢ τὸ πέος ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ.

St: There is nothing in my right hand besides…my penis

Aristophanes Clouds 732-6

Aristophanes slyly sets up the joke up by having the chorus warn our, err, hero that he mustn’t be soft (οὐ μαλακιστέ 729). The joke (I know, no joke explained is made funnier) works across two semantic levels. That between softness and masturbation should be obvious,[9] the other level is that he is regressing to the level of an unmarried youth. He is not acting his age. The poet plays with these themes elsewhere, as at the end of his Wasps where old man Sosias ends up part of a drunken komos.[10] The crux of the joke is clear: act your age-old man. 

Somehow, Aristophanes anticipated what most of my generation must have felt growing up seeing endless articles of how x age is the new y age, with x and y moving surreptitiously ever decade or so. Just please, shut the fuck up. Do not misunderstand, I am all for the elderly having a good life. Medical advances should make this more possible than ever. My grandfather was literally born in a village, he died slightly short his centenary and enjoyed lifting weights and jogging until his end. His old army mates weren’t much different. My father is pushing 60; I absolutely want him to have the best remaining life possible. But the endless narcissistic prattling of the middle-class elder who just can’t act his age and be thankful is starting to grate.

For fairness, this goes both ways. There is this weird tendency (I’m not going to post pictures, it would be unseemly) for grown men to pose, mouths agape, holding a games system or a Lego set or something. What the fuck is this? It’s like they have been trapped in a state of eternal pubescence. I don’t even mean this in a blameworthy manner, the world has conspired to render the old milestones of life considerably more difficult to achieve. But it does weird me out a little.

It has been noted – first humorously and now increasingly incredulously – that we are seeing something of a reversal, an unfunny paraprosdokian, where youngsters are now having to ask their parents whence and with whom they are going, or admonishing them to take the virus seriously. I can’t believe what I’m seeing outside my window. We have lost school. We have lost work. We have lost – the most sacred place of all – the gym. For what? The young, I reiterate, are giving up their livelihoods so that the old may live. Seemingly for nothing.

cronus eating child ruben
I believe Rubens called this “Modern Economics”

The Greeks were no more strangers to intergenerational strife than any human civilisation at any date. Indeed, when channelled it could be an immense creative force. The emergence of the so-called new music or the neoteric poets, for instance. But this is something more. The culmination of decades of ill feeling and frustration. Researchers are starting to jump on the long-term effects of the pandemic in this regard, and the current generation may well end up defined by COVID-19.[11]

Why will the young kill the old? Because as the ancients would tell us, forbearance – society – is a two-way street. Those who have taken too much for too long can’t, it seems, even now develop anything like self-restraint on a large enough scale. Can’t just stay indoors. Conversely, those who have the most to lose and least to gain by their longanimity are unlikely to persist in this level of self abnegation. If anything, previous generations have created a world where they can’t persist. We have lost sight of what would have been evident to the ancients: society consists of interlocking obligations and privileges to be enjoyed – and yielded – in turn.

I (inevitably) need to end with a caveat, because this is the internet. Just as explanation is not excuse, it is certainly not endorsement. I am by no means undermining the seriousness of this current plague and think every unavoidable death to be lamentable, regardless of age. Nor do I particularly dislike the boomer generation. But just as it is fallacious to apply the stereotypical trend to an individual, it is equally so to exculpate the broader trend based on our individual experience. I have been blessed in my older family members; I have even benefitted with some friendships with interesting older people. That doesn’t erase a very serious intergenerational problem that our grandchildren will struggle to clean up.

I hope this blog will continue to find you well. Wash your hands. Help your community. Look after your family – especially aged members. Stay safe.

[1] See instead τοκεύς e.g Perikles’ speech at Thucydides 2.44.1, which must stand for one’s forebears more generally.

[2] Ath Pol 56.6. That said, I don’t think we can speak with the certainty of some who definitely declare this to have been a graphe rather than a dike on this alone. These were important distinctions on Attic law. Am I missing some vital piece of evidence? Almost certainly.

[3] καὶ μὴ περὶ τοὺς σαυτοῦ γονέας σκαιουργεῖν, ἄλλο τε μηδὲν / αἰσχρὸν ποιεῖν Clouds 994-5

[4] It was not. See above re: Attic oratorical context. Certain speakers, definitely not pointing at some guy with pebbles in his mouth, will brazenly declare things to be Solonian which we know could not have been from, say, context or the epigraphic record.

[5] See the note on Aristophanes above re: generic σκαιουργεῖν; burial rites are a perfect example of this e.g Dinarchus 2.8. The force of this can be especially felt in Sophocles’ Antigone.

[6] It is one thing to kick the ladder away having ascended; another thing entirely to defecate over those still climbing – surely???

[7] My awareness of this madness came from being part of a team looking at derivatives based on the property market. It was a frustrating and insane experience. Incidentally, fuck property futures. Just buy equities like a non-coward.

[8] For this choice of word see e.g Perikles’ words: Thucydides 2.40.1 φιλοκαλοῦμέν τε γὰρ μετ᾽ εὐτελείας καὶ φιλοσοφοῦμεν ἄνευ μαλακίας.

[9] It would eventually become an insult in Greek. Eventually, βλάκα. The link with degeneracy, above, is less obvious to parse – unless you read the citations. I don’t agree that there is meant to be a direct link with κιναιδεία, just a sense of indolence and lack of restraint.

[10] Wasps is an interesting comedy, it comes after a version of the Clouds (not our version, which has been revised) and seems slightly more sympathetic to the old. “Sosias and Strepsiades as Boomers”. Now there is a title for an essay…

[11] Rudolph, Cort & Zacher, Hannes. (2020). “The COVID-19 Generation”: A Cautionary Note. 10.31234/ Is a good start. Just copy and paste the call number in to find the PDF, it is open access.

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

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

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

I: Proto-Indo-European taboos

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

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

μηδέ ποτ’ ἐν προχοῇς ποταμῶν ἅλαδε προρεόντων

μηδ’ ἐπὶ κρηνάων οὐρεῖν, μάλα δ’ ἐξαλέασθαι:

ἐναποψύχειν: τὸ γὰρ οὔ τοι λώιόν ἐστιν.

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

or into springs, urinate; much better to avoid it

it is not seemly to relieve oneself therein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some housekeeping

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

Waving Bear GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

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

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


 Endlings and suchlike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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