“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?”
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:
That earlier academics were, on the whole, much better writers.
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 ☹).
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)
Bevan, E. R. (2015). The house of Seleucus. TX: Cambridge University Press.
Bresson, A. (2015). The making of the Ancient Greek economy: Institutions, markets, and growth in the city-states. Princeton University Press.
(Have my doubts! Never seen a Classicist, or a Historian, write sensibly about Economics but ok)
Chadwick, J. (1976). The Mycenaean world. Cambridge University Press
(Material vs prose, brings this out on top. He’s essentially writing about inventory lists)
Dodds, E. R. (1956). The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press.
Dover, K. J. (1989). Greek Homosexuality.
(Do not blame him for his shitty epigones)
Green, P. (1993). Alexander to Actium: The historical evolution of the Hellenistic age. University of California Press.
(Yes, yes, massively dated on art and culture but one of the best encompassing narratives around. What a writer).
GUYS LOOK HOW BARE THIS SECTION IS, THESIS VINDICATED!?
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…)
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.
(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.)
(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)
N.B I have gone with the original title for ease of access, but I note that various online retailers go for different titles. On Amazon Prime currently the film is listed as “Romulus V. Remus: The First King”.
Il Primo Re is not so much a tale about the founding of Rome as it is about a chance missed by an evidently talented director: It could have been a Roman Apocalypto (and at its best, is close). Though it suffers from a lack of understanding of its sources (philological and historical), it is certainly a good popcorn flick,  at the very least. I enjoyed it immensely.
Let me map out the review. I’m not in the habit of confusing nitpicking with philological elan. I don’t like it. Nor do I think criticism ever overwrites the sheer balls it takes to do some creative, especially a local independent film like this. I hate the well akctuallly guys.
Instead, the review is tripartite. Section one details the philological aspects, section two the archaeological/cultural in precis and section three the film itself. I have put that last just in case anyone is really worried about spoilers here. If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll come back and hyperlink the sections and add a sensible further reading section.
The Sound of the Film: Language and Philology.
I feel no real need to go over this in detail. Art is not an academic article, yet it is obvious that the use of “authentic” language was a major point in the film’s marketing abroad. Some of the Italian sources I found writing about it were praising its contribution to the overall realism of the film. According to the director they accomplished this by hiring a “team of semioticians from La Sapienza”.
Look, I try my hardest not to be the typical Classical Philologist when surrounded by other, er, types of linguist but I can’t help but wonder: how that is possible? The language, whilst evocative, was full of the kind of mistakes I would kick a first-year student for making.
Let’s go through things.
First, the pronunciation was (perhaps expected) Italian. So anachronistic for Classical Latin, let alone Proto-Italic. I distinctly recall hearing e.g spiritus in pace te reliquint in the same way one would now in a sermon. But this is uneven across the actors and some are better at speaking (like the unnamed Vestal) than others (Romulus).
Vowel length, likewise, is random. At one-point Romulus attempts to get a despondent Remus to eat. Ede he commands, all quite classical actually, except it sort of comes out like /e:de/ as if a misapplication of Lachman’s law. But as noted the Romulus actor is often incomprehensible.
There are some seriously discordant solecisms that, again, one would not expect someone with access to a good grammar (or internet connection) making. E.g rexmeus used as a vocative rather than rex mi; I cannot be certain, but I am sure I hear nemo sciunt more than once.
nuncque? Is that a thing? It sounds wrong to my ear. I’m not going to check, but my memory is good, and I have been through the vast majority of the canon. Idiomatically I would have gone with at nunc. Or, even better, etiamne or nunc etiam? (genuinely old-fashioned e.g nunc etiam quom est, non estur, nisi soli lubet). Maybe they’re trying to keep to etymological force of -que? (< PIE *-kʷe)
Yes, yes, you might say, the latinitas is bad but what about the attempts at Proto-Italic? Setting aside the issues with phonology and enunciation, I’ll make a few quick points.
I am quite happy to accept potiesimos for possumus in the subjunctive and I believe I hear a good few ablatives singular in –od. *h₁n̥gʷnis comes out as engis or egnis. I think this is fair unless we insist on conserving the labiovelar. At one point a character refers to tersa sakra. This is both thematically apropos given the situation and a correct pre-classical rendering of terra from Proto-Italic Proto-Italic *terza. At one point someone attempts to use a jussive subjunctive and, I think (hedging here), we hear a siet/d for sit.
The lack of basic knowledge really reveals itself in a complete lack of awareness of how sound changes work. We are persistently given bhre:ter for Classical frater. Correct, the Latin f does descend from an early bh but then why is the goddess frugiferens and not something closer to *bʰruHgibʰerents? Why must we cross the flumen? Leaving aside how we date the bh > f. Romulus existing is much more likely than Romulus saying bh instead of f at this point. The entire word is just a mess. I am no expert on laryngeals, but I can’t see how *bʰréh₂tēr would ever render anything akin to bhre:ter: é + h₂ really should get us /a:/ as indeed we get with Latin frater.
I have said too much here, but similar issues abound throughout when it comes to sound changes.
Umberto Eco was a semiotician (and, judging from his engagement with the Latin fathers, a damned fine Latinist to boot); these guys are grifters. Mr Rovere, if you ever make a sequel (please do!), walk past the semioticians and straight into the the Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità at La Sapienza. Avail yourself of the eager, talented, young Italian Classicists!
But, seriously, lest the negative outweigh the positives: I enjoyed the attempt, and whilst clumsy, I could follow the film without looking at the subtitles whenever I was doing something else. We must give a round of applause to some of the actors, especially Remus and the Vestal, who did so much with so little in terms of dialogue.
The Look of the film: Archaeology and Culture.
Did the archaeologists do better than the semioticians? Probably. I find myself wondering at the kinds of clothing worn. Not necessarily from an accuracy p.o.v but in terms of colour. Across the world early man seems to have loved and delighted in colour, why is everything so drab and grey and brown?
The culture of Latium around the alleged time of Romulus and Remus coincides with what we call the Latial Culture, specifically periods LCIII and LCIV. This goes beyond the fluidity of archaeological strata, the Roman tradition itself gave some variance to the tradition date before it settled on 753 BC.
How the Latial Culture interacted with the more famous Villanovan culture (Etruscans) is honestly beyond me right now. I am surprised I can remember any of this from my time as a student. But my understanding is that the general material level ought to be slightly higher? Tufa houses of oval or apsidal shape with heavy thatch roofing. This is around the time we begin to see monumental architecture in the forms of temples take root, with important buildings (like a palace?) having stone foundations.
The putative time of Romulus and Remus is one where the Greeks have already started their post-Mycenaean westward colonisation (Ischia served as a trading post, other settlements to follow) and we have good reason to suspect the Phoenicians were active and using Sardinia as a source for metal and mineral. Do not misunderstand me, most of humanity lived in conditions little better than on display, but the material culture feels a little inconsistent (how are there swords??) and maybe could have had a slight upgrade.
When we pay attention to ancient (perhaps even modern) cultures one of the first things we look at it how they treat childbirth, marriage, and death. Given the context of the film we can ignore the first two, but death is treated weirdly here. There’s a sort of 1970’s pseudo-pagan piety on display. At one point a man (a slave?) is killed and left there in the settlement (an act of great impiety), where villagers sort of…put stones around him? Whilst wailing as if in an Enya song?
The Latial culture is characterised, oddly, with two contrasting funeral practices. Cremation and then internment in an urn that resembles said apsidal/ovular houses (Etruscan influence?) or internment with grave goods. Why make things up? What should be one of the great rituals of life seems plastic and inauthentic.
A quick note on the cult as it is shown throughout. I do not think it controversial to say that whilst Roman Religion was quite conservative it was inherently tied up to its urban, civic, context and so that reconstructing earlier, more archaic, versions of rites can be more difficult than things first appear. None the less, we can (especially thanks to philology) say a good deal.
I like the emphasis on the sacred fire as a deity. Jumping back to the parent language for a second, it seems as if Indo-European had an animate/inanimate distinction which was as conceptual as it was grammatical (hi Anatolian!). Fire comes in two forms. On the one hand we have the root *péh₂wr̥ which gives our word fire in English. This is in the inanimate form. Contrast this with the root word *h₁n̥gʷnis which gives us the Latin ignis (the egnis-god of the film), which was animate and worshipped as divine.
There is little room for other gods and characters simply speak of the deiwos, which is fine and mirrors cult speech. There is an attempt at an ablative absolute at one point, divos volentibus, which is…less fine.
Roman tradition has the cult of Vesta instituted by Numa, rather than Romulus. But the film’s version makes more sense – the fire cult was incredibly ancient – and they do steal the vestal from Alba Longa so all is good.
Less good is the weird treatment of haruspicy. This is a late cult, of Etruscan origin. Which is fine, but I wonder at a vestal performing it. The filmmakers seem to believe it was the equivalent of a high fidelity Zoom call. Also, note to self, haruspicy etc were actually rational from an evolutionary perspective. Remember to write blog.
But the use of religion is quite well-done bar some of the caveats above (seriously, very 1970s, very Enya). It’s evocative, respectful, builds the atmosphere and has a sense of internal consistency.
The story of the film: Putting it all together
Mary had a little lamb that was white as snow and…it’s gone. Father Tiber took her. The opening scenes of the film serve as an initiation of sorts: get used to the casual brutality and difficult of life, get used to the pre-eminence of nature. I am not well versed in film, less skilled in criticism, but I often found myself admiring the sense of natural beauty throughout even as it contrasted with human brutality. But nature too, as we see from scene one, can be brutal and so the human urge to propriate/tame natural forces like fire make sense throughout.
The ancient tradition – and unlike a few I do believe the tradition genuinely ancient – may seem sparse on detail but there are two or three fecund elements across most of our versions, and Rovere seems to have fixated on the apparent impiety of Remus. I like this. It’s a good narrative decision. His behaviour could easily degenerate into some modern atheist self-insert or cardboard Nietzschean will power attitude, but it doesn’t. We see and share his sense of the injustice of the gods.
It’s a violent film but then it is a violent story. Alba Longa looms threatening in the background and I recall John Ma’s throwaway tweet that Apocalypto inadvertently shows the expropriating power cities held over peripheral settlements. The violence is well done in most places. We see early just how deadly a dagger (which are not knives!) can be and most carry nothing more than a dagger, club, spear or adze/axe. There are a handful of swords, which seem discordant given the technology displayed in the film. Historically, yes, we spoke earlier about Greek/Phoenician trade and both Etruria and Calabria were metal producing/working at the time to a decent level. But in terms of internal consistency…
The sword fights are kind of terrible and the inevitable final big battle, farcical and tragicomic. Yet when the final duel comes, as we have always known it must, there is an element of pathos. Very well done.
It would have been easy for the writers to resort to a kind of boring, cynical, euhemerism. They do not, instead (perhaps accidentally?) bits and pieces of the source tradition and culture do shine through at times. Remus’ forming of a comitatus/männerbund, his becoming the etymological archetype of a princeps following a hunt, is well done.
Someone, I think Mary Beard, described Romulus as a “shadowy Mr. Rome”. Whilst I disagree as to what the sources can tell us, I love the narrative decision here to focus on Remus.
Much of the acting is incredible throughout. It really shines when the fugitives are just hanging around campfires. Sharpening, cleaning, preparing. You see the furtive, frightened, energy in their movements. The movements remind of those documentaries of early humans, actually, using their teeth as tools and so on and forth. The screen glistened with a flickering blue archaic energy and there were times where, solecisms aside, you felt as if you were at the campfire.
 For the avoidance of doubt, because some of you shits will come at me: I am aware that *sākris was originally an i-stem and that in Proto-Italic, as PIE, these were likely adjectives of one termination. However, comparison with Sabellic suggest that how these declensional classes converged is quite complex. I barely care. I doubt the film guys who can’t differentiate meus from mi. Stop being such a nerd.
 I thought at once of e.g status from *steh₂- but then recalled datus from *deh₃- and trembled a little. Reader, I fear no man but *h₃, it scares me.
 Obviously, settlement at the future site of Rome predates this (to about 1000 BC) and the Romans themselves seemed to have been aware of – and not at all troubled by – the confluence of two accounts of their founding. A single act of founding, a ktisis in Greek terms by Romulus, and a synoikisis of various settlements as celebrated by the septimontia festival.
 The possibility of Etruscan influence is not small. Leaving aside the literary tradition and the (much later) Francois tomb, the Etruscans had a similar burial practice during this era. The major difference is the Latins preferred to inter their ashes in mini houses with mini grave goods. This is how we know so much about their housing structures btw.
 You have two, and only two, good introductory volumes to Roman Religion: Georg Wissowa’s Religion und Kultus der Römer (1902) or George Dumezil’s La Religion romaine archaïque, avec un appendice sur la religion des Étrusques (1966).
 Actually, the situation here is quite complex. Whilst the original animate/inanimate distinction remains valid, the inanimate version did also have some ritual importance (funeral pyres, wedding fires). It simply wasn’t divine.
 Cf Sanskrit agníḥ where the animate fire is worshipped first as animate force and then as a deity.
 Swords are an important development in archaeological and cultural terms. See my brief note, here.
 I wish they had tried to get in words like *prisemokaps.
Note: So, this is something I have been thinking of trying out for a while. A series of quick and dirty posts on lines of the Iliad. If I do end up continuing, I will add a meta-page listing the reasoning and the rules for what I decide to comment upon, how best to read these posts, and how I write them. For now, view this as a tester. The first post follows 1-7.
It is a staid truism – and has
been since antiquity – that the Iliad
starts with ‘wrath’ and the Odyssey with
‘man’. This was probably the main motivating
factor for Virgil to unify both themes (‘arma
virumque…’). Boring. But we do know that in general oral poems tend to
function this way where the first line might function as both as title and a
taster of sorts.
Openings and closings of oral
poems are particularly vulnerable to contraction and expansion as the unit of
measure is not the hexameter or even a thematic section, but the poet’s time
with the audience. Therefore, there was ample opportunity to show off, or to
have to get on with it, or link your first poem into another one.
Variations exist all over. Take
this variation noted by Aristoxenus for example:
ἔσπετε νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχουσαι,
Tell me now, you Muses who dwell on Olympos
ὅππως δὴ μῆνίς τε χόλος θ᾽ ἕλε Πηλείωνα
Such was the mania and rage which took the son of Peleus
Λητοῦς τ᾽ ἀγλαὸν υἱόν· ὃ γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθείς
And the blameless son of Leto, for he was angry with the king
Straight away you can see the parallels
with the Odyssey and Hesiod’s work.
This is what I would call an example of contraction given that it saves time by
adpositioning Akhilleus’ and Apollo’s wrath. Note semantic doubling (μῆνίς…χόλος).
The former is more elevated, and this late performer can’t quite shake it off. Don’t
be tempted to mock this proem, it’s well-wheeled and a good example of the
rhapsode’s craft. It’s just that, well, compared to great Homer…
Θεά This is elevated language. It’s used
over θέαινα for metrical purposes. In everyday usage
we would simply expect the masc, θεός, to stand in for both god
and goddess. The article would stand to differentiate where needed. This makes
sense given its etymological roots which were certainly neuter, it is derived
from the same PIE root as Latin fanum,
temple. If you’re wondering why a neuter would eventually refer to masc and fem
things well remember that the original distinction in PIE was animate/inanimate.
All the daughter languages retain evidence of this ‘confusion’.
Cf our own ‘god’ which was neutral in Old English. From an earlier form *guda/goda. This is probably from a verb ‘to revere’. i.e to revere > a revered thing > a god. A priest, the one doing the revering, was a godi. There’s a familiar semantic web here: Old Indic hotar, Old Persian zotar (Modern Persian zut), means a priest in a ritual/ablutions sense. Ultimately this comes from the PIE verb ǵʰew- (pour, shed). Readers of this blog can, I bet, readily supply the Greek version.
Fuck it. This is now a post on
How common was this stem in earlier forms of Germanic? English mainly uses os (so Oscar, means god’ spear) and Old Norse as (hence aesir). Untagling Germanic religious language and attitude is difficult given the paucity and poverty of the sources. Answers on a post card. Actually, go ask @mattitiahu.
Ok. This is no longer a post on
Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος When you see thistravesty, this is how you know H-daddy was the real deal. Because anybody else would have had faeces thrown at them for this metrical malapropism…in the opening line.
Why faeces? Well, I’m not sure
how ecologically common apples were at this point this far west. Nor chickens. Greeks
and Romans loved cabbage so they wouldn’t waste that on a tin-eared bard. What’s
logically after apples, chickens, and cabbage? That’s right, faeces.
The word order may seem
illogical, though I suspect, again, that it’s for metrical convenience (and the
way the sounds line up when sung in metre). There is PIE precedence in praise
poetry for this word order: Old Indic stotra
(praise poetry) and Middle Indic inscriptions; Germanic poetry which, again,
seems to draw from a praise tradition (but the complicated role of kennings and
assonance may muddle things) and; IIRC, somewhere in the Middle Welsh Triads.
In terms of traditionality we know patronymics ending in –δης are relative innovations anyway. The older PIE way of signifying a patronymic was infixing /i/ to the stem and making an adjective. So Πηλεΐων is actually the older form. Cf the Latin name Tullius < ‘descendants of Tullus’. This is borne out both by Linear B and by later inscriptional evidence.
Ἀχιλλεύςis obviously a very archaic name, as are all endings in -ευς, and its obscure etymology gave both ancients and moderns all sorts of trouble. There is no satisfactory explanation for this name’s meaning. There is no solution. You think you have a solution, but you don’t. You have nothing.
οὐλομένην the ou here is either a metrical contrivance
or due to problems with transmission. I actually agree with neither but have a half-finished
article I hope to one day publish (tbf a lot of this stuff is drawn from something
I’m working on, but meh). Aeolic keeps the correct long vowel vs dipthong, ὠλόμενος, see also the verb ὄλλυμαι. This isn’t an interesting
point, but I have a feeling I will refer to such textual/metrical chicanery later
so do let’s set a precedent.
Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν Porphyry
managed to get a paragraph or two out of that. Proof there is no god.
controversial how this is used, isn’t it? Are the heroes treated as a separate older
race as in Hesiod? (This comes from an influential NE motif that spread west in
Greece and east into Iran and India, it even turns up in the Mahabharata, book 3), is it a term of
ritual obeisance? Or is just a handy referent to the foci of epic song?
The spread and development of
hero cult is one of the most fascinating aspects of archaic Greek history. Bruno
Currie has done excellent work on the textual evidence and Carla Antonaccio is
a must-read on the archaeological evidence. I don’t have a go to for the re-use
of Mycenaean sites. If you take a lot of MDMA it’s worth reading Claude Calame.
If you’re more of a cocaine fiend, Irad Malkin’s stuff is good. Note: don’t mix
cocaine and MDMA.
πᾶσι vs δαῖτα? 😊
Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή One
of the most quoted lines in the PhiloCroc household. This is a very weighty hemistich.
In poetic terms, it’s a self-contained bit which adds ‘weight’ to the fast-moving
lines above and gives the reciter a good place to rest. I also don’t think it
too contrived to say this is simultaneously looking back to the broader epic
tradition where Zeus’ plans are a common theme (and for the Troy saga
specifically, more on that later); and forward to the great moments in the Iliad where Zeus makes his plan known.
ἐξ οὗ…τίς τ’ ἄρ σφωε etc
This is more of a brief point about style, going forwards. One of the most
engaging aspects of Homeric composition is its so-called speed and clarity (ἐνάργεια),
which has been remarked upon since antiquity. One of the ways this is achieved
is through a para-tactical style (παράταξις).
The best way, the only way, to
get the sense of this is to sit back and read the text out loud and see how it
paints a picture, and how successive words and clauses help build up the story
by supplying (and occluding?) information.
Wrath, ok but who’s wrath? What is this story about? Peleus’ son, Akhilleus – excellent, how many such stories were there? We as an audience may know of a few differing wrath stories in general, but what about Akhilleus in particular? We know of an apparent argument between him and Odysseus (Odyssey VIII) but μῆνίς is too strong a word. Ah, it’s a terrible wrath which laid down the souls of many heroes etc. But why? Who caused this? Against whom did Akhilleus set his face? Well it was according to the plan of Zeus. It was Zeus, you see, who set them in strife. At this point we know little about the plan of Zeus, but can guess if we’re experienced listeners. The question remains, however, whom did he set to quarrelling? Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς (The son of Atreus, lord of men Agamemnon and the brilliant Akhilleus). The poem then goes on to provide further details, including Apollo’s role etc etc.
You can see how this oral style
works, how the singer is able to deploy the metrical line and the formulaic
system to build a story at recitation speed and how the listeners are able to
comprehend. There has been a decent amount of discussion – none to my mind
satisfactory – about this element of oral poetry. Exactly what are the
compositional blocks? Books (or rhapsodies) are, I think, largely artificial. Groupings
of books (in terms of themes) work a little better. Type-scenes don’t really
seem to match any performative context I can conjure.
Some people think in terms of
formula. But the formula is really just a later reification of sound patterns
and common phrases, hence why comparative examination of Rigvedic verse and the
Aeolic line takes us back to a predecessor which was fluid for most of the line.
Hence why κλέος ἄφθιτον is the most
marked phrase in PIE but not a formula.
South Slavic bards speak in terms
of the rijec (lit word) which can vary from a single word
to a line or two. I think this is too lose and undisciplined for the way
ancient Greek versification worked, but it is an interesting comparandum.
This is where a comparative
approach can get really interesting, but we need much more than 7 or 8 lines
under our belts first.
ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Obviously a
formula, and a pleasant and easy to use one. In the Iliad it is predominantly used of Agamemnon for the 40-50 times it
occurs. Much has been made of the so-called archaism of ἄναξ. It needn’t be. We know it is a word of old, mysterious,
provenance (if you think you have an etymology, please see my note above on Akhilleus). It correctly requires a
digamma and is found as early as the Linear B tablets.
That it survives in this form is
hardly surprising, however. It is a common onomastic component (cf Anaxagoras), was still in use in Cyprus
and in cultic contexts. It was even used by the Phrygians (along with
lawagetes), hence a Gordian inscription mentioning King Midas (Midai lavagetaei vanaktei). But I guess
we can talk more in depth about this later. I *do* have a half finished post on
that Phrygian inscription.
If we want to talk about
traditionality and innovation, a much more interesting question would be why so
few reflexes of PIE *h₃reǵ- made it
down to Greek cf’d to…almost every other
And that’s the end. My original aim was to cover around 50-60 lines in three quarters of this word count. By the by, if you feel I missed anything really interesting in these lines or want to add anything, just do so via twitter or the comments below.
The antipathy between ‘Byzantium’ (here used as convenient shorthand for the surviving Roman Empire) and the ‘West’ is longstanding indeed. One can trace it, perhaps, in the machinations of the various Germanic tribes who are once mimicking the trappings of civilisations engendered by the Romans – with about as much understanding as a parrot has of a poem. Certainly, this is in evidence by the time of Charlemagne.
Let us be clear. There never was a zweikaiserproblem. Instead, the Bishop of Rome found his ecclesiastical throne to sit on a very mundane plinth indeed: Rome, alone of the ancient sees, stood in the West and thus wielded immense auctoritas. But the mitre and crook was hardly proof against the Lombard’s sword or local politicking, the Emperor’s presence in Italy was hardly to felt and so Leo turned to another protector.
The rest, as they say, is history and resulted in the founding of a state neither Holy, Roman, or in any sense an Empire.
Now, we could talk about how awful the west was. Forgeries such as the false Donatio Constantini, the differing Germanic law-codes which granted native Romans less than second citizen status (why else assimilate?). We could venerate the bravery of honest Romans like Boethius or the dream of Belisarius and Justinian. These things shouldn’t need repeating.
The real antipathy began in 1054, with the bizarre excommunication of the East. Bizarre in the sense that one still can’t understand just how this happened. Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian I and II had all proved decisively that the Emperor, not any single bishop, is the head of the church. On what authority was this carried out? On whose? Part of the reasoning was the omission of flioque in the creed. Omission! That’s #fakenews for you.
We in the West have had several reasons, both temporal and ecclesiastical, to castigate and malign the medieval Roman Empire. I think any putative connection to Russia is a new one, unlearned and pathetic even by the low low standards one holds what passes for the American press these days.
‘Oh but the workings of the state were ones of occlusion and complexity!’ This from a state which literary hoards terabits of data on both its and foreign citizens. From a state with entrenched civil servants, where corporations may count as personages and wield more influence than federated states. Hmm.
Ah, Byzantium – it’s hard to see what so many could hate about it. The dedication to learning as evidenced by the great academies, monasteries, and law school? The pandidakterion was as much a university as Bologna or Oxford. The welcoming attitude to (assimilating) foreign populations? (I thought this was a virtue we shared?). The wonderful art, poetry, and music? Have you heard the hymns of Kassia?
Even the traditional image, of autocracy and despotism, may not be wholly true as recently argued by Kaldellis in his excellent ‘The Byzantine Republic’. Going by recent news stories, is our democracy really that much better?
In short, there is much to love and admire about Byzantium and little to castigate from our glass houses. Spitting on the toe of a giant doesn’t make you big, it just makes you uncivilised.
If you’re interested in Byzantium, you’re lucky to have three wonderful introductions. Averil Cameron’s ‘Byzantine Matters’ is a thematic history, characterising the best of recent scholarship. Cyril Mango’s edited volume, ‘The Oxford History of Byzantium’ (section on the Macedonian dynasty is very strong), is of a similar vein. Jonathan Harris’ ‘Constantinople’ is ostensibly about the city herself but reveals a lot about wider history and culture.
If you would like a more narrative driven account, Timothy E Gregory’s addition to the Blackwell Ancient History series is up to date and emphasises the Roman connection beautifully. Ostrogorsky’s ‘History of the Byzantine State’ is old but remains a classic.
Of course if you want to physically experience Byzantium, head to your nearest Orthodox church.
A recent twitter thread on the iconography of Zeus’ thunderbolt reminded me of earlier musings of mine on the rough similarities between Greek and Indian depictions of thunder-weaponry. Sometimes in ancient Greek art, Zeus’ thunderbolt is very much drawn as a few zigzagging lines – think of how Roman coinage and shields display Jupiter’s thunder or a child might draw lightning – other times it looks like a magic club. That’s what we’re currently concerned with.
Quickly routing around through the Beazley archives will give you an example of what I mean. I’m including links to #6996 and #10683 here, and an image from the British Museum below, since they have a less restrictive usage policy.
For comparison, here is an Indian variant. Note, the original Indic depiction has since, via the spread of Buddhism, generated variants in Thailand, China, Tibet, Nepal, Japan et al. The word for thunderbolt, vajra, is also a very fecund onomastic element across these cultures, historically.
Zeus and Indra
Let’s provide a bit of context before we go further. I suspect, quite strongly, that the Indo-European connection here is more than well known to anyone reading this but it can’t hurt to go over this in precis.
While Greek Zeus is cognate with Dyauṣ Pitṛ, in many ways they’re functionally distinct. ‘Indian Zeus’ is a very laid-back kind of king, mentioned largely in archaising ‘riddling’ hymns in the Rg Veda, like 1.64. In terms of activity, for all intents and purposes his son Indra is in charge.
Like Zeus, Indra originally seems to have been largely a rain god. It may also have been near eastern influence that emphasised his role as god of thunder. The earliest depictions have him going around with his mannerbund, the maruts (minor storm deities), and fighting various great beasts: as Zeus fights Typhon, he slays the engulfing wyrm Vritra. The story is detailed in hymns 1.32 and 4.18, much the greatest heroic poetry in any ancient Indo-European language. If there’s any interest, I’ll do some translations here on the blog. Within Indo-European studies, these stories (along with Thor vs Jormungandir and Teshub vs Illuyanka) have accrued a lot of interest over the years.
Later poetic versions have Indra act a little like the Zeus of pop culture, quaffing rivers of mead, soma (an intoxicant? A brew made of ephedra root and honey?) and despoiling the wives of priests. None the less, he is still the king of the gods and not a force to be trifled with.
There are some similarities in their divine armament too. Both wield thunderbolts made by divine smiths and are described in similar terms. Famously, the bolts of Zeus are made by the cyclopes and entrusted to him in thanks for freeing them from bondage:
and the thunderbolt, which monstrous Earth had hitherto concealed
Trusting to these, he reigned over both gods and men.
Hesiod, Theogony, 503-6
The earlier, explanatory, (interpolated?) lines about the cyclopes even gives them names to do with thunder and lightning (Brontes, Steropes, Arges, ll139). Between the cyclopes and lightning then, there was evidently a very close link. Later sources (e.g Pseudo-Apollodoros, Kallimakhos) confirm this and extend to them a more general divine handiness.
Indra’s vajra is made by a divine smith called Tvastr, whose name means something like craftsman/artificier. It is arjuna ‘bright’ (cf. ἀργής ) and the effect it has on Indra’s enemies is very much like the fate of Typhon described by Hesiod in the Theogony.
As an aside, Indra vs Vritra and Zeus vs Typhon is one of the most interesting set of compranda in Classical Philology. Both because it’s brilliant poetry, and because of the interpretive challenges. While there is most likely an Indo-European, or at least a Greco-Aryan, ‘template-myth’ here, the Greek version has been heavily influenced by near Eastern traditions, like Marduk vs Tiamat.
These parallels are both surprising, given the time depth, and underwhelming given that these are two closely related languages. I’m not necessarily positing any sort of genetic filiation between these two sets of (physical) iconography, just because the poetic language is similar. Years ago, M. West managed to convince me of a sort of lateral influence from the near East being the likeliest culprit. I wish I took notes since I can’t remember his reasoning or his evidence in anything like detail.
Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if one might posit a more direct route? From Greece to India during the Hellenistic age. After all, we know of the immense influence Hellenistic form and figuration had on Gandharan art. Who knows? it’s a possibility. I’ll end with an image of someone whom specialists often refer to as an Indian depiction of Herakles. Apart from being beautiful to look at, it’s a perfect example of ancient Greek influence on Indian artwork.
Herakles here is a stand in for a strong, protective, companion of the Buddha in early Buddhist folk-lore, often thought to be a semi-secularised adaption of Indra – Indic thought after all is one big continuum, and though the Vedic pantheon may have lost prominence, they’re still important. He’s not wielding thunder, but like Herakles (and Meleagros) he is wielding a club with which to defend his guru.
His name by the way, was Vajrapani, or in English, Thunderbolt-Hand.
I write this – after a long absence that has no doubt seen my paltry writing skills atrophy rather than improve – having enjoyed an interesting discussion yesterday, the kind that represents the best of Classics twitter. I want to expand upon some of the short comments I earlier because I worry I came off as a bit short and terse and wish to explain myself a bit better. Besides, we rarely get to discuss such things from a British perspective (for a discussion of American treatments, click here).
Here is the initial tweet, since the original post is well worth reading – as are the discussions on Aramaic and Akkadian with attendant bibliographies.
This 👇is what I see (or perhaps, what I would *like* to see) happening in university Classics Depts in the fairly near future. pic.twitter.com/2KPqQrFYnp
My response essentially came down to a) the vision being improbable if not impossible and; b) some aspects of it unwittingly carrying the potential to offend. You’ll hopefully note I don’t disagree with any of the assertions being made, I’d quite like all of them to come true. I just don’t think any of them likely.
I think the improbability comes down simply to the fact that universities are increasingly failing to properly teach Latin and Greek. We take it, bizarrely, as read that we’re increasingly less able than our 19th and 20th century predecessors (hence the above reference to ‘19th C philology’). This isn’t just a hackneyed trope, some traditional veneratio offered to our predecessors as a way to abase ourselves with false humility whilst simultaneously claiming our place in the great academic chain of being that descends from Zenotodus and Aristarchus to Wolf, Wilamowitz, and West. It’s a sad, discomforting, fact.
Sad because there’s truly never been a better time to learn Latin or Greek. Previous generations started earlier, had more time, but we eclipse them in efficiency by orders of magnitude. Students have a phalanx of textbooks to choose from, computer generated word lists, easy access to texts, readers, and even audiotools. We should, in fact, be making our predecessors look like gentlemen dilettantes with regards to their technical skills if not their insights.
One of the original points was that…”the world needs more specialised departments based on our Classical model”. Does it? What can we truly offer, say, Sanskrit scholars? I’m choosing Sanskrit because it’s the ancillary language I know best and because it has an incredible tradition behind it (of which most Classicists are sadly completely ignorant).
Indologists may avail themselves of at least one functional tradition akin to our philology, vyakarana (something like grammar) as well as several theoretical frameworks for assessing texts (I think the most famous in the west is probably mimasa). The study of the language has been not just rejuvenated but elevated by contact with western philology. After all, it was Saussure and his laryngeals which rendered Sanskrit’s intense verbal system fully understandable, British explorers and orientalists who kick-started epigraphy and paleography while fleshing out more fully the filitation between Sanskrit and early Indian vernaculars (the so called prakrits).
This is, notably, well in the past.
Indologists, on one hand, may read their texts with the aid of utterly brilliant Sanskrit commentaries. Meanwhile in 2018 it’s possible to graduate with a Classics degree not having fully read Virgil or Homer, let alone become acquainted with Servius or Eustathius.
I suspect Classics departments no longer have the intellectual, perhaps even moral, substance to offer anybody any sort of example on how to do anything. Ironically, it was those 19th century philologists and not modern comparative literature departments which furnished the inspiration for those studying Indic or Semitic (Sino-Tibetan, Finno-Urgic, Kartvelian etc etc) philology. What can we offer other scholars? Perhaps the ability to point out when someone is dead, white, and male? To turn ‘patriarchy’ from a sociological descriptor to something akin to a taboo word?
This is what I mean by potentially offensive. The days are gone when the Classicist could casually expound the rules and sound changes of Germanic philology more adroitly than the English DPhil, for example.
Another point considered widening the temporal horizon of the discipline until the fall of the Roman Empire in 1453. In some sense, Classics has already traditionally done this. After all, textual criticism by its very nature involves delving into the work of Carolingian monks, the intellectuals of the Byzantine renaissances (under the Macedonians and Palaeologi) and the Italian humanists.
I would love for this to happen to some degree, but again the basis for this has to be a sound grasp of the languages. Lorenzo Valla’s study of the false DonatioConstantini is one of the highpoints of our subject, but like all humanists his Latin can be difficult. The Greek of Laonikos Chalkokondyles is entertaining and electrifying but not for the faint of heart anymore than his subject matter.
As an aside there’s recently been a very interested guest post on Sententiae Antiquae on the merits of including post classical Latin as part of our curricula, which I link here. Unfortunately I can’t think of any similar post on reading post second sophistic Greek to link.
Can we ever engender a return to philology? On one hand I recall the resurgence of philologia propria in China after the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Under the Ming dynasty, critique and interpretation of texts and history had become dogmatically Neo-Confucian. Subsequently, disenchanted scholars found themselves eventually turning to more traditional methods in order to actually try and comprehend the past. Who knows? Maybe McKenna is right to be optimistic. I don’t think so. Out of the academy, none of my colleagues with similar backgrounds also working in black-letter professions (commercial law, finance, and I guess we should include the bloody consultants) seem to think so either. Nor do our bosses who have long since dampened their enthusiasm for hiring people with Classics degrees. Ah well.
The original post ended with an emphatic assertion that “there must be brilliant stuff out there” and I absolutely agree. In fact I’m going to end this blog post by recommending something, the Heike Monogatori. This epic, based on the struggle for dominance between two 12th century Japanese clans, has a strong claim for the best opening lines in world literature. Moreover, its compositional history make it a must read for any Classicist. It is, I hope you’ll agree, brilliant stuff.
The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. — Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation
In an ideal world, I’d go back and re-work the above post, citing and commenting upon the below articles and books in order to strengthen points and provide more entertaining reading. Please accept my apologies and this slightly annotated bibliography instead.
Much the best scholar writing on this questions is Sanskrit Professor Sheldon Pollock. His 2014 article ‘Future Philology’ has been incredibly influential and his shorter 2015 article ‘Liberating Philology’ is at once precis and expansion. For a broader, more multicultural, understanding of what’s at stake see the 2015 edited volume World Philology.
For the Byzantine Renaissances see Cyril Mango’s own contributed to the 2002 edited volume The Oxford History of Byzantium.
For an introduction on the (potential) similarities between Japanese and Greek epic see Naoko Yamagata’s article in Greece & Rome Vol. 40, No. 1 (Apr., 1993). I myself am partial to the Tyler and Watson translation.
I have made at least two cack-handed allusions herein. I have cheekily titled this post after Wilamowitz’s famous tirade, an English translation of which may be found here. Secondly, I alluded to Said’s article “Return to Philology” which can be found here.
Despite being ostensibly about differing perceptions of utility and the importance of ritual ceremony between the ancients and ourselves, my last post was basically about swords.
That said, we barely touched upon them as archaeological and cultural artifacts. I thought I’d remedy that with an addendum about swords, or rather by providing a condense bibliography for anyone interested in reading a bit more about them.
The starting point for looking into bronze age swords is surely Sandar’s two articles (1961, 1963), whence the eponymous typology. Readers ought to be warned that the typology, though functional, is suspect in terms of both sense and utility and far from the kind of quality one medievalists benefit from in Oakeshott (2009).
Barry Molloy is perhaps the single most promising scholar on the topic. His work includes a re-negotiation of the typology above (2010) as well as some attempts to treat swords as, well, swords by using them (2008). Experimental archaeology and reconstruction is always a bit suspect – Wardle (1988) is probably the pinnacle of what not to do – but Molloy takes a measured and sensible approach. Now, I’ve mentioned my love of combat sports before and also that I’ve fenced since I was a small child, so the use of these swords is something I’d like to do a future blog post on. Much of it would form a dialogue with Molloy’s article.
Once again, Medievalists are ahead of us and the excellent Knight and the Blast Furnace is perhaps the single best academic treatment of arms, armour, and metallurgy from any period.
What about ideology and the warrior? As mentioned in the previous post, we lack narrative texts and so any ideology is by necessity inferred by us. Though seemingly unpromising, do bear in mind that this is done via sensitive reading of art and artefact on one hand, and careful comparison with other cultures on the other. The best introduction would be any generic book on Minoan and Mycenaean art. I’ve loved Higgins (1967) since I was a child but it’s hardly industry standard. Substitute your book of choice.
Molloy (2012) again, is worth reading in his presentation of the warrior ethos amongst the Minoans. Now Minoans =! Mycenaeans and are somewhat earlier but it helps add context on the Aegean background is a further demonstration of solid methodology. The article itself got quite some press at the time for its shattering of the putative Pax Minoica that Evans first implanted in our cultural imagination. In this vein see Haysom (2010) on the double axe.
Kristiansen (2002) is a short and enjoyable introduction to bronze age sword fighters generally. Kramer-Hajos’ essay, “The ideology of the sword” has been one of my major influences in thinking about this topic again: long but informative, it represents the magic that happens when material culture meets informed theorising and supposition. Suffused with excellent pictures, the article covers feasting, fighting, hunting, artwork and a myriad of other related topics. Kramer-Hajos decisively demonstrates the importance of warrior ideology to the formation of Mycenaean states.
Last and certainly not least are the collected essays in Aegaeum 19, POLEMOS, which discuss several areas of BAA warfare. Occasionally, some of the essays are prone to romantic, euhemeristic, readings of later iron age texts which must be taken with mountains of salt. Surely then an excellent time to pick up Ian Morris’ (1986) oft-cited article on the (ab)use of Homer or, if you’re really in a Mycenaean mood, the penultimate chapter of Chadwick’s (1976) seminal study of the period. The articles contained therein in generally well argued and comprehensive.
Needless to say, all these articles come with their own bibliographies for those inclined to dig deeper. As I said, this is quite condensed and not meant to be exhaustive. Feel free to add anything interesting or share the list as you see fit. If this post format is useful, we can draw up lists for other classical topics too.
Chadwick, J. (1976). The Mycenaean world. Cambridge
Haysom, M (2010) The double-axe: A contextual approach to the understanding of a Cretan symbol of the Neopalatial period, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 29.1, 35–55.
Higgins, R. (1967). Minoan and Mycenaean art. London.
Kramer-Hajos, M. (n.d.). THE ETHOS OF THE SWORD: THE CREATION OF EARLY MYCENAEAN ELITE CULTURE. Mycenaean Greece and the Aegean World, 33-55.
Kristiansen, K (2002) The tale of the sword – swords and swordfighters in Bronze Age Europe Oxford Journal of Archaeology 21.4, 319–32.
Laffineur, R (1999) (ed.) POLEMOS: Le contexte guerrier en Égée á l’âge du Bronze. Belgium
Molloy, B (2008). Martial Arts and Materiality: A Combat Archaeology Perspective on Aegean Swords of the Fifteenth and Fourteenth Centuries BC World Archaeology, Vol. 40, No. 1, Experimental Archaeology pp. 116-134
Molloy, B. (2010). Swords and Swordsmanship in the Aegean Bronze Age. American Journal of Archaeology, 114(3),
Molloy, B P C (2012) MARTIAL MINOANS? WAR AS SOCIAL PROCESS, PRACTICE AND EVENT IN BRONZE AGE CRETE The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol. 107 pp. 87-142
Morris, I. (1986). The Use and Abuse of Homer. Classical Antiquity, 5(1), 81-138.
Oakeshott, E. (2009). Records of the medieval sword. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.
Sandars, N. K. (1961). The First Aegean Swords and Their Ancestry. American Journal of Archaeology, 65(1), 17.
Sandars, N. K. (1963). Later Aegean Bronze Swords. American Journal of Archaeology, 67(2), 117.
Wardle, Diana E.H. (1988) Does Reconstruction Help? A Mycenaean Dress and the Dendra Suit of Armour in French, E.B. and K.A. Wardle, eds. Problems in Greek Prehistory. pp. 469-476.
Williams, A. (2003). The knight and the blast furnace: A history of the metallurgy of armour in the Middle Ages & the early modern period. Leiden: Brill.