What I read in 2021

Illud autem vide, ne ista lectio auctorum multorum et omnis generis voluminum habeat aliquid vagum et instabile. Certis ingeniis immorari et innutriri oportet, si velis aliquid trahere quod in animo fideliter sedeat. Nusquam est qui ubique est.

But ware, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every genre has you [become] wandering and unsteady. You ought to remain amongst and be nourished by certain masterly authors, should you wish for something to be lodge more faithfully in your mind. Everywhere is nowhere.

Seneca Epistulae 1.2.2

“…and I said to him when you learn to read then you learn everything you didnt know before. But when you write you write only what you know allready so patientia Im better off not knowing how to write because the ass is the ass”.

Umberto Eco Baudolino

Ah books! Where else does one learn that, truly, the ass is the ass?[1] I thought I would try to jump in on the current trend of nominating 10 books read during 2021 that have been worth their while. Straight away there are problems with this. I read like I knit wool: far too much speed and aggression and far too little attention paid to my surroundings, so it is surprisingly difficult for me to remember what I have read. This is compounded by the fact that without the usual calendar of feast days – both secular and religious – and thanks to the misdemeanours of a conservative government neither conservative (ask the wildlife, oh wait) in nature nor capable of governing, I have very little idea of when 2020 ended and 2021 started. Not so much an ouroboros as an ἐν ἑαυτῷ τῷ κώλῳ βινεόμενος.

Ground rules and assumptions. I will try to get to 10 books, I may, I may not. Look I no longer even pretend to edit these things, so if it stops at 5 or 6, you have been warned. Whilst, lector dulcissime, the list will be ribbed numbered for your convenience the books are in no way to be ranked. Since I am not an NPC I will not solely be listing books published in 2021. As I said earlier, I am barely cognisant of the elision between 2020-1 as it is, and I am not exactly on the receiving end of free books and ARCs from publishers, hot off the press. I will endeavour not to list books I have re-read,[2] or mentioned elsewhere. Lastly, I will try to cite only books directly concerning or potentially useful to Classics. I know why the five or six readers I have stop by her occasionally, and it’s not to hear my musings on economics or poetry such like.

This is surprisingly difficult by the way! I must have ploughed through 100 books or so. Admittedly, not all are on the Classics, but it is alarming how few I feel comfortable recommending. It helps to keep Skallas’ axiom about the 4HL in mind: if people have such limited leisure time, recommending something bad to read/watch is tantamount to eating up their life. An act of micro-violence, if you will.

Tom Holland Dominion

What a great start. A book that I read near two years ago and have indeed re-read. This book, hitherto, has defied my abilities as a reviewer and I really want to get a few remarks down on the blog at some point. Dominion is magisterial, perhaps the height of Holland’s power as a historian. Purportedly a history of Christianity it comes across more as a vindication of the idea that secularism and modernity are just one more Christian heresy. Holland proves himself sympathetic to and understanding of pagan and Christian, ancient and modern (how many books cite both Origen and Angela Merkel?).

He may not be Spider-Man, but he is – I think – Britain’s best historical writer and you could do a lot worse than read through his oeuvré.

Camilla Townsend Fifth Sun

Revisionist history should not be a dirty word. After all, as our evidence improves and our tools for assessing said evidence with it, we should be capable as a society of producing better histories. Should. When I came across this project to retell the history of the conquest of the Aztecs I was rather sceptical. My antipathy to those demon worshippers is well known. However, Townsend’s biases are laughably evident in this book that nonetheless shows its historical working. As a result, this may be the single best presentation and study of the Nahuatl evidence in a narrative history and for that alone it is worth the price of entry.

Bonus: Michael Launey/Christopher MacKay An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl>

I picked this book up directly thanks to reading the above. It is a recent(ish) translation of the French original and can be acquired cheaply. I have no intention of gaining real proficiency in Classical Nahuatl: unlike these “polyglot” morons on YouTube I know full well what it takes to get halfway decent at a corpus language and I have neither time nor inclination here. HOWEVER, for anyone wanting the mental exercise of learning a very different grammatical and syntactical system and getting a taste of an interesting language, this is a great book.

James Hankins Virtue Politics

Do you know what struck me this year? Most historians of the renaissance are functionally illiterate. That is they are neither capable of reading Latin to any real degree nowadays or, just as bad, are poorly read in the literature of the period. Hankins is not such a one and this book deserves to stand (at least) toe to toe with Burckhardt’s triptych of books on the subject.

Bruni, Flavio, Filelfo…even George of Trebizond (!!!) gets a look in. Hankins shows renaissance was so much more than Petrarch and Machiavelli. This book is the single best introduction to renaissance thought as it concerns – in the author’s formulation – both statecraft and soulcraft.

Gesine Manuwald, L. B. T. Houghton, Lucy R. Nicholas An Anthology of British Neo-Latin Literature

Should this be here? Have I added this out of guilt? Nationalism? Ah well. Britons of the renaissance and early modern wrote Latin too. Some even in good Latin.[3] In addition to the obvious candidates like Moore and Milton, this book provides a broad overview of authors, styles, and genres (a satire on the clergy next to some funerary verse and an ethnography of the highlands). It is generous in that it provides text and translation both, prefaced with some insightful introductory essays.

Bonus: Sarah Knight, Stefan Tilg The Oxford Handbook to Neo-Latin Literature

These Oxford handbooks are evincing some real staying power on my shelves I must say, and for those with any further questions on the authors contained above this is a great compendium. The book is tripartite, focusing on language and genre (Moul and Sidwell definitely worth reading); cultural context and, finally, a regional overview. Handy bibliography too.  

Julian Maxwell Heath Warfare in Neolithic Europe

Do let’s have something at least hinting at archaeology if hardly stinking of it. This book suffers slightly from trying to draw the reader into an academic debate about which they are unlikely to care (i.e many archaeologists still seem to think of the neolithic as a period with little conflict – what?!?)[4], however it is thoroughly engaging. The book starts with a global outlook and theoretical overview and then moves onto looking at specific sites and countries within Europe. It is hardly going to replace more technical overviews, but it was enjoyable. The chapter on neolithic Greece will be of particular interest to readers here.

Robin Waterfield The Making of a King

I have been a fan of Waterfield’s ever since I read his Taken at the Flood, which covered the Roman conquest of Greece in a readable way. This book fills a much needed gap in the market. Not only is Antigonus Gonatas an interesting character, his reign is set during the real fragmentation of Alexander’s empire, it was the crucible of the Hellenistic period and all that came after. The combination of character biography and more traditional history works incredibly well here. The best book I have read on the Hellenistic period in quite some time.  

Ian Rutherford Hittite Texts and Greek Religion

It is a genuine shame that the import of the Syro-Anatolian region, its history, and languages, for the study of archaic Greece is becoming more and more evident at a time when we are granting PhDs to classicistuli who can barely read Latin and Greek, let alone pick up sorely needed ancillary languages.[5] If this book does not inspire you to hit van den Hout’s The Elements of Hittite then nothing will.

This is a deep, systematic, probing of the contexts and evidence for Hittite religion and its interrelationship with its Mycenaean contempory and Greek epigone. Even when not eliciting actual influence and interaction, it manages to provide useful heuristic models based on real evidence. Easily, easily, one of the best books on ancient Greece I have recently read.

Richard Eaton India in the Persianate Age

What happened to ancient India? To non-specialists like ourselves the disjunction between the Sanskrit (and, I guess, sub-Sanskrit) world and the sudden emergence of a highly Persianate culture seems a schizophrenic one. The ancient world is actually rife with these jostling bilingual cultures and the situation with Latin and Greek (utraque lingua!) is hardly unique or novel, despite the growing academic focus: Sumerian and Akkadian, Akkadian and Aramaic etc etc. I picked up this book hoping to both increase my knowledge of the Persianate world and read something more linguistically, culturally, and historically, informed than the shit I have been reading on Greek and Latin.[6] Eaton’s book traces the complex, interwoven, lines of anxiety, influence, and competition between Sanskrit, Persian and the emergence of medieval/early modern Indian culture. If you want to understand the world which occupies the diaries of Niccolao Manucci, this is the book for you.

I am sure I got a lot less out of this book than someone with a good familiarity of the subject would, but it was an enjoyable read.

Marie Favereau The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World

Recall my comments on revisionist history above. This book is like the Fifth Sun but better. It is altogether more capable and less outright motivated by the need to rehabilitate her subject than to explain it to us. Favereau marshals an array of sources, using a systematic and comprehensible theoretical framework – even if her wrangling over words and their definition at times will not be to everyone’s taste.

The Horde focuses on the westernmost part of the Mongol empire (the Ulus Jochi), the mechanics of its administration, its ideological framework and its long-lasting effects on emerging states (not just the Russians!). They really did manage to rule from horseback and this books shows you how. Also, Mongols were just cool you fucking nerd.

Coda: Reading in the New Year

You would have to be a fool to try and predict the future, but eh why not. I suspect next year’s list will be even less weighted towards the Classics. At the academic level, at least, the subject is moribund. I could have produced a list solely of books pertaining to Greco-Roman antiquity, but such a list would either be highly weighted to the, well, not very recent or books by ageing scholars. This is not a a healthy sign. This is not a town vs gown thing either, I have very little time for most “popular” offerings. I read impulsively. I am no great watcher of films or television, I have no particular interest in the back catalogues of Netflix et al. I read impulsively and this, coupled with chronic insomnia, means that seldom does a week pass without my having (re)read a book or two. I do not think there are enough good, new, books on the subject to sustain this. Ah well.

So moving forward I suspect that I will continue my habit of a) largely sticking to primary texts and old commentaries and monographs and b) reading extensively from other fields. Over 2020, the major theme – thanks in part to being inspired by @ByzantinePower @ByzHistoryTweep @TheHillpaul and others – was Byzantine literature. 2021 has seen a dramatic increase in post-Roman Latin (somewhat hinted at in this list) and I think this will continue in the near future.

That is it for me. What were your must reads of the year? Have any suggestions? Do let us know.

[1] Look, nobody cares what happens in your JCR, be polite.

[2] This rule, tbf, saves you from a lot of technical books on Homeric philology and Greek dialectology.

[3] “On every level except physical, I am basil and oregano”.

[4] Men will fight over anything. I’ve literally had a fight over who was the better pacifist. Lads, lads, lads.

[5] No learning enough German to read Brecht but non Mommsen doesn’t make you learned you fucking commies.

[6] One bold exception, though hardly recent, stands out: the work of J. N. Adams. RIP.

Saturnalia Woes?

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

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

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

anxietate carens animus facit, omnis acerbi

inpatiens, cupidus siluarum aptusque bibendis

fontibus Aonidum. neque enim cantare sub antro

Pierio thyrsumque potest contingere maesta

paupertas atque aeris inops, quo nocte dieque

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

a soul lacking anxiety, unfeeling of all bitterness,

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

the Heliconian spring. For sad poverty can neither sing

beneath the Pierian cave nor touch the thyrsus,

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

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

Juvenal 7.57 – 62

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sed quid agam potius madidis, Saturne, diebus,

quos tibi pro caelo filius ipse dedit?

Vis scribam Thebas Troiamve malasve Mycenas?

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

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

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

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

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

Martial 14.1 9-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passio Mariae Barbae

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

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

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

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

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

Passio Perpetuae 6.

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

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

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

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

“The Discourse”

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

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

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

Passio Perpetuae 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 3:9-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

controversiae crocodili: some controversial classics opinions

Alexander the Great defence attorney totally impartial researcher @agameganon recently put out a call for controversial opinions. This, of course, has an eminently classical precedent. Students in the Roman empire would practice for legal careers by declaiming suasoriae (see our borrowed word persuade, the root is cognate with the English word sweet) and controversiae (…duh).  Whilst awaiting the forthcoming launch of the BOUS journal, I thought I would give it a go. As someone who marches lockstep with the cutting edge of #ClassicsTwitter, it was incredibly difficult for me to find something controversial but see below for five four such controversiae.

Learn, or at least use, the accents.

The amount of complaining over what really is not a huge effort is rather quite striking. “It’s too difficult”, “Who has time?”, “why, this is violence!” and so on. Look, the accents *matter*. Not only in terms of differentiating otherwise minimal pairs (did you see a weasel, or did you see a calm? Am I going or, simply, am I?), but in being able to properly read the words out loud and therefore internalise the shape (the phonotactics) of Ancient Greek. It is criminal that the accentuation system is so thoroughly ignored by modern learners. I suspect many teachers were not properly taught and subsequently pass on their habit of abusing the Greek language to their bright-eyed charges.

I lay no small portion of the blame at the sock and sandalled feet of the modern academics. Probert’s A New Short Guide to the Accentuation of Ancient Greek clocks in at 235 pages. This volume is meant to improve upon Postgate’s earlier version. Perhaps it does, but does it warrant more than twice the amount of pagination? Is it twice as good? No, of course not. With this as the industry standard, is there any wonder people are put off? Learning – or at least using (seriously, just stress the word where you see the little mark) – should not be an ordeal.[1] Every Greek schoolchild memorises the rules in a few weeks. The most important rules only make up a single side of A4:

What a princely handout.

Also, there is a lot of patronising in e.g Youtube comments (quando non sunt?) and in the mouths of German and American Classicists as to the Ancient Greek pronunciation of Greeks. You stupid bitches, how do you think Greek speakers know where to put the accent when speaking out loud? Do you think pronouncing β as /b/ whilst slinging in your potato vowels and profligate accents (EYE-mi does not in any way correspond to εἰμί) is better than a living pronunciation that accurately places the accents and therefore must know the correct vowel length? If you want to be the accent police (why, bro?) at least pass over the lowest hurdle. Have some humility before you criticise others.

WTF is this?
ahhh, that is better.

Secondary Literature ought to be written in Latin.

Twitter and, apparently, the Classics Listserv has recently been crying about languages again.[2] We have mirabile auditu moved on from complaining about classical languages to modern ones. Progress? I guess? There are two main complaints. The first of these is that requiring modern languages is not inclusive. Ah, inclusivity! You will notice that in the mouth of an American “inclusive” really means “make things as easy for me as possible, no matter how much this burdens everyone else” and “remove even the most reasonable barriers of entry and measures of accountability…for me”. I have little patience with this base arrogance, and I dare say Francophones, Italophones, Lusitanophones κτλ working in the Anglosphere have any either. To be a natively Anglophone Classicist is to be born with a golden spoon in one’s mouth: Universities in the Anglosphere are staffed with the best and brighten from the entire world (the morality of this brain-drain is something else, entirely) and English dominates academic publishing. Shut up, be grateful, and do the bare minimum to be able to be a good colleague and contributor to your academic discipline.

That is the first complaint. The second seems to be from Germanophones complaining that nobody reads their barbarbar anymore.

All this leads me to my “controversial” opinion: we should publish (more) scholarship in Latin. There is an extremely strong (some might say erotically throbbing) historical precedent for this. It is an incredibly elegant solution. Everyone is at a similar dis/advantage. No singular vernacular is overly privileged. Fledgling Classicists are firmly grounded in their intellectual heritage. It centres Latin and therefore inoculates against the worst of modern secondary literature and forces institutions to take equitable and effective Latin pedagogy seriously. Couple the moral and intellectual duty to pass on these languages with an economic incentive like that and everything else will follow. Better Classics. Fairer Classics. A more connected, international, Classics.

There will inevitably be some pushback to this one. Let me go over these at pace.

Not every Classicist can write well in Latin or teach it to a high enough standard.

Sack them. There, I have cleared up your funding/institutional bloat problem as well. Medieval aristocrats fought in the front line. Ancient Indian Brahmins guarded the most arcane and esoteric traditions of their people and underwent several restrictive taboos. Celtic Druids trained (according to Caesar) for 20 years. What is it about the modern academic that they feel entitled to a free ride, cushy sinecures, without doing the bare minimum? No, no, no. If you want to work on Russia or China or England…you learn the languages. Classicists are not special. Shape up or ship out. Disce aut discede.

I am hardly the type of person to treat the PhD with any deference, but even I can see that twitter is full of very talented ECRs existing in precarity. Get rid of the useless tenured old guard and replace them with a handful of dedicated, talented, youngsters who could do this.

It is not very inclusive!

By your twisted self-serving definition, no. By any rational one, yes. This has already been answered.

What about accessibility of scholarship?

Is that an entirely bad thing? If you can’t comfortably read Virgil what can you possibility have to say about him? Again, this is the bare minimum expected in other academic fields that deal with languages and culture. We have neophytes trying to gallop before they can waddle (some of them are called professor). More to the point, there are thousands of books and articles already published in all manner of vernacular languages. Many of these will remain invaluable. Nobody is going to burn them.

What about accessibility for Non-Classicists

See the point above re: the current body of work. Also, please stop being disingenuous. Non-Classicists are hardly running to ZPE to get the latest. There are open facing journals such as Arion, Eidolon, the brand-new Antigone, academic press/university press releases, faculty web pages, personal blogs κτλ. An absolute smorgasbord of options.

Shouldn’t we use Greek instead?

Either you are a troll, in which case fuck off, or you are too stupid to realise how idiotic that question is. In which case, more time reading before you even think of putting pen to paper.

me too!

How serious are you?

Quite. I am not saying all and every press needs to mandate only Latin. But put it as an option! Everybody wins!

German scholarship is colossally overrated.

Seemingly hypocritical from a blog that has produced a post dedicated to Wilamowitz and frequently cites him and other great scholars. I am dependant on the LfgrE like it is methadone, I pull from the Basler Kommentar like an ancient Egyptian duck-hunter, and I throw around concepts like nachleben. I am not saying scholarship in German is worthless I am saying it is overrated and that we achieve nothing by pretending the works of a handful of great scholars like Wissowa and Mommsen and a handful of reference volumes are in anyway representative. Let me cite a useful comment from a BMCR review: “… it raises the disturbing question whether the German academic system can continue to flood the shrinking market of scholarly monographs with unrevised dissertations of questionable value.”[3] Macte.

Moreover, this fetishising of German scholarship did not, alas, arise solely from the brilliance of yesteryear. If you think awfully hard, you might be able to think of a series of historical incidents that arose in the 1930s and 1940s that sent German scholars – especially those of a Jewish extraction – across Europe and the US. Naturally, these scholars inculcated and/or fortified a tradition of reading (and often writing) German scholarship. That was how they taught their students, and their students taught us (or our teachers).[4] This is very evident in the case of scholars like Fraenkel, Auerbach, Zuntz κτλ. Yes, we got a dash of Prussian rigour but also the cloying incest of the doktorvater pretentious nonsense.[5]

There is an uncomfortable history behind all this and that is why I can, with an iron spined rectitude, tell the quarrelsome German scholars lamenting their languages declining market share “cry more”.

Did some coprophiliac Austrian right this? Because this is a symphony.

Textual Criticism needs to be brought back into focus.

Following the Geneva convention any internet discussion on this needs must start with this anecdote found in West’s manual.[6]

West’s first chapter is a fantastic explanation and defence of textual criticism, I am not going to repeat any of it here. Textual criticism is one of the purest forms of Classicism, it will improve your Latin/Greek and is truly communal in that practitioners improve our pool of evidence for everyone. Sure, whatever. I want to focus on provenance.

One of the genuinely great trends I have noticed on #ClassicsTwitter has been the rising interest in the provenance of antiquities and concern over the antiquities trade. This goes far beyond the typical complaints and cavils over the Parthenon marbles to a wide range of statues, reliquaries, pots, frescos (!!) and so on. Perhaps this trend was inevitable in the modern interconnected world, but I suspect it has been spurred on by the horrors of ISIS, their wanton destruction and subsequent flooding of the antiquities market, all happening over twitter and telegram.[7] As a result, even younglings feel the need to know more beyond those innocuous laminated 4×4 cards affixed to the lip of a plinth or nestled into the cusp of a frame. A handful of twitter accounts have been useful for my own journey down this road, not all of them classically focused: Erin L. Thompson (@artcrimeprof) who, in addition to serious conversations, runs the #FakeOTD hashtag. Dorothy Lobel King (@DLVLK) is the Sherlock Holmes of Roman gemstones and auction catalogues (does that make Ellie the dog, Watson?). Vijay Kumar (@poetryinstone) is the author of an interesting book, The Idol Thief, and investigates various modern cases of theft. Anyway, the point is that texts too can have provenance. We scarcely have to go back to the days of nicking texts from the scriptorium of Fulda Abbey to embellish our point, let’s look at two recent cases, both involving papyri a recent case.[8]

At some point in 2014 a new, rather substantial, fragment of Sappho came too light. Just how it came to light is even now contested as the account from the horses’ mouth has changed somewhat from this rather novelistic one to a rather more lapidary version of events.[9] Leaving all that aside for a moment, perhaps one of the odder aspects of this whole affair was that for a brief moment or two antiquity was all over the news…and only a handful of working Classicists were in any sort of position to be able to offer sensible comment. This is truly bizarre when you think of it. There were probably infinitely more old fogies who took their bachelor’s degrees in the 80s and 90s au fait with the rules and methods of textual criticism than current students and professionals.[10]

A discipline that takes textual criticism seriously and as an important part of undergraduate reading is one that avoids such silliness. As a student I somewhat resented my tutors for asking us textual questions and forcing us to look stuff up and memorise seemingly arcane sigla, but it made me a Classicist. Not a better Classicist. A Classicist full-stop. I can not claim to love the textual criticism, I am hardly a specialist (nor would I ever want to be, frankly), but I am at least conversant with the text because of this skillset and not a victim of sometimes fanciful editors. I suppose there is also a question of equity. A majority of the textual work in the Anglosphere is done in OxBridge and London (with some particularly good papyrological work at Manchester and Michigan). How is this fair or sustainable? Contrast Italophone Classics where there is much more robust decentralisation.

Whence the new Sappho papyrus (P. Sapph. Obbink)? Wither goes it? Who knows? I do not think any of this is an open and shut case – though as of a fortnight or so Brill has discontinued its companion volume due to allegations of illicit providence. Readers looking to better situate themselves in debate could do worse than to read this. And if all that hasn’t convinced you maybe this tongue in cheek chicanery will?


haec verba locutus, ab computorio se vertit et clamavit “facta est opera!” That is it for now. I am sure I can wrangle up more controversial opinions, but I think we all need a break. What do you think? Have you any thoughts of your own? Comment, tweet, affix a tear sodden letter to the foot of a carrier pigeon, whisper into the midnight wind; let us know!

P.S My three long-time readers will have noticed some changes to the blog’s visual formatting. I am – still – having issues with WordPress’ new editor and style formatting and might move to another platform in the near future. If anyone has any experience with other platforms, let m know what you recommend. Because WP right now is abhorrently torturous.

[1] This is not the place for a book review, feel free to check out the BMCR if that is your thing. I do like this book, incidentally. The title is incredibly misleading, insultingly so, and the circumstances which make this volume so important are frustrating.

[2] https://listserv.liv.ac.uk/cgi-bin/wa?A1=ind2104&L=CLASSICISTS#39 did not read lol.

[3] https://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/1999/1999.04.20/ judging by recent contributions they absolutely can.

[4] To a (much) lesser extent we see a similar thing with Italian. But for whatever reason giants like Momigliano have been less fortunate in the influential placements of their students.

[5] Even the Germans now think it cringey to discuss academic pedigree as if we were at Crufts. Nowadays, the term betreuer is preferred and few boast of reconstructed stemmata of teachers/advisers the way Anglos do.

[6] West, M. L. (1973). Textual criticism and editorial technique applicable to Greek and Latin texts. Walter de Gruyter. Pp7.

[7] Here is a good study using open source data (PDF): https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2700/RR2706/RAND_RR2706.pdf

[8] Initially I had intended to add a little non-classical flair by also examining the recentish Coptic shenanigans surrounding the so called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. However, my review of Ariel Saber’s brilliant book is still not done and I note that the fantastic piece by Theo Nash makes more than passing mention of it. So go read that.

[9] “Monsieur le Crocodile, abonnez-vous à la Times?” of course not, Jesus Christ. Also, lector carissime, tu is fine.

[10] At least in the Anglosphere.

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

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

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

I: Proto-Indo-European taboos

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

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

μηδέ ποτ’ ἐν προχοῇς ποταμῶν ἅλαδε προρεόντων

μηδ’ ἐπὶ κρηνάων οὐρεῖν, μάλα δ’ ἐξαλέασθαι:

ἐναποψύχειν: τὸ γὰρ οὔ τοι λώιόν ἐστιν.

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

or into springs, urinate; much better to avoid it

it is not seemly to relieve oneself therein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some housekeeping

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

Waving Bear GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

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

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


 Endlings and suchlike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Il Primo Re (Review)

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, [1] 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.

Well Actually GIFs | Tenor
So did you know that v was pronounced like w????

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 rex meus 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] Why make things up? What should be one of the great rituals of life seems plastic and inauthentic.

Funeral hut-urn. Cemeteries, such as at Gabii, are our major source for domestic architecture of the period.

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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…[9]

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,[10] 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.

[1] Am I using that phrase right, Americans?

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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).

[7] 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.

[8] Cf Sanskrit agníḥ where the animate fire is worshipped first as animate force and then as a deity.

[9] Swords are an important development in archaeological and cultural terms. See my brief note, here.

[10] I wish they had tried to get in words like *prisemokaps.

Which Leftist Killed Homer and Stole Sappho?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

For the attendant American (political) context see:

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

For a British perspective see:

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

On the net:





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


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