Who Guards the Guards? Scythian Police in Cambridge

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

“pone seram, cohibe.” sed quis custodiet ipsos

custodes? cauta est et ab illis incipit uxor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ammianus Marcellinus 28.4.14

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

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

Setting Wolves to Guard Sheep: The Athenian Solution

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

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

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

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

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

Demosthenes 21.224

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

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

drax scythi
80% of why this post is late.

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

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

οὗτος τί κύπτεις; δῆσον αὐτὸν εἰσάγων

ὦ τοξότ᾽ ἐν τῇ σανίδι, κἄπειτ᾽ ἐνθαδὶ

στήσας φύλαττε καὶ προσιέναι μηδένα

ἔα πρὸς αὐτόν, ἀλλὰ τὴν μάστιγ᾽ ἔχων

παῖ᾽ ἢν προσίῃ τις.

Why are you slouching? take him away

Archer, and tie him to the plank,

Make him stand, guard him, let no one come

near him, but use your whip to

strike any who try approach

Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 930-4

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

τῷ γὰρ εἰκὸς ἄνδρα κυφὸν ἡλίκον Θουκυδίδην

ἐξολέσθαι συμπλακέντα τῇ Σκυθῶν ἐρημίᾳ,

705τῷδε τῷ Κηφισοδήμῳ τῷ λάλῳ ξυνηγόρῳ;

ὥστ᾽ ἐγὼ μὲν ἠλέησα κἀπεμορξάμην ἰδὼν

ἄνδρα πρεσβύτην ὑπ᾽ ἀνδρὸς τοξότου κυκώμενον

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

should be wrestled and destroyed by this prattling advocate

from the Scythian steppe, this man, Kephisodemos.

so that I wept tears of pity, seeing

an elderly man brutalised by a bowman.

Aristophanes Acharnenses 703-7

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

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

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

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

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


O homines ad servitutem paratos: Roman Karens

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

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

difficile est saturam non scribere. nam quis iniquae

tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se,

causidici nova cum veniat lectica Mathonis

plena ipso, post hunc magni delator amici

et cito rapturus de nobilitate comesa

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

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

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

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

and will soon seize whatever is left of the nobility…

Juvenal 1.30-5

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

cum te summoveant qui testamenta merentur

noctibus, in caelum quos evehit optima summi

nunc via processus, vetulae vesica beatae?

When they move you aside, those who earn their legacies

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

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

Juvenal 1.37-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

idem quadruplatores ac delatores ingenti severitate persecutus est

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

Historia Augusta 39.3 (Aurelianus)

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thank you for reading.

Endlings and Suchlike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Fuck Dandolo. The ultimate delator.


Boris Johnson’s Supreme Law

or, guess who found the verb in Cicero?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Well asktchually!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading.