MAYNIN AYEDE TEA: On PM Johnson and his Homer

PM Boris Johnson saw out the year by bludgeoning a defenceless fox to death with a bat (wooden, not mammalian). Oh wait, that was someone else. Instead ire has been directed at him because he…recited the Iliad? Some time ago? It is all very bizarre, but the usual suspects are saying the usual things via the usual media.

Here is the offending clip.


In terms of rhetoric, it is obviously effective, judging by the response of the audience. As an actual performance whilst it is hardly to my taste, it is hardly poor. Lines are “missing” in line with how oral performances always work. In fact, I have previously written about alternative openings to the Iliad, truncation and expansion, etc etc here. People having to rush over to Perseus Tufts to look up the proem are hardly handing out the gotchas they think they are here.

His performance is not strictly, mechanically, metrical. One can feel the ghost of the rhythm behind it, but that is clearly not the point. The breaks and flourishes are obviously dependent on sense (to anyone who knows the poem) and the rhetorical gestures are just that – rhetorical gestures: the kind that almost certainly accompanied every performance from the mid Roman period onward when it became increasingly harder to reconstruct the classical phonology.[1] In other words, there is nothing new here.

But the detractors aren’t making any sort of philological point, I would bet very, very, few are familiar with how we can reconstruct either the original phonology or performance styles. I say styles because there was almost certainly a multiplication of styles not long after the original composition. How many with even the barest reading of the ancient sources?

It seems to me that outrage has clustered around three main nodes. That Johnson’s performance was bad because 1) accent(uation); 2) that not only is it bad, but said paucity of quality is all the more nefarious because don’t you know that this is really, really, easy, you utter pleb? And finally; 3) this misrepresents Classics and puts people off. The latter is particularly bad, given how opening and welcoming these people claim the field has been. Right? Right?

Let’s start with (or rather, return to) point number one: accent and accentuation. This is a wonderful surprise! It turns out in every corner of twitter you can’t throw a stone without hitting someone who is not only versed in ancient Greek, but the finicky points of historical linguistics and comparative philology to boot. I am sure that when, at the close of the year, numbers are released for book sales, books such as Allen’s Vox Graeca will be edging out E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey[2]. Let’s look at what these geniuses have to say.



Human babies, I am told, develop object permanence – and with it the realisation that things can change – from around six months old; I am not sure what that says about grown adults who seem to think it entirely reasonable that a language won’t change within ca. 28 centuries. Especially when they’ll have been told in school that to get Shakespeare’s metre to work, they’ll have to adopt Elizabethan pronunciation.

Also, of course it’s pigshitthick Greek diasporiots saying this. But it seems that even as Greece gets better, the diaspora insists on going backwards.[3] Perhaps she would have been happier had Johnson pronounced it like this?

For the sake of honesty, and to ward off the inevitable idiots, I do of course admit that 90% of the time I pronounce ancient as I do modern, but in doing so I am making no pretence to accuracy and this is a choice informed by the full range of evidence. That is not the point here.

Sadly, there are a good number of Greek Classicists pointing all this out, but they inevitably shan’t be heard and they will be the ones to suffer in their professional lives from stereotypes.

The ideal, incidentally, would be something Stratakis’ rendition of the opening of the Odyssey here. Note, it too sacrifices metre for rhetorical performance, but I think that that actually hits the right note for most moderns.

I think the best summary of all this is the one found on Mary Beard’s blog, where she calls it:

“…an absurd parody of a Twitter storm: hundreds of people, whom I strongly suspect knew little or no ancient Greek, were passing judgement on the Prime Minister’s competence in Greek, in the face of a few of who did know the damn language.”[4]

After all, in what other instance would we take “I had some experience back in high-school” as definitive on any subject?

Onto the second argument then, that this is easy anyway. Really that’s no argument at all, lots and lots of things are easy – that doesn’t make them less than worthwhile. Good manners are easy, speaking engagingly with a child or earnest youngster (despite boredom) is easy, picking up after oneself is easy. I hope you do these things regardless.


But let’s entertain this argument a moment longer. Some have argued that this feat is easy due to the metrical constraints placed upon the line. Well, I think that is the case for native speakers, which Johnson definitely is not. Anyway, his recitation is hardly strictly metrical as noted above.

Even within (quasi) native speech communities, metre isn’t the great help you might think. The oral transmission of the Rg Veda is a perfect case in point. Unlike the earliest Greek epic, which was a consistently creative tradition, the Rg Veda comes to us from a tradition that was entirely dedicated to (re)producing the text as accurately as possible. Judging by the (small) differences between the continuous oral tradition (stretching back to ca. 1200s B.C…) and the occasional MS (which overwhelmingly stem from the late medieval/early modern periods), this tradition was damn good. Michael Witzel, a famous Harvard Indologist, frequently likens the tradition to being like a tape-recorder.[5]

The Indians have managed to do this by a) dedicating a cast to memorising the texts and; b) “regularising” the original metre and accompanying it with various gestures of hand and head (called mudra in Sanskrit).

The Greeks too in their time made some concession to the difficulties of memorisation. One of the common classical terms for an epic performer was rhapsode. The noun originates from the verb rhapsoidein ῥαψῳδεῖν (to sew), with the sense of stitching songs together. This link between stitching/weaving and poetry was quite alive throughout the entirety of the Indo-European speech world,[6] eventually within Greek it is assimilated to the word for staff, rhabdos ῥάβδος, as these were used as props for the singer to maintain the beat.

Given the above, I think it wise to cut an English speaker who left university before many of us were born, some slack and exercise some forbearance.

There is this consistent assumption that Johnson can’t possibly know anything about the Classics, that this is just a façade or a party trick. Again, this isn’t the brilliant put down people seem to think it is. If you, as a professor on the sufferance of the public purse, can with a straight face tell me someone can go through a university course and still know nothing, then there is only one solution: The complete closure of every single Classics department in the country. No other discipline could countenance, let alone broadcast, such monumental failure and hope to survive.

To those who think this is utterly easy, all I can say is, where is your recording? I mean that honestly and earnestly. One of the broader trends we have been witnessing within Second-language acquisition (SLA) research is the importance of an audio component. All these brilliant amateur rhapsodes are surely doing their field, and their students, a gross disservice by not being forthcoming.

We stand in rapt attendance, the soundcloud tab pre-opened, the volume control turned up, our ears primed for the majestic tones of those who surely could give blind Homer second sight.

For those then who think Johnson simply memorised some random sounds (ignoring both his education and the marriage of meaning and movement in his performance), here is Cicero (de Oratore 2.87.357-58):

verum tamen neque tam acri memoria fere quisquam est, ut non dispositis notatisque rebus ordinem verborum aut sententiarum complectatur…

Nevertheless, hardly anybody exists with so keen a memory that he might retain the order of all the words or sentences without having arranged and noted his facts…

Finally, we reach the third of the arguments against, that this misrepresents or puts people off the Classics.

The first, and most common, iteration of this can be readily dismissed: “Don’t you know that there’s more to Classics than reciting poetry!?!?!?” they shriek. Yes. They do. It is so obvious that it hardly needs stating. Next please.

Some people are extending this to paint the performance as elitist and exclusionary. Oddly, some (many) of these people are also arguing that reciting Greek from memory is effortlessly easy. So, which is it? Either, it is so easy that it can’t be exclusionary because the merest intellectual dwarf can do it; or its quite demanding and the Prime Minister can’t be quite the idiot you are painting him as. Logic, and decency, dictates that you must choose. (The third permutation, that it is simultaneously easy but that we working-class people are so deficient in ability, I shan’t even entertain).

I don’t see how Johnson is in anyway gatekeeping or putting people off. What I do see is a large amount of people who ought to know better signalling that knowledge can’t be divorced from politics, that it does not matter what you know if you don’t satisfy some quasi-occluded character test. What can be more offputting? What can be more exclusionary? On one hand we have a bunch of sneering idiots, on the other a man taking obvious relish in his own recall of Homer.

I don’t really care about his politics here. They are irrelevant. This is the Classics I want. One not dependent on PhDs that will never get read, straight jacketed and kept as the jealously guarded provender of some dragon or goblin (there’s your Harry Potter reference fellow-millennial, now fuck off), but one vivacious and rude and healthy.

Here, incidentally, is an interesting anecdote from someone who really does know a lot better than you or I:

I agree with the talented poet and the brilliant professor.

I fail to see a man so obviously enthralled with antiquity can be a bad thing.

We have to some degree (at least within the constraints of social media), I hope, satisfied ourselves that people are basically talking nonsense. They are either speaking on topics about which they know nothing, or deliberately arguing in bad faith. The question is, why?

In 1955 the British philosopher John Austin gave the William James Lectures at Harvard, the result was a book and a breakthrough in how we think about the link between words and deeds.[7] I am wary of summarising his ideas en passant and would encourage readers to read the first lecture or so. Like many Classicists, I encountered his work through the study of Pindar and mediated through brilliant scholars like Leslie Kurke.

But here is the gist: When we say things, we’re never really, or rarely are, just saying something. Speaking is itself an action. My go to example is saying “I do” at a wedding. On one hand, these are just words, on the other the speaker (hopefully) undergoes a transformational state.

We can, if we’re careful, and a little bit chancy, extend the same idea to all this hullaballoo. The point isn’t to assess the performance but to make a statement about oneself: “Look at me, I belong, big-hair man bad” etc etc.

This is really quite frightening and tracks with what outside observers have been saying about humanities academia for ages, that as time goes on it becomes increasingly divorced from its actual content and more and more politicised.

But I fail to see any other explanation. There’s no real basis in our current understanding either of Ancient Greek phonology, or the reception and performance of the text, for this kind of ire. There is no evidence, no logical basis, for the idea that the PM is a Greekless charlatan either. Quite the opposite. The idea that this can in anyway harm a discipline – that seems to be in constant  freefall since its extirpation from schools and handing over to academics – seems to be likewise without basis in fact. 

But let’s say that you really do hate it, think it poor, that you can do better. Let’s say this comes from a serious place. Honestly, as I say above, please provide a recording. It’s not just public schoolboys who memorise and recite ancient poetry, and I am sure there are hundreds of state-school pupils who could benefit greatly.

Would that it were so here too. The Greeks are infinitely more sensible about this sort of stuff. I hope I have gone some way in explaining the rationale behind the reaction. Though I suppose a video of tribalistic monkeys throwing shit would have been just as efficacious and more elegant. 

Coda, or, joining the Homeredai 

How indeed?

So, what can you do if you want to learn to memorise and recite large chunks of ancient poetry? Sadly, none of the sinecured geniuses have deigned to tell us. What follows below is a cursory, but hopefully useful guide.

Get yourself a copy of Pharr’s Homeric Greek. A copy of the old edition may be downloaded via textkit (this is a PDF link). The lessons are short, bite-sized, and follow the entirety of the first book of the Iliad. I would strongly suggest you skip the composition exercises. Homeric Greek was an artificial, artistic, language. No prose was ever produced in it. Doing so now is a waste of time and will only hamper you if/when you move on to classical Greek proper. Use the time saved to revise or look up Monro’s A Grammar of The Homeric Dialect, which is also available online.  

The Center of Hellenic Studies (not a misspelling, they are American) has a number of videos available on Youtube, including one dedicated to performance and another introducing dactylic hexameter. You may find them useful or at least entertaining. They must suffice until the super genius twitteratti are forthcoming.

Many pronunciation guides are at best inexact (“A like they pronounce what word in which country??!?”) or at worst esoteric, as if you have time to master the intricacies of IPA (not the alcoholic kind). This playlist by Kostas Katsouranis might help. If you’re not a Greek native, pinning the restored phonemes to living Greek equivalents is the smartest way forward.

Memorising poetry is a pedagogically sound, culturally worthwhile, and all-around fun activity. Doing so will neither turn you into a toff (or win you the premiership) or a pencil necked twitter-tosser. What it will do is put you directly in a long line of students who have got their Homer down, for better or worse.

Classics is many, many, things. Let’s try to remember it’s also fun.  

As always, thank you for reading.

[1] And reconstruct the phonology they most certainly did! See Vessella, C. (2018). Sophisticated Speakers: Atticistic pronunciation in the Atticist lexica. Berlin; Also, in this vein, see late(ish) Byzantine authors and their ability to compose very good hexameter, despite the phonological change. Too often we think of restored pronunciation as a modern Western invention rather than a proper Greek one.

[2] Apparently some 15.2 million copies:

[3] Although a family member told me an amusing anecdote this Christmas of being asked by a taxi-driver whether there were any white people left in London before going on to speak of himself as a pure blooded Doric Greek etc etc. But honestly, it has been about 10 years before I have heard anything stupid like this back in Greece.


[5] I actually disagree with W’s assessment. The best expounding of his views may be found in his The Development of the Vedic Canon and its Schools, available online here. (link opens in a PDF)

[6] Cf our own word text < Latin textus, a participle formed from texo, texere (I weave, to weave). Going further back to the proto-language, the same root also eventually (via Greek) gives us our word technique.

[7] Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford, Oxford U. P.

Sanskrit Words in English

Etymologies are fascinating. Often, they are redundant in terms of actual historical analysis (see e.g Latin cohors) but fascinating none the less. Here’s a brief post on Sanskrit loan-words in English, which I am very roughly demarcating, like Gaul, into three parts.

This is a brief post because I haven’t had much time to write. It is by no means exhaustive, just a bit of fun with words.

I Pseudo-Etymologies

This isn’t really a category, but it’s best to get it out of the way first. Pseudo-etymologies are exactly what you would expect from the name. Sometimes these arise from almost correct parallels e.g taking Sanskrit mātṛ and English mother and arguing that the latter is progeny of the former. Sanskrit is one of those languages which attracts a lot of pseudo-linguistic nationalist nonsense. Greek too, see below:

II Words for specifically Indian things

Most of these were acquired during the period of the Raj, these were words taken over to describe unique Indian things. E.g Brahmin, Guru, Pandit, Banyan tree and so on. Still, there are some interesting ones such as:

Bandana – bandhana (tied, bonded)

Candy – I suspect this has been a round about one! Ultimately from Skst khaṇḍaḥ but passed through Persian and then back into Hindi before being borrowed via French. Cf Punjabi khand for sugar, which I suspect comes from the Persian which comes from the Middle Indic…

Dinghy – dinghi (a small boat).

Loot – Ultimately from the verb luṇṭhati (he steals) which drops the n-infix in verbal nouns (luta, a stolen thing). Interesting semantic web here along with mugger, thug etc.

Mugger – actually, this gets its own lemma. From makara (sea animal), often used of crocodiles. From an early period has the sense of our ‘mugging’. Eg a crocodile is a magaramachchh from makara and matsya (fish). A crocodile is a fish mugger! (when not writing on its blog). I suppose if I write one more post about Sanskrit I should change the blog name to makara vyakaranya.

Orange – naranga (orange). I have tweeted about this before. In English it has undergone rebracketing, e.g we thought the initial n was attached to the indefinite article: a narang > an arang > an orange. See also nick name: an eke name > a neke name > a nick name. Common sound change in English!

Thug – From Hindi thug and ultimately Sanskrit stagha (a scoundrel, thug, bandit). Not the dropping of the initial s, common in Indo-European sound changes, hence Latin toga rather than stoga. Sanskrit does this a lot actually with p and t. E.g spy is spas from the verb pasyati (he sees, watches).

III Words transmitted through the Classics

We’re not used to thinking of India in the classical world outside of Alexander’s brief foray. Yet, the conqueror didn’t just leave an indelible mark on the sub-continent in the form of the Indo-Greek kingdoms, his conquests opened new avenues of trade and the passing of ideas. Even before that, the Achaemenid Empire served to connect Greece and India – though it would hardly do to overstate the strength or importance of these connection. Here’s a handful of words:

India – Yes, that’s right, the modern name for the country comes to us via Greek. Ultimately from Sanskrit sindhu (river) whence it passed into Old Persian as Hi(n)duš and thence into Greek. Note, the shift from s > h is common to both Old Persian and Greek but not to Sanskrit, so for example the number seven (7) in Latin is septem, Greek hepta, Old Persian hapta, and Sanskrit sapta. All ultimately from PIE *septḿ̥. It must have passed into a psilotic Greek dialect in order to lose the rough breathing, from there into Latin and then slowly down into English.

India remains the name of the country today. Oddly, sindhu as river seems to have died in modern Indo-Aryan. So ancient sapta sindhu (seven rivers) becomes modern Panjab (five rivers) from the Persian. See also Doab (two rivers). Whereas we’d expect something like pancha sindhu if the native wording was preserved. (Two rivers having dried up).

Ginger – Greek zingiberis from Sanskrit singabera. Once a much-valued spice prized by Rhodian merchants. Now we just pretend to like it in our tea.

Musk – Greek moskhos from Sanskrit muskas.

Nard oil – Greek nardos from Sanskrit nalada.

Pepper – Greek piperi from Sanskrit pippari.

Rice – This one always got me. Greek oryza ultimately comes from Sanskrit vrihi(s), meaning rice. I believe, oddly, this route has died out in all modern Indo-Aryan languages.

Sandalwood – Greek sandalion from Sanskrit candanam/candalanam.

Sugar – this is the classic one! From Sanskrit sharkara we get Greek zakhare and several derived terms such saccharine.

Ideally, I’d go on to a 3.2 and discuss Greek loans into Sanskrit. I can’t think of many from the top of my head. There is, of course, Yauna meaning Greek (from Ionians, via Persian) and, wonderfully, the Macedonian dialect word for spear – kontos – is used in Sanskrit for cavalry lance (kuntah), but that’s about it.

If you’re interested in reading more about Sanskrit and the Classics, I have a slightly more in depth post here.



Short Note: Classics and Languages

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

West comment for blog

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Haccents in the Roman World

…sit quaedam certa uox Romani generis urbisque propria…

…there is a certain voice (=accent) peculiar to the Roman people and city…

Cicero, De Oratore 3.44

What can we say about accents in the Roman world? We know, can see around us, that eventually Latin would diversify into the modern Romance languages. Are we then to imagine senators from Gaul twirling their moustachios and swapping out hon hon hon for Plautus’ hae hae hae? What about the inevitable interference from languages elsewhere in the Empire (Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Etruscan etc etc etc)?

You can throw a pin at the Roman map and find something interesting to talk about linguistics wise. Even within Rome itself social stratification would have rendered a few different accents, the same as any city at any time. This is an interesting topic (both in terms of subject matter and in trying to avoid being too technical) and I think it might be one I return to again and again.

We need to heavily narrow the terms of our enquiry and so I’d like to posit we examine aspiration as a loose nexus. In doing so, we can look at the phenomenon within Latin and as affected by non-native speakers. Aspiration seldom occurs alone and so, naturally, we’re going to look a little at aspirated consonants and a few vowels via both literary and inscriptional evidence and attitudes towards this linguistic diversity. This is hardly an essay, but a hodgepodge of connected musings.

Let’s select a passage from Catullus to get us started:

Chommoda dicebat, si quando commoda vellet

dicere, et insidias Arrius hinsidias,

et tum mirifice sperabat se esse locutum,

cum quantum poterat dixerat hinsidias.

credo, sic mater, sic liber avunculus eius.

sic maternus auus dixerat atque avia.

Hadvantages, Arrius would say whenever he meant to say

advantages. Ambushes, too, [he called] hambushes.

Then he was hoping he had spoken wonderfully

when he said hambushes as much as he could

Thus I believe his mother spoke, his free uncle

his maternal grandfather and grandmother.

Catullus 84 1-6

Even without its famous punchline, the humour of the poem is the product of more than slapstick over poor pronunciation (but seriously go read it). The use of imperfect tense suggest a repetitive action, deliberately taken over and over. In colloquial English we might say that Arrius is ‘putting it on’ and are meant to laugh at this parvenu incapable of aspirating correctly.

But what’s the linguistic implication? Either (as seems most likely) Arrius is a native speaker of a Latin dialect which has lost the /h/ sound or he’s a second language speaker unable to replicate the Roman sound. I must say, the latter was my initial reaction. After all, why else the reference to his family speaking the same way? The reference to a ‘free uncle’ clearly is meant to contrast with former slave status. Certain textual critics have even tried (untenable) to correct liber into a non-Roman name. It’s easy to imagine Catullus’ disgust at the product of the recently free making his way around high society and failing to blend in due to his poor speech.

Against that, however, is the fact that this Arrius (Harrius, surely? … sorry) is most likely the Q. Arrius we know from elsewhere, famed for his ostentatious failed bid at the consulship. Under Sulla various ex-slaves did well (cf. Chrysogonus) but it would have been unthinkable to aim for the consulship.

Either way, it seems that his dialect( /interference from first language) gave him trouble with aspirating hence his over compensating. This is a process known in linguistics as hyper-correction (see the link below) and we can safely conclude that there were Latin dialects where the aspirate was inconsistently applied.

In the context of philology, processes such as hyper-correction and analogy are studied as matter of course, but in a sociolinguistic context we might say something about the attitude present. In other words, we’ve established that this variation exists – but why is Arrius so keen to falsify his mode of speech?

The answer, I think, is obvious. He’s trying to fit in with the other upper-class Romans and so needs something approaching Cicero’s vox Romana. Poor aspiration, however, seemed to be a particular signifier of poor speech as a fragment of the grammarian Nigidius Figulus, who was active around the same time, suggests: rusticus fit sermo, inquit, si adspires perperam (speech becomes rustic, he says, if you aspirate wrongly).

It’s notable there’s a kind of urban bias here. M. Clodius Pulcher the “patrician tribune”, famously affected a plebian pronunciation hence his name being Clodius and not, as would be proper, Claudius. Someone of his station could get away with this idiosyncrasy and, besides, he spoke with an accent of the city and not the hinterland. Conversely, in the Imperial period, both Hadrian and Septimius Severus (Hispania and Africa respectively) could be castigated for their speech despite belonging to the upper echelons of society. They were, after all, provincials.

Biases regarding pronunciation are rational in so much as we are able to discern that reasons exist (e.g urban vs rural) but they rarely are logical or reasonable. I want to illustrate this with a brief interlude from Eddie Izzard, which also concerns aspiration.

Not to detract from Eddie Izzard’s joke, but our (British) pronunciation of /h/ here is in fact an ‘error’. The Americans have it right in so much as the traditional English pronunciation should eschew h in the same way we do for honour or when (ostensibly, I don’t personally) pronouncing the name of the letter itself. Yet somehow Izzard’s pronunciation would be seen as more high status. Attitudes trump reality.

The case in Latin is similar. In many cases consistent aspiration amongst even the learned classes was a fairly recent phenomenon. Ennius had pulcer not pulcher, triumphus was originally triumpus (of Greek origin, via Etruscan) and so on. Actually, philology can triangulate interferences between these three languages (Greek, Etruscan, Latin) to note that there is a shift from Greek to Etruscan that involves devoicing (b > p, g > k etc) and therefore conclude that since the Etruscan ear was less sensitive to voiced consonants, they would have likewise struggled with these in Latin.

H seems more or less always to have been weakening in Latin (although even by St. Augustine’s time people are still insisting on it). Many of the word initial h’s had a fuller sound in the parent language: homo, man, was  *ǵʰmṓ in PIE, reduced to *hemo in proto-Italic (nemo, nobody, < *nehemo, it was commonly lost between letters) and of course the modern romance languages have continued this trend and reduced h further: omo (Italian), homme (French, etymological h), hombre (Spanish, etymological h) etc.

Even Cicero (Orator 160) can’t be consistent and ends up following popular usage. Learned speech likewise permits stray h’s via hypercorrection: humidus was properly umidus for example, but anyone pronouncing it was such would have been labelled by men like Nigidius Figulus as a bumpkin.

Poor Arrius! Who can keep up?!

We could go on piece by piece focusing on different sounds in different Latin accents, but let’s keep with the h theme, only this time we’ll look briefly at a foreign accent – that of Greek. Unsurprising, Greek gives us our greatest amount of evidence for second language interference in Latin both in textual and inscriptional terms. Admittedly, most discussions of foreign interference tend to focus on either a) lexical borrowing or b) morpho-syntactical peculiarities (properly termed solecisms) e.g incorrect case usage. That’s just the nature of the evidence, but it is possible to talk a little about accent.

This inscription, or graffito rather, from Pompeii is a good jump off point. I’m…eh…not going to translate it for obvious reasons given what it says:

Tiopilus, canis,

cunnu lingere no-

li puellis in muro

CIL IV 8898

Tiopilus here stands for the Greek name Theophilos; the differences in rendering here are elucidating and we can take them section by section. Given this post’s focus on aspiration, I’m sure we can all see why this was chosen.

Aspiration in ancient Greek wasn’t like its modern counterpart, where θ is pronounced the same as English th. In fact, though I don’t have the figures to hand, this is a rare phoneme hence when jokes are made about German accents in English the definite article is always rendered ‘ze’. Originally, φ, χ and θ were simply aspirated stops: imagine a subtle expulsion of breath after each consonant. Later, these became the fricatives we all know and love. This is why the Romans spelt philosophy philosophia and not *filosofia despite widely employing f: because the Greek sound was different.

So, we can conclude that this is an area where a Greek speaker might have trouble. In fact Quintilian tells us of a case where a Greek witness was unable to pronounce the name Fundianus and came out with Hundianus. This makes sense, f was missing from Greek’s phonemic inventory and his native accent would have permitted poor speakers to utter either *Pundianus or *Hundianus.

The other letters are equally interesting even if not really germane to our h theme. What in Latin script has been rendered as ‘i’ are actually two difference sounds in the Greek (ε and ι). How big a difference existed between these letters in Latin? Learned speech kept them distinct, but even so we know of many instances of ‘e’ standing in for ‘i’ (the historian Livy’s accent would have merged these sounds), the distinction must have been difficult for Greeks.

As for os vs -us for endings well this is a typical equivalent. Even now, everyone knows Latin names end in us and Greek in os e.g Constantinus to Κωνσταντῖνος but this confusion isn’t always learned and occurs elsewhere e.g in the so called Colloquia, remnants of bilingual texts for teaching Latin or Greek, secunda is rendered as σεκονδα or even σεκοντα (ντ for δ is a whole different kettle of fish).

Even in Latin, the distinction wasn’t always obvious. Yes, we all know the myriad ways in which U > O became in Romance but one even comes across inscriptions with spellings like apud loco. Loco? I hear you ask, how can this be? Is this evidence for the later collapse of the case system in Latin?

Well, yes, but more importantly it’s evidence for the phonological underpinnings of these changes. Apud takes the accusative and therefore one would expect apud locum. Interestingly final m is often left off in more casual inscriptions (as in the 2nd line of the inscription above) because m was nasalised. Because the remaining sound wasn’t quite either a u or an o (try it out for yourself) it made sense for less learned writers to shift the spelling this way. This isn’t an error in case usage but an accurate rendering of spoken habit.

Given this propensity to change this vowel sound depending on what follows by native speakers, It’s easy to imagine Greeks not necessarily accurately mapping their u’s and o’s to their Latin equivalents either. After all, subtleties like this are the most common stumbling blocks in language acquisition.

In fact, we can go further. Modern Greek pronunciations of Latin retains some elements of the accents Romans would have heard. Emphasis on some, Greek has experienced its own significant changes, as we’ve had cause to note above. Vowel quantity has been lost, but there is still a sense of breadth to remaining vowels and, yes, including confusion in articulating ‘e’ vs ‘i’ in speech. Most Greek dialects (Cypriot a sometime exception) no longer distinguish between geminated and singular consonants (e.g ss vs s) and we know that Roman writers from the Imperial period commented on this. Ok, two examples are not a lot, it’s easy to overstate the case, but you must admit it’s cool to realise that you can hear something close to what the Romans did just by observing a Latin lesson in Greece.

Can we offer a quick conclusion? We haven’t, obviously, come anywhere near the point in this post where we could posit the full Greek accent of Latin (by what speakers? At which period? etc) or gone into great depth about regional Latin pronunciation (same questions) but I hope I’ve given a reasonably satisfying glimpse of what’s out there. So, when thinking about the Latin heard in Roman streets perhaps now you’ll contrast the ‘correct’ pronunciation we’re taught in school with the unaspirating rustic hawking his fish or the smooth consonant-broad vowelled Greek visitor. Perhaps something for us to come back to.

Further Reading


Any introduction will do but I enjoyed:

Wardhaugh, R (2009) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford

Perhaps the best way into seeing these applied to the ancient world are:

McDonald, K (2015) Oscan in Southern Italy. Cambridge. Especially chapter 2

Latin specifically

Literally anything by J Adams, even his grocery list will probably teach you some hitherto unknown fact about the accentuation of the plu perfect passive by Sarmatian horsemen stationed in Eboracum but my thinking on this subject is specifically indebted to:

Adams, J. N (2007) The Regional Diversification of Latin. Cambridge

Linguistic terms this is a place holder until I find better, specific, links. Until then just ask or consult the brilliant Oxford Linguistics Dictionary.

Ancient Texts

Quintilian and Cicero (especially De Oratore, Orator, Brutus) are brilliant first stops for thinking about how language was used and consequently thought about in the Roman world, besides them there is:

Keil, G (1855-80) Grammatici Latin. Leipzig (8 volumes) = once an absolute obsession of mine, brilliant collection but if you’re new to this start here:

Lord, F. E (1894) The Roman Pronunciation of Latin. Boston, MA. Yes, it’s old and methodologically out of date etc etc κτλ κτλ but the point is, it’s an easy to read collation of sources. Remember! nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset!


Pindar Vs Meryl Streep

‘Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing else to watch but football and mixed martial arts [MMA], which are not the arts

Meryl Streep

Far be it from me to criticise Meryl Streep – I have been reliably informed that she could even play a good Batman – but I must admit this comment made me a bit cranky. No, don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a discussion of Graeco-Roman attitudes to actors/actresses, let’s not be petty, it’s going to be about punching people. But, seriously, MMA not an art?

Where would the Greeks side? After all, the same people who are dismissive of combat sports and hold themselves as ‘artistic’ are often wont to discuss the Greeks and Greek drama in terms of hyperbolic veneration. But you can’t have your Thespis without your Theagenes.

A more sober, mature person might take this opportunity for a lengthy discussion about Graeco-Roman conceptions of art. There’d be a lot of fluff about the definition of τέχνη, painting vs drama, weaving metaphors and poetry. A more politically astute person might take the opportunity to go back over the rest of her speech and discuss possible changes to American immigration policy. A more … you get the idea, here we’re going to talk about punching people.

Look, I’m quite biased here. I’m a reader of books far more than I am a watcher of films and whilst I can be rather geeky, I also really enjoy lifting heavy things and hitting other people. Consensually, and in a controlled environment, of course. I think popular culture also far too often forgets the physical aspects of antiquity.

I’m also weary of trying to find classical precedents and contorting disparate remnants of the ancient world together in order to force comparisons. No, the ancient world is not quite relevant to absolutely everything… but in this instance we might reasonably equate MMA with an ancient combat sport called pankration.

Pankration was neither the direct ancestor nor some considerably more dangerous great uncle of MMA, though within Greece certain right wing groups have tried to cast it in that role. The fullest description we possess comes from the Sophist Philostratus. Being so late, being written under the cultural milieu of the Roman Empire, it is naturally a bit suspect. Given, however, that we’re not too invested in questions of source derivation and authenticity it will suffice:

…οἱ παγκρατιάζοντες, ὦ παῖ, κεκινδυνευμένῃ προσχρῶνται τῇ πάλῃ· δεῖ γὰρ αὐτοῖς ὑπωπιασμῶν τε, οἳ μή εἰσιν ἀσφαλεῖς τῷ παλαίοντι, καὶ συμπλοκῶν, ἐν αἷς περιγίνεσθαι χρὴ οἷον πίπτοντα, δεῖ δὲ αὐτοῖς καὶ τέχνης ἐς τὸ ἄλλοτε ἄλλως ἄγχειν, οἱ δὲ αὐτοὶ καὶ σφυρῷ προσπαλαίουσι καὶ τὴν χεῖρα στρεβλοῦσι προσόντος τοῦ παίειν καὶ ἐνάλλεσθαι· ταυτὶ γὰρ τοῦ παγκρατιάζειν ἔργα πλὴν τοῦ δάκνειν ἢ ὀρύττειν. Λακεδαιμόνιοι μὲν οὖν καὶ ταῦτα νομίζουσιν ἀπογυμνάζοντες οἶμαι ἑαυτοὺς ἐς τὰς μάχας, Ἠλεῖοι δὲ [καὶ] ἀγῶνες ταυτὶ μὲν ἀφαιροῦσι, τὸ δὲ ἄγχειν ἐπαινοῦσιν

(Philostratus Eikones 2.6.3)

The Pankrationists, child, employ a dangerous style of wrestling. For it’s necessary for them to meet blows to face*, which are not safe for a wrestler, and clinch** in a manner where one, having fallen, might prevail. They also need the skill [τέχνη] to choke*** at different times in a different way, they contort ankles, twist arms and jump on their opponents and strike them. With the exception of biting and gouging, all such things are allowed in pankration. Amongst the Lakedaimonians, however, even these are permitted – I assume since they are training for war, but the Eleian games also prohibit these though they allow choking.

* With sense of blackened eyes.

** Sculptural and pictorial evidence suggests we are indeed talking about clinching rather than generic wrestling.

*** As in choke holds. Not like a serial killer or sex pest.

[Let it be noted that Philostratus does use the word for art/skill with reference to fighting, so we could end here and now]

There are some salient differences between MMA and pankration, but I’d say that’s similar enough.

For the Ancient Greeks pankration was important enough to be given a place at the crown-bearing games (Nemean, Olympian, Isthmian, Pythian) and become the focus of song.

I had originally wanted to include translations of a few choice pieces from Pindar and Bacchylides here but I’m going to forebear from doing so. Part of the conceit of these songs is to avoid concentrating on the sporting event itself, instead they invoke mythological paradigms, the achievements of the victor’s family, little bits of local history and, occasionally, admonishments to more seemly behaviour. Given that this is meant to be a fairly quick blog post and we don’t have time to go into epinikian tropes and contexts, it seems wiser for me to forgo direct quotation.

Pindar’s poetry sometimes flows like treacle – sweet and slow – at others it’s like a rush of fresh water (and as we all know, Ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ, water is best) on a hot day – fast and refreshing. It can be as clear as Helios or as obscure as Herakleitos… the point is it’s really, really, good. Unlike Philostratus, Pindar deserves time and consideration to get the translation just right. I hear the Nisetich translations are nice.

One of the paradigmatic descriptions of pankration from ancient sources is the story of Arrakhion who was killed by his opponent in the Olympic games – but not before he forced him to yield via a small joint lock. This story, reported by both Philostratus (above) and Pausanias (8.40.1), is somewhat suspect in that it seems to contain the typical Greek trope of linking death and happiness (Kleobis and Biton are a more famous example), but there’s no real reason to doubt it. We’re not meant to revel in the gory details, but be impressed by the commitment to contest and victory displayed.

Likewise, while we lament the handful of deaths accrued by modern combat sports we can still recognise the nobility in the contest. Pankration and MMA both require deprivation – arguably less of an issue for the ancients, have you seen their food? – and dedication. One ancient fighter, Kleitomakhos of Thebes, was said to avoid sex all together: In a world where slaves (girls and boys) could be purchased cheaply and athletes came from wealthy families, this was arguably harder.

If Pindar, and thousands of ancients, can find something worth celebrating in pankration, surely we can in MMA?

The Internet is full of interesting fights, though I’d recommend Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar as a particularly good, digestible, one. It must be more than a decade old by now and is often credited with helping to bring the sport into the mainstream. Search around and you’ll soon see why people love the sport. First, it’s very fun to train. Second, from a spectator’s perspective, there’s something graceful in the bobbing and weaving, the well timed kicked, when a counter punch lands at just the right moment, how all the different parts of fighting (standing, clinching, ground) bring together different limbs in a way that’s almost dance like…

It’s hard to see how something so graceful, that people have given so much of themselves to (sometimes, as in the case of Arrakhion, all they have) can’t be called art. It’s annoying to see it denigrated.

This has been a bit unfocused, a bit ranting. Sorry. I’d like to end with Sappho (Voigt 16):

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
   τω τις ἔραται

Some say an army of horsemen, others footsoldiers,

others [that] a navy is the fairest thing

upon the black earth, but I say

It is what one loves…

So, yes, some say the kimura, others ill advised biopics about British Prime Ministers. Nobody needs to make Sophie’s Choice between them, let’s all get along. See! Clearly I’m no longer irritated…

Further Reading

Meryl Streep’s speech:

On the Second Sophistic (the context of Philostratus and Pausanias):

Bowie, E. L. (1970) “Greeks and Their Past in the Second Sophistic” in Past & Present 46, pp 3-41

Newbie, Z. (2005) Greek Athletics in the Roman World. Oxford (esp ch 2, 5, 7)

Swain, S. (1996) Hellenism and Empire. Oxford

Whitmarsh, T. (2005) The Second Sophistic. Cambridge

On Ancient Sports/Pankration

See Newbie (2005) above.

Gardiner, E. N. (1906) “The Pankration and Wrestling” in The Journal of Hellenic Studies 26, pp 4-22

Golden, M. (2008) Greek Sport and Social Status. Texas, USA.


Odes on combat sports = Nem: 2, 3, 5, 10. Isth: 6-8, Ol: 7-9, Pyth 9

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.