controversiae crocodili: some controversial classics opinions

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

Learn, or at least use, the accents.

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

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

What a princely handout.

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

WTF is this?
ahhh, that is better.

Secondary Literature ought to be written in Latin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is not very inclusive!

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

What about accessibility of scholarship?

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

What about accessibility for Non-Classicists

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

Shouldn’t we use Greek instead?

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

me too!

How serious are you?

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

German scholarship is colossally overrated.

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

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

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

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

Textual Criticism needs to be brought back into focus.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[2] did not read lol.

[3] judging by recent contributions they absolutely can.

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

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

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

[7] Here is a good study using open source data (PDF):

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

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

[10] At least in the Anglosphere.

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.


A smorgasbord of pseudobookreviews

Writing requires the confluence of time and discipline. For me, those two are very much like Romeo and Juliet – it’s not that the twain shall never meet (I mean… hello, nursey ԅ(≖‿≖ԅ) ), just rarely and with disastrous consequences.

So here are a series of rapid one or two sentence reviews of books I’ve recently read or re-read.


Oh, god, am I a cunt?


Yes, yes I am.


Honour is like an angry wolf. (Will actually review, soon).


Hopefully Anne you shan’t find out divorcing libraries is infinitely more horrendous than marrying them.

Monaldi and Sorti SECRETUM

Eunuchs have balls too. Oh, god, Dottore Eco we miss you.


Turns out I do have a heart…and it’s broken. I KNOW WHO’S TO BLAME.


Oxford was always broken. Also, Donne is cool.

Rainier Maria Rilke DUINO ELEGIES

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?


I should write more.


I should write less.


#Neverbyzantium? We would be so lucky

The antipathy between ‘Byzantium’ (here used as convenient shorthand for the surviving Roman Empire) and the ‘West’ is longstanding indeed. One can trace it, perhaps, in the machinations of the various Germanic tribes who are once mimicking the trappings of civilisations engendered by the Romans – with about as much understanding as a parrot has of a poem. Certainly, this is in evidence by the time of Charlemagne.

Let us be clear. There never was a zweikaiserproblem. Instead, the Bishop of Rome found his ecclesiastical throne to sit on a very mundane plinth indeed: Rome, alone of the ancient sees, stood in the West and thus wielded immense auctoritas. But the mitre and crook was hardly proof against the Lombard’s sword or local politicking, the Emperor’s presence in Italy was hardly to felt and so Leo turned to another protector.

The rest, as they say, is history and resulted in the founding of a state neither Holy, Roman, or in any sense an Empire.

Now, we could talk about how awful the west was. Forgeries such as the false Donatio Constantini, the differing Germanic law-codes which granted native Romans less than second citizen status (why else assimilate?). We could venerate the bravery of honest Romans like Boethius or the dream of Belisarius and Justinian. These things shouldn’t need repeating.

The real antipathy began in 1054, with the bizarre excommunication of the East. Bizarre in the sense that one still can’t understand just how this happened. Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian I and II had all proved decisively that the Emperor, not any single bishop, is the head of the church. On what authority was this carried out? On whose? Part of the reasoning was the omission of flioque in the creed. Omission! That’s #fakenews for you.

We in the West have had several reasons, both temporal and ecclesiastical, to castigate and malign the medieval Roman Empire. I think any putative connection to Russia is a new one, unlearned and pathetic even by the low low standards one holds what passes for the American press these days. 

‘Oh but the workings of the state were ones of occlusion and complexity!’ This from a state which literary hoards terabits of data on both its and foreign citizens. From a state with entrenched civil servants, where corporations may count as personages and wield more influence than federated states. Hmm.

Ah, Byzantium – it’s hard to see what so many could hate about it. The dedication to learning as evidenced by the great academies, monasteries, and law school? The pandidakterion was as much a university as Bologna or Oxford. The welcoming attitude to (assimilating) foreign populations? (I thought this was a virtue we shared?). The wonderful art, poetry, and music? Have you heard the hymns of Kassia?

Even the traditional image, of autocracy and despotism, may not be wholly true as recently argued by Kaldellis in his excellent ‘The Byzantine Republic’. Going by recent news stories, is our democracy really that much better? 

In short, there is much to love and admire about Byzantium and little to castigate from our glass houses. Spitting on the toe of a giant doesn’t make you big, it just makes you uncivilised.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in Byzantium, you’re lucky to have three wonderful introductions. Averil Cameron’s ‘Byzantine Matters’ is a thematic history, characterising the best of recent scholarship. Cyril Mango’s edited volume, ‘The Oxford History of Byzantium’ (section on the Macedonian dynasty is very strong), is of a similar vein. Jonathan Harris’ ‘Constantinople’ is ostensibly about the city herself but reveals a lot about wider history and culture.

If you would like a more narrative driven account, Timothy E Gregory’s addition to the Blackwell Ancient History series is up to date and emphasises the Roman connection beautifully. Ostrogorsky’s ‘History of the Byzantine State’ is old but remains a classic.

Of course if you want to physically experience Byzantium, head to your nearest Orthodox church.

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