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. 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. 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. 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.”
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.
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, 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 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. 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
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.
 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.
 Apparently some 15.2 million copies: https://lithub.com/these-are-the-10-best-selling-books-of-the-decade/
 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.
 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.
 Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford, Oxford U. P.