All Our Broken Idols (Review)

N.B this is a review of an uncorrected ARC

The mournful cry of a dying lion, the smooth hand of a mason, the sour smell of a poor man’s breath, belly brewed with hunger… I enjoyed this book. Paul Cooper is a talented writer and lovers of Antiquity, Mesopotamia, and historical fiction like Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things will find much to enjoy here.

All Our Broken Idols is Paul Cooper’s second book, I am not sure if it is my favourite (I really loved River Of Ink), but I am glad serious historical fiction, unafraid of being literary, is still being produced. It tells the story…well, really, it tells two stories which interact and intersect in interesting ways. The first of these is about two peasant children in the Assyrian empire at the time of Ashurbanipal. The story opens with the dull flatness of the interior, where the chance encounter between Sharo and Aurya, a lion (really my favourite element), and the king himself set off the chain of events which drive the novel. The other story, concerns Katya, an archaeologist (palaeobotanist?) caught up in fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014.

This conceit of using two distinct timelines, really one story told diachronically, is an interesting part of the book and as I write this I am struggling to think of the last time I saw this used in a memorable manner. Perhaps Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – thought that book had a much more truncated timeline (WW1 to the present) and therefore much more immediacy between both halves of the story. Cooper makes excellent use of this device and both “halves” intersect and resonate with one another in ways that only serve to enhance the story. Some of these resonances occur on a basic, pragmatic, level (e.g both take place in Nineveh/Mosul), others are more thematic (lions, belonging, memory…), and they certainly encourage the reader to go back and re-read earlier chapters more carefully.

One of the best of these resonances is the use of the Gilgamesh epic. This seems to be emerging as a trait of Cooper’s historical fiction, though the use of the epic is less direct and more subtle than the use of the Shishupalavadha in River of Ink. This makes sense, since the earlier book directly concerned itself with the translation of that text. In All Our Broken Idols, the text instead is referenced by the characters throughout, often at times which serve to highlight broader plot points narrative themes: The movement from the wilder hinterland to the more “civilised” city, law vs want, the whims and duties of kings, the potency of loss, and even the nature of storytelling itself. The author’s use of the test stays firmly within the realm of the metapoetic and never reaches levels of smarminess.

‘Five years to tell a story, and it ends with no one getting what they want?’

‘They got something else though’

For Sharo and Aurya, the Gilgamesh epic has been handed down by their mother; for Katya, it has been picked up as a book from an Iraqi bazaar. Where does Cooper get his? The excerpts seem much more novel like than I remember from my struggling Akkadian, and the end note suggests that they are the author’s own creation, assembled from various translations. Like a modern Sîn-lēqi-unninni. If you are interested in listening to the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian, click this link to go a wonderful collection of recordings. If, like Katya (and most of us) you want to read the epic I can happily suggest e.g Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia as a good starting point.

I suppose a brief note on each of the different timelines is warranted here.

Sumerian was a language isolate. It was used for such a long time that, like any natural language, it would have changed faster than the differences we see in the written standard. When Akkadian (a Semitic language) speakers took over, they must have brought some first language interference with them to their work in Sumerian. At some point, not only has Sumerian died out, but Akkadian has started to change and may well be giving way to Aramaic in the spoken realm. How much can we really construct of Mesopotamia? Even with our evidence? Is this a boon or a bane to the historical novelist? None the less, the author does a wonderful job in evoking the period. Even little details such as the names for months/seasons, the type of food eaten, the prayers and curses as well as the stories told; all add to this verisimilitude.

Of the two stories, this is my favourite. Perhaps unjustly, for me it is the “real” story. Sharo, and Enkidu, have my sympathies and my interest. Some of the most arresting moments in the book occur in this half of the story. There was a scene, long foreshadowed in the book itself, and easily anticipated by anyone familiar with Assyrian art, that when it happened, I had to put the book down for a moment. Elsewhere, Ashurbanipal strides off the page. His inscriptions have always flickered with his personality, and it would have been easy to get him wrong, paint him as some two-bit Thersites, but instead we get a character that is genuinely kingly. Do we like him? (maybe) do we hate him? (maaaybe?). Either way, he is complicated and interesting. The Assyrian part is really the meat of the story for me, with the present day one mainly interesting when it (or Cooper via it) uses its archaeological remains to tell a story.

Katya’s story begins the best part of 27 centuries later, in the context of an archaeological dig. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the archaeology was done. There was no Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider silliness, nor does it fall for the anachronistic trope of archaeologists picking up and reading inscriptions or documents (let’s name this trope after Boardman, who was brilliant): in fact the one dig site member who can fluently read Akkadian is held in suitable awe. Instead, we get careful descriptions of soil analysis, cataloguing find spots, establishing layers and digging test trenches. Nor does the author shy away from current debates in archaeology about provenance, ethics, and ownership. The archaeological team is, justly, worried about looters and the threat they pose to the past but western academics and collectors are hardly much better. The bitterness, scepticism, and mistrust the locals feel is clearly somewhat warranted. The author handled all this deftly.

‘Just catalogue the damage for now. Piece together the fragments, try and put a story together.’

One thing leapt out at my, and I suspect I am reading too much into this, is Katya’s position within this context. Despite her name, she is not Russian but Half British/Half Iraqi. From a narrative standpoint this makes sense, it allows the author to gird her with a sense of emotional investment in Iraq and its antiquities beyond academic specialism. Her father was an Iraqi reporter who was made to disappear (this is not a spoiler) and this obviously drives her. Where is she on the scale between native and western interloper/academic? At one point a crisis is approaching and she gets into an argument with a native archaeologist on what to do with a find. “It’s my history too” she complains, only to be told to “fucking act like it” if that is the case. On at least one occasion a character comments on her terrible Arabic. Again, I am probably reading too much into this, but I think this is incredibly interesting given the themes of identity and ownership throughout. I shan’t spoil what happens, but I left the book thinking that there is a very real dissonance between Katya as is and Katya how she would like to paint herself. Maybe you need to be a bilingual/immigrant/third-culture kid to see it. Of the modern characters, it is Salim (with his studied nonchalance) and Dr Malik who really stand out.

In June 2014 ISIS took Mosul. That is a story in and of itself, and not a nice one. Cooper pulls few punches (the reality was even worse), and a few things need to be said here. The link between antiquities looting and ISIS was (is?) very real and we know of at least one brave man who died hoping to protect antiquities. Bravo for not shying away from this. If you have the time (and if you are reading this, you probably do) please take a second to read up on Khaled al-Asaad (whom I think Cooper sort of pays tribute to?). The age of heroes is not wholly over.

Lola, one of the best drawn characters in the book, happens to be a Yazidi girl. Few have suffered at the hands of ISIS quite like the Yazidi. It would be easy to focus on how Cooper imbues this character with a kind of quiet, wounded, stoicism, it is harder – but ultimately more right – for us to remember that the Yazidi still exist in a very beleaguered state. I would like to draw your attention to two groups that function as charities and for raising awareness:

Yazda – A multi-national Yazidi global organization established in the aftermath of the Yazidi Genocide in 2014, to support the Yazidi ethno-religious minority and other vulnerable groups.

The Amar Foundation – Runs support for the Yazidi, and other groups, ousted and targeted by ISIS.

It is odd to see ISIS mentioned in historical fiction, but it struck me to what degree historical fiction is conditioned by (dependent on, really) its contemporaneity. I do not mean the old, obvious, canard of any historical enquiry telling us about the present. I mean that, perhaps ironically, in the aftermath of the looting of places like Mosul and Palmyra, with the wounds from ISIS still fresh and ongoing, this may well be the only point in history this story could be told with such poignancy.

It would be terrible to end the review here, on the omnipresence through human history of suffering, on the arbitrariness of violence and hate…especially when the book itself at times strikes some hopeful notes. Memory, family, stories, all these things are real too. All Our Broken Idols is Paul Cooper’s second book, I am not sure if it is my favourite, I certainly hope it is not his last. It is more than recommended.

‘All those people would be dead by now anyway.’

‘That doesn’t matter when you’re reading it. Every time you read it, they come back to life all over again’

The First Line(s) of the Iliad

Note: So, this is something I have been thinking of trying out for a while. A series of quick and dirty posts on lines of the Iliad. If I do end up continuing, I will add a meta-page listing the reasoning and the rules for what I decide to comment upon, how best to read these posts, and how I write them. For now, view this as a tester. The first post follows 1-7.

It is a staid truism – and has been since antiquity – that the Iliad starts with ‘wrath’ and the Odyssey with ‘man’. This was probably the main motivating factor for Virgil to unify both themes (‘arma virumque…’). Boring. But we do know that in general oral poems tend to function this way where the first line might function as both as title and a taster of sorts.

Openings and closings of oral poems are particularly vulnerable to contraction and expansion as the unit of measure is not the hexameter or even a thematic section, but the poet’s time with the audience. Therefore, there was ample opportunity to show off, or to have to get on with it, or link your first poem into another one.

Variations exist all over. Take this variation noted by Aristoxenus for example:

ἔσπετε  νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχουσαι​,

Tell me now, you Muses who dwell on Olympos

ὅππως  δὴ μῆνίς τε  χόλος θ᾽ ἕλε Πηλείωνα​

Such was the mania and rage which took the son of Peleus

Λητοῦς τ᾽ ἀγλαὸν υἱόν·  ὃ γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθείς

And the blameless son of Leto, for he was angry with the king

Straight away you can see the parallels with the Odyssey and Hesiod’s work. This is what I would call an example of contraction given that it saves time by adpositioning Akhilleus’ and Apollo’s wrath. Note semantic doubling (μῆνίς…χόλος). The former is more elevated, and this late performer can’t quite shake it off. Don’t be tempted to mock this proem, it’s well-wheeled and a good example of the rhapsode’s craft. It’s just that, well, compared to great Homer…

Θεά This is elevated language. It’s used over θέαινα for metrical purposes. In everyday usage we would simply expect the masc, θεός, to stand in for both god and goddess. The article would stand to differentiate where needed. This makes sense given its etymological roots which were certainly neuter, it is derived from the same PIE root as Latin fanum, temple. If you’re wondering why a neuter would eventually refer to masc and fem things well remember that the original distinction in PIE was animate/inanimate. All the daughter languages retain evidence of this ‘confusion’.

 Cf our own ‘god’ which was neutral in Old English. From an earlier form *guda/goda. This is probably from a verb ‘to revere’. i.e to revere > a revered thing > a god. A priest, the one doing the revering, was a godi. There’s a familiar semantic web here: Old Indic hotar, Old Persian zotar (Modern Persian zut), means a priest in a ritual/ablutions sense. Ultimately this comes from the PIE verb ǵʰew- (pour, shed). Readers of this blog can, I bet, readily supply the Greek version.

Fuck it. This is now a post on Germanic philology.

How common was this stem in earlier forms of Germanic? English mainly uses os (so Oscar, means god’ spear) and Old Norse as (hence aesir). Untagling Germanic religious language and attitude is difficult given the paucity and poverty of the sources. Answers on a post card. Actually, go ask @mattitiahu.

Ok. This is no longer a post on Germanic philology.

Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος When you see thistravesty, this is how you know H-daddy was the real deal. Because anybody else would have had faeces thrown at them for this metrical malapropism…in the opening line.  

Why faeces? Well, I’m not sure how ecologically common apples were at this point this far west. Nor chickens. Greeks and Romans loved cabbage so they wouldn’t waste that on a tin-eared bard. What’s logically after apples, chickens, and cabbage? That’s right, faeces.

The word order may seem illogical, though I suspect, again, that it’s for metrical convenience (and the way the sounds line up when sung in metre). There is PIE precedence in praise poetry for this word order: Old Indic stotra (praise poetry) and Middle Indic inscriptions; Germanic poetry which, again, seems to draw from a praise tradition (but the complicated role of kennings and assonance may muddle things) and; IIRC, somewhere in the Middle Welsh Triads.

In terms of traditionality we know patronymics ending in –δης are relative innovations anyway. The older PIE way of signifying a patronymic was infixing /i/ to the stem and making an adjective. So Πηλεΐων is actually the older form. Cf the Latin name Tullius < ‘descendants of Tullus’. This is borne out both by Linear B and by later inscriptional evidence.

Ἀχιλλεύςis obviously a very archaic name, as are all endings in -ευς, and its obscure etymology gave both ancients and moderns all sorts of trouble. There is no satisfactory explanation for this name’s meaning. There is no solution. You think you have a solution, but you don’t. You have nothing.

οὐλομένην the ou here is either a metrical contrivance or due to problems with transmission. I actually agree with neither but have a half-finished article I hope to one day publish (tbf a lot of this stuff is drawn from something I’m working on, but meh). Aeolic keeps the correct long vowel vs dipthong, ὠλόμενος, see also the verb ὄλλυμαι. This isn’t an interesting point, but I have a feeling I will refer to such textual/metrical chicanery later so do let’s set a precedent.

Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν Porphyry managed to get a paragraph or two out of that. Proof there is no god.

ἡρώων Always controversial how this is used, isn’t it? Are the heroes treated as a separate older race as in Hesiod? (This comes from an influential NE motif that spread west in Greece and east into Iran and India, it even turns up in the Mahabharata, book 3), is it a term of ritual obeisance? Or is just a handy referent to the foci of epic song?

The spread and development of hero cult is one of the most fascinating aspects of archaic Greek history. Bruno Currie has done excellent work on the textual evidence and Carla Antonaccio is a must-read on the archaeological evidence. I don’t have a go to for the re-use of Mycenaean sites. If you take a lot of MDMA it’s worth reading Claude Calame. If you’re more of a cocaine fiend, Irad Malkin’s stuff is good. Note: don’t mix cocaine and MDMA.

πᾶσι vs δαῖτα? 😊 😊 😊

Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή One of the most quoted lines in the PhiloCroc household. This is a very weighty hemistich. In poetic terms, it’s a self-contained bit which adds ‘weight’ to the fast-moving lines above and gives the reciter a good place to rest. I also don’t think it too contrived to say this is simultaneously looking back to the broader epic tradition where Zeus’ plans are a common theme (and for the Troy saga specifically, more on that later); and forward to the great moments in the Iliad where Zeus makes his plan known.

ἐξ οὗ…τίς τ’ ἄρ σφωε etc This is more of a brief point about style, going forwards. One of the most engaging aspects of Homeric composition is its so-called speed and clarity (ἐνάργεια), which has been remarked upon since antiquity. One of the ways this is achieved is through a para-tactical style (παράταξις).

The best way, the only way, to get the sense of this is to sit back and read the text out loud and see how it paints a picture, and how successive words and clauses help build up the story by supplying (and occluding?) information.

Wrath, ok but who’s wrath? What is this story about? Peleus’ son, Akhilleus – excellent, how many such stories were there? We as an audience may know of a few differing wrath stories in general, but what about Akhilleus in particular? We know of an apparent argument between him and Odysseus (Odyssey VIII) but μῆνίς is too strong a word. Ah, it’s a terrible wrath which laid down the souls of many heroes etc. But why? Who caused this? Against whom did Akhilleus set his face? Well it was according to the plan of Zeus. It was Zeus, you see, who set them in strife. At this point we know little about the plan of Zeus, but can guess if we’re experienced listeners. The question remains, however, whom did he set to quarrelling? Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς (The son of Atreus, lord of men Agamemnon and the brilliant Akhilleus). The poem then goes on to provide further details, including Apollo’s role etc etc.

You can see how this oral style works, how the singer is able to deploy the metrical line and the formulaic system to build a story at recitation speed and how the listeners are able to comprehend. There has been a decent amount of discussion – none to my mind satisfactory – about this element of oral poetry. Exactly what are the compositional blocks? Books (or rhapsodies) are, I think, largely artificial. Groupings of books (in terms of themes) work a little better. Type-scenes don’t really seem to match any performative context I can conjure.

Some people think in terms of formula. But the formula is really just a later reification of sound patterns and common phrases, hence why comparative examination of Rigvedic verse and the Aeolic line takes us back to a predecessor which was fluid for most of the line. Hence why κλέος ἄφθιτον is the most marked phrase in PIE but not a formula.

South Slavic bards speak in terms of the rijec (lit word) which can vary from a single word to a line or two. I think this is too lose and undisciplined for the way ancient Greek versification worked, but it is an interesting comparandum.

This is where a comparative approach can get really interesting, but we need much more than 7 or 8 lines under our belts first.

ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Obviously a formula, and a pleasant and easy to use one. In the Iliad it is predominantly used of Agamemnon for the 40-50 times it occurs. Much has been made of the so-called archaism of ἄναξ. It needn’t be. We know it is a word of old, mysterious, provenance (if you think you have an etymology, please see my note above on Akhilleus). It correctly requires a digamma and is found as early as the Linear B tablets.

That it survives in this form is hardly surprising, however. It is a common onomastic component (cf Anaxagoras), was still in use in Cyprus and in cultic contexts. It was even used by the Phrygians (along with lawagetes), hence a Gordian inscription mentioning King Midas (Midai lavagetaei vanaktei). But I guess we can talk more in depth about this later. I *do* have a half finished post on that Phrygian inscription.

If we want to talk about traditionality and innovation, a much more interesting question would be why so few reflexes of PIE *h₃reǵ- made it down to Greek cf’d to…almost every other branch.

And that’s the end. My original aim was to cover around 50-60 lines in three quarters of this word count. By the by, if you feel I missed anything really interesting in these lines or want to add anything, just do so via twitter or the comments below.

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.

Cicero at the Gielgud: A Review

Whether this (admittedly bifurcated) play was 6 or 7 hours, I could not say. That itself is praise enough and those seeking brevity may stop reading here. Instead go see the play.

Now, as for myself, I am neither a habitual theatre goer nor especially well equipped to form listenable opinions. None of the English plays I have enjoyed most come from this, or even the previous, century. Boringly, predictably, I’m a fan of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson. I prefer medieval mystery plays to the likes of Pinter and Albee. So, bear that in mind.

I’m biased twice over, having also absolutely adored the books on which this play was based. Now, onward and downwards.

The play opens not, as does the first book, with Cicero still on the make, but after his election to the consulship. The vignette, Cicero playing amateur detective over a ritually sacrificed slave boy, will be familiar to any who have read Lustrum.

For a few moments I was perplexed. Surely this is a phenomenally bad idea? The first book, Imperium, is much the strongest after all. But then Tiro (Joseph Kloska) steps forth from the stage, breaking the forth wall, and everything fits very nicely indeed.

Playing Cicero can’t be easy, which makes it so astonishing that Richard McCabe moves from scene to scene with such incredible élan. From rhetorical flourish to soporific bore, he truly captures Cicero as Harris has drawn him. For the duration of the first play it’s hard to tell who the star is truly, Cicero or Tiro, but by the second play McCabe once again steals the show. He ages before eyes, sometimes scene by scene. “Is that…is that the same actor?” one of my companions asked. Quite.

The first play details with the Catlinarian conspiracy, the high point being the famous speech (quo usque tandem abutere…). Catalina, I thought a little…odd. He was presented shaven headed and jack-booted. A far cry from the Catalina either of history or, indeed, the novels. He constantly came across as a little hysteric and risible. This misses the entire point of the character. Fortunately, Joe Dixon returns as Mark Antony in the second play where he is brilliant.

(I can’t find any other way to fit this in the review but hats off to Nicholas Boulton’s portrayal of Celer.)

The second play, Dictator, ostensibly alludes to Caesar (played by Peter de Jersey), but always with a side glance at the future Augustus. In production terms, it features the best set piece of the dyad in Caesar’s triumph. Somehow everything worked here. The ridiculous flowing fabrics, the pretend armour, the playmobile chariots… with that insistent beat in the background and the stylised, almost forced, movements of the actors there was a real sense of ritual. I loved it.

When the final scene began to play out, I found myself surprisingly touched. The quotation from the Somnium Scipionis wasn’t just astute and apropos, it was moving. It didn’t just highlight important aspects of Cicero’s character, it served as a gentle reminder of how utterly important this man’s work (through Macrobius, Boethius, and then wider Western Europe) has been.

Now, because this needs to be said, the sour notes. Were I a meaner sort of crocodile I would here copy and paste the Roman view of actors (for that, see Beare) and their opinions. For every brilliant set piece, every time the chemistry between the cast compounds into something special, every delicate emotional scene…there’s a clumsy modern comment or parallel.

Pompey, who appears dressed as Trump, is a real let down and the titters in the audience at each Brexit/anti-populist joke were not always kind. Frankly, it was all a bit pretentious and thin blooded.

That scene with Caesar (you’ll know it, because you’ll see the play, won’t you?) was very perplexing and not at all in line with the rest. I mean, what the hell was going on? Even Plutarch would have left that on the cutting floor.

All in all, this was a brilliant way to spend an afternoon (and an evening), a great combination of spectacle, witty dialogue and great acting. If at times it feels like traversing a Ciceronian period, waiting for the verb to drop, well, we’ve only the great man himself to drop.

Cicero died on the 7th December 43 BC, The Philological Crocodile almost died two Saturdays ago but urges you to see the play. Imperium and Dictator are currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre, W1D.


I write this – after a long absence that has no doubt seen my paltry writing skills atrophy rather than improve – having enjoyed an interesting discussion yesterday, the kind that represents the best of Classics twitter. I want to expand upon some of the short comments I earlier because I worry I came off as a bit short and terse and wish to explain myself a bit better. Besides, we rarely get to discuss such things from a British perspective (for a discussion of American treatments, click here).

Here is the initial tweet, since the original post is well worth reading – as are the discussions on Aramaic and Akkadian with attendant bibliographies.

My response essentially came down to a) the vision being improbable if not impossible and; b) some aspects of it unwittingly carrying the potential to offend. You’ll hopefully note I don’t disagree with any of the assertions being made, I’d quite like all of them to come true. I just don’t think any of them likely. 

I think the improbability comes down simply to the fact that universities are increasingly failing to properly teach Latin and Greek. We take it, bizarrely, as read that we’re increasingly less able than our 19th and 20th century predecessors (hence the above reference to ‘19th C philology’). This isn’t just a hackneyed trope, some traditional veneratio offered to our predecessors as a way to abase ourselves with false humility whilst simultaneously claiming our place in the great academic chain of being that descends from Zenotodus and Aristarchus to Wolf, Wilamowitz, and West. It’s a sad, discomforting, fact.

Sad because there’s truly never been a better time to learn Latin or Greek. Previous generations started earlier, had more time, but we eclipse them in efficiency by orders of magnitude. Students have a phalanx of textbooks to choose from, computer generated word lists, easy access to texts, readers, and even audiotools. We should, in fact, be making our predecessors look like gentlemen dilettantes with regards to their technical skills if not their insights.

One of the original points was that…”the world needs more specialised departments based on our Classical model”. Does it? What can we truly offer, say, Sanskrit scholars? I’m choosing Sanskrit because it’s the ancillary language I know best and because it has an incredible tradition behind it (of which most Classicists are sadly completely ignorant).

Indologists may avail themselves of at least one functional tradition akin to our philology, vyakarana (something like grammar) as well as several theoretical frameworks for assessing texts (I think the most famous in the west is probably mimasa). The study of the language has been not just rejuvenated but elevated by contact with western philology. After all, it was Saussure and his laryngeals which rendered Sanskrit’s intense verbal system fully understandable, British explorers and orientalists who kick-started epigraphy and paleography while fleshing out more fully the filitation between Sanskrit and early Indian vernaculars (the so called prakrits).

This is, notably, well in the past.

Indologists, on one hand, may read their texts with the aid of utterly brilliant Sanskrit commentaries. Meanwhile in 2018 it’s possible to graduate with a Classics degree not having fully read Virgil or Homer, let alone become acquainted with Servius or Eustathius.

I suspect Classics departments no longer have the intellectual, perhaps even moral, substance to offer anybody any sort of example on how to do anything. Ironically, it was those 19th century philologists and not modern comparative literature departments which furnished the inspiration for those studying Indic or Semitic (Sino-Tibetan, Finno-Urgic, Kartvelian etc etc) philology. What can we offer other scholars? Perhaps the ability to point out when someone is dead, white, and male? To turn ‘patriarchy’ from a sociological descriptor to something akin to a taboo word?

This is what I mean by potentially offensive. The days are gone when the Classicist could casually expound the rules and sound changes of Germanic philology more adroitly than the English DPhil, for example.

Another point considered widening the temporal horizon of the discipline until the fall of the Roman Empire in 1453. In some sense, Classics has already traditionally done this. After all, textual criticism by its very nature involves delving into the work of Carolingian monks, the intellectuals of the Byzantine renaissances (under the Macedonians and Palaeologi) and the Italian humanists.

I would love for this to happen to some degree, but again the basis for this has to be a sound grasp of the languages. Lorenzo Valla’s study of the false Donatio Constantini is one of the highpoints of our subject, but like all humanists his Latin can be difficult. The Greek of Laonikos Chalkokondyles is entertaining and electrifying but not for the faint of heart anymore than his subject matter.

As an aside there’s recently been a very interested guest post on Sententiae Antiquae on the merits of including post classical Latin as part of our curricula, which I link here. Unfortunately I can’t think of any similar post on reading post second sophistic Greek to link.

Can we ever engender a return to philology? On one hand I recall the resurgence of philologia propria in China after the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Under the Ming dynasty, critique and interpretation of texts and history had become dogmatically Neo-Confucian. Subsequently, disenchanted scholars found themselves eventually turning to more traditional methods in order to actually try and comprehend the past. Who knows? Maybe McKenna is right to be optimistic. I don’t think so. Out of the academy, none of my colleagues with similar backgrounds also working in black-letter professions (commercial law, finance, and I guess we should include the bloody consultants) seem to think so either. Nor do our bosses who have long since dampened their enthusiasm for hiring people with Classics degrees. Ah well.

The original post ended with an emphatic assertion that “there must be brilliant stuff out there” and I absolutely agree. In fact I’m going to end this blog post by recommending something, the Heike Monogatori. This epic, based on the struggle for dominance between two 12th century Japanese clans, has a strong claim for the best opening lines in world literature. Moreover, its compositional history make it a must read for any Classicist. It is, I hope you’ll agree, brilliant stuff. 

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. — Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation

Recommended reading

In an ideal world, I’d go back and re-work the above post, citing and commenting upon the below articles and books in order to strengthen points and provide more entertaining reading. Please accept my apologies and this slightly annotated bibliography instead.

Much the best scholar writing on this questions is Sanskrit Professor Sheldon Pollock. His 2014 article ‘Future Philology’ has been incredibly influential and his shorter 2015 article ‘Liberating Philology’ is at once precis and expansion. For a broader, more multicultural, understanding of what’s at stake see the 2015 edited volume World Philology.

For the Byzantine Renaissances see Cyril Mango’s own contributed to the 2002 edited volume The Oxford History of Byzantium.

For an introduction on the (potential) similarities between Japanese and Greek epic see Naoko Yamagata’s article in Greece & Rome Vol. 40, No. 1 (Apr., 1993). I myself am partial to the Tyler and Watson translation. 

I have made at least two cack-handed allusions herein. I have cheekily titled this post after Wilamowitz’s famous tirade, an English translation of which may be found here. Secondly, I alluded to Said’s article “Return to Philology” which can be found here.

Quot Homines, Tot Sententiae: Why learn Classical Languages?

A blog by nature is ephemeral (this one more than most) so it doesn’t hurt to provide some content for my ramblings. I had a rare free Saturday morning, and was reading through Manutius’ prefaces to Greek and Latin texts, when I remembered twitter still existed. Logging on, I found an interesting article by a Theology student on what value they’ve gained studying a classical language (in this case Latin).

I’m linking it here since it’s worth reading, if only to catch something of the evident pleasure this student gets from studying Latin. In all these discussions about Ovid and rape culture, or how apparently white statues make scholars racist, it’s a nice reminder that more than anything else these languages are interesting. 

I found the article, as I find so many interesting classical nugatae lately, in the twitter feed of Olivia Thompson. OT, as always, had her own interesting take and wrote about the application of classical languages to the historian:

Compare that with the bewildering entitlement displayed in another article by a fledgling student, this time from Columbia, doing the rounds a few weeks ago. I will, of course, link the entire thing here.

This post isn’t going to convince anybody as to the worth of studying Latin and Greek – though Ironically I’ve had an easier time of doing that without the university than within – but do let’s look briefly at three small questions on offer here. Are classical languages interesting? are they in anyway useful? and (vis a vis the article above) are they, well, elitist?

Now, I think the fact that myself and many other alumni still read Greek and Latin without the Damoclean deadlines of university exams hanging over us speaks to delight and joy these languages can bring. Indeed, I spoke of classical languages – not just Latin and Greek, because there’s something about the discipline which inculcates a need to ferret out other ancient languages: I was considered unusually multilingual by my tutors at Oxford, but I know so much more now. It is the same with my course-mates, I know a non-negligible number who have gone on to pick Arabic, Classical Chinese, even native American languages.

Utility – ah utility! You capering nymph never to be seized! you shy little boat drifting always just off the jetty! – Yeah,I’m not going to even try to tackle that properly. You’re welcome to go down that rabbit hole without me. Here’s Boris Johnson. Here’s someone championing Latin for literacy. Here is the inestimable Mary Beard giving a more level headed and engaging view. Have fun, Dominus vobiscum.

Instead let’s take utility in the narrow sense implied (or at least I infer it) by the first article I cited and Thompson’s response. Do the languages offer utility outside their directly immediate areas of study?

I think we have something of an answer from the young student of Theology. Thompson’s tweet (above) does that beautifully for history.  My model for a historian in this sense has always been John Ma who is probably the most impressive Greek historian you’ve never read.

Ancient history, divorced from strict linguistic study, is often heralded as a great equaliser. I think the truth is that all it does is impoverish student and discipline alike. Which leads me to the third point of consideration and the one raised by the second linked article. Are these languages elitist? Is it too much to expect students from certain background to learn them?

As counter intuitive it may seem, I would argue quite the opposite. There is no doubt that students from private schools have an advantage when it comes to becoming Classicists. These advantages are, in some part, the kind of reasons that cause parents to spend large amounts of money on educating their brood. That students from these backgrounds all but monopolise positions in the academy is another problem all together and more to do with the incestuous nature of British universities. None the less, let’s point out the obvious that, yes, little Tristan and Isabella who have years of Latin and Greek (or Arabic, or Russian, or Mandarin…) will have an easier job of getting good at Latin and Greek in the three or four years they are at university.

Let us also make it clear that little Wayne or Jodie, who may not even have taken French, will have a more difficult time. But that difficulty exists up to a point. Universities like Oxford administer aptitude exams meant to be (haha, oh god we still claim this, haha) subject agnostic. The point of tertiary study is that you’re in a specialised environment with time and resources on your side to master whatever esoterica comes your way, and last – but not by any means least – you have like minded friends. The latter I think can make more of a difference than even the most well-meaning lecturer.

Study and mastery over these languages also helped to provide something like an objective yard-stick. Others more perceptive than I have pointed out how the movement to reception and classics in the modern world replaces core competencies (textual criticism, papyrology etc) with softer class distinguishers.

Coming from a working-class background, there have been a few impediments to my studying Classics. The languages certainly were not one of them. If anything, growing up multilingual and in a multi-ethnic area where I constantly heard other languages, I took to them rapidly. I think the complete lack of cultural baggage meant I never developed any fear of them. Sure, ‘smart people’ knew Latin but Maths and Science were also meant to be very difficult and as everyone tells you, anyone can learn their lessons if they try hard enough.

I worry, I really do, when people start moving their politics and personal tastes (in terms of the books and films they enjoy) into the curriculum and start grading on them. A working-class kid from Birmingham or Hounslow is never going to have quite the same performative version of feminism as you do, is never going to have read or watched the same things, hasn’t had the kind of experience which would engender the same politics.

It is, moreover,  insanely unfair to expect us to. That is not social contract we signed up to on matriculation. But a verb is a verb and Osthoff’s law or Lectio difficilior potior remain equally valid in estuary English or brogue. Objectivity’ isn’t much more definable than ‘utility’ when it comes to marking and comparing students, but there are grades of fairness.

Why must we be guardians of Latin and Greek? Well that’s a grandiose way of putting things but I can’t help but think that when we guard them, they guard the discipline.

Further reading

Links scattered throughout will be alphabetised and appended here when I can be bothered. I’ll also add some links of interest, not cited, as per usual. Meanwhile enjoy the Daily Mail (who else?) on ‘chav’ names here and the Tatler on posh baby names.

Short Note: Utility in the ancient world

I was recently listening to an interesting interview with John Romer on the latest volume in his series of ancient Egyptian history when he said something interesting. On enumerating some of the changes apparent in the transition from Old to Middle Kingdom he mentioned that Egyptian traders and explorers often found themselves deep south into Africa trading and searching ‘…not for the essential things, but just for the rituals of the court’.

I don’t want to read anything into Romer’s offhand comment and in fact highly recommend his books to anyone interested in ancient Egypt, but what he said serves as a useful springboard for considering this contrast between essential things and court ritual. I don’t think such a dichotomy existed in the minds of the ancients at all.

We treat what remnants of court ritual we still possess with an airy familiarity. There’s a sense of quaintness to it all. It didn’t take Charles I’s head being removed from his body for us to realise that he was not God’s anointed. Mallorian fictions aside, no one would link the health and hale of the land to its monarch. A barrister or a judge still possesses learning and status without wig, robe, and gavel.  In a real sense these symbols are, like what Romer’s Egyptians bought from south of the Sahara, non-essential.

But can we say the same for the items of ancient court ceremonies? I wouldn’t be so sure. After all, Diocletian’s movement towards an ‘asiatic’ style of court ceremony had a very practical, necessary, goal of protecting the ruler in an age when emperors were made with the edge of a sword. If the secret of empire in Tacitus’ time was that emperors may be made outside of Rome and without the acclamation of the senate then the crisis of the third century made it quite clear that a man wearing the purple is still just a man and dies as readily. By turning to non-essential items (purple robes, coronae etc) and behaving in an a particular manner, Diocletian and his successors were sending a clear message.

Clearly then this is one example of a disjunction between ancient and modern thinking. But it’s not that we’re more practical, just that what’s pragmatic for us expresses itself a little differently.

Listening to Romer, I couldn’t help but think of the bronze age Aegean (BAA). Egypt to Mycenae is not such a stretch: recent popularising treatments (like Eric Cline’s) take a broad areal approach and we know the regions existed as parts of a wider political network. Also, my grasp of Egyptian is terrible and so the BAA is comfortable and familiar.

We don’t have a good sense of court ritual from the BAA. We have striking monuments (such as the horns of power outside Knossos), vivid frescos and a sense of exotic items in the linear B tablets and the detritus of shipwrecks like the one off Uluburun. Occasionally we catch glimpses of titles of court and religious officials, and the reference to an initiation in Pylos, but the tablets contain nothing descriptive. Nonetheless, Gazing into the face of Schliemann’s “Agamemnon” we intimate that these people had a sense of pomp and ritual.

Contrary to our modern expectations, weaponry in the BAA existed in a place where practicality and the ritual mindset intersect. Let’s take the earliest swords, types A, B, and C in the Sandar typology: Often mislabelled rapiers, they were around a metre or so in length yet possessed  perilously small tangs.  It’s hard to see these things being used to great effect in a physical altercation. Scholars have sensibly assumed they possessed some ritual importance.

This is all the more clear in the case of the double axe. Slender and unwieldy, they do not compare with the decent examples of battle axes we have from Norway to the Punjab: Axes employed in war had to have small heads to maximise the speed at which they could be moved.

By any sensible heuristic, these items were not practical. So why invest precious resources in making them? Why feature them so prominently? The ancient world was one where civilisation hung from a precarious thread, as the eventual destruction of the BAA palatial complexes attests, there had to be a sensible reason. As you may have guessed, it’s because the court ritual element conferred its own pragmatic benefits.

Court ritual has a grammar of its own and surely the message would have been obvious to those trained in its language. A sword that is not a sword, or an axe that is not an axe, subtly reinforces the relationship between power and military might, while offhandedly advertising the kind of conspicuous consumption that could afford to use rare metals hours of skilled labour.

Sitting in his court, the king didn’t need his sword to be functional or useful: After all he had many men with sharp ones of their own.

On such fickle things rest the illusions of political systems. Incense and funny robes and fragile sword like objects may not seem to be essential or practical to us but clearly the ancients got some returns on their investments therein. Also, I daresay the population of the bronze age Aegean were happy to take part in pomp if it meant seeing real weapons a little less often.  


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…