MAYNIN AYEDE TEA: On PM Johnson and his Homer

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

Here is the offending clip.


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agree with the talented poet and the brilliant professor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coda, or, joining the Homeredai 

How indeed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thank you for reading.

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

[2] Apparently some 15.2 million copies:

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


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

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

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

Reading Catullus in the wake of Epstein

The new academic year is almost upon us and, with it, children across the country will be reprising or beginning Latin. This means the usual influx of memes, some funny, some somewhat niche (the weird CLC ones???) and some inevitable. Gaius Valerius Catullus is part of the latter. You all immediately know what I’m talking about: Pedicabo vos irrumabo, etc etc.

I can’t quite place why I don’t find these jokes funny. In part, obviously, because we’ve been hearing them for so many years. I think it’s mainly the pretence of it all, the pretence that this is typical of Roman poetry (or even Catullus, is it? Is it really?), or that this somehow makes the Romans ‘just like us’ Really? Is that how you speak to your friends? Bloody hell, I should hope not.

I think there’s also something so annoying about the fact that these jokes never, or almost never, lead to anything like actual curiosity about Catullus or his Roman world. There are perhaps funnier lines of vitriol from C if that’s your thing (e.g 37, maybe even 112 counts?), that never get read, let alone cited. If you’re really interested in *that* side of Rome, there’s a wealth of art/archaeology and low-brow inscriptions. I guess I’m a little sad that something said to be so arresting and shocking never leads to further exploration.

If that is the case, the Classics really are fututa, given the popularising strategies most utilised by teachers and academics these days.

Take as a counterpoint the interminably brilliant Peter Green on his days as a schoolboy struggling with Juvenal.[1] In an article he talks of how such racy material was handled in the past ‘It took us very little time to discover that all the really racy epigrams had been translated, not into English, but into Italian-thereby, one might suppose, slurring no less than three ethnic groups simultaneously…’. What follows is a brief story of how he and his cohorts between them dedicated themselves to reading and translating Juvenal.

I find it hard to envision such curiosity even amongst the undergraduates of today. Not that my generation was much better, but still.

I’ve been thinking about the recent Epstein case. No, this isn’t the place for performative disavowals and damning, I think any right-thinking person feels all that and expects others to likewise, but I do feel a profound sadness. I’m sad on behalf of the victims, that anyone could do and organise such things, that such wealth effectively puts him and his friends well beyond the reach of the law. Perhaps we should be angry but, ah, miser mi lector, desinas ineptire…

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the recent Epstein case and that has brought the poem and its first word, pedicabo, as well as the latent (lol) sexual threats to mind.

There is an assumption that pedico, pedicare is a borrowing from Greek. The /e/ in this instance representing a subaltern monopthongisation quite familiar from the later stages of both languages. So strong is this belief that some authors (no textual critics to my memory) choose to unnecessarily restore the text to read paedicabo. The etymological force of this should be apparent < Greek παῖς,  παιδός, which has the meaning of both child/boy (undoubtedly its principal meaning[2]) and slave (Cf American usage of boy for slaves).

So, in this sense the verb cares the force of something like ‘use as one would a slave’ or ‘reduce to a slave’ in terms of status. The reading is clear, the implication, unsettling as to the reality of slavery in the Roman world. I don’t have the figures to hand, but I suspect the sheer scale of slavery and its embeddedness within the Roman economic system was something considerably greater than seen previously in the Mediterranean. Quantity must have enacted an effect on quality, or type, or slavery. During the height of the Athenian empire (who were bastards too, don’t forget), obviously these kinds of sexual abuse were also common, but I think the average hoplite qualifying citizen probably had less access to slaves and less opportunity to use them so casually.[3]

But why a Greek verb? Or a verb pretending to be Greek, and where did it come from? Greek vocabulary enters Latin via a handful of routes. The most obvious is borrowed technical vocabulary, which would have come from both the senatorial classes involved in political and philosophical discourse AND highly skilled tradesmen like mosaicists or hypocaust borrowers. The kinds of people one might expect to own slaves.

Then there’s the literary element. We tend to think of this class as belonging with the senators above, but the hyper (over, frankly) educated Hellenistic swilling pencil necked Latin poet is a product of the Empire. Let’s go lower and earlier: L. Andronicus was a slave, Ennius not much better, Terentius most likely (Afer) a freedman, Plautus probably a non-citizen etc. I can’t think of a concentrated study of Graecisms in this stratum of literature off the top of my head,[4] but these elements of society were exposed to Greek via trade and as part of everyday life. Later authors, like Juvenal, would draw on this tradition to comic effect with their neologisms. Plautus can simultaneously declaim foreign mores (tongue in cheek) with verbs like pergraecari and use Greek words throughout.

This is the element of society that seems most likely to introduce the word. How likely where they to own slaves in any large number? The word was certainly in common use amongst the lower classes as can be seen via inscriptions (well, graffiti). We’ve spoken about everyday speech patterns and the Pompeiian evidence before, one of the things I find interesting is how not only do we not (to my cursory knowledge) see paedico, even pedico is written as pidico. How many sound changes are we dealing with here? We’re familiar with monopthongisation (ae > e) and we know of confusion amongst the front vowels (e > i), but this entanglement seems strange to me. Could the etymology from παῖς be a red-herring? Unlikely, but this gives some indication of its commonality in daily speech.

Etymology aside, let’s close by talking about the implication and reading of the threats.

Professors of masculinity (wtf?) who declaim that things like gender are not so simple and straight forward, require expertise and context, whilst simultaneously applying the same models and theories across broad swathes of cultures and history like an aged prostitute with a trowel of makeup, are liable to get excited here. Fuck off.

I’m perfectly happy to accept that the threats in Catullus and the inscriptions aren’t at all literal, and are part of a broader type of Mediterranean masculinity – Northern Europeans (Butter-Euros, ha) often underestimate just how happy Southern Europeans are engaging in scatological and sexual humour without actually meaning the actual things behind it. Aristophanes is much more typical of Greece than many dons would like to admit.

Well, we know they’re not literal. They’re poetry. I mean that Catullus and his readers can take these to be so removed from the everyday experience of slaves that the words barely evoke their meaning. You get what I mean. But what a jarring experience re-reading this poet as the news has broke has been.

[1] Green, Peter. “Juvenal Revisited.” Grand Street 9, no. 1 (1989): 175-96. Honestly just go read that instead of wasting time with this blog ffs.

[2] We should always be careful when claiming primacy for any meaning over an another. But it is easy to see the derivation of one from the other (hence the American example) and the comparative force is compelling. The same root gives us /putrah/ in Sanskrit (so /putras/ in IIr, probably, fuck Avestan who cares?) and words like puer in Latin. Quite likely English few. Moreover, with the abolition of slavery in the oikoumene the word has reverted to its primary meaning.

[3] I suspect most of my thoughts re: this pointless digression are filched from Lewis, D. M. (2018) Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c.800-146 BC (Oxford), which I read about half a year ago. I make no pretense to originality or accuracy.

[4] I honestly just about read enough, e.g Beare on theatre, to pass my exams. I’m sure Adams might have something. Don’t get me wrong, Plautus can be really funny, but academic study of the plays is essentially explaining a joke writ large with citations.