Have you heard? In a PCP and coke fuelled rage, ragamuffin, vagabond, and all round roisterer about YOUR town Gavin Williamson has broken into Battersea dogs’ home, killed all the puppies and then interrupted a WWII veteran’s funeral playing an instrument of his own design nomine ass-trumpet. This has been roundly condemned by the most accomplished, most virtuous, members of our society: Surgeons have stopped midway through Aortic Dissection Repairs, Conservationists from freeing trapped animals, and Firemen stand in contrite silence against the roaring backdrop of a house ablaze. “No” they tell themselves, “No, we will not put out this fire only for Williamson to set a yet greater one”. Suntne lacrima rerum?
At least that is what you would think.
Instead, Williamson has managed to earmark a minor amount of money for a rather important aim: getting a little bit more Latin into the country. The dismissive people I can understand. They are dysgenic, degenerate, and dysfunctional. They represent nothing we should wish to strive to be or cultivate. We can mark them as enemies and move on. Society needs such people. It is the so-called friends of the subject who are dangerous. The ones who have wormed their way into positions due to the impotent acquiescence of its so-called guardians, who now wear all of the subject’s trappings like some sort of skin suit, who constantly presume to speak for us when all they want is to speak at and not with we polloi.
“OH NO NOT THE HECKERINOO UNIVERSITIES!?!” is it not always the same refrain? “What about us! What about us!”. Even if we have reached (surpassed?) Tony “ethnically cleansing Iraq” Blair’s target of 50% students heading to universities, how many end up in the Humanities? How many of those end up in Classics? Listen, by any reasonable metric Classics departments in universities are over, not under, funded. Yes, you heard that right. The amount of PhD studentships, early career fellowships, expensive EU, AHRC, etc etc funded research projects is unconscionable in light of the current rates of enrolment and all forecasted trends. Twitter has taught me that PhD’s are uniquely resistant to understanding market economics – I suppose they need that brain space for social striving – but looked at objectively, this is patently true. Depts. now graduate fewer people with markedly worse skills in Latin (let us not mention Greek!) annis volventibus but, hey, at least we have studies like The Eroticism of Foot-fetishes in Terence’s Andria and Noli me tangere: The Racial Politics of Hair in the Later Roman Empire.
Classics depts. have singularly failed at their core functions, and we are sick of being treated like tax-serfs, forced to subsidise mediocrities. There are good scholars, geniuses really, somehow still teaching at the tertiary level. We must, however, cut out the canker, trim the fat, balance the pocketbook. If this was not apparent before, it should be now (ἦτε γάρ ποτε σκότος, νῦν δὲ φῶς) when you see the serried ranks of those arrayed against what is really a tiny expenditure and a modest tincture, meant to give some glimmer of culture and opportunity to our least privileged. Who could honestly be against this? How much do you have to actively hate the poor?
Yes, why this disjunction? Part sheer cravenness (people desperate to get their share of an ever-shrinking pie) and part status anxiety. Teach enough people Latin, give them direct access to antiquity and suddenly they can see how feckless and useless most of the current batch of academics are. They were meant to serve as midwives and handmaidens of our classical patrimony – and it is our patrimony – instead they have set themselves up as the worst kind of malignant, doddering, clerisy. Even a smattering of Latin, some time carved out with the Greco-Roman past, will expose them, and allow we unwashed masses to eschew their little narratives. Gone will be the dreaded cry of “historian/classicist/ancient historian here!”; gone, too, the attempts to copyright Galla Placidia’s birthday and bugmen “well aktschyyalallylylyl…” may be met per force with “well, in the text…”. It will be hard to justify not being able to read a page of Latin, unaided, until well into your PhD years when an increasing number of school children can do so with ease. Classics, incidentally, is the only discipline where we accept this. Students of French or Russian are not afforded the same privilege.
The special interest groups of course carry on unabated in the face of all this. I mean are you really funding Classics if you’re not burning more money on the altar of whatever pseudo-intellectual cause du jour? The following is symptomatic:
I am not even 100% against this idea in principle, however the correct response right now is really just “WTF?”. This, this is going to get bums in seats and kids interested? Not Miltiades and the lads charging down the Persians at Marathon, not the unlikely life and conquest of Alexander, nor Caesar weeping at things not yet done, but…this? No, it is not just the theoreticians, but even the real philologists are being stupidly obtuse. I also came across a tweet of some idiot lamenting that Latin is taught “without context” and we should make space for linking it to the broader PIE family (!!!) and teach the basics of linguistics. Elsewhere people are excitedly discussing the chance to utilise medieval and neo-Latin. This is…almost charming in how naïve it is. But now is not the time for charming.
Have…have you ever set foot in an underfunded working class school? I honestly do not know where to begin with these people. They are so out of touch as to the conditions on the ground (which I am told have worsened since I was a student – and we used to literary fight the teachers). Do you point out that personal research interests are no basis for a national curriculum? That underfunded and understaffed faculties, fighting for resources and scraping by on two or three periods a week, can barely cover the language as it is? Do you remind people that it is the ancients and not their valour stealing commentators who interest people? Where? Ah never mind. These people are convinced they can close the hermeneutic gap between themselves and the ancient Mediterranean but can’t even understand the situation affecting their poorer countrymen.
baina Krokodilo Jauna what about politicisation? Ah yes, the same people who claim “everything is political” are the first to use “politicisation” as a derogatory term. Take the following:
Burnham is, of course, living proof that sortition is likelier superior to voting for choosing elected officials. Yet, even by the standards of the anti-Semitic Labour party this is some low rhetoric. Where are the Tory boys politicising this? Believe me I have tried to find them. Instead, there are seemingly endless Labour/LibDem/#FBPE people keen to turn tribal. Incidentally this trifling support of Latin comes as part of a wider package where foreign languages such as Mandarin are given a commensurately larger share of the pie. So much for Little Englander Tories vaunting Latin’s superiority! People reacting with this unseemly petulance really need to sit down and ask themselves a few questions. I will highlight two I find somewhat pressing.
For starters, if you unflinchingly associate Latin/Classics with the Conservatives – why? What does it mean that there are never any equivalent movements of support from successive left-wing governments, funding bodies, and think-tanks? This is not an idle question. If this is a one-sided political issue, why?
Secondly, why do you feel that giving into your tribalism, that flying your team colours (“eeww nasty party bad, we good!”) is more important than supporting one of the handful of teeny tiny opportunities for poorer students to gain some exposure to the ancient world? I am not here to critique your priorities – though for the record I absolutely do not share them, I obviously think the Classics more important than political tribalism – but you should at least own them and be transparent about them.
I think it is time to start wrapping up. I can only say that as someone who came from a horrendously deprived background, I would have welcomed a similar initiative during my schooling. There were no such programmes, no emphasis on outreach, diversity, recruitment etc etc. The UK has come a long way. This programme will not change much, but if we are lucky it holds within it the seeds of a gradual transformation. If UK Classicists (stop looking towards the US!!) can come together, offer support and encouragement, do whatever to help make this a success then in future years we might create an environment where no child will think the treasures of the past beyond their reach.
How have the professional guardians of the discipline failed to remember this? I recently saw a tweet that said something like “discourse is only discourse if you let it be” and…they’re right. Even on this blog, it is easy to get weighed down with the sniping and the fighting and the defensiveness and lose sight of why so many of us got into Classics in the first place: not because we were unable to get into PPE or English, not because we saw a decrepit old field of which we could take advantage…but because it is fascinating, and enthralling, and challenging. It is time to get back to that joy, to eschew the niggling little telchines – νήιδες οἳ Μούσης οὐκ ποτέ ἐγένοντο φίλοι – and focus once more on the ancient world herself.
The study of antiquity is a demanding field, but there are few more rewarding and doubtless none more interesting. To those students about to commence on its study for the first time, I wish the absolute best. You will learn things that delight and shock you, you will discover why in the face of civilisational collapse, Viking raids, Arab piracy, religious persecution, revolution, and war monks, scholars, and scribblers fought to keep the light of learning burning. As for the naysayers, well…
 For the avoidance of doubt, do not mix these. I disavow.
 Not an ascending tricolon but much like Catullus 56 (pro telo rigida mea cecidi) it is the central element that counts.
 Don’t look away, coward. What exactly do you think Western governments were up to? “nation building”?
 Did you Google those? Fucking lol, your dad was right about you.
 Another unpopular opinion. I say that if something has been a fairly central preoccupation of your country’s intellectual climate for centuries, drawn a large share of the public purse in funding, and animates your culture….it is part of your intellectual inheritance.
 “group” is too ill defined. They are a group in so far as they share interests in the same topics being advanced. Why am I writing this note? Because some quasiliterate will always attack such comments as proof of an illogical belief in some shadowy cabal behind the scenes. There is no cabal, no conspiracy, mere cowardice, greed, and idiocy.
 Yes, hello, please, hello: can we decolonise European Classics’ depts. from this American garbage please?
 Congratulations you have found the secret footnote.
Quis custodes custodiet? Like many witty apothegms from Latin literature (Horace’s carpe diem being the most famous – see Lugubelinus), this has taken on an afterlife of its own far beyond its original context. Juvenal originally meant to call to mind the worry of every husband in a sexually licentious Rome. Here are the surrounding lines, though you ought to read the entire poem. Actually, you ought to read all of Juvenal:
“pone seram, cohibe.” sed quis custodiet ipsos
custodes? cauta est et ab illis incipit uxor.
“Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who will guard
the guards themselves? The wife is cautious and begins with them.
Marital fidelity was of crucial import to the ancients. There was no XXIII mecumque, and the need to carry on the patrilineal line safely was paramount (and indeed would have been symbolically enacted at every funeral via a process wearing imagines, Roman death masks). It is true that adoption was not considered an entirely shameful option, but it really is hard to overwrite biology in this way. No less capable an emperor than M. Aurelius gave the empire over to his biological son and farting Vespasian gave way to impaling Domitian.
Rome began, doubly so really, with a rape, yet marriage and the family (not the state) were the heart of Rome, and its violation was no laughing matter. When Suetonius tells us Augustus’ friends alleged him to have committed adultery for political rather than carnal reasons (excusantes sane non libidine, sed ratione commissa 69) he is not painting him as some effete limp …er…wristed striver, but some sort of violator and emasculator in chief. Especially when coupled with his stringent anti-adultery/pro-marriage laws (see the treatment of his freedman Polus at 67.2; the moralising legislation at 39).
This is not a post about adultery, incidentally. Given the current state of the lockdown how would you even get away with it? Even if you were Zeus and could turn yourself into her husband…anyway.
Who guards the guards indeed? But, as I said, the original context has much got away from us and the phrase’s nachleben has generated some interesting readings. Perhaps the most popular being Alan Moore’s Watchmen which treats it as a political statement. Admittedly the Romans had difficulty telling fucking and politicking apart, but this is the sense most of us know the phrase. Recent events across the country during the corona virus lockdown bring this latter usage to mind:
Cambridge police taking copies of the Iliad out of peoples’ trolleys as it’s a “non-essential item”, finally killing the concept of the literary canon pic.twitter.com/q4Q8z2Ej8A
Putting Orwell and Huxley on the senior school reading lists since time out of mind seems to have encouraged an obscene number of faceless bureaucrats to take them as instructional manuals. Who is watching over these morons? What recourse do we as citizens have, in the wake of failing institutions? We started with a quote from Juvenal, who has been dismissed as a serious author since antiquity:
Quidam detestantes ut venena doctrinas, Iuvenalem et Marium Maximum curatiore studio legunt. nulla volumina praeter haec in profundo otio contrectantes, quam ob causam non iudicioli est nostri.
Certain people hate learning as if poison and read with careful attention only Juvenal and Marius Maximus. In their profound idleness they handle no books besides these, for what reason it is not for me to judge.
Ammianus Marcellinus 28.4.14
But his work has attracted no less serious a mind than Housman and I have always found Satire generally to be a genre conducive to understanding antiquity on the ground, as it were. Regardless, this question has been one that has plagued societies from antiquity onward. We will hear more from both Juvenal and Ammianus later. For now, we are going to consider the implications of our original quotation in light of recent events. It is not a mere question of oversight and responsibility, but how do we define and devolve power? Who gets to hold it? What are they entitled too?
A quick note. You will notice from the date on the tweet that I had meant to get this out a…brief while ago. Apologies if this now seems a little stale. More importantly, many people are tweet-deleting cowards (especially the police!). This means a) I have lost a lot of material because it never occurred to me to take pictures and b) I am relying on those smart cookies, like the above, who did take them.
Setting Wolves to Guard Sheep: The Athenian Solution
The central conceit of Athenian democracy was that all men were equal under the franchise (Greekless political scientists have tried to make formulations such as isonomia and isegoria more problematic than they were). For this to function in practice the status of citizenship had to be something inviable and jealously guarded. The disquiet one senses throughout the Pseudo-Xenophontian Old Oligarch is effectively concerned with this and the consequences of widening the suffrage (10-11) to where freeborn males can be in material state equivalent to slaves (how do you know whom to beat!?!). Several Athenian laws are concerned with the makeup, treatment, and privilege of the citizen body (in addition to its continued propagation). The most pertinent, for us, must be the so called graphe hybreos.
That such a law existed is almost certain but, equally, we have no firm evidence for it ever coming to trial. The crimes and behaviour it concerned were broad ranging but may be (roughly) summarised as those affecting the personage and status of a citizen. Rape, for example, came under this as it compromised the wives and daughters of citizens. As did the accosting, apprehension, and striking of a citizen. This then underlies the Old Oligarch’s concern over how things were in democratic Athens. Striking a slave was one thing, a citizen something else entirely – with loss of citizenship or even death on the line.
Civilisation (in its etymological sense, as urbanisation) practically foments and invites crime.
And what is the strength of the laws? If one of you, having been wronged, cries out, will the laws run up and be present, assisting? No; they are only written texts and incapable of doing such. Where, then, is their power? In yourselves…
It is a bravura speech, much concerned with the power and enforcement of the laws. The message is clear: laws (customs, really) are only as good as the citizen body willing to enforce them. But what do you do when citizens aren’t willing to listen? When they need to be physically impugned in some way? This creates a paradox. The power may rest in you, citizens, but if you apprehend someone and the jury turns against you, well…How did the Athenians solve it?
The Athenian solution was to use public slaves. Just as all citizens effectively held a share in the state all technically had part ownership of these human beings (hence the appellation demosioi). Here is one of favourite examples: A scholion on line 22 of Aristophanes’ Acharnenses tells us that citizens caught loitering rather than voting were herded towards the assembly by means of a rope. Democracy was participatory, idiot!; layabouts were fined. The psychology here is self-evident. Slaves were obviously “lesser” beings even as they shamed the citizens. The rope allowed them to forgo the laying of hands. The state expropriated resources via fines etc etc. But not all crimes as are as low energy as loitering. Enter the Scythians.
The entry for τoξóται, archers, in the Suda (τ771) tells us that these Scythians, sometimes called Speusinoi after their instituter, varied between 300-1000 in number, before being disbanded. We reconstruct their general usage across a broad range of texts, scholia, and artwork. Doubtless had we still Sophocles Scythae (a satyr play?) we would have a much fuller picture of these people.
That they were ethnically marked off from the citizen body seems to me a fair assumption. They always appear in different dress (breeches, Phrygian caps, tattoos, animal patterns) and carried bows. Despite the importance of archery to the actual heroic age (and certain hero cults), the bow seems to be much despised by the hoplite classes who, after all, were rendered largely safe by their amour. That said, having been struck repeatedly with an unstrung bow, I can tell you they would make decent deterrents (I doubt they were literally shooting citizens). Ethnicity and dress aside they were also held physically apart in their barracks. This could hardly have contributed to the fellow-feeling of the citizen body at large, especially because they were quite capable of using restraining force:
οὗτος τί κύπτεις; δῆσον αὐτὸν εἰσάγων
ὦ τοξότ᾽ ἐν τῇ σανίδι, κἄπειτ᾽ ἐνθαδὶ
στήσας φύλαττε καὶ προσιέναι μηδένα
ἔα πρὸς αὐτόν, ἀλλὰ τὴν μάστιγ᾽ ἔχων
παῖ᾽ ἢν προσίῃ τις.
Why are you slouching? take him away
Archer, and tie him to the plank,
Make him stand, guard him, let no one come
near him, but use your whip to
strike any who try approach
Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 930-4
…what…what is the plank for? Aristophanes? Bro?
The above command was issued by a Prytanis, under whose command the archer corps were placed. Other uses in comedy are broadly similar.
Let us sidestep a potential debate here. I have no real reason to suspect the Scythian slaves were not Scythian. I, personally, think we need to take these ethnic distinctions seriously. There is always a debate as to how “fixed” identities and ethnicities were, but I think sometimes scholars are too keen to apply the models we might use for e.g tribal formations amongst age of migration Germanics or modern cosmopolitans which suggest a high degree of flexibility.
Ethnographic terms can be tricky, over time they themselves become literary tropes e.g when Anna Komnene writes about Roman campaigns against the Scythians (book 7 I think?), she means the Pechnegs (or some such tribe) and her audience was likely to instantly comprehend. In military terms ethnic labels can commemorate where troops were raised, stationed, or recall notable victories (as the Roman legions did). They can even denote stereotypical styles of dress and strategies (Asiatic bows, Samnite gladiators etc). People would be right to be skeptical, but the proliferation of – especially philological – evidence testifies to the deep interaction and exposure of Greeks to these Iranic nomads.
There’s a wo-de-we-je-ja (*Ϝορδεία) on MY V 659; we also have the adjective wo-do-we, *ϝορδόϝεις, at Pylos (PY Fr 1230, pictured). Linear B also has τόξον and related works (to-ko-so-ta, τοξότας/ Att. -ης, KN V 150; to-ko-so-wo-ko, *τοξοϝοργός, bowyer, PY An 207). pic.twitter.com/95yF4wU0uk
What follows is a brief sketch aimed at establishing that Greco-Scythian interactions, even on the mainland, were longstanding and that the Greeks were just calling a spade a spade when describing the archers.
As @e_pe_me_ri has recently pointed out (cannot find the tweet; no longer recent), the Linear B corpus mentions the word “rose”. In his case it was an ethnonym (and therefore, sadly, probably a slave girl), but the word ultimately goes back to Iranic wṛda. Likewise, the word for bow, also attested, ultimately goes back to Iranic taxša. Nor were these one-off interactions. A previous post detailed how the formation of a Greek noa-word could go back to an Iranic borrowing.
From a similarly early (but obviously, considerably post Mycenaean) period, Scythians and their Iranic nomad cousins were known enough to the Greeks to warrant ethnic stereotypes in plastique art and literary common places: drinking like a Scythian (e.g wildly, unmixed wine) is attested as early as Anacreon (fr 76) and a verb would form, Σκυθίζειν skythizein (to drink outrageously), analogous to e.g λακωνίζειν lakonizein (to be taciturn) for Spartans. In fact, even the words for Persians and Medes reflect the antiquity of these relationships. At some point, the easterly Greek dialects (Attic-Ionic, mainly) raised the vowel long a to long e (α > η – though Attic would undergo partial reversion of this rule, to the frustration of fledgling classicists). Persians and Medes were originally Parsa and Madha respectively in their own tongues and early Greek pronunciation must have reflected this, prior to the shift.
Some years ago, an article was published to much acclaim. It analysed several “nonsense” inscriptions and concluded that they may be rendered less nonsensical if you translate the characters as foreign names from the black sea region. It is a good article, though I cannot understand the surprise. We already had a more than working knowledge of various Iranian dialects and loanwords in Greek. The amount of work done on this by Russophones is tremendous. Still, the addition of Caucasian evidence (though tentative) makes it worth reading. Likewise, when Scythians do speak in comedy their speech is rendered in a way that is quite consistent with substrate interference from an Iranian dialect e.g aspirated stops (φ, θ) are consistently rendered as their unaspirated equivalents (π, τ); loss of final ν and σ; issues with conjugation and declensional gender etc etc. I do not, sadly, own a copy but Andreas Willi’s book will undoubtedly go over this in more detail. It is amazing how so many of the “mistakes” can be rationalised with the Iranian evidence.
The black-sea region seems to be the likeliest vector for this exchange. In terms of grain, the region was to Athens what Egypt would be to Rome. The area may well have proved a good source of animal goods and human slaves and whilst the litoral area and its immediate hinterland was mineral poor (nobody had any need for crude oil then), Greek craftsmanship was obviously valued at a premium. Some of the most significant plastique objects must have been fashioned by Greek artisans. Clearly, the area was one of great exchange (indeed, a future post will be on the Scythian reception of Homer. Yep). This be seen in Herodotus’ story about the Scythian king Skythes (hm…) adopting Greek rites one of the so called seven sages, Anacharsis. About whom you can read more here.
Suffice it to say, I think the presence of actual Scythians in the archer corps was extremely likely. I think the Athenians would be quite aware of how they looked and how they spoke. I do not think their depiction in art and on stage was some orientalist fantasy divorced from reality. The remaining question is – what happened to them? We know they were eventually disbanded and that citizen youths replaced them on guard duty, at least on the Prytaneion. Why? (I swear this is where we now make this relevant).
In his monumental sociological study of Aristophanes, Ehrenberg seems to think the Scythians on stage to be a source of fun and that “the comedians hardly ever suggest any resentment on the citizens’ part at the power of the Scythians…the existence of these policemen was generally accepted without any grumbling and without any feeling of humiliation”. In other words, more Hot Fuzz or Thin Blue Line than…oh I don’t know, you know I don’t really know pop culture. Just think of some jokes about policemen and doughnuts. I am not so sure I would agree. Take this quotation:
τῷ γὰρ εἰκὸς ἄνδρα κυφὸν ἡλίκον Θουκυδίδην
ἐξολέσθαι συμπλακέντα τῇ Σκυθῶν ἐρημίᾳ,
705τῷδε τῷ Κηφισοδήμῳ τῷ λάλῳ ξυνηγόρῳ;
ὥστ᾽ ἐγὼ μὲν ἠλέησα κἀπεμορξάμην ἰδὼν
ἄνδρα πρεσβύτην ὑπ᾽ ἀνδρὸς τοξότου κυκώμενον
How unseemly that a man, bent with age like Thucydides,
should be wrestled and destroyed by this prattling advocate
from the Scythian steppe, this man, Kephisodemos.
so that I wept tears of pity, seeing
an elderly man brutalised by a bowman.
Aristophanes Acharnenses 703-7
This is comedy. It is artificial. But like all good jokes there is something of the truth therein. If you strip away the old comedy tropes (ethnic prejudice, name dropping of famous men) I suspect you may have something very real here. The pattern across comedy does not paint the Scythians in a particularly flattering light.
The central conceit of Athenian democracy was that all men were equal under the franchise. The central conceit of our modern scholarship is the overemphasising on the intensely democratic phase of Athenian history. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War(s). The franchise became smaller and smaller. The government, less democratic. I imagine an atmosphere developed wherein people, deprived, or restricted in their citizen rights, found themselves increasingly associating with one another at an ethnic level. The foreignness of the archer corps would have been more and more apparent. Indeed, it would have been increasingly hard to see the difference between them as a sort of metonymy for the collective power of the state and an oppressive bodyguard, such as Peisistratos’ Thracian guardsmen or the Persian garrisons in Asia Minor. No doubt they, as police always seem to do, made themselves increasingly unpopular too. As Demosthenes said, what is the strength of the laws? Men make them. Men uphold them. Men abuse them.
A similar process occurred with the so-called frumentarii of the Roman Empire. I have had to massively cut the section on Roman policing to save space and your patience. I would refer any interested parties to Fuhrmann, C. J. (2011). Policing the Roman Empire. They formed something of a military police/internal affairs arm. They likewise were set apart physically (in the castra peregrina on the Caelian) and made themselves increasingly unpopular. Eventually they were replaced with the not at all ominous sounding agentes in rebus who…yep, were also abusers of power.
Two people: *eat some chips together on a deserted beach*
Police: *take out batons and teach them a lesson they won’t soon forget*
Hundreds of people: *gather on Westminster Bridge so people can see how great they are for clapping*
The parallel is rough, but hopefully instructive. I am not suggesting we are in any way going to do away with our police. Britain is incredibly over-surveilled and over-policed as it is. This is unlikely to change. But tensions are increasing, and no doubt will continue to do so as the police abrogate more and more made up powers to themselves. Policing, I think, works well when it is done as part of the community. I do not know when exactly things shifted in Britain. But if I look at the way things are now I am reminded much more of a foreign corps reigning over us than representatives of the citizen body.
I do wish the police, while menacing people standing around in the park in my square, would devote even a fraction of that devotion to menacing the duo walking around that park while smoking dope.
The top down abuse of power is inevitable. Sadder yet is when members of the demos conspire with them.
I am going to stop going on about the moral lowness of corona snitching on neighbours / police state – I promise. BUT my closing note: my Mum just told me someone dobbed her in for dropping food to vulnerable neighbours who can’t get out the house. The police called her yesterday
Introducing the delatores or the Karens of Ancient Rome if you like.
difficile est saturam non scribere. nam quis iniquae
tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se,
causidici nova cum veniat lectica Mathonis
plena ipso, post hunc magni delator amici
et cito rapturus de nobilitate comesa
it is difficult not to write satire. For who of these injustices
could be so tolerant? So hardened, that he might hold himself
when along comes the brand-new coach of the lawyer Matho
full to its brim with him, and after, an informer on his great friend
and will soon seize whatever is left of the nobility…
To be an informer, a delator, was no great mark of distinction though it must have brought great rewards. You can see by his use of a qualifying adjective (great friend), which to me at least belies a sense of social climbing. People, whom we might identify as middle class, had ample opportunity to enter the confidences of the minor aristocracy and then betray them to the authorities. An odd mix of decadent western bourgeoise and eastern soviet police state. This is one of the dominant concerns of Juvenal’s literary persona. The sense of penetrating an inner sanctum and then betraying your friends, family, or even your acquaintances can also be seen to animate the anxiety of our initial quote (quis custodiet…). Informers are one of the major classes of people against which satire tended to concern itself. The other being legacy hunters.
cum te summoveant qui testamenta merentur
noctibus, in caelum quos evehit optima summi
nunc via processus, vetulae vesica beatae?
When they move you aside, those who earn their legacies
By night, who are now raised to sky by the best
Road to highest advancement – the guts of a wealthy old lady
Erm, thanks Juvenal, very cool! Love how the metre makes recitation even more uncomfortable.
Informers and legacy hunters were literary common places, but no less real for all that. The original locus classicus for the ancients themselves was the dictatorship of Sulla. Sulla, in the cause of the insane civil unrest during the rail end of the public, wrested control of the republic from the hands of Cinna (Marius has predeceased his chance for a real showdown with his ex-protégé). In order to shore up his position the dictator began proscribing people. Names were published. Their lives and their estates declared forfeit, with a share of the proceeds going to man who informed on them. It is difficult to downplay the effect this period had on the Roman psyche: when Augustus, M Antonius, and M Lepidus formed their own triumvirate, the attendant purges (in which Cicero died) earned them the nickname of Sulla’s disciples. Attempting to persuade the dictator to lay down his office became a common exercise in Roman rhetorical schools etc. No less than the proposed revolution of the Gracchi did this period make fortunes and feuds amongst the Roman nobles.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to poll you, not to praise you. What is a more honest way of getting obscenely rich? – arguments, anecdotes, details!
— Ye Olde Philologer Cokedril (@PhiloCrocodile) May 11, 2020
The most famous of Sulla’s victims, was one who got away. Julius Caesar had (perhaps through his illustrious uncle, Marius) married the daughter of Cinna. Sulla ordered young Caesar to divorce his wife, who was after all the daughter of his enemy. In what would prove to an incredibly astute move, Caesar refused, and was subsequently proscribed. But Caesar was Caesar, and had powerful friends willing to intercede on his behalf. Eventually, Sulla relented and was alleged to have uttered that in Caesar were many Mariuses: …nam Caesari multos Marios inesse.
The proscriptions of 82 and 43 were the most famous, but as you might intimate from Juvenal’s literary usage they were not the only ones. In fact, this behaviour – albeit at a lower level – became a central part of aristocratic (autocratic) Roman life. I suspect this – along with non-hereditary monarchy – is one of those genuinely Roman survivals idiot barbarians were thinking of when they coined the term “Byzantine” as a pejorative.
I had intended to write in greater detail on everyone’s favourite emperor, Tiberius, and the various doings of his reign. The perfidy of Romanus Hispo (the first Karen?), or the detailed trial of Libo Drusus in book 2 of Tacitus’ Annales. Instead, I found this wonderful clip from I, Claudius with Patrick Stewart’s hair as Sejanus.
What a great scene, even T’s cruentae litterae are featured.
For me, the most horrifying aspect of this was how, according to Tacitus at least (and coronavirus has given me no reason to disbelieve him), willing people were to inform on each other even without the heavy pressure of the state. The formal proscription lists had disappeared from Roman life. They would never again be needed. When Tiberius was himself disinclined to prosecute someone for their alleged disloyalty the senate itself, led by Ateius Capito, called out in distress that the state itself was under assault. O homines ad servitutem paratos decried Tiberius as he left the senate house. “Oh men, rendered fit for servitude”. Not as well-known as o tempora, o mores, but more apt nowadays, I think.
When Aurelian (reigned 270-5) did something about informers (the HA does not tell us what exactly), surely that only served to make him more liked:
idem quadruplatores ac delatores ingenti severitate persecutus est
false-witnesses and informers, he [Aurelian] persecuted with great severity.
Historia Augusta 39.3 (Aurelianus)
But whatever he did, the effect was transitory at best. Indeed, informers would forever be a part of Roman life and they resurface most forcefully in Ammianus Marcellinus’ amazing history. He may be Tacitus’ less sassy understudy, but the stories surrounding Barbatio, Arbitio, Silvanus, and Paulus (nicknamed catena, the chain, for his ability to string cases together) are fascinating reading. It’s like a human centipede of scheming and backstabbing.
Is there a point in your pocket or aren’t you happy to see me?
When Publius Horatius, the only survivor of the duel (triuel?) between the Horatii and the Curiatii, returned home to find his sister weeping over her newly slain fiancé, he killed her on the spot. But he was hardly hailed as a hero. There was a trial. He got off on a technicality. His father, possibly thereafter his family, owed the gods appeasement. Rome had always loved its gods and its state and its institutions (frankly, to Roman eyes this would be a tricolon of tautological inanity), but family and community always came first.
No Roman, no Athenian, would ever understand the ease and speed at which we seem keen to fracture our communities and render our rights up to our governments. But they would have recognised it.
What a brilliant photo. Beautiful setting, the finger wag, the social distancing, Johnson’s face… I think it’s just the visual reminder that we live in a democracy pic.twitter.com/fAgot0gg9l
It is a lovely image. But at a time when the police are randomly stopping cars to ask people where they are going (the cowards deleted the tweet. Given the multiplicative nature of contagion those policemen are potentially responsible for at least 124 corona cases.), or trying to determine what counts as an “essential item”; when neighbours are happy to snoop and snitch, I think of men like Ateius Capito adopting democratic forms to mask tyrannical substance, I think of how “equality under law” was proven a lie with every whack of a Scythian’s bow against a poor potter or tanner. A democracy can does not live when people are treated so.
As always, thank you for reading.
Endlings and Suchlike
 Far, far, from being some sort of proto-racist reaction (can anyone but an American think so?) Pericles’ citizenship law must be read in this fraught context. Someone like Kleisthenes wielded the power he did so precisely due to his extra-politial relationships on his mother’s side. The resources and panhellenic guest friendships such men could call upon where of phenomenal import. To say nothing of those wielded by genuine tyrants such as Polycrates of Samos and his Egyptian links.
 I may be exhibited an unexamined prejudice here. See Fisher, N. (2003) The Law of Hubris in Athens. in P. Cartledge & P. Millett (Eds.), Nomos: Essays in Athenian law, politics, and society. (pp 123-139) for a good summary and a potential case on the historical record.
 In this context, read (Pseudo?)Demosthenes 59, against Neaera.
 τὸ σχοινίον φεύγουσι τὸ μεμιλτωμένον, “they flee the vermillion rope”. The rope was presumably died (probably a loose, cloying, powder) that would mark them when they turned up.
 Numbers vary. If they were used in military contexts as per ceramic evidence, 1000 makes sense. Otherwise…as or the name and its derivation from a Speusippos I am liable to accept the argument in Braund, D. (2006). In Search of the Creator of Athens’ Scythian Archer-Police: Speusis and the “Eurymedon Vase”. Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik, 156, 109-113.
 E.g Acharnenses 54 where one is called as a threat; Equites 665 where they drag someone from the assembly; Ecclesiazusae 143 drunks being pulled from the agora.
 E.g this fronting is already apparent by the early/mid-7th century. See a graffito on a vase from Cumae: IG XIV 865. Graphically the η is represented as ε, but it must represent a long vowel.
 Adrienne Mayor, John Colarusso, & David Saunders. (2014). Making Sense of Nonsense Inscriptions Associated with Amazons and Scythians on Athenian Vases. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 83(3), 447-493. See the work of Nadezda A. Gavriljuk on the Scythians and the slave trade if you want a good slavophonic bibliography and an idea of what philologists were thinking more than 15 years ago. American media can fuck right off.
 Willi, A. (2003). The languages of Aristophanes: Aspects of linguistic variation in classical Attic Greek. Oxford
 Ehrenberg, V. (1962). The people of Aristophanes: A sociology of old attic comedy. Oxford. Pp175
 Horace Sermones 2.5 is probably the best expression of the former.
 I was much taken as a student by how tangled party politics seemed to be at this time. We tend to cast them through the teleological lens of Caesar vs Pompey (which we take as populares vs optimates, foolishly). Though old, Christoph Meinhard Bulst. (1964). “Cinnanum Tempus”: A Reassessment of the “Dominatio Cinnae”. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 13(3), 307-337, has massively affected my thinking on this.
 in tabulam Sullae si dicant discipuli tres: if Sulla’s three disciplines speak against his conscription (Juvenal 2.28 e.g the hight of hypocrisy); et nos/consilium dedimus Sullae, privatus ut altum/ dormiret: I too have counselled Sulla, to retire and rest on his honour (Juvenal 1.15-7). What can I say? I love this poet…
Erm… rem publicam dominatione factionis oppressam in libertatem vindicavi: I freed the Republic which had been oppressed by the tyranny of faction. Maybe…maybe Augustus was right?
 He needed a wife of patrician family to secure his priesthood. His own father had not risen far (though a relative, Sextus Julius Caesar, had) and marriage to Cinna’s house would have started as a boon and seemingly become a bane. He even lost his priesthood. But there was no guarantee Sulla’s party would have accepted this patrician parvenu and so Caesar immediately won for himself a reputation for integrity and daring. Or maybe she was super-hot, IDK.
The young are going to kill the old. This post might have been more prescient had I been able to finish it off in March – before the public had fully grasped the potential risk to even young, fit, individuals – but, ok. The young are going to kill the old because in order to protect them, they are being asked to shoulder what is going to be an immense cost to their social lives, personal development, and careers. For a perhaps indefinite period. Regardless, the opportunity cost is massive.
I urge everyone under 30 to read and retweet this thread. Young people are the ones spreading the #coronavirus. You must stay at home. Cancel weddings, don’t mingle in the park, don’t go to house parties, no dinner parties, no team sports. https://t.co/OB9rB5XTXV
That is a lot to give up. Especially given the real possibility that the virus may be little harder than common influenza for most people in the 20-30s age range. How do you get people to do it? The alignment of crossways competing incentives can be hard enough in a business setting, let alone in a society. Yet I suspect that the ancients accomplished this much more deftly than we.
I owe much of my thinking on this to Aristotle, in particular books one and two of his Politics. His comparisons between the family and city state rise above mere naturalistic or primitivist fallacy. The link between the oikos and the polis is not (just) one of scale, but of various interlocking obligations. I think we can intimate how the ancients would behave in a lockdown. I want to start with an Athenian Law delineating what one owed to one’s parents. This gives us a snapshot of how the Athenians understood familial – and societal – obligation:
For if my grandfather were alive and in want of life’s necessities, it would not be our opponent liable for “neglect” but us. For the law demands of us to support our parents, meaning by parents father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother, and their father and mother, if they are still alive: for they are the seed of the family, and their [property] is transmitted to their descendants, and so the latter are bound to support them even if they leave behind nothing.
Ok, the context of this immediately makes this a little suspect – it is Attic oratory after all, lying, manipulation, and verbal sleight of hand are all par for the course. I don’t have a commentary to hand, but what immediately stands out is the use of γονεύς for elderly ancestor, which is why I italicised it. Yes, fine in terms of etymology (perhaps) and the wider Greek world, but certainly strange in Attic usage. Hence why the speaker must go on at length to define it. Nonetheless, we know that such a law against neglect and ill treatment towards one’s parents must have existed. It is cited by (Pseudo)Aristotle, and parodied by Aristophanes, and occasionally held by some rhetors to have been Solonian in origin. But this is the locus classicus I remember from my schooling and one that lays out the measure of the law: Parents are owed respect/sustenance by their offspring. The broader context, that this is in part due to the care offered to their young, is left unstated but would be immediately intimated by every right-thinking Athenian. There is a strong sense of reciprocity.
This isn’t just some idle law against elder abuse. It ties into the broader centrality of the oikos to Athenian social theory and praxis. Consider, for example, the law against wasting one’s inheritance, the misappropriation of property/monies taken over via marriage (and therefore rightfully belonging to the wife or her descendants), or the various provisions against leaving some truly intestate. This latter category is particularly well attested in the broader Greek world (Sparta, Gortyna). These laws serve to inhibit the individual for the protection of his wider kin group.
The duty of every free-born Athenian male could be thus summarised: to preserve his inheritance in order to pass it on to his children. To look after his parents,whence he received his patrimony. Nor was this an entirely fiscal, er, transaction, there were wider social and physical provisions. Beyond the oikos there were certainly (weaker) obligations to one’s anchisteia, phratry, and polis (which can’t be covered here). Would an Athenian keep inside to protect the old? Social and legal pressure, perhaps even honest gratitude to what his elders have given him, would make that a likely proposition.
But do we have any of that?
Great point. You have nothing except the Lindy Table. Where's your "community?" Where's your "church?" Where's your localism? Where's your culture? It doesnt exist or its closed. https://t.co/p1TtIj1VKR
Take instead the atomised modern. What he has inherited? In the year of our lord 2020 someone in their late twenty to early thirties will have been receiving or finishing his education in a time of extreme global recession (and believe me, it was fucking brutal) only to now be experiencing another. Complete with corporate tax-funded bailouts. S/he either paid some £3000 per year for university fees or entered at a time when the government had tripled them to £9000. A government, incidentally, educated at a time when university was free. House prices are – somehow, somehow – absolutely insane, despite lowering birth rates and colonised green space; members of the older generation, meanwhile, may own multiple homes. It is shockingly easy to go on, but I shan’t. Much has been written about the shocking selfishness and expropriation of resources by that particular generation.
Going back to the law cited by Isaeus, yes, there was (potentially) a provision that care was owed κἂν μηδὲν καταλίπωσι (even if they leave nothing), but this was in the face of immense socio-cultural pressure to leave substance and opportunities behind and probably was only invoked in the cases of very poor families. I do not think the ancients could have conceived of the level of intergenerational expropriation that typifies growing up in the modern west.
The 75 Years’ Young Boomer vs The Bad Knee’d Teen
What’s the Ancient Greek for “50 is the new 30?” Μαλακίαι – Such narcissistic posturing would be at best considered to be unseemly and at worst, utter degeneracy. Indeed, much of the humour of Aristophanes’ Clouds depends seeing a grey-haired old man act in the manner of a child, including his enrolment in a frontistirio headed up by our boy Socrates. Strepsiades himself worries how he is going to learn being so slow and old (πῶς οὖν γέρων ὢν κἀπιλήσμων καὶ βραδὺς/λόγων ἀκριβῶν σκινδαλάμους μαθήσομαι; 129-30) and this anxiety and incongruity is picked up by the chorus who address him as an old man, a hunter after the arguments of philosophers (χαῖρ’, ὦ πρεσβῦτα παλαιογενές, θηρατὰ λόγων φιλομούσων. 358). But the apex of this joke comes in a scene familiar to all students. Socrates bids Strepsiades to lay down and think over his problem he asks him repeatedly if he has anything:
Σωκράτης: ἔχεις τι;
Socrates: Have you anything?
Στρεψιάδης: μὰ Δί’ οὐ δῆτ’ ἔγωγ’.
Strepsiades: By Zeus, I’ve nothing.
Σω: οὐδὲν πάνυ;
So: Nothing at all?
Στ: οὐδέν γε πλὴν ἢ τὸ πέος ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ.
St: There is nothing in my right hand besides…my penis
Aristophanes Clouds 732-6
Aristophanes slyly sets up the joke up by having the chorus warn our, err, hero that he mustn’t be soft (οὐμαλακιστέ 729). The joke (I know, no joke explained is made funnier) works across two semantic levels. That between softness and masturbation should be obvious, the other level is that he is regressing to the level of an unmarried youth. He is not acting his age. The poet plays with these themes elsewhere, as at the end of his Wasps where old man Sosias ends up part of a drunken komos. The crux of the joke is clear: act your age-old man.
Somehow, Aristophanes anticipated what most of my generation must have felt growing up seeing endless articles of how x age is the new y age, with x and y moving surreptitiously ever decade or so. Just please, shut the fuck up. Do not misunderstand, I am all for the elderly having a good life. Medical advances should make this more possible than ever. My grandfather was literally born in a village, he died slightly short his centenary and enjoyed lifting weights and jogging until his end. His old army mates weren’t much different. My father is pushing 60; I absolutely want him to have the best remaining life possible. But the endless narcissistic prattling of the middle-class elder who just can’t act his age and be thankful is starting to grate.
For fairness, this goes both ways. There is this weird tendency (I’m not going to post pictures, it would be unseemly) for grown men to pose, mouths agape, holding a games system or a Lego set or something. What the fuck is this? It’s like they have been trapped in a state of eternal pubescence. I don’t even mean this in a blameworthy manner, the world has conspired to render the old milestones of life considerably more difficult to achieve. But it does weird me out a little.
It has been noted – first humorously and now increasingly incredulously – that we are seeing something of a reversal, an unfunny paraprosdokian, where youngsters are now having to ask their parents whence and with whom they are going, or admonishing them to take the virus seriously. I can’t believe what I’m seeing outside my window. We have lost school. We have lost work. We have lost – the most sacred place of all – the gym. For what? The young, I reiterate, are giving up their livelihoods so that the old may live. Seemingly for nothing.
The Greeks were no more strangers to intergenerational strife than any human civilisation at any date. Indeed, when channelled it could be an immense creative force. The emergence of the so-called new music or the neoteric poets, for instance. But this is something more. The culmination of decades of ill feeling and frustration. Researchers are starting to jump on the long-term effects of the pandemic in this regard, and the current generation may well end up defined by COVID-19.
Why will the young kill the old? Because as the ancients would tell us, forbearance – society – is a two-way street. Those who have taken too much for too long can’t, it seems, even now develop anything like self-restraint on a large enough scale. Can’t just stay indoors. Conversely, those who have the most to lose and least to gain by their longanimity are unlikely to persist in this level of self abnegation. If anything, previous generations have created a world where they can’t persist. We have lost sight of what would have been evident to the ancients: society consists of interlocking obligations and privileges to be enjoyed – and yielded – in turn.
I (inevitably) need to end with a caveat, because this is the internet. Just as explanation is not excuse, it is certainly not endorsement. I am by no means undermining the seriousness of this current plague and think every unavoidable death to be lamentable, regardless of age. Nor do I particularly dislike the boomer generation. But just as it is fallacious to apply the stereotypical trend to an individual, it is equally so to exculpate the broader trend based on our individual experience. I have been blessed in my older family members; I have even benefitted with some friendships with interesting older people. That doesn’t erase a very serious intergenerational problem that our grandchildren will struggle to clean up.
I hope this blog will continue to find you well. Wash your hands. Help your community. Look after your family – especially aged members. Stay safe.
 See instead τοκεύς e.g Perikles’ speech at Thucydides 2.44.1, which must stand for one’s forebears more generally.
Ath Pol 56.6. That said, I don’t think we can speak with the certainty of some who definitely declare this to have been a graphe rather than a dike on this alone. These were important distinctions on Attic law. Am I missing some vital piece of evidence? Almost certainly.
 It was not. See above re: Attic oratorical context. Certain speakers, definitely not pointing at some guy with pebbles in his mouth, will brazenly declare things to be Solonian which we know could not have been from, say, context or the epigraphic record.
 See the note on Aristophanes above re: generic σκαιουργεῖν; burial rites are a perfect example of this e.g Dinarchus 2.8. The force of this can be especially felt in Sophocles’ Antigone.
 It is one thing to kick the ladder away having ascended; another thing entirely to defecate over those still climbing – surely???
 My awareness of this madness came from being part of a team looking at derivatives based on the property market. It was a frustrating and insane experience. Incidentally, fuck property futures. Just buy equities like a non-coward.
 For this choice of word see e.g Perikles’ words: Thucydides 2.40.1 φιλοκαλοῦμέν τε γὰρ μετ᾽ εὐτελείας καὶ φιλοσοφοῦμεν ἄνευ μαλακίας.
 It would eventually become an insult in Greek. Eventually, βλάκα. The link with degeneracy, above, is less obvious to parse – unless you read the citations. I don’t agree that there is meant to be a direct link with κιναιδεία, just a sense of indolence and lack of restraint.
 Wasps is an interesting comedy, it comes after a version of the Clouds (not our version, which has been revised) and seems slightly more sympathetic to the old. “Sosias and Strepsiades as Boomers”. Now there is a title for an essay…
 Rudolph, Cort & Zacher, Hannes. (2020). “The COVID-19 Generation”: A Cautionary Note. 10.31234/osf.io/c7w3u. Is a good start. Just copy and paste the call number in to find the PDF, it is open access.
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 rhapsoideinῥαψῳδεῖν (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, rhabdosῥάβδος, 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.
I honestly can't understand the whole "Boris Johnson recites the Iliad" thing. In Greece, any politician reciting poetry gets eyerolls, vitriolic remarks about the choice of poet and a few mentions in the media. It doesn't descend to footstamping and shouting "we hates it!".
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.
 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.
 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)
 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Tatleron posh baby names.
I recently came across two intriguing posts within the space of a few hours. One on Eidolon by Eric Adler on classicism and the classics, and another by Edith Hall in response to a recent publication. Hence the title – an arguably shoddy attempt at stitching these issues together. In the former, Adler brings up an infamous book published way back in the 90’s called Who Killed Homer and the question of whether that book is worth anything has caused a bit of a flurry on twitter.
Note the use of past tenses rather than present continuous. I’d originally meant to write this blog post when I first saw the posts in question but I’ve been slow off the mark. I’m sure the time where this would be read has passed but never mind. You see, that’s the great irony of the Classics: We study texts produced thousands of years ago but a blog post a week ago or a book from a few decades past? With the obvious exception of classic treatises, old news – hence way back in the 90’s…
I’d like to take a second and think about the infamous Who Killed Homer? and some of its political accouterments. I’m not particularly interested in discussions about the ‘fall’ of the discipline – as Mary Beard says every generation has thought that to be the case since the 2nd century A.D – but whether or not I can rehabilitate my view of the book a tiny bit.
So, what about Who Killed Homer? (WKH?). In (at least) two real senses I’ve no way of evaluating this book: It’s an American book in an American context, written back when I was a child, but I think the arguments it makes are, rightly or wrongly, still being made and its an interesting snap shot of times past. Second, I’ve no intention of going through my storage boxes and re-reading it. In an ideal world I’d carefully re-read the book and all the pertinent reviews and chase up some of the more interesting bibliography and so on. In present circumstances, that means I’ll never get around to writing anything on it. Sorry, but don’t worry, I think I have an excellent memory (or is it terrible? I forget).
I recall that when I first encountered the book I was singularly unimpressed. It made a few claims that either rang untrue or plain silly. Claims which even now stick out in my memory. For example, one of the central themes is that teachers themselves are too unlike the Greeks for their subject to be truly successful. Another section attacks Menander and Polybius (and, I think, Callimachus), another derides British philologists as ‘butlers’, another makes the impossible claim about someone (Eugene Vanderpool?) speaking better (modern) Greek than the (modern) Greeks – an impossibility that basically showcases the odd way in which modern Greek is treated in the Classics (and I’ll post on that later).
Despite all that, even though I still massively disagree with the book and side firmly with e.g Peter Green’s Arion review, I think my attitude to the book has softened slightly. At least in one or two areas.
Back then, I wondered how anybody could recommend we read Virgil, Livy, Euripides or whatever and yet denigrate Menander, Polybius, Apollonius and Callimachus. How can anyone possibly understand Virgil without his Hellenistic predecessors? Or Roman historiographical practice without recourse to Polybius? I felt the authors were fetishising the classics, simplifying them, transforming the variegated complexity of the classical world into little cultural badges.
But what I failed to grasp back then was how different the American context is. Over there modules on Greek and Latin have to fight against a dozen different credit options. I hated, hated, most of the archaeology I had to take…but I had to take it, there was no option to throw it in for intermediate Biology or whatever. I guess in a context like the book describes it might be somewhat fair to emphasise Virgil and Homer. I don’t agree with it, I understand it a little better.
Elsewhere, the claims of politicisation of education also rang hollow. Now, it could be my being on the left had inoculated me towards noticing the obvious. It could be that leftist political culture ran rampant in the 90’s and I obviously wouldn’t have known. It’s possible…but unlikely. So that was another strike against the book.
Except that now with all the debate about pronouns, appropriation, trigger warnings and so on it seems that the book might have been a bit right all along. There is a definite tendency to assume that conservatives misappropriate, distort and abuse whereas what we do is just scholarship. Plain, unmarked, scholarship. Yet under the shade of objectivity all sorts of biases flicker. Look at this tweet for example:
"Don't be ridiculous, of course teachers aren't indoctrinating kids with lefty ideas. Where do you get that idea?!" https://t.co/sa9kJB1obB
Yes, what the TLS is advocating for here are political positions and in the world of modern classical studies things are hardly different. Studies on the ancient world and, say, diversity, multiculturalism, gender representation and identity are similarly political. Think about it. A careful study of the languages of ancient Italy or social distinctions within a single language is quite different from trying to fit the ancient world into a distinctly modern political framework, though both talk in some way about the multiplicity of cultures. I recently read an interesting article on the discovery of a new Mycenaean tomb . It was fascinating, but cue odd comments about the origins of European culture and something about Donald Trump. What?
That’s not to say these are always failed heuristic models. Take De Ste Croix’s study of class in archaic Greece. This work clearly depends on modern, Marxist historiography but its not less useful for that The point is be honest. Like the tweeter above, people notice and when you simultaneously call for a discipline to be more feminist, intersectional or to include more social justice while decrying the conservative equivalent? People notice that as well. It’s hypocritical and self defeating to only call out the opposite side, I dare say it’s partly what leads to books like WKH? in the first place.
There’s a little book written contra WKH? that I don’t recall ever seeing mentioned. It’s called Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives by Page duBois. duBois is a good classicist, I heartily recommend her book on polytheism, and I wanted to like this book too but its emblematic of commingling the scholarly with the political in the way I’m talking about.
The book starts strongly; duBois outlines the way in which Greek culture is simplified and appropriated by conservative writers and attempts to show the actual complexity of the ancient world. It’s erudite and much more contemporary on topics such as sex, labour differentiation, slavery and a welter of issues. But look at the discussion of Afrocentrism, where DuBois spends more time calling out writers like Lefkowitz for her apparent racism in debunking Afrocentrists than highlighting that the Afrocentrists are, in fact, grossly wrong.
What DuBois gets wrong is that it was never the job of people like Lefkowitz to do anything but point out the truth (Sokrates wasn’t black, philosophy was not ‘stolen’ from Egypt etc). The particularly nasty treatments African Americans have traditionally received from mainstream American society of yore is, frankly, shamefaced and reprehensible but the Classics aren’t some form of grievance counselling. In acting this way, she’s doing the same thing she rightfully castigates conservatives for. If people are really interested in Ancient Egypt point them towards Allen’s Middle Egyptian! If you want to be a cheeky salesman for your subject maybe given them a Greek textbook and Manetho…
In their heyday the cultures of antiquity were mighty coursing rivers. We’ve inherited error riddled MSS, rotten papyri, ostraka etc… a muddy stream in other words. We can’t afford to obfuscate things further.
Back to WKH? I think my most interesting response to the book has concerned neither politics nor its epistemological framework, but its aesthetic claims. See, the authors make two claims in particular. The first, which I’m going to rapidly dismiss, is that Classicists have to be like Greeks. First, what? Why Greeks and not Romans? Which Greeks? In what way? (again, see duBois’ book for this kind of deconstruction, or better yet Mary Beard’s, in the further reading section). That’s a ludicrous assertion. Classicists don’t have to be like anything, it’s an area of study like anything else – You don’t see people calling for Zoologists to be more like cows.
The other is that the Classics are in some objective sense superior. This is a value/political judgement as much as anything else and one I’m also wary of. In part because I know there’s so much stuff out there in so many languages that’s so good – Gilgamesh is amazing in Akkadian, I love Sanskrit love poetry, even in translation the African oral poetry collected by Finnegan is wonderful, so how can you make such a stark statement? – and also because I don’t place much value in aesthetic statements in and of themselves. It doesn’t matter how many languages I study or how much I read, I’ll never scratch the surface of human creativity, my aesthetic opinion is basically groundless.
Which leads us to the recent review by Edith Hall of a book called The Lesbian Lyre I can’t claim to have fully read Duban’s book – it’s bloody huge – but the central idea is that Sappho has been misrepresented by popular culture. Hence the second part of this post’s title. There is a link between Duban’s new book and WKH? in that both may be called conservative and said to have been written in reaction against broader, more liberal, trends. Indeed, Victor David Hanson even supplies one of the praise quotes.
Hall makes the point that Duban is unashamed to state how much he really, really, values Sappho. There’s no apologetics, words like problematic being thrown around or anything like that at all, instead we find words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘sublime’. Conversely, I think the only time I’ve ever used the word ‘sublime’ was in translating Longinus, so am I one of those leftists Hall is talking about? Can I appreciate literature?
Obviously! I’ve even given a few hints of the stuff I like above. I just don’t think we need some sort of… aesthetic preaching, I have this vague feeling that such things will easily devolve into the same kind of political/advocacy statements we’ve discussed above rather than produce serviceable scholarship. (It’s also just not as interesting)
So, if I disagree with Professor Hall about that (and I do) and I also disagree with the claims of WKH? why study Greco-Roman antiquity? I mean that’s the question at the end of the day, right? It’s an eternal, clichéd question but I’d like to think we can justify the subject without over the top claims about direct links to antiquity or an innate brilliance not found elsewhere. There’s no space to get into that here.
As for Who Killed Homer? I’m glad the recent spate of blog/twitter activity gave me the opportunity to reconsider it and I’ve come to think of the book as a bit of a warning for the future. I only wish I could have written something a bit better, sooner, and fuller, in response.
Hanson, V. and Heath, J. (1998). Who killed Homer? New York.
Hanson, V., Heath, J. and Thornton, B. (2001). Bonfire of the humanities. USA
DuBois, P. (2001). Trojan horses. New York
Duban, J. (2016). The Lesbian Lyre. New York
For the attendant American (political) context see:
González García, F. and López Barja de Quiroga, P. (2012). “Neocon Greece: V. D. Hanson’s War on History” in International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 19(3), pp.129-151.
For a British perspective see:
Beard, M. (2014). Confronting the Classics. London.