Would Romans like latte art? or On the Jubilee

I feel guilty buying lattes. Bear with me. Mrs Croc makes infinitely better coffee at home, I am conscious of the supply chains that bring us the beans (the back-breaking underpaid labour; the destroyed environment) and the cheap milk used by coffee shops (moo). And then I hand over a significant portion of the hourly minimum wage in my country and am in turn handed something that is part product part art all sumptuousness.  

Roman attitudes to luxury generally and food/drink specifically are complex. Actually, complex is probably not the right word. Most things are complicated if you stare at them long enough and have the incentive to make them so. Roman attitudes to luxury, especially with regards to food and drink, are well attested across a various sources (legal, literary, religious, artistic) and times (what mores did the authors of the XII tables share with Juvenal?), of course they become complex if we try to squish everything together, this is a nonsense statement. Let’s run with it lol.

It was important for the Romans to see themselves as rugged men at best a generation or two removed from the toil of farm work, whatever the reality. Thus Cincinnatus returns hands over the fasces to return to his farm and, in fact, we are invited to envision him at the plough himself when he was adlected into office.[1] That it would be some seven centuries until another Roman statements, Diocletian, would likewise eschew high office for the trials and tribulations of the land tells us something. That he would be, by origin, Greek and therefore the kind of person Republican Romans warned against as being too luxurious tells us something funny. Rome’s rapid expansion throughout the Italian peninsula and the Mediterranean meant that – for the first time in history? – slaves were ridiculously plentiful. If a Roman was in arm’s reach of a stylus you can guarantee he was not within a barge pole’s of a plough. Cabbage, posca, pottage, ofellae; these were a far cry from the diets of those who give us our sources.[2]

This contrast between rustic ancestors and cosmopolitan contemporaries (sound familiar?) is central to the Roman moral imagination. For Livy, it was the Punic Wars, the acquisition of Rome’s oversea empire, that is the watershed and his preface – remember he is as much moralist as historian – explicitly equates the simplicity of the past with the luxury of the present (adeo quanto rerum minus, tanto minus cupiditatis erat. To such an extent that there were fewer things, there was less avarice). I wonder if there was more than cantankerousness to this. If you look at the numbers,[3] the Romans throughout the Punic and Macdonian/Syrian wars were capable of amassing huge armies, but this must have been incredibly destructive to them as a polity especially when you realise the need to marshal such forces directly correlate to losses such as Trasimene and Cannae. Survivors guilt baked into the culture? Your brothers/fathers/friends died or came back to fallow land/land purchased by a senator and worked by slaves but the markets now mean you can add a bit of mace to your morning breakfast? Hmm.

I am writing around the time of jubilee: HRH the Queen will the first British Monarch to celebrate 70 years of rule, she was coronated around a year after Britain had escaped rationing but, needed as rationing was, it has indelibly marked a generation or two of Britons. Orderly queuing, plain fare, a dislike of ostentation, all these arose not from the depths of time but from the second world war and its immediate aftermath.[4] We pay lip service to them even as international supply chains and a cheap third world manufacturing base make ostentation cheap and ubiquitous. Who is to say it was much different for the Romans?

Right. Food.  The lexical net the Romans employed for describing desire, both positive and negative, went beyond simple material acquisitiveness. Voluptas, cupiditas, avaritia, licentia etc all could be applied to any type of appetite. Polybius, that brilliant observer of the Romans,[5] claims Cato the elder saw this in just those terms and elided the distinction between greed, food, and sexual license:

ἐφ᾽ οἷς καὶ Μάρκος ἀγανακτῶν εἶπέ ποτε πρὸς τὸν δῆμον ὅτι μάλιστ᾽ ἂν κατίδοιεν τὴν ἐπὶ τὸ χεῖρον προκοπὴν τῆς πολιτείας ἐκ τούτων, ὅταν πωλούμενοι πλεῖον εὑρίσκωσιν οἱ μὲν εὐπρεπεῖς παῖδες τῶν ἀγρῶν, τὰ δὲ κεράμια τοῦ ταρίχου τῶν ζευγηλατῶν.

Marcus [Porcius Cato] was annoyed by these things[6] and said to the populace that he could seethe decline of the state from these things: that comely boys could be purchased for more than fields and jars of preserved meat more than ploughmen.

Polybius 31.25.5a

Thank you, dearest reader, for bringing up Cato, because he is relevant in more ways than one. Cato the Censor represented for later generations a stern, sparse, republican morality, the maius in the mos maiorum so to speak.[7] Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the case of his great-grandson whose political career veered closer to cosplay than emulation of his ancestor (cosplaying ancestors? See this IS a jubilee relevant post).  Ironically his handbook, de agricultura, is so studious in its simplicity it must in part be performative but if anything, he was too frugal. Even the Romans could balk at his mean treatment of his elderly slaves and Plutarch’s reprimand of his character (Life of Cato 5) must have been widely shared.[8]

The Romans were not everywhere impressed by thrift nor repulsed by largesse; there would have been several times throughout the year e.g bribing voters electioneering, games, and public festivals where the public fiscus was expected to be bloody well public. I am minded to bring this up, not just because it helps to sensibly calibrate Roman attitudes as well as can be done in a shitpoast, but because again we are in the midst of jubilee celebrations and the usual naysayers are crowing about the cost. I agree: our state is too ready with our taxes and the feckless government comprised of people who never held a real job need to be seriously taken to task,[9]  but the Romans would have understood and approved the need to have a festival outside the usual mercenary election cycles which allows people to come together and celebrate their shared nationhood.[10]

Where were we? Oh yeah, food. When moralisers failed the Romans turned to their legal system and we have several examples of sumptuary legislation on the tables e.g in 115 the consul M. Aemilius Scaurus passed the lex aemilia qua lege non sumptus cenarum, sed ciborum genus et modus praefinitus est (which by law fixed not the number of diners but the type and manner of foodstuff. A Gellius Noctes Atticae 2.24.12) and the dictator Sulla followed suit with a lex cornelia in 81 which revived earlier laws which had fallen into abeyance and expanded them.[11] Of course this hardly stopped the dictator throwing wild parties (Plutarch Sulla 35; let’s see you spin that one Keaveney). The Romans had by now come a long way from their rude past where the only legislation needed on the books was the minuendi sumptus lamentationisque funeris. Now every aristocrat had his own fishponds, expensive Greek chef, and the mode du jour seemed to be passing sumptuary legislation in order to flaunt them. There really is something funny in Augustus passing a law trying to limit (sexual) appetites of all people.

Nowhere is this hypocrisy better taken up than in satire and by no one else more skilfully than Juvenal. There are almost too many examples to pick from, but I have always loved his fourth. I can neither translate (it would take some 70 lines, none of us are that patient) or do justice to (I’m just not that funny ☹) the relevant section here but I will try. A fisherman discovers a massive fish and decides it must, of course, be yielded to Caesar (the emperor Domitian) who far from following the Augustan legacy as an arbiter of moral temperance is worse even than his courtiers. The fish is brought to court and the emasculated, timorous, senate are introduced with an epic catalogue and give their suggestions on what to do with it as if it was a war council. At last the heroically named Lucius Venuleius Montanus Apronianus carries the day.[12] We are told of his qualifications:

nouerat ille

luxuriam inperii ueterem noctesque Neronis

iam medias aliamque famem, cum pulmo Falerno

arderet. nulli maior fuit usus edendi

tempestate mea…

                             [for] he knew

the ancient luxury of the court, Nero’s

and the second hunger even at midnight, when his

lungs burned with falernian wine. There was no one

greater at eating, in my time…

Juvenal 4.136-40

It is a great send up. Neither the senators nor the emperor are the equals of their fathers, the historical parallel is Nero who was already a by word for lascivious (prostitution, forced sex-reassignment surgery, gluttony, rape, and singing) and – perhaps most pointedly at all – was probably the first emperor to reign without the old republic being within living memory. The great sadness is that things would have gone better for Rome if Domitian really was so focused on gustatory trivialities (atque utinam his potius nugis tota illa dedisset/tempora saeuitiae 150-1). Domitian did not, of course, reign long enough to celebrate any sort of jubilee.

Ok. Let’s talk about coffee. What would the Romans make of it? Arguably much more exotic than stuffed dormice and despite the protestations of younger millennials who think drinking it is a personality it is neither staple nor necessity. But it is the art that draws me. It is not quite as over the top as things found in Apicius’ de re coquinaria or Petronius’ (Nero’s friend!) satyricon but it is a little extra. I can’t help but like it, in moderation. What would the Romans make of it? Well based on our readings probably try to ban it as a foreign luxury whilst drinking as much of it as possible behind closed doors. Probably enslave whole towns of people and train them solely in the most ostentatious of latte art. I for my part am still quite conflicted. Perhaps I have read too much Bentham, not enough Seneca, but I can’t fully reconcile my love of the drink with the harm it causes to everyone involved in cultivating, roasting, and selling it.

As we consider the queen’s jubilee regnum cuius non iam dimidiam partem vivebam lol and the very different environment in which she started to reign, these things are worth thinking about. Anyway.

Appendix: Romans and their coffee orders

Julius CaesarEspresso
AugustusEspresso (affogato when nobody is looking)
VirgilFrench press
HoraceFarm to table ice latte
Cato the CensorTap water
NeroIrish coffee
OvidMatcha latte (cappuccino when nobody is looking)
ClaudiusPumpkin spice latte
CiceroTea (with free refills)
HadrianGreek coffee

Disagree? Have more to add? Please do below!

[1] Livy 3.26

[2] The new defunct Pass the Garum has recipes for all these and more should you wish to try them. I myself heartily recommend Cato’s bread spread with moretum and washed down with some spiced posca.

[3] Check out this thesis here: https://escholarship.org/content/qt1tj4n5sm/qt1tj4n5sm_noSplash_adf69c425bac62377049e6b7d4deda20.pdf (didn’t read lol)

[4] They seem timeless but believe it or not British food was once spiced and varied as much as the environment and trade routes would allow; British dress – not Italian! – set the standards we all emulate nowadays too. Insane, I know.

[5] One must imagine him like some David Attenborough or, even better! Steve Irwin type hanging around the Scipionic circle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fynWOio9jBo

[6] i.e sexual/moral/gustatory license.

[7] Passet, L. (2020). Frugality as a Political Language in the Second Century BCE: The Strategies of Cato the Elder and Scipio Aemilianus. In I. Gildenhard & C. Viglietti (Eds.), Roman Frugality: Modes of Moderation from the Archaic Age to the Early Empire and Beyond. pp. 192-212. Cambridge – is probably a good source for further discussion of this. Haven’t read lol.

[8] https://el.wikisource.org/wiki/%CE%92%CE%AF%CE%BF%CE%B9_%CE%A0%CE%B1%CF%81%CE%AC%CE%BB%CE%BB%CE%B7%CE%BB%CE%BF%CE%B9/%CE%9C%CE%AC%CF%81%CE%BA%CE%BF%CF%82_%CE%9A%CE%AC%CF%84%CF%89%CE%BD bro you can do this one.

[9] https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/127/public-accounts-committee/news/150988/unimaginable-cost-of-test-trace-failed-to-deliver-central-promise-of-averting-another-lockdown/ lol

[10] They’d also wonder where the fuck are the naked aristocrats in wolf masks whipping ladies with leather thongs. Naked aristocrats in wolf masks whipping ladies with leather thongs in this economy? Are you kidding me, Gaius? dimitte ab colo caput!

[11] Aulus Gellius (book 2) and Macrobius (book 3) who has clearly cribbed from him reverse the chronology here and assume the lex aemilia to have been passed later, perhaps but M. Aemilius Lepidus. This makes a certain historical sense, but I take as my authority Pliny who assigns it to our boy M. Scaurus in consulate (NH 8.57.223) because he has better vibes. He also tells us that the law specifically barred stuffed dormice, mussels, and wild birds. In other words, luxury goods.

[12] Ok I am following Syme here:  Syme, R “People in Pliny”, Journal of Roman Studies, 58 (1968), p. 150 since elsewhere he is also simply referred to as Montanus.

Filling the Neophytes Library (Ancient History)

“But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?”

           Steven Pinker (Chronicle)

Why indeed? The question has attracted answers innumerable, illegible, and incontinent (including Pinker’s own, frankly), but I have been asking myself this recently, with especial consideration of our shared discipline. I am not going to venture my own answer here, but I did form two hypotheses:

  1. That earlier academics were, on the whole, much better writers.
  2. That Latinists would have better prose than Hellenists.

The first hypothesis – let us be honest – was hardly long on the odds, this seems to consistent across all the humanistic disciplines: I have recently been reading C. S Lewis’ The Discarded Image and it strikes me that few could write like this now about literature or history (Classical or Medieval) and retain their ivory capped curule seats. The bet on Latinists over Hellenists may seem odd, less sure, but I think my calculated risk taking here paid off (as you will see below). I based this on the long tradition of Latin energising English poetry and prose, whereas I cannot help but find e.g the effect of Thucydides on Hobbes enervating and of Herodotus on many (Grote included) bloviating. If I could travel back in time, I would beat the shit out of Keats with a Grecian urn.

I wanted to put together a reading list for the neophyte Classicist, fresh from genuinely brilliant books such as Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Mary Beard’s SPQR and ready to start hitting the stacks and getting their fangs into academic volumes. My criteria were simple. Academic books with a capital A that you could happily find yourself reading on the beach. The lodestone was the great writers of yesteryear such as Ronald Syme (whose Roman Revolution manages to be Tacitean in outlook and in prose). No edited volumes, no disjointed volumes of the essays (the latter rule forced me to eject one of my favourites, Wiseman’s Catullus and his World from the list ☹).

Fair? I make no secret of trying to model my longer form writing on Holland’s perhaps a bit too much, but let’s see if we prove Taleb wrong on this.

To limit bias, and expand our palette, I took to twitter to crowdsource this list. This list deliberately focuses on ancient history (often the gateway), should there be interest we can repeat the experiment for archaeology, literature, and philology proper (I promise you that Meillet is a good read! Meanwhile @mattitiahu has a great resource on lexica here).

Again, this list is not a list of foundational or must-read texts, you can find them elsewhere (e.g university reading lists; G Kantor’s blog post on Roman History); my main focus was on prose. Because men like Wissowa and Mommsen and Wilamowitz and Gibbon etc etc wrote beautifully and we have lost something. This list will not render unto you mastery of any culture, period, or phenomenon. You could not construct a course from them, but you can be entertained.

Please feel free to comment and tweet, either to annotate the list or make suggestions.

Warning: I pulled these, uncorrected, from an online auto bibliographic database. Dates, publishers, place of publishing etc are wrong passim. If you happen to be a student, do not use this list to cite.

With massive thanks to @_paullay, @peter_sarris, @GMcCor, @GeorgyKantor, @Nakhthor, @ProfSimonton, @Kleisthenes2, @DrMichaelBonner, @DrPeterJMiller @sasanianshah (and others, probably, sorry).

Outside the Classical Mediterranean

(Not the original date, but that of the reprint. A multi-volume history from a more genteel time)

Bonner, M. (2020). The Last Empire of Iran. Gorgias Press.

(Conflict of interest to include? probably! But it exhibits a mixture of that older, gentlemanly style, and the incisiveness of modern academe, there are few narrative studies of the entire period. The Sassanians were important and Latinists and Late Antiquenerds should know more about them.)

Briant, P. (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander: A history of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns.

(Technically a translation, perhaps it does not belong on this list. But the contents therein are fascinating. Most books on the Achaemenids are absolute doggrel)

Bryce, T. (2005). The kingdom of the Hittites. Oxford University Press.

(Suspicious of this one having read his latest, but we’re going to trust @sassanianshah on this!)

Debevoise, N. C. (1969). A political history of Parthia TX.

Thapar, R. (2003). The penguin history of early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin Books India.

(Thapar is a good stylist, and a brilliant historian of India. Probably the best)

Ancient Greece

Bevan, E. R. (2015). The house of Seleucus. TX: Cambridge University Press.

Bresson, A. (2015). The making of the Ancient Greek economy: Institutions, markets, and growth in the city-states. Princeton University Press.

(Have my doubts! Never seen a Classicist, or a Historian, write sensibly about Economics but ok)

Chadwick, J. (1976). The Mycenaean world. Cambridge University Press

(Material vs prose, brings this out on top. He’s essentially writing about inventory lists)

Dodds, E. R. (1956). The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press.

Dover, K. J. (1989). Greek Homosexuality.

(Do not blame him for his shitty epigones)

Green, P. (1993). Alexander to Actium: The historical evolution of the Hellenistic age. University of California Press.

(Yes, yes, massively dated on art and culture but one of the best encompassing narratives around. What a writer).


Ancient Rome

Athanassiadi, P. (1992). Julian: An intellectual biography. TX.

(Like the Memoirs of Hadrian but not made up, and with less fucking hippies)

Daube, D. (1969). Roman Law. TX.

(Seems an odd addition, but so many reviews and tweeters talk about this book as being humorous. Yes, Roman Law…)

I mean…what is the competition?

MacMullen, R. (1992). Enemies of the Roman order: Treason, unrest, and alienation in the empire. Routledge.

(This often comes on lists. Definitely an interesting take. Does accidentally make me more pro-Roman though.)

Millar, F. (1993). The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337. Harvard University Press.

(Millar was generally a brilliant writer, I personally would have chosen his Emperor in the Roman World – which dramatically changed how I saw the office, but twitter spoke. Actually, just read all of Millar. Honestly if you make it through Weinstock’s Divus Julius you deserve to).

Syme, R. (1939). The Roman Revolution. OUP Oxford.

Hahaha yeah, eat shit Cicero

(This may well be the best written Roman history in the English language, excepting Gibbon. His later work was sadly not so wonderful to read.)

Late Antiquity

(It is an inevitable category)

Brown, P. (1989). The World of Late antiquity: AD 150-750. W. W. Norton.

(Brown’s name came up again, and again, and again. I found him enjoyable, though perhaps to a lesser extent).

Treadgold, W. T. (1997). A history of the Byzantine state and society. TX: Stanford University Press.

(How many narrative studies of Byzantium are there? How many are actually good? Exactly)

Museum Closed: On the Desecration of the Hagia Sophia

You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, they say. Who wants more flies? Well if this blog is honey (or vinegar) perhaps Twitter Classicists are flies; they certainly have been absolutely rolling in faeces lately. Let me explain. You see the transformation (rape…defilement…) of the Hagia Sophia by tinpot wannabe genocidal dictator Erdogan has been met with the kind of twee, historically uninformed, illiterate twaddle most of us have come to expect from any “Classicist” with an institutional affiliation nowadays. My particular favourites have been attempts to compare this to the consecration of the Parthenon or Pantheon as churches. This, incidentally, is an excellent litmus test for our classical courses. If you do not know why, when, how and under whose aegis those buildings became churches, you do not know even Roman History to teach the next generation.

It would have been one thing to say nothing, but this batch of classicistuli has the insane urge to comment on anything and everything related to Greece for some reason. It is a bit like their habit of capping speeches or exchanging pleasantries in badly accented (both meanings!) Greek at conferences and events. Why? What is this? Do people do this with Italian? Does reading about Pompeii vs Sertorius give me especial insight on Spanish politics? Should I wish people happy birthday in Tamazight because I am up on the Punic wars? There is no substance here, only signalling. “Oh, look how detached, clearheaded and above it we all are! Can’t they see this is no different from x, y, z”. Disdainful, supercilious, fools.

This is what I am going to do here. I am going to attempt to flesh out the context, of the significance of this gesture and attempt to give some sense of the weight behind it. In a comparatively short piece. I am not an expert. Late Byzantine, Ottoman, Modern Greek Studies and Diplomacy are very much their own fields, with their own epistemological frameworks, arcane languages, foundational texts, and highly trained experts. A few of these experts may even be found on twitter, who offer some pretty good takes on this. I am reluctant to wade into this, I know full well this will lose me even more readers (oh no, stop, come back…), but I write this in the hope that some people will be chastened and even more will be informed.

…ἔστιν οὗ σιγὴ λόγου There is a time when silence may be stronger than
κρείσσων γένοιτ᾿ ἄν, ἔστι δ᾿ οὗ σιγῆς λόγος. speech; but sometimes speech is stronger than silence

Euripides Orestes 638-9

The Church


To understand the Hagia Sophia you need to understand a little bit about Constantinople herself. How historians assess Constantine’s decision to build a new city on the Bosporus depends largely on how they assess his character – cynical self-aggrandiser or strategic genius? For the former, Constantine’s new religion and outsized sense of self must have sat poorly with the built environment of Rome.[1] Building anew allowed him to leave his mark in marble. Suetonius tells us that Augustus could truly boast himself to have marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset, that is “to have left behind marble where he had found mud-brick” and it makes sense that Constantine, armed with a new religion and dusting off the tetrarchy, could set himself to rival this.[2] After all, we know that for some time yet sis felicior Augusto, melior Traiano would remain the accessional chant for new emperors.[3]

Against this is common sense. Constantine was happy to dress his Christianity in a Roman guise, needed to keep the traditional aristocracy on side, and at best issued toleration.[4] Rivalry with the past was all well and good, it was practically expected of Roman emperors, but he still needed to perform. The building of Constantinople must have been in no small part a practical decision. Ensconced as it was in Latium, Rome had increasingly become less viable as a capital for a state that stretched from Britain to Mesopotamia. The multiplication of emperors under Diocletian to match an increasingly complex and varied theatre of operations naturally necessitated several bases.[5] In addition to Rome, Milan, Nicomedia, Trier, Ravenna, and Antioch would all serve as imperial residences for extended periods of time. Constantinople would prove a genius choice. Its Greek predecessor, Byzantium, had held out against Septimius Severus for years and once properly fortified it would withstand siege after siege, whilst being able to maintain its supply lines.[6] Constantinople’s very success at defence tends to obscure how good a decision this was. Rome, and the West, fell to Germanics but the city held out against its own equivalent threat(s) like the Isaurians,[7] Avars, Arabs, etc etc.

This was the city Justinian inherited. Rapid expansion and adornment had, by the 6th century, given it a sense of importance but it was still hardly a rival for Old Rome (or even old civic centres like Alexandria and Antioch). Justinian, who deserves to be remembered as well as Augustus or Trajan, would make renovatio the watchword of his reign. He would return old imperial provinces (including the Italian heartlands) to the fold, supervise the standardising of Roman Law, and embark on an empire wide rebuilding that would not have been out of place in the time of the Antonines.[8] He would attempt to be a third Augustus, a second Constantine.[9]

Hagia_Sophia_Southwestern_entrance_mosaics_2 - Copy
Justinian, left, offering the Hagia Sophia. Constantine, right, offering the City. 

Naturally, Constantinople too benefited from rebuilding, and when the church situated on the site of Hagia Sophia was burnt down during the Nika riots of 532,[10] Justinian saw his chance. The new building would not only surpass the old, it would surpass every single church then (or, frankly, since) in existence.  Here is what frenemy Procopius had to say on the church:

τῷ τε γὰρ ὄγκῳ κεκόμψευται καὶ τῇ ἁρμονίᾳ τοῦ μέτρου, οὔτε τι ὑπεράγαν οὔτε τι ἐνδεῶς ἔχουσα, ἐπεὶ καὶ τοῦ ξυνειθισμένου κομπωδεστέρα καὶ τοῦ ἀμέτρου κοσμιωτέρα ἐπιεικῶς ἐστι, φωτὶ δὲ καὶ ἡλίου μαρμαρυγαῖς ὑπερφυῶς πλήθει. φαίης ἂν οὐκ ἔξωθεν καταλάμπεσθαι ἡλίῳ τὸν χῶρον, ἀλλὰ τὴν αἴγλην ἐν αὐτῷ φύεσθαι, τοσαύτη τις φωτὸς περιουσία ἐς τοῦτο δὴ τὸ ἱερὸν περικέχυται.[11]

For it proudly reveals its mass and the harmony of its proportions, having neither any excess nor deficiency, since it is both more pretentious than the buildings to which we are accustomed, and considerably more noble than those which are merely huge, and it abounds exceedingly in sunlight and in the reflection of the sun’s rays from the marble. Indeed, one might say that its interior is not illuminated from without by the sun, but that the radiance comes into being within it, such an abundance of light bathes this shrine

(1.1 29-32)

θαυμάσειε γὰρ ἂν εἰκότως τῶν μὲν τὸ ἁλουργόν, τῶν δὲ τὸ χλοάζον, καὶ οἷς τὸ φοινικοῦν ἐπανθεῖ καὶ ὧν τὸ λευκὸν ἀπαστράπτει, ἔτι μέντοι καὶ οὓς ταῖς ἐναντιωτάταις ποικίλλει χροιαῖς ὥσπερ τις ζωγράφος ἡ φύσις. ὁπηνίκα δέ τις εὐξόμενος ἐς αὐτὸ ἴοι, ξυνίησι μὲν εὐθὺς ὡς οὐκ ἀνθρωπείᾳ δυνάμει ἢ τέχνῃ, ἀλλὰ θεοῦ ῥοπῇ τὸ ἔργον τοῦτο ἀποτετόρνευται· ὁ νοῦς δέ οἱ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ἐπαιρόμενος ἀεροβατεῖ, οὐ μακράν που ἡγούμενος αὐτὸν εἶναι, ἀλλ᾿ ἐμφιλοχωρεῖν μάλιστα οἷς αὐτὸς εἵλετο.

For he would surely marvel at the purple of some, the green tint of others, and at those on which the crimson glows and those from which the white flashes, and again at those which Nature, like some painter, varies with the most contrasting colours. And whenever anyone enters this church to pray, he understands at once that it is not by any human power or skill, but by the influence of God, that this work has been so finely turned. And so his mind is lifted up toward God and exalted, feeling that He cannot be far away, but must especially love to dwell in this place which He has chosen.

(1.1 60-2)

οὐ χρήμασι δὲ αὐτὴν ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐδείματο μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ πονουμένῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ καὶ τῇ ἄλλῃ τῆς ψυχῆς ἀρετῇ,

But it was not with money alone that the Emperor built it, but also with labour of the mind and with the other powers [virtues] of the soul

(1.1 67-8)

It is hard to give a sense of place, of physical reality, solely with text. Procopius somehow manages to combine imperial veneration, ekphrasis, and an almost Pausaniasque tour guide sense of place. His work on buildings is undoubtedly under read, understudied, and underappreciated and I would happily recommend it to readers. His preface situates the work quite well. It is classicising and meant to exult the emperor and his renovation, especially after the Nika riots. It would be easy to dismiss this as mere propaganda were it not for the sense of reverence Procopius has for the church. He seems quite earnest in thanking god for bringing together Anthemius, Isidore, and Justinian (the latter must have been happy to share credit) and whilst he makes frequent reference to the church’s height this is never done in a boastful manner. I hope the above selections give some sense of what it must have been like to see it. Most of the description is technical in nature, I went for the sense of wonder.

We will never be able to see the church as they did. The broader architectural complex and its Roman context has long been changed, demolished, built over. The church itself, raped and ruined. Threatened by minarets on the outside, the inside is bereft of the decoration Procopius and others mention. What few mosaics there are, were saved by Thomas Whittemore (excellent blog post on that, here); instead of glittering gold we have vomit and diarrhoea yellow paint, and the images of Roman and biblical history have been replaced with attempts at Islamic art. Anyone who has been spoilt by the clever geometry and naturalism of Iranian painters will be, at best, bemused.[12] So much for sight, but did not God give you four more senses just to annoy me?

The aim of the project, performed by Acapella Romana and supported by various scholars, to try and recreate the acoustic properties of the Hagia Sophia, something many thought lost to the mists of time. More information may be found on the project, here. It is a wonderful mixture of art and science, and really an example of what the various historicising disciplines can do best. “Ah, but Croc” I hear you say, “Justinian was born in the Balkans, Byzantine chant had not yet been formalised, what would he have heard?”. Actually, we do have some sense of that.

Led by Marcel Pérès, the Ensemble Organum has attempted to recreate what Pre-Gregorian chant sounded like. The musical evidence is scant (Westerners were as keen to eject tradition for modernity as ever), and even though the languages themselves offer some help, a fair bit must be said to be speculative. Nevertheless, this is as good a recreation as we are going to get to experiencing something similar to what Justinian (or at least Heraclius) did. Think about this for a minute: you are sharing an experience with the Romans. If that does not excite you, you are on the wrong blog.

So that was the church that became simply known as the great church or monastery in everything from official laudatory orations to illiterate peasant poetry.

The Fall


Depending on how much emphasis you put the continuity of government as a perquisite there are two possible “falls” of the Roman state. The first, to Latin crusaders during the fourth Crusade, in 1204 remains a watershed date: Despite (in fact, because of – they were keen relic hunters) their Christianity, the Latins were happy to loot and quite a bit of what makes Venice’s built environment remarkable. The Latins did not have to be as brutal as the Ottomans to be, well, brutal. Nowadays the primary difference seems to be that academics are quite happy to line up and criticise the Catholic Latins yet remain silent on the Ottomans. Even the Bishop of Rome apologised. A good, no a great, source on this is the work of Niketas Akominatos, surnamed Choniates (it was a demonym).[13]

It is difficult to overestimate how much this one sack changed things.  I think the world that resulted was a little less Roman. What Alexios tried to do with Boniface and Baldwin – use outside barbarians to secure the purple – seems to have become a time-honoured stratagem by the late empire. Think of Zeno and his Isaurians , whatever the fuck the Valentiniani were trying to do with the Goths and Huns (???), the Heracleans with their Avars, Slavs etc etc. But if Alexios was hoping to find a Stilicho, he got an Odoacer instead. The empire was broken down, partitioned, brought further in line Frankish culture (brutal feudalism over the citizenship that had existed since Caracella’s time and against what Kaldellis sees as a nascent nation state), and this would greatly effect the successor states. In fact, I can not help but wonder if at least part of the reason the Palaeologoi ruled for so long was due to the influence of this new Western model of kingship.[14] The previous tendency towards short lived dynasties (or no dynastic succession at all) is what prompted the Western use of “Byzantine” as a pejorative. I have never failed to be amused as the supreme irony of this, given that this is an utterly Roman behaviour.[15]

Let us leave off here, it is sufficient to say that even after the reconquista 0f 1261, the empire was fractured, weak, and not in a position to put up much of a fight. I do not say that the city was worthless! There is persistent strain of Ottoman apologetics that seems to argue this against all common sense and evidence. This is not the place for extensive source criticism and apologetics, but I should state that after the recapture of the city population numbers began to soar and some scholars even speak of a Palaeologan Renaissance. Maybe this term is too strong, but the period is marked by an intense engagement with the classical past and vibrant cultural production. It was not a rotting apple waiting to be plucked by an Ottoman hand.

Theofilos_Palaiologos - Copy
Theophilos Hatzimihail Constantine Palaeologos

Ah. 1453. The other, more traditional, date for the fall. What needs to be said? Runciman produced probably the most popular and well-known account in English, even if not the most clinical, and recent academic work has improved on the technical details of the siege.[16] The Ottomans had rapidly passed from subject allies to rivals to overlords, and Mehmet saw his chance. The siege was brutal and the aftermath more so. The sources are fairly unambiguous about this, again, despite Ottoman apologetics with no basis in source or facts. There are four commonly cited historians: Laonikos Chalkokondyles, Michael Critobolos, George Sphrantzes, and Doukas. I have deliberately put them in that order. Laonikos and Critoboulos arguably belong together as the most intensely classicising, whereas whilst Sphrantzes and Doukas were both well educated, they adopt a more vernacular style and more or likely to lift from the bible and church father’s than Thucydides.[17] All authors were intimately connected with the city and its fall.

Normally I would copy paste in the Greek/Latin text and translate. But I am having to rely on the poorly scanned, low res, Patrologica Graeca. So instead I will rapidly translate/summarise one of the accounts to give you a flavour of the fall. I am going to choose Doukas because I like his Greek style and he is actually close to a hostile witness. He seemed to at least partially blame the fall on the inability of the Palaeologoi to make the reunification of the churches more fact than fiction. He is also happy to castigate the poor showing of the Romans, wherever relevant, and praise the Italian mercenaries led by Giovanni Giustiniani.

Sections 39-41 of the chronicle describe the fall and its immediate aftermath. The Emperor falls as a common soldier, the Turks break in. The great ancient monasteries are looted, the women are raped. Some Romans fall back to the Hagia Sophia but even that gets sacked. Doukas is reticent to speak “how shall I describe it…. I am unable to breathe” but describes the way holy icons are hacked apart and golden and silver carried off. At one point the sultan stops a soldier from smashing a church “for the faith” not out of piety but because he is now in possession of the city (40). The sultan seems to vacillate between playing the magnanimous conqueror, on one hand, and raping the only surviving son of Loukas Notaras on the other. “Oh, City, Oh City” (41) he ends, and I think that cry has echoed down the ages. George Sphrantzes’ account is similar, with the addition of a sad personal anecdote. His family are amongst those enslaved and he tries to track them down to ransom them. By then, his wife had been sold to a Turkish cavalry commander and his son and daughter to the royal harem.

There are endless amounts of such stories. You do not have to delve into folk poetry (girls and boys held and raped at the altar, the priest and deacon disappearing mid service to return, the last emperor becoming marble etc) to find them. In accordance with Islamic tradition, the Sultan gave his soldiers three days to sack the City and they seemed eager to do a century worth of harm.

What of the City? The monasteries and churches were looted and or torched. It would be a while before some of the monumental architecture disappeared completely – travellers a century later still saw Justinian’s equestrian statue, and in fact a few mosaics also lasted another two centuries. The initial rape was violent and sudden, the residual molestation and abuse more protracted. Like Doukas I find it hard to speak here. Not out of any religious sense, but because I genuinely have no idea where to begin. The famous Stoudios  Monastery now became the Imrahor Mosque, Constantine’s Church of the Apostles was demolished to make way for Fetih (Conquest) Mosque, they did not even bother rebuilding over the St. Mary of Blachernae…the list goes on and on and on and on. It is easier to simply mention that one church was left standing as a church, St Mary of the Mongols – though it was still looted.

Before we return to the Hagia Sophia I just want to take a second to talk about Constantine’s Church of the Apostles. The process of converting churches into mosques was often architecturally violent, we have to rely overmuch on artwork and travellers account, but there is ample evidence that the similarly named church at Venice was built to resemble it. So that is something. Worse to me is that this was where several Roman Emperors from Constantine onward were buried. Their graves were desecrated, sarcophagi looted and smashed etc, but we have a few remaining.

1200px-Istanbul_-_Museo_archeologico_-_Sarcofagi_imperiali_bizantini_-_Foto_G._Dall'Orto_28-5-2006_2 - Copy
Who is buried there? Constantine? Anastasius? Justinian? (well no, they smashed his corpse for the gold), Theodosius? JULIAN? Who knows? There they are for the wind to buffet and dogs to piss upon.

Back to the great church that started all this. It was, as I said, turned into a mosque. Here is a great thread by @History_Twerp detailing the ways in which the Ottomans used temple conversion and minarets to psychologically humiliate and mock conquered populations. The academic citations talk about Aleppo etc, but strategy is the same:

The loss of the great church as loomed large in the Greek folk tradition. Greek folk poetry is interesting, amongst Classicists Homeric specialists might be tangentially familiar with it due to the work of J Notopoulos on Crete, here is some quick context for everyone else. It is composed in “political” metre named not for any especially political theme but for the City. Just as in Latin Urbs is always Rome and in English City is always London, likewise in Greek Polis is always Constantinople. There is ample evidence that this oral metre goes back to the middle/end of the Byzantine period. It is 15 syllables across with a typical caesura at the eighth beat. Anyway, here is one version of a popular lament for the church. I include it because it has a reflex in many versions in many Greek dialects, and because specialists argue that it goes back to the fall of the city.[18]

I am conscious as to my lack of space, but the final couplet jumps out. After lamenting the fall of city and church and accepting that is gods will, the mourners sing:

“Hush now, lady maiden, neither cry nor weep

Again, with years and time, it will belong to thee”

Maybe. Hopefully. Unlikely. There certainly was not a god when Mehmet made his way through the City. He had a poem of his own. We are unsure whether he uttered these words at Hagia Sophia, the Chora, or even the Apostoleion Church where generations of Caesars were buried. Either way, they have come down to us:

“The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars;

The owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.”

It is perhaps ironic that the death knell of the Roman state was a Persian couplet. But I do not think, had they any way of knowing, the sons of Sassan would be smiling…

Fetih Redux


We have covered, at an admittedly rapid pace, some of the history and context of the initial conquest in 1453. I am now going to untangle some of the language and context behind the recent decision, which will require us to get our hands dirty with Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics. But there you go.

It would facile, however fitting, to point out the humour behind this. Erdogan reciting a poem he did not write, in a language he does not speak, to celebrate the desecration of something another culture built. Cruel commentators might even highlight the juxtaposition between doughy, pig-eyed, Erdogan and the trim, handsome, Ottoman and Safavid princelings who grew up hawking, hunting, and composing poetry with one hand tied behind their backs. But this is a serious statement as to Erdogan’s intent and vision for his administration, this co-option (or, to use fashionable modern language, appropriation) of the poetry of Mehmet the Conqueror sends a clear message. It would be laughable were his supporters not so widespread and violent. His attempt to portray himself as a new sultan has gone so far as to prompt his wife to openly praise the Ottoman harem. Hmm.

Despite the limp-wristed international condemnation, Erdogan’s move will certainly prove to be an astute one with much of the Turkish population offering at least tacit approval.  “As the grandchildren of Mehmet the Conqueror, seeking the re-opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque is our legitimate right” said one youth leader.[19] There have been protests towards this for years. Perhaps the name itself is cursed. There are at least seven such named churches in Turkey, two in Constantinople (both are now mosques), and five outside. Most of these are mosques, including the dilapidated Hagia Sophia at Nicaea (I am unsure about the recently restored one at Trebizond).[20]

One should not underestimate the inherently international nature of this gesture either. Erdogan is adept at speaking from both sides of his mouth and the Turkish bet that idiotic westerners will neither learn foreign languages nor check foreign press has, overall, proven to be a good one. How many are commenting on this? How many know the relevance? The Al-Aqsa was built directly on the old temple complex as ritual humiliation of the city’s native population, it has proven to be a serious source of unrest between Israel and Palestine. These sorts of promises serve not only to enflame his base but to signal to the broader Muslim world that he is ready to take on the role of Caliph as his Ottoman predecessors did upon taking Constantinople.

Imperial states are inherently supranational and much of Turkish foreign policy has been cast in this imperial mode. You might recall the recent opening of a mosque at Cambridge.[21] Sensible watchers might wonder why a head of a foreign government was visiting the opening of a minority religious structure (well, it seats 1000), in a provincial town. If so, they are far too intelligent to work for any of our news agencies. Erdogan turned up in state, and Cambridge found itself hosting both Turks from all over the country and protestors (Armenians, Kurds, Turkish liberals/secularists etc etc, interesting how the news has erased these voices). The same year saw similar behaviour in Bosnia, with the addition of his bodyguards clashing with local police over giving up their guns.[22] Those with slightly longer memories might recall a similarly, violent, kerfuffle outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in the US.[23] In the US. Ah well, what are laws or sovereign states to an emperor, am I right?

Similarly, the heating up of the Eastern Mediterranean should be cause for alarm for us all. The constant violation of Greek air and sea space, the weaponization of refugees (can there be anything fucking lower? Really?), interference in Libya and Syria, clashes with France over the former… this will not end well.[24] So this is the context of the recent Hagia Sophia decision. Not because Turkey needs another mosque (it really, really, does not) but because history can be powerful, and the “reconquest” of the great church is replete with Ottoman imagery and sends a powerful message to those who know how to read it. Sometimes they are as blatant as this:


Sometimes you need to know a little history. Take this:

That almost sounds lovely, does it not? No, I am joking, if you for one moment thought so please take yourself to the nearest primary school and enrol in a Mathematics course you moron.  The land currently known as Turkey can boast two of the five ancient pentarchy sees (Constantinople and Antioch), as well as all seven churches of revelation.[25] Asia minor in particularly was, for well over a thousand years, the most significant Christian built environment. Even with the whole scale conversion and destruction of churches, do you have any idea how much genocide you have to commit to get a ratio like that? Ask an Armenian. If you can find one.

The Greeks have been involved in Asia Minor almost as long as there have been Greeks. We do not necessarily know where Ahhiyawa was, whether it included any land in Asia (though Miletus – Milawanda – seemed to be in their orbit), though it seemed like the king of Luwian Troy had a Greek name. They were there after the bronze age collapse.[26] They were there to borrow Assyrian words, to mingle with Persians and Medes before either had an empire, to trade stories in a pan East-Med tradition that goes back to the Sumerians. They are not there now. How do you think that happened? Besides a cheeky bit of genocide and forced conversion, there was also forced “repatriation” (a silly word here, given history!). Let me reinforce the recency of this. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were more Greeks in Constantinople and Smyrna than Athens. Again, it is no coincidence that the church will resume duties on the 24th of July, the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. This date celebrates the mass exodos of Greeks and the formal handing over of Constantinople from the Allies to the Turks. This is a provocation, a threat, and a nod and a wink to certain domestic voters.

Ok, let us sit back a second before finishing off. Now, if after all of this, you can see any similarities with a Roman emperor like Phokas or Constans II or Justinian handing over public buildings to the ecclesiastical authorities to become churches, please let me know. I honestly can not see it. It is the difference between your grandfather handing you sweets and someone breaking into his house, killing him, burning the house and taking the sweets for himself. I wonder whence this malaise of thinking. Perhaps because we are not used to thinking of the Romans as Christians (or later Rome at all), we assume that Christianity came as foreign and violently as did Islam. I think this is western chauvinism as much as it is illiteracy. We associate ourselves with the pagan Romans, convinced we are just like them. Turks are going to Turk. They are a sovereign nation state, and nobody expects better. It is, however, particularly annoying when hordes of academics – self professed experts in their fields insist on spewing such bull shit. Congratulations! You can now add not speaking Modern Greek to your CV alongside not knowing Latin or Ancient Greek! I marvel at the kinds of intellect which can sit there at the British or American Schools at Athens, drinking overpriced “coffee”, thinking themselves so wise and seeing so little. It would be funny if the rest of us did not have to have our taxes scalped to pay for it. You are at best useful fools and at least contemptuous of the past. You should be ashamed.

I am going to end now with an explanation of why Turkey is behaving the way it is, with a deep schizophrenia towards its history. But rest assured this is not over. Turkish irredentism towards the Ottoman Empire and former Caliphate (however they choose to define it, hence constant references to Al Andalus) is only intensifying, the treatment of the historical record is a reflection this. True, I have focused here on the Greco-Roman past – because that is what I know – we could just as easily talk about the ruinous damming of the nearly 12,000 years’ old Hasankeyf site or a dozen others…

The schizophrenia of Turkey lies in the fact that its extensive non-Turkish past is a source of both tourist revenue (which it depends upon) on one hand and shame on the other hand.  Let me explain. Classicists often have cause to study the way peoples write themselves into their environments. It is counter intuitive, but there is no real inexorable link between humans and their land anymore than there is for other animals. So, we study the ways in which people draw up aetiological myths, complicated genealogies, the way they name or build upon natural features.[27] These histories are often not factual: did the Greeks know, for example, that various “Cyclopean” structures were built by their Mycenaean ancestors? Does it matter? The way we interact with history, with the past, builds our present and sets the timbre for the future.  Turkey’s past is emphatically non-Turkish. For a vibrant, productive, confident civilisation this is scarcely a problem. England can roll its non-Germanic elements into its sense of self. Rome’s careful shepherding of Anatolia is a brilliant example of this and the focus of some interesting recent studies.[28] The Romans were caretakers of the various ancient cultures and not just the Greek elements. The Isaurians may, ironically, have spoken an Indo-European language related to Luwian, the Palaelogoi probably took their eagle (for all its reminiscences of Ianus) from Hittite reliefs, you find men with names like Trokondas well into our common era.[29]

Turkey has chosen another way. Dismissive, brutal, rapacious, conquering. Almost a decade past a film was released, Fetih 1453, which typifies this attitude. You can read the limpid Guardian review here in full (or just watch the film). It is a hilariously violent, racist, chauvinistic film. Naturally, it was critically acclaimed and widely viewed in Turkey. To put this in perspective, Americans still make sympathetic films about the Natives, Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi could win awards, and even the Russians moderate their Soviet history. This would be the equivalent of the Germans releasing a film which starts with Hitler defecating in front of a synagogue and winking at the camera. Movies not enough for you? Want something more interactive? Why not visit the Panorama 1453  Museum and relive the conquest in all its glory? At least they are honest about their mission statement: “We hope that your enthusiasm for the conquest remains as fresh and permanent as is, and gives inspiration for the conqueror of the future…[30] Now, to my knowledge, the British Museum does not have a life-sized cardboard cut out of Lord Elgin with his dick out in front of the marbles and a “get fucked, losers” speech-bubble – though I will admit none of the museum trustees will reply to my e-mails on this allegation. Erdogan’s insanity does not exist in a vacuum.

Did it have to be this way? Historians love employing counterfactuals (because you do not have to cite anything), in and around the carnage there do seem to be brief glimpses of a different world. Nothing will mitigate the brutality of conquest and the subsequent subjugation of a broad swathe of peoples, of course, but see that Mehmet was also able to utilise the language of Greco-Roman mythic diplomacy (declaring himself a Trojan against Greeks, very clever) and whilst a popular recent study on “Classics” and the “East” inevitably descends into Western guilt ridden navel gazing,[31] diligent readers can see the way “Easterners” were able to use these texts to define themselves on their own terms. It is tempting to point to Islam as the distinguishing factor here, there is certainly some truth to that, yet better models of Islamic kingship could be found all over the Persianate world. The Mughals could produce blood thirsty Babur and open, pluralistic Akbar.[32] The magnanimity of Alp Arslan has passed into legend. Some of this penetrated later Ottoman culture too. Who can forget Evliya Çelebi’s honest appreciation of the Parthenon or his ability to sympathise with the various peoples of the empire? It is to this nativist strain, as much as Western Humanism, that Ataturk’s moderation belonged. It could have been so different. Oh, but that too has failed.

Alkinoos, play us out.

[1] Zosimus, arguably the last pagan historian, somewhat takes his direction. IIRC Constantine partially has to leave Rome because he made himself persona non grata to the resident aristocracy. Yeah, Z was not a fan.

[2] I am not entirely au fait with the archaeology of early Constantinople (but then, who is?), but I think even with the heavy appropriation/destruction we can have some slight sense of the early capital. https://www.livius.org/articles/place/constantinople-istanbul/constantines-city/

[3] “be thou luckier than Augustus, [and] better than Trajan”. Eutropius 8.5. Incidentally, Eutropius was a member of Julian’s comitatus and had firsthand experience of late imperial attitudes. See also Julian’s Caesars for similar attitudes (though predictably, given the author, M. Aurelius comes out on top). “Lucky” is a poor translation of felix, something like “propitious” or “well omened” might be more like it. It may even be a pun on Augustus as, well, being august.

[4] It would take Theodosius to really put the knife into the old faith(s).

[5] Listen, no emperor ever really solved this. The tetrarchy, the limes, field armies, themata etc were all attempts of various success at various times. Nobody has ever solved this problem.

[6] Mere lists do not tell a story (unless you are Homer, I guess), but look at this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sieges_of_Constantinople

[7] Though, ok, they did put a dynasty on the throne…that worked out great. Amazing. Yuge benefit.

[8] Justinian and Hadrian’s building policies would make a good comparison. For the philologist, Justinian’s age saw a gigantic outpouring of texts. If not Augustan, it was at least Neronian in its scope here.

[9] These three names really do belong together. Constantine very quickly became someone to be emulated throughout the (post)Roman world. The letters of the quisling Cassiodorus, the coinage, legal issue, and building of the Frankish kings (if only more Merovingian stuff survived…), even the Anglo-Saxon coronation ceremony all derive from this era. Despite the insistence of Greekless popular “historians” that this marks an Eastern break from Rome (???). Likewise, Constantine IV named his son Justinian (second of that name, 685-695, 705-11) in hopes of further renovatio. Tbf, he did famously renovate his own face, so that was something.

[10] Procopius literally calls it stasis, the same word we use for civil war. Whether this is because he was classicising, or he had a better sense of the danger than we moderns, who knows? Either way – Justinian and Theodora faced the rioters down.

[11] Call it laziness, call it expediency, I am taking text and translation directly from Dewing’s Loeb (because it is online). I have excerpted heavily from the sections on the great church. The translation is actually not that bad, outside of the technical bits, the text hardly that insane. Nice.

[12] I will leave specific recommendations to experts. As a child I owned and enjoyed Canby, S. R. (1993). Persian painting. London: British Museum Press. It was decently illustrated and I found the bits on Timurid/Mongol influence interesting.

[13] I am going to assume this is widely available. I mean it is easy to get Geoffroi de Villehardouin’s account, which was composed in a barbarous language of little account.

[14] 192 years! Even if we – as we should – add the Theodosian and Valentinian dynasties together we get 92 years, and almost half of that is Theodosius II. This is such an outlier in Roman history of any period.

[15] Our western conception of kingship is literally barbaric, in the sense that it has Germanic origins. In fact, other non-Germanic Western languages often take their vocabulary for kingship from Germanic. E.g Lithuanian karalius (king < Charlemagne), kunigaikštis (duke < kuningaz); Finnish kuningas (<kuningaz); Polish król (< Charlemagne).

[16] Runciman, S. (1965). The fall of Constantinople 1453. Cambridge University Press; Philippides, M., & Hanak, W. K. (2017). The siege and the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Routledge

[17] The former should be of great interest to Classicists.

[18] The argument here is based on how the various versions depict the final service. One effect of 19th century national formation is that Greek academia has taken folk lore studies (laography, laistics) very seriously, and produced a lot of good work.

[19] https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-turkey-prayer/thousands-pray-for-istanbul-landmark-to-become-mosque-idUKBRE84P0FV20120526 literally the first such quote I found, there are a ridiculous amount of these.

[20] https://www.economist.com/europe/2013/07/27/erasing-the-christian-past

[21] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-50666385

[22] https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/erdogan-visits-bosnia-as-part-of-bigger-game/ ; guns https://www.dw.com/en/turkish-president-erdogans-bodyguards-clash-with-bosnian-police/a-49517150

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clashes_at_the_Turkish_Ambassador%27s_Residence_in_Washington,_D.C.

[24] So my predominant knowledge of these important current events, sorry, comes from the financial markets, but honestly the FT special report on Turkey and the Arab world is a good place to start. As are most Greek language newspapers for the Greek aspects.

[25] Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Sardis, Laodicea, Philadelphia, Thyatira.

[26] J Latacz (2001) Troia und Homer. Berlin remains the best source on this for classicists. You can also find English translations of the Ahhiyawa letters and Alaksandu treaty quite easily.

[27] Hydronomy is for this reason an incredibly fecund source of myth. A good example of myth applied to natural environs might be the Peloponnese (< the island of Pelops) or how the Gibraltar straits became the Pillars of Herakles. Built, rather than natural, is probably a bit more intuitive. From Scythian grave mounds, to Stone Henge, to the Parthenon…

[28] Rojas, F. (2019). The remains of the past and the invention of archaeology in Roman Anatolia: Interpreters, traces, horizons. Cambridge University Press; Thonemann, P. (2013). Roman Phrygia: Culture and society. Cambridge University Press.

[29] Trokondas son of Trokondas son of Atteous was named after the bronze age Anatolian stormgod. Compare that to the fate of Greek speakers in modern Turkey. Yeah…

[30] https://www.panoramikmuze.com/en/about-us they have made the mistake of directly translating the Turkish, breaking a Turkish state rule of saying one thing to the west and another to the east.

[31] Toner, J. (2013). Homer’s Turk. Harvard University Press.

[32] The best appreciation of Akbar, and those like him, remains Truschke, A. (2016). Culture of encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal court. Columbia University Press.

Nero and the Punic Internet Scam

It has been a while. Admittedly, time constraints aside, I had a series of posts that I scuppered because they did not seem like they would be read charitably in this environment (on memory and statuary). I neither wanted to waste the time editing them to include current events, nor ignore them completely. If you have been missing these posts, you can find one of my reviews here. Meanwhile, I was happily reading Tacitus (book one excerpted, lol) when I came across the following interesting little anecdote, which has set me down a path of some philological detective work.

Fair warning: I am quite sleep deprived and probably less coherent and certainly less well edited than usual. I will clean this post up in a few days.

inlusit dehinc Neroni fortuna per uanitatem ipsius et promissa Caeselli Bassi, qui origine Poenus, mente turbida, nocturnae quietis imaginem ad spem haud dubiae rei traxit, uectusque Romam, principis aditum emercatus, expromit repertum in agro suo specum altitudine immensa, quo magna uis auri contineretur, non in formam pecuniae sed rudi et antiquo pondere.  lateres quippe praegrauis iacere, adstantibus parte alia columnis; quae per tantum aeui occulta augendis praesentibus bonis. ceterum, ut coniectura demonstrabat, Dido Phoenissam Tyro profugam condita Carthagine illas opes abdidisse, ne nouus populus nimia pecunia lasciuiret aut reges Numidarum, et alias infensi, cupidine auri ad bellum accenderentur.

Nero now became the sport of fortune as a result of his own credulity and the promises of Caesellius Bassus. Punic by origin and mentally deranged, Bassus treated the vision he had seen in a dream by night as a ground of confident expectation, took ship to Rome, and, buying an interview with the emperor, explained that he had found on his estate an immensely deep cavern, which contained a great quantity of gold, not transformed into coin but in unwrought and ancient bullion. For there were ponderous ingots on the floor; while, in another part, the metal was piled in columns — a treasure which had lain hidden through the centuries in order to increase the prosperity of the present era. The Phoenician Dido, so his argument ran, after her flight from Tyre and her foundation at Carthage, had concealed the hoard, for fear that too much wealth might tempt her young nation to excess, or that the Numidian princes, hostile on other grounds as well, might be fired to arms by the lust of gold.[1]

This story is carried over into the next two paragraphs, which I have neglected to include due to reasons of space. Interested readers very much ought to read the whole selection (16.1-3), but here I shall give a precis. Like many a speculator, Nero rushes ahead without his due diligence, he commits a great deal of resources (in the form of triremes) and the size of the treasure is magnified by rumour. When Bassus is unable to find the treasure he (and this is a typical Neronian theme, is it not?) either kills himself or has his property confiscated.

Throughout this passage, Tacitus is never too far from his best and the language and characterisation would definitely repay further study. Nero, for example, is elsewhere characterised as being avaricious and gold seems to be an ironic characteristic of his reign. We might ask ourselves why and how he fell for such a trick. I think there are two reasons, one obvious and the other less so. For the first, the story is repeated with some variation in Suetonius. This should not be surprising: Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny and Martial all must have more or less moved in the same circles and traded the same kinds of stories. In Suetonius (Nero 31-2) we learn that Nero’s failed venture left him unable to pay the soldiers and that he subsequently resorted to robbery and skimming from wills. We’re perhaps meant to laugh at Nero’s poor fiscal management, personally I think Suetonius and Tacitus probably have put the cart before the horse: it was poverty – from extravagance (Nero’s and Claudius’[2]) and e.g the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 – which made Nero susceptible to this scheme. Everything about this stinks of a “fuck it, double down” kind of move that typifies some of the funniest trading stories I have heard.[3] Like most people caught in a scam, he ultimately persuaded himself. This seems to me to cover why, what about how?

There are a lot of questions here, as much about the roles of memory, myth, literature, and history as the prosaic ones at the Neronian court. Think what this presupposes. That Dido existed. That she fled Tyre. That she left encumbered with gold she did not use. Why? Where did this come from?

Domus aurea: Sala Octogonal (menjador) | Octagonal Room (din… | Flickr
Nero’s domus aurea. He loved gold, subsequent emperors found this complex unseemly.

I suspect the ultimate source of the myth may well be Virgil. Mid-way through the first book of the Aeneid, Aeneas, and crew (well, seven remaining ships’ worth) have arrived at a promontory somewhere in Africa. Aeneas and Achates set off hunting and stumble across Venus in the guise of some sort of Amazonian local. I suppose the poet is aiming for a funnier version of the scene with Odysseus and Nausikaa, but what is more interesting for us is the way in which Virgil uses Venus to give us, his readers, some rapid exposition. These lands are ruled by Dido, who was (like Bassus) origine Poena from the city of Tyre.[4] Her brother Pygamlion murdered her husband out of avarice and lied to her, pacifying her with hope…

ipsa sed in somnis inhumati venit imago But in sleep came the very ghost of her unburied
coniugis; ora modis attollens pallida miris husband, raising his pale face in wondrous wise,
crudelis aras traiectaque pectora ferro the cruel altars and his breast pierced with steel
nudavit, caecumque domus scelus omne retexit. he exposed, unveiling all the blind horror of the house.
tum celerare fugam patriaque excedere suadet Then, he persuades her take speedy flight and leave her country,
auxiliumque viae veteres tellure recludit and as an aid to her road, he revealed long kept in the earth
thesauros, ignotum argenti pondus et auri. treasures – a weight gold and silver, unknown.
his commota fugam Dido sociosque parabat. Moved by these things, Dido prepared both flight and company.

Aeneid 1.353-60

I strongly suspect that these lines were the direct origin of the rumour Nero fell for in Tacitus and Suetonius. Note that in Virgil the treasure is presented as an auxilium viae rather than something to be hidden in the earth for future generations. This is obviously more logical, but I wonder also whether Virgil’s own sad experience with land appropriation and resettlement made him more attuned to the physical requirements thereof. Dido did not originate with Virgil, but this really seems to me to be the kind of Virgilian invention.

Just how firm is the tradition behind Dido anyway? Wolfgang Kullman speaks of a faktenkannon, that is to say, a series of hyper-traditional facets/actions of any given character that oral tradition cannot reasonably alter. This is one of those useful German neo-analytical heuristics that sadly is rarely used in Anglo scholarship.[5] As time goes on and orality becomes less productive, these strict bounds loosen, but there are still some rules. Some sense of canon. Achilles can have a secret meeting with Helen, but he cannot actually sack Troy any more than Patroclus can.

Troy (2004) Achilles Heel (explanation in comments) : MovieDetails
It is not Orlando Bloom, but the epic tradition which is killing Brad Pitt.

I mention this partly to funnel interested readers towards Neo-Analytic scholarship but largely to establish that the level of variation open to Virgil was quite, well, varied within these constraints. The fewer extant sources, the better. That the legend of Dido originated with actual Semitic speakers seems to me largely probable. “Dido” is not, to my (limited) knowledge, analysable as Semitic but the alternate name provided by the tradition – Elissa – seems to have Canaanite origins (e.g Elishat, the Greek even retains stress on the first syllable). Nevertheless, it is also obvious that much of the myth shows heavy Greek influence: the characterisation of eastern royal harem politics, Punics as wealthy, greedy, schemers, even the origin of the so called Dido problem betrays Greek etymological games (the name for the Carthaginian hinterland, Byrsa, comes from the Greek for hide).[6] We can rule out direct Punic influence for the broader details, though now I am really sad that the pseudo-Aristotelian Carthaginian Constitution did not come down to us. It is obvious that the major sources for the myth must have been Greek, though we are scarcely better off here.

Timaeus, writing in the 3rd century BC, scarcely survives. We tend to assume that Dionysius of Halicarnassus reused much of his work, but his section on Aeneas (1.44-75) does not mention Dido or Carthage at all. If Timaeus spoke of Dido at length (and he may have)[7], there was at that time no link with Aeneas. Another historian, the fantastically named Pompeius Trogus, goes into greater detail on Dido’s story but likewise omits Aeneas. Well, as far as we can tell – he survives only in epitomes. It may be significant that both Pompeius Trogus and Dionysius were writing during the Augustan era, and that they reflect the timbre of antique learning at court. Who knows?

So, whilst it looks like the antiquity of Carthaginian Dido is without question, it seems like Virgil may have invented the meeting between Dido and Aeneas. The one potential exception is Naevius (or Apple-Bro, if you like). Naevius wrote an epic on the Punic Wars and so would have had ample opportunity to talk about the putative ancestors of the Carthaginians. What is more interesting, is that we know he mentioned Aeneas. Does the Virgilian version begin with Naevius, then? It is possible, even probable, but far from certain. After all, there is no reason to suppose that Naevius’ Aeneas and Dido ever met, besides artistry.[8] It is entirely possible Naevius did little more than enumerate separate founding myths to contextualise the two warring sides before bringing them together (sort of like Herodotus). Nor are the assurances of commentators/excerptors/rudebois like Servius and Macrobius that such and such a bit of Virgil translatus est especially reassuring. God alone knows what their criterion is, how consistent they are, or whether they have even read the Republican era poetry to which they are referring.[9]

Instead, much hangs on a possible reading of a single fragment (fr. 23) of Naevius, saved by the late grammarian Nonius Marcellus:

blande et docte percontat Aenea quo pacto Troiam urbem liquisset With charm and learnedness s/he asked in what manner Aeneas left behind the city of Troy.

You can see how ambiguous this is. The bibliography is larger than I am willing to tackle, but my sense is that the communis opinio doctorum assumes that the speaker is Latinus. Certainly the new Loeb seems to think so, which re-orders the fragment as 19 and pairs it with the birth of Romulus at 20, nisi fallor. Maybe my mind is clouded by Virgil but this does not seem right to me. Blande may or may not be marked vocabulary, but it is used of Dido by Virgil (blandiisque…vocibus) and it hardly seems fitting for a rugged, rustic, king like Latinus.[10] Likwise docte seems to suit Dido more than he. Who can forget Dido’s confident questioning of Aeneas? As she herself says: non obtusa adeo gestamus pectora Poeni. Surely the whole point of Latinus and his aborigines is that they aren’t at the centre of events post Trojan war?

Maybe I am just suffering from a Virgilian mirage, and it is now impossible to think of Latinus and Saturnian Italy outside of this. Ah well. There are worse diseases. Whatever the case, I think it is clear that Virgil built up his Dido – and the relationship between her and Aeneas – significantly more than any previous Greek or Latin source. Whilst his has came down to us at the dominant version, it may not necessarily have been held as such by the cognoscenti:

si proponam eis interrogans, utrum verum sit quod Aenean aliquando Carthaginem venisse poeta dicit, indoctiores nescire se respondebunt, doctiores autem etiam negabunt verum esse

if I question them, asking whether what the poet says is true, that Aeneas ever came to Carthage, the poorly educated will reply that they do not know, while the better educated will indeed say that it is untrue 

Augustine Confessions 1.22

Augustine was a Punic by descent and may even have known of some local legends about characters like Elishat and Pumayyaton. But then he probably pronounced his /s/ like /sh/. What a nerd.[11] What is amazing is that a throwaway, explanatory, piece of the Aeneid could end up defrauding the Emperor of Rome. Especially given the time scale. Let’s say the Aeneid was “published” in 19 BC, and that Nero fell for this between 65-8 AD. That is a shockingly quick turnaround. Admittedly, the success of the Aeneid was by any definition shockingly quick. Caecilius Epirota must have burnt his hands snatching it from the funeral pure; Horace had Livius Andronicus beaten into him one generation, the next saw Roman school children the empire over learning arma virumque cano. Years and years ago I read a book (Gowing’s Empire and Memory) which argued that Nero’s generation was the first to grow up without a functional memory of the Republic, its institutions, mores and – now I add, literature – it was convincing back then, and I can’t help but think that this whole situation might have been avoided if Nero and his gang just #ReadTheirTexts.

[1] Due to the sheer size of the text and paucity of time, I am taking the translation directly from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/tacitus/annals/16*.html

[2] To be honest, I am rarely confident I am on sure footing indicting Claudius’ fiscal administration like this, it feels right but I would not test my reading in a court of law. But then few Roman emperors besides Anastasius (491-518) showed anything like fiscal restraint or common sense….

[3] Had Caesar been born in the late 20th century, I guarantee he would have become an options trader and/or cocaine addict.

[4] Incidentally, I may be leaning too hard on this name as evidence for Punic ancestry (outside Tacitus’ wry comment; Suetonius simply calls him an eques – not an equus as I excitedly thought at 4am ☹). But aren’t several people named Bassus/Bas(s)ianus associated with the Severans all the way down to Junius Bassus in the 4th c?

[5] With the passing of men like West and Burkert, it seems like Homeric scholarship is destined never to rise above the level of “but mommy said it’s all oral tradition uwu uwu uwu”. Ugh. These people certainly do not understand the concept of “tradition”. I would venture likewise for “oral” too, except they’re consistently trying to self-fellate within their scholarship so, yeah, they understand that word.

[6] Does anyone outside of the classically trained refer to it as the Dido problem? My senior school Maths teacher did, but then he went to a local grammar. Most seem to refer to it as the Isoperimetric Problem. Thanks Jacob Steiner… if you want more on this, start here: https://www.maa.org/press/periodicals/convergence/the-sagacity-of-circles-a-history-of-the-isoperimetric-problem-the-work-of-jakob-steiner

[7] I think it incredibly likely. Dido – we have said, based on her alternate name – almost certainly had Semitic providence. As do several other Punic characters like Pygmalion. Timaeus probably followed a more antique tradition that puts Dido a generation or three later than the Trojan war.

[8] Personally, I think Naevius was more than capable of this. I think much of his reputation has been coloured by Ennius’ cruel and bitchy dismissal…

[9] There is nothing unique about this in classical literature. A lot of our commentating authors are considerably less well read than we might at first seem. Though I think only Homerists have worked this out systematically…for Republican Latin poetry see Jocelyn, H. D. (1964). Ancient scholarship and Virgil’s use of republican Latin poetry. I. The Classical Quarterly, 14(2), 280-295 and sequel. For Naevius see Luck, G. (1983). Naevius and Virgil. Illinois Classical Studies, 8(2), 267-275

[10] Is it often/at all used of men? As a student, this is the sort of thing you would assiduously check on TLL…

[11] When will PhDs and theologians finally accept than when God told Augustine tolle et lege the first part was an injunction to lift some fucking weights? “oh, I don’t want to go the games”.

Who Guards the Guards? Scythian Police in Cambridge

Quis custodes custodiet? Like many witty apothegms from Latin literature (Horace’s carpe diem being the most famous – see Lugubelinus), this has taken on an afterlife of its own far beyond its original context. Juvenal originally meant to call to mind the worry of every husband in a sexually licentious Rome. Here are the surrounding lines, though you ought to read the entire poem. Actually, you ought to read all of Juvenal:

“pone seram, cohibe.” sed quis custodiet ipsos

custodes? cauta est et ab illis incipit uxor.

“Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who will guard

the guards themselves? The wife is cautious and begins with them.

Marital fidelity was of crucial import to the ancients. There was no XXIII mecumque, and the need to carry on the patrilineal line safely was paramount (and indeed would have been symbolically enacted at every funeral via a process wearing imagines, Roman death masks). It is true that adoption was not considered an entirely shameful option, but it really is hard to overwrite biology in this way. No less capable an emperor than M. Aurelius gave the empire over to his biological son and farting Vespasian gave way to impaling Domitian.

Rome began, doubly so really, with a rape, yet marriage and the family (not the state) were the heart of Rome, and its violation was no laughing matter. When Suetonius tells us Augustus’ friends alleged him to have committed adultery for political rather than carnal reasons (excusantes sane non libidine, sed ratione commissa 69) he is not painting him as some effete limp …er…wristed striver, but some sort of violator and emasculator in chief. Especially when coupled with his stringent anti-adultery/pro-marriage laws (see the treatment of his freedman Polus at 67.2; the moralising legislation at 39).

This is not a post about adultery, incidentally. Given the current state of the lockdown how would you even get away with it? Even if you were Zeus and could turn yourself into her husband…anyway.

Who guards the guards indeed? But, as I said, the original context has much got away from us and the phrase’s nachleben has generated some interesting readings. Perhaps the most popular being Alan Moore’s Watchmen which treats it as a political statement. Admittedly the Romans had difficulty telling fucking and politicking apart, but this is the sense most of us know the phrase. Recent events across the country during the corona virus lockdown bring this latter usage to mind:

Putting Orwell and Huxley on the senior school reading lists since time out of mind seems to have encouraged an obscene number of faceless bureaucrats to take them as instructional manuals. Who is watching over these morons? What recourse do we as citizens have, in the wake of failing institutions? We started with a quote from Juvenal, who has been dismissed as a serious author since antiquity:

Quidam detestantes ut venena doctrinas, Iuvenalem et Marium Maximum curatiore studio legunt. nulla volumina praeter haec in profundo otio contrectantes, quam ob causam non iudicioli est nostri.

Certain people hate learning as if poison and read with careful attention only Juvenal and Marius Maximus. In their profound idleness they handle no books besides these, for what reason it is not for me to judge.

Ammianus Marcellinus 28.4.14

But his work has attracted no less serious a mind than Housman and I have always found Satire generally to be a genre conducive to understanding antiquity on the ground, as it were. Regardless, this question has been one that has plagued societies from antiquity onward. We will hear more from both Juvenal and Ammianus later. For now, we are going to consider the implications of our original quotation in light of recent events. It is not a mere question of oversight and responsibility, but how do we define and devolve power? Who gets to hold it? What are they entitled too?

A quick note. You will notice from the date on the tweet that I had meant to get this out a…brief while ago. Apologies if this now seems a little stale. More importantly, many people are tweet-deleting cowards (especially the police!). This means a) I have lost a lot of material because it never occurred to me to take pictures and b) I am relying on those smart cookies, like the above, who did take them.

Setting Wolves to Guard Sheep: The Athenian Solution

The central conceit of Athenian democracy was that all men were equal under the franchise (Greekless political scientists have tried to make formulations such as isonomia and isegoria more problematic than they were). For this to function in practice the status of citizenship had to be something inviable and jealously guarded. The disquiet one senses throughout the Pseudo-Xenophontian Old Oligarch is effectively concerned with this and the consequences of widening the suffrage (10-11) to where freeborn males can be in material state equivalent to slaves (how do you know whom to beat!?!). Several Athenian laws are concerned with the makeup, treatment, and privilege of the citizen body (in addition to its continued propagation)[1]. The most pertinent, for us, must be the so called graphe hybreos.

That such a law existed is almost certain but, equally, we have no firm evidence for it ever coming to trial.[2] The crimes and behaviour it concerned were broad ranging but may be (roughly) summarised as those affecting the personage and status of a citizen. Rape, for example, came under this as it compromised the wives and daughters of citizens.[3] As did the accosting, apprehension, and striking of a citizen. This then underlies the Old Oligarch’s concern over how things were in democratic Athens. Striking a slave was one thing, a citizen something else entirely – with loss of citizenship or even death on the line.

Civilisation (in its etymological sense, as urbanisation) practically foments and invites crime.

ἡ δὲ τῶν νόμων ἰσχὺς τίς ἐστιν; ἆρ᾽ ἐάν τις ὑμῶν ἀδικούμενος ἀνακράγῃ, προσδραμοῦνται καὶ παρέσονται βοηθοῦντες; οὔ: γράμματα γὰρ γεγραμμέν᾽ ἐστί, καὶ οὐχὶ δύναιντ᾽ ἂν τοῦτο ποιῆσαι. τίς οὖν ἡ δύναμις αὐτῶν ἐστιν; ὑμεῖς

And what is the strength of the laws? If one of you, having been wronged, cries out, will the laws run up and be present, assisting? No; they are only written texts and incapable of doing such. Where, then, is their power? In yourselves…

Demosthenes 21.224

It is a bravura speech, much concerned with the power and enforcement of the laws. The message is clear: laws (customs, really) are only as good as the citizen body willing to enforce them. But what do you do when citizens aren’t willing to listen? When they need to be physically impugned in some way? This creates a paradox. The power may rest in you, citizens, but if you apprehend someone and the jury turns against you, well…How did the Athenians solve it?

The Athenian solution was to use public slaves. Just as all citizens effectively held a share in the state all technically had part ownership of these human beings (hence the appellation demosioi).  Here is one of favourite examples: A scholion on line 22 of Aristophanes’ Acharnenses tells us that citizens caught loitering rather than voting were herded towards the assembly by means of a rope.[4] Democracy was participatory, idiot!; layabouts were fined. The psychology here is self-evident. Slaves were obviously “lesser” beings even as they shamed the citizens. The rope allowed them to forgo the laying of hands. The state expropriated resources via fines etc etc. But not all crimes as are as low energy as loitering. Enter the Scythians.

drax scythi
80% of why this post is late.

The entry for τoξóται, archers, in the Suda (τ771) tells us that these Scythians, sometimes called Speusinoi after their instituter, varied between 300-1000 in number, before being disbanded.[5] We reconstruct their general usage across a broad range of texts, scholia, and artwork. Doubtless had we still Sophocles Scythae (a satyr play?) we would have a much fuller picture of these people.

That they were ethnically marked off from the citizen body seems to me a fair assumption. They always appear in different dress (breeches, Phrygian caps, tattoos, animal patterns) and carried bows. Despite the importance of archery to the actual heroic age (and certain hero cults), the bow seems to be much despised by the hoplite classes who, after all, were rendered largely safe by their amour. That said, having been struck repeatedly with an unstrung bow, I can tell you they would make decent deterrents (I doubt they were literally shooting citizens). Ethnicity and dress aside they were also held physically apart in their barracks. This could hardly have contributed to the fellow-feeling of the citizen body at large, especially because they were quite capable of using restraining force:

οὗτος τί κύπτεις; δῆσον αὐτὸν εἰσάγων

ὦ τοξότ᾽ ἐν τῇ σανίδι, κἄπειτ᾽ ἐνθαδὶ

στήσας φύλαττε καὶ προσιέναι μηδένα

ἔα πρὸς αὐτόν, ἀλλὰ τὴν μάστιγ᾽ ἔχων

παῖ᾽ ἢν προσίῃ τις.

Why are you slouching? take him away

Archer, and tie him to the plank,

Make him stand, guard him, let no one come

near him, but use your whip to

strike any who try approach

Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 930-4

…what…what is the plank for? Aristophanes? Bro?

The above command was issued by a Prytanis, under whose command the archer corps were placed. Other uses in comedy are broadly similar.[6]

Let us sidestep a potential debate here. I have no real reason to suspect the Scythian slaves were not Scythian.  I, personally, think we need to take these ethnic distinctions seriously. There is always a debate as to how “fixed” identities and ethnicities were, but I think sometimes scholars are too keen to apply the models we might use for e.g tribal formations amongst age of migration Germanics or modern cosmopolitans which suggest a high degree of flexibility.

Ethnographic terms can be tricky, over time they themselves become literary tropes e.g when Anna Komnene writes about Roman campaigns against the Scythians (book 7 I think?), she means the Pechnegs (or some such tribe) and her audience was likely to instantly comprehend. In military terms ethnic labels can commemorate where troops were raised, stationed, or recall notable victories (as the Roman legions did). They can even denote stereotypical styles of dress and strategies (Asiatic bows, Samnite gladiators etc). People would be right to be skeptical, but the proliferation of – especially philological – evidence testifies to the deep interaction and exposure of Greeks to these Iranic nomads.


What follows is a brief sketch aimed at establishing that Greco-Scythian interactions, even on the mainland, were longstanding and that the Greeks were just calling a spade a spade when describing the archers.

As @e_pe_me_ri has recently pointed out (cannot find the tweet; no longer recent), the Linear B corpus mentions the word “rose”. In his case it was an ethnonym (and therefore, sadly, probably a slave girl), but the word ultimately goes back to Iranic wṛda. Likewise, the word for bow, also attested, ultimately goes back to Iranic taxša. Nor were these one-off interactions. A previous post detailed how the formation of a Greek noa-word could go back to an Iranic borrowing.  

From a similarly early (but obviously, considerably post Mycenaean) period, Scythians and their Iranic nomad cousins were known enough to the Greeks to warrant ethnic stereotypes in plastique art and literary common places: drinking like a Scythian (e.g wildly, unmixed wine) is attested as early as Anacreon (fr 76) and a verb would form, Σκυθίζειν skythizein (to drink outrageously), analogous to e.g λακωνίζειν lakonizein (to be taciturn) for Spartans. In fact, even the words for Persians and Medes reflect the antiquity of these relationships. At some point, the easterly Greek dialects (Attic-Ionic, mainly) raised the vowel long a to long e (α > η – though Attic would undergo partial reversion of this rule, to the frustration of fledgling classicists). Persians and Medes were originally Parsa and Madha respectively in their own tongues and early Greek pronunciation must have reflected this, prior to the shift.[7]

Some years ago, an article was published to much acclaim. It analysed several “nonsense” inscriptions and concluded that they may be rendered less nonsensical if you translate the characters as foreign names from the black sea region.[8] It is a good article, though I cannot understand the surprise. We already had a more than working knowledge of various Iranian dialects and loanwords in Greek. The amount of work done on this by Russophones is tremendous. Still, the addition of Caucasian evidence (though tentative) makes it worth reading. Likewise, when Scythians do speak in comedy their speech is rendered in a way that is quite consistent with substrate interference from an Iranian dialect e.g aspirated stops (φ, θ) are consistently rendered as their unaspirated equivalents (π, τ); loss of final ν and σ; issues with conjugation and declensional gender etc etc. I do not, sadly, own a copy but Andreas Willi’s book will undoubtedly go over this in more detail.[9] It is amazing how so many of the “mistakes” can be rationalised with the Iranian evidence.

The black-sea region seems to be the likeliest vector for this exchange. In terms of grain, the region was to Athens what Egypt would be to Rome. The area may well have proved a good source of animal goods and human slaves and whilst the litoral area and its immediate hinterland was mineral poor (nobody had any need for crude oil then), Greek craftsmanship was obviously valued at a premium. Some of the most significant plastique objects must have been fashioned by Greek artisans. Clearly, the area was one of great exchange. This be seen in Herodotus’ story about the Scythian king Skythes (hm…) adopting Greek rites one of the so called seven sages, Anacharsis. About whom you can read more here.

Suffice it to say, I think the presence of actual Scythians in the archer corps was extremely likely. I think the Athenians would be quite aware of how they looked and how they spoke. I do not think their depiction in art and on stage was some orientalist fantasy divorced from reality. The remaining question is – what happened to them? We know they were eventually disbanded and that citizen youths replaced them on guard duty, at least on the Prytaneion. Why? (I swear this is where we now make this relevant).

In his monumental sociological study of Aristophanes,  Ehrenberg seems to think the Scythians on stage to be a source of fun and that “the comedians hardly ever suggest any resentment on the citizens’ part at the power of the Scythians…the existence of these policemen was generally accepted without any grumbling and without any feeling of humiliation”.[10] In other words, more Hot Fuzz or Thin Blue Line than…oh I don’t know, you know I don’t really know pop culture. Just think of some jokes about policemen and doughnuts.  I am not so sure I would agree. Take this quotation:

τῷ γὰρ εἰκὸς ἄνδρα κυφὸν ἡλίκον Θουκυδίδην

ἐξολέσθαι συμπλακέντα τῇ Σκυθῶν ἐρημίᾳ,

705τῷδε τῷ Κηφισοδήμῳ τῷ λάλῳ ξυνηγόρῳ;

ὥστ᾽ ἐγὼ μὲν ἠλέησα κἀπεμορξάμην ἰδὼν

ἄνδρα πρεσβύτην ὑπ᾽ ἀνδρὸς τοξότου κυκώμενον

How unseemly that a man, bent with age like Thucydides,

should be wrestled and destroyed by this prattling advocate

from the Scythian steppe, this man, Kephisodemos.

so that I wept tears of pity, seeing

an elderly man brutalised by a bowman.

Aristophanes Acharnenses 703-7

This is comedy. It is artificial. But like all good jokes there is something of the truth therein. If you strip away the old comedy tropes (ethnic prejudice, name dropping of famous men) I suspect you may have something very real here. The pattern across comedy does not paint the Scythians in a particularly flattering light.

The central conceit of Athenian democracy was that all men were equal under the franchise. The central conceit of our modern scholarship is the overemphasising on the intensely democratic phase of Athenian history. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War(s). The franchise became smaller and smaller. The government, less democratic. I imagine an atmosphere developed wherein people, deprived, or restricted in their citizen rights, found themselves increasingly associating with one another at an ethnic level. The foreignness of the archer corps would have been more and more apparent. Indeed, it would have been increasingly hard to see the difference between them as a sort of metonymy for the collective power of the state and an oppressive bodyguard, such as Peisistratos’ Thracian guardsmen or the Persian garrisons in Asia Minor. No doubt they, as police always seem to do, made themselves increasingly unpopular too. As Demosthenes said, what is the strength of the laws? Men make them. Men uphold them. Men abuse them.

A similar process occurred with the so-called frumentarii of the Roman Empire. I have had to massively cut the section on Roman policing to save space and your patience. I would refer any interested parties to Fuhrmann, C. J. (2011). Policing the Roman Empire. They formed something of a military police/internal affairs arm. They likewise were set apart physically (in the castra peregrina on the Caelian) and made themselves increasingly unpopular. Eventually they were replaced with the not at all ominous sounding agentes in rebus who…yep, were also abusers of power.

The parallel is rough, but hopefully instructive. I am not suggesting we are in any way going to do away with our police. Britain is incredibly over-surveilled and over-policed as it is. This is unlikely to change. But tensions are increasing, and no doubt will continue to do so as the police abrogate more and more made up powers to themselves. Policing, I think, works well when it is done as part of the community. I do not know when exactly things shifted in Britain. But if I look at the way things are now I am reminded much more of a foreign corps reigning over us than representatives of the citizen body.

Who watches the watchmen? We do. As they defray our rights and upload shit to TikTok, apparently.


O homines ad servitutem paratos: Roman Karens

The top down abuse of power is inevitable. Sadder yet is when members of the demos conspire with them.

Introducing the delatores or the Karens of Ancient Rome if you like.

difficile est saturam non scribere. nam quis iniquae

tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se,

causidici nova cum veniat lectica Mathonis

plena ipso, post hunc magni delator amici

et cito rapturus de nobilitate comesa

it is difficult not to write satire. For who of these injustices

could be so tolerant? So hardened, that he might hold himself

when along comes the brand-new coach of the lawyer Matho

full to its brim with him, and after, an informer on his great friend

and will soon seize whatever is left of the nobility…

Juvenal 1.30-5

To be an informer, a delator, was no great mark of distinction though it must have brought great rewards. You can see by his use of a qualifying adjective (great friend), which to me at least belies a sense of social climbing. People, whom we might identify as middle class, had ample opportunity to enter the confidences of the minor aristocracy and then betray them to the authorities. An odd mix of decadent western bourgeoise and eastern soviet police state. This is one of the dominant concerns of Juvenal’s literary persona. The sense of penetrating an inner sanctum and then betraying your friends, family, or even your acquaintances can also be seen to animate the anxiety of our initial quote (quis custodiet…).  Informers are one of the major classes of people against which satire tended to concern itself. The other being legacy hunters.

cum te summoveant qui testamenta merentur

noctibus, in caelum quos evehit optima summi

nunc via processus, vetulae vesica beatae?

When they move you aside, those who earn their legacies

By night, who are now raised to sky by the best

Road to highest advancement – the guts of a wealthy old lady

Juvenal 1.37-40

Erm, thanks Juvenal, very cool! Love how the metre makes recitation even more uncomfortable.

Informers and legacy hunters were literary common places, but no less real for all that.[11] The original locus classicus for the ancients themselves was the dictatorship of Sulla. Sulla, in the cause of the insane civil unrest during the rail end of the public, wrested control of the republic from the hands of Cinna (Marius has predeceased his chance for a real showdown with his ex-protégé)[12]. In order to shore up his position the dictator began proscribing people. Names were published. Their lives and their estates declared forfeit, with a share of the proceeds going to man who informed on them. It is difficult to downplay the effect this period had on the Roman psyche: when Augustus, M Antonius, and M Lepidus formed their own triumvirate, the attendant purges (in which Cicero died) earned them the nickname of Sulla’s disciples. Attempting to persuade the dictator to lay down his office became a common exercise in Roman rhetorical schools etc.[13] No less than the proposed revolution of the Gracchi did this period make fortunes and feuds amongst the Roman nobles.[14]

The most famous of Sulla’s victims, was one who got away. Julius Caesar had (perhaps through his illustrious uncle, Marius) married the daughter of Cinna. Sulla ordered young Caesar to divorce his wife, who was after all the daughter of his enemy. In what would prove to an incredibly astute move, Caesar refused, and was subsequently proscribed.[15] But Caesar was Caesar, and had powerful friends willing to intercede on his behalf. Eventually, Sulla relented and was alleged to have uttered that in Caesar were many Mariuses: …nam Caesari multos Marios inesse.

The proscriptions of 82 and 43 were the most famous, but as you might intimate from Juvenal’s literary usage they were not the only ones. In fact, this behaviour – albeit at a lower level – became a central part of aristocratic (autocratic) Roman life. I suspect this – along with non-hereditary monarchy – is one of those genuinely Roman survivals idiot barbarians were thinking of when they coined the term “Byzantine” as a pejorative.[16]

I had intended to write in greater detail on everyone’s favourite emperor, Tiberius, and the various doings of his reign. The perfidy of Romanus Hispo (the first Karen?), or the detailed trial of Libo Drusus in book 2 of Tacitus’ Annales. Instead, I found this wonderful clip from I, Claudius with Patrick Stewart’s hair as Sejanus.

What a great scene, even T’s cruentae litterae are featured.

For me, the most horrifying aspect of this was how, according to Tacitus at least (and coronavirus has given me no reason to disbelieve him), willing people were to inform on each other even without the heavy pressure of the state. The formal proscription lists had disappeared from Roman life. They would never again be needed. When Tiberius was himself disinclined to prosecute someone for their alleged disloyalty the senate itself, led by Ateius Capito, called out in distress that the state itself was under assault. O homines ad servitutem paratos decried Tiberius as he left the senate house. “Oh men, rendered fit for servitude”. Not as well-known as o tempora, o mores, but more apt nowadays, I think.

When Aurelian (reigned 270-5) did something about informers (the HA does not tell us what exactly), surely that only served to make him more liked:

idem quadruplatores ac delatores ingenti severitate persecutus est

false-witnesses and informers, he [Aurelian] persecuted with great severity.

Historia Augusta 39.3 (Aurelianus)

But whatever he did, the effect was transitory at best. Indeed, informers would forever be a part of Roman life and they resurface most forcefully in Ammianus Marcellinus’ amazing history. He may be Tacitus’ less sassy understudy, but the stories surrounding Barbatio, Arbitio, Silvanus, and Paulus (nicknamed catena, the chain, for his ability to string cases together) are fascinating reading. It’s like a human centipede of scheming and backstabbing.

Is there a point in your pocket or aren’t you happy to see me?

When Publius Horatius, the only survivor of the duel (triuel?) between the Horatii and the Curiatii, returned home to find his sister weeping over her newly slain fiancé, he killed her on the spot. But he was hardly hailed as a hero. There was a trial. He got off on a technicality. His father, possibly thereafter his family, owed the gods appeasement. Rome had always loved its gods and its state and its institutions (frankly, to Roman eyes this would be a tricolon of tautological inanity), but family and community always came first.

No Roman, no Athenian, would ever understand the ease and speed at which we seem keen to fracture our communities and render our rights up to our governments. But they would have recognised it.

It is a lovely image. But at a time when the police are randomly stopping cars to ask people where they are going (the cowards deleted the tweet. Given the multiplicative nature of contagion those policemen are potentially responsible for at least 124 corona cases.), or trying to determine what counts as an “essential item”; when neighbours are happy to snoop and snitch, I think of men like Ateius Capito adopting democratic forms to mask tyrannical substance, I think of how “equality under law” was proven a lie with every whack of a Scythian’s bow against a poor potter or tanner. A democracy can does not live when people are treated so.

As always, thank you for reading.

Endlings and Suchlike

[1] Far, far, from being some sort of proto-racist reaction (can anyone but an American think so?) Pericles’ citizenship law must be read in this fraught context. Someone like Kleisthenes wielded the power he did so precisely due to his extra-politial relationships on his mother’s side. The resources and panhellenic guest friendships such men could call upon where of phenomenal import. To say nothing of those wielded by genuine tyrants such as Polycrates of Samos and his Egyptian links.

[2] I may be exhibited an unexamined prejudice here. See Fisher, N. (2003) The Law of Hubris in Athens. in P. Cartledge & P. Millett (Eds.), Nomos: Essays in Athenian law, politics, and society. (pp 123-139) for a good summary and a potential case on the historical record.

[3] In this context, read (Pseudo?)Demosthenes 59, against Neaera.

[4] τὸ σχοινίον φεύγουσι τὸ μεμιλτωμένον, “they flee the vermillion rope”. The rope was presumably died (probably a loose, cloying, powder) that would mark them when they turned up.

[5] Numbers vary. If they were used in military contexts as per ceramic evidence, 1000 makes sense. Otherwise…as or the name and its derivation from a Speusippos I am liable to accept the argument in Braund, D. (2006). In Search of the Creator of Athens’ Scythian Archer-Police: Speusis and the “Eurymedon Vase”. Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik, 156, 109-113.

[6] E.g Acharnenses 54 where one is called as a threat; Equites 665 where they drag someone from the assembly; Ecclesiazusae 143 drunks being pulled from the agora.

[7] E.g this fronting is already apparent by the early/mid-7th century. See a graffito on a vase from Cumae: IG XIV 865. Graphically the η is represented as ε, but it must represent a long vowel.

[8] Adrienne Mayor, John Colarusso, & David Saunders. (2014). Making Sense of Nonsense Inscriptions Associated with Amazons and Scythians on Athenian Vases. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 83(3), 447-493. See the work of Nadezda A. Gavriljuk on the Scythians and the slave trade if you want a good slavophonic bibliography and an idea of what philologists were thinking more than 15 years ago. American media can fuck right off.

[9] Willi, A. (2003). The languages of Aristophanes: Aspects of linguistic variation in classical Attic Greek. Oxford

[10] Ehrenberg, V. (1962). The people of Aristophanes: A sociology of old attic comedy. Oxford. Pp175

[11] Horace Sermones 2.5 is probably the best expression of the former.

[12] I was much taken as a student by how tangled party politics seemed to be at this time. We tend to cast them through the teleological lens of Caesar vs Pompey (which we take as populares vs optimates, foolishly). Though old, Christoph Meinhard Bulst. (1964). “Cinnanum Tempus”: A Reassessment of the “Dominatio Cinnae”. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 13(3), 307-337, has massively affected my thinking on this.

[13] in tabulam Sullae si dicant discipuli tres: if Sulla’s three disciplines speak against his conscription (Juvenal 2.28 e.g the hight of hypocrisy); et nos/consilium dedimus Sullae, privatus ut altum/ dormiret: I too have counselled Sulla, to retire and rest on his honour (Juvenal 1.15-7). What can I say? I love this poet…

[14]Erm…  rem publicam dominatione factionis oppressam in libertatem vindicavi: I freed the Republic which had been oppressed by the tyranny of faction. Maybe…maybe Augustus was right?

[15] He needed a wife of patrician family to secure his priesthood. His own father had not risen far (though a relative, Sextus Julius Caesar, had) and marriage to Cinna’s house would have started as a boon and seemingly become a bane. He even lost his priesthood. But there was no guarantee Sulla’s party would have accepted this patrician parvenu and so Caesar immediately won for himself a reputation for integrity and daring. Or maybe she was super-hot, IDK.

[16] Fuck Dandolo. The ultimate delator.

Il Primo Re (Review)

N.B I have gone with the original title for ease of access, but I note that various online retailers go for different titles. On Amazon Prime currently the film is listed as “Romulus V. Remus: The First King”.

Il Primo Re is not so much a tale about the founding of Rome as it is about a chance missed by an evidently talented director: It could have been a Roman Apocalypto (and at its best, is close). Though it suffers from a lack of understanding of its sources (philological and historical), it is certainly a good popcorn flick, [1] at the very least. I enjoyed it immensely.

Let me map out the review. I’m not in the habit of confusing nitpicking with philological elan. I don’t like it. Nor do I think criticism ever overwrites the sheer balls it takes to do some creative, especially a local independent film like this. I hate the well akctuallly guys.

Well Actually GIFs | Tenor
So did you know that v was pronounced like w????

Instead, the review is tripartite. Section one details the philological aspects, section two the archaeological/cultural in precis and section three the film itself. I have put that last just in case anyone is really worried about spoilers here. If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll come back and hyperlink the sections and add a sensible further reading section.

The Sound of the Film: Language and Philology.

I feel no real need to go over this in detail. Art is not an academic article, yet it is obvious that the use of “authentic” language was a major point in the film’s marketing abroad. Some of the Italian sources I found writing about it were praising its contribution to the overall realism of the film. According to the director they accomplished this by hiring a “team of semioticians from La Sapienza”.

Look, I try my hardest not to be the typical Classical Philologist when surrounded by other, er, types of linguist but I can’t help but wonder: how that is possible? The language, whilst evocative, was full of the kind of mistakes I would kick a first-year student for making.

Let’s go through things.

First, the pronunciation was (perhaps expected) Italian. So anachronistic for Classical Latin, let alone Proto-Italic. I distinctly recall hearing e.g spiritus in pace te reliquint in the same way one would now in a sermon. But this is uneven across the actors and some are better at speaking (like the unnamed Vestal) than others (Romulus).

Vowel length, likewise, is random. At one-point Romulus attempts to get a despondent Remus to eat. Ede he commands, all quite classical actually, except it sort of comes out like /e:de/ as if a misapplication of Lachman’s law. But as noted the Romulus actor is often incomprehensible.

There are some seriously discordant solecisms that, again, one would not expect someone with access to a good grammar (or internet connection) making. E.g rex meus used as a vocative rather than rex mi; I cannot be certain, but I am sure I hear nemo sciunt more than once.

nuncque? Is that a thing? It sounds wrong to my ear. I’m not going to check, but my memory is good, and I have been through the vast majority of the canon. Idiomatically I would have gone with at nunc. Or, even better, etiamne or nunc etiam? (genuinely old-fashioned e.g nunc etiam quom est, non estur, nisi soli lubet). Maybe they’re trying to keep to etymological force of -que? (< PIE *-kʷe)

Yes, yes, you might say, the latinitas is bad but what about the attempts at Proto-Italic? Setting aside the issues with phonology and enunciation, I’ll make a few quick points.

I am quite happy to accept potiesimos for possumus in the subjunctive and I believe I hear a good few ablatives singular in –od. *h₁n̥gʷnis comes out as engis or egnis. I think this is fair unless we insist on conserving the labiovelar. At one point a character refers to tersa sakra.[2] This is both thematically apropos given the situation and a correct pre-classical rendering of terra from Proto-Italic Proto-Italic *terza. At one point someone attempts to use a jussive subjunctive and, I think (hedging here), we hear a siet/d for sit.

The lack of basic knowledge really reveals itself in a complete lack of awareness of how sound changes work. We are persistently given bhre:ter for Classical frater. Correct, the Latin f does descend from an early bh but then why is the goddess frugiferens and not something closer to *bʰruHgibʰerents?  Why must we cross the flumen? Leaving aside how we date the bh > f. Romulus existing is much more likely than Romulus saying bh instead of f at this point. The entire word is just a mess. I am no expert on laryngeals, but I can’t see how *bʰréh₂tēr would ever render anything akin to bhre:ter: é + h₂ really should get us /a:/ as indeed we get with Latin frater.[3]

I have said too much here, but similar issues abound throughout when it comes to sound changes.

Umberto Eco was a semiotician (and, judging from his engagement with the Latin fathers, a damned fine Latinist to boot); these guys are grifters. Mr Rovere, if you ever make a sequel (please do!), walk past the semioticians and straight into the the Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità at La Sapienza. Avail yourself of the eager, talented, young Italian Classicists!

But, seriously, lest the negative outweigh the positives: I enjoyed the attempt, and whilst clumsy, I could follow the film without looking at the subtitles whenever I was doing something else. We must give a round of applause to some of the actors, especially Remus and the Vestal, who did so much with so little in terms of dialogue.

The Look of the film: Archaeology and Culture.

Did the archaeologists do better than the semioticians? Probably. I find myself wondering at the kinds of clothing worn. Not necessarily from an accuracy p.o.v but in terms of colour. Across the world early man seems to have loved and delighted in colour, why is everything so drab and grey and brown?

The culture of Latium around the alleged time of Romulus and Remus coincides with what we call the Latial Culture, specifically periods LCIII and LCIV. This goes beyond the fluidity of archaeological strata, the Roman tradition itself gave some variance to the tradition date before it settled on 753 BC.[4]

How the Latial Culture interacted with the more famous Villanovan culture (Etruscans) is honestly beyond me right now. I am surprised I can remember any of this from my time as a student. But my understanding is that the general material level ought to be slightly higher? Tufa houses of oval or apsidal shape with heavy thatch roofing. This is around the time we begin to see monumental architecture in the forms of temples take root, with important buildings (like a palace?) having stone foundations.

The putative time of Romulus and Remus is one where the Greeks have already started their post-Mycenaean westward colonisation (Ischia served as a trading post, other settlements to follow) and we have good reason to suspect the Phoenicians were active and using Sardinia as a source for metal and mineral. Do not misunderstand me, most of humanity lived in conditions little better than on display, but the material culture feels a little inconsistent (how are there swords??) and maybe could have had a slight upgrade.

When we pay attention to ancient (perhaps even modern) cultures one of the first things we look at it how they treat childbirth, marriage, and death. Given the context of the film we can ignore the first two, but death is treated weirdly here. There’s a sort of 1970’s pseudo-pagan piety on display. At one point a man (a slave?) is killed and left there in the settlement (an act of great impiety), where villagers sort of…put stones around him? Whilst wailing as if in an Enya song?

The Latial culture is characterised, oddly, with two contrasting funeral practices. Cremation and then internment in an urn that resembles said apsidal/ovular houses (Etruscan influence?) or internment with grave goods.[5] Why make things up? What should be one of the great rituals of life seems plastic and inauthentic.

Funeral hut-urn. Cemeteries, such as at Gabii, are our major source for domestic architecture of the period.

A quick note on the cult as it is shown throughout. I do not think it controversial to say that whilst Roman Religion was quite conservative it was inherently tied up to its urban, civic, context and so that reconstructing earlier, more archaic, versions of rites can be more difficult than things first appear.[6] None the less, we can (especially thanks to philology) say a good deal.

I like the emphasis on the sacred fire as a deity. Jumping back to the parent language for a second, it seems as if Indo-European had an animate/inanimate distinction which was as conceptual as it was grammatical (hi Anatolian!). Fire comes in two forms. On the one hand we have the root *péh₂wr̥ which gives our word fire in English.[7] This is in the inanimate form. Contrast this with the root word *h₁n̥gʷnis which gives us the Latin ignis (the egnis-god of the film), which was animate and worshipped as divine.[8]

There is little room for other gods and characters simply speak of the deiwos, which is fine and mirrors cult speech. There is an attempt at an ablative absolute at one point, divos volentibus, which is…less fine.

Roman tradition has the cult of Vesta instituted by Numa, rather than Romulus. But the film’s version makes more sense – the fire cult was incredibly ancient – and they do steal the vestal from Alba Longa so all is good.

Less good is the weird treatment of haruspicy. This is a late cult, of Etruscan origin. Which is fine, but I wonder at a vestal performing it. The filmmakers seem to believe it was the equivalent of a high fidelity Zoom call. Also, note to self, haruspicy etc were actually rational from an evolutionary perspective. Remember to write blog.

But the use of religion is quite well-done bar some of the caveats above (seriously, very 1970s, very Enya). It’s evocative, respectful, builds the atmosphere and has a sense of internal consistency.

The story of the film: Putting it all together

Mary had a little lamb that was white as snow and…it’s gone. Father Tiber took her. The opening scenes of the film serve as an initiation of sorts: get used to the casual brutality and difficult of life, get used to the pre-eminence of nature. I am not well versed in film, less skilled in criticism, but I often found myself admiring the sense of natural beauty throughout even as it contrasted with human brutality. But nature too, as we see from scene one, can be brutal and so the human urge to propriate/tame natural forces like fire make sense throughout.

The ancient tradition – and unlike a few I do believe the tradition genuinely ancient – may seem sparse on detail but there are two or three fecund elements across most of our versions, and Rovere seems to have fixated on the apparent impiety of Remus. I like this. It’s a good narrative decision. His behaviour could easily degenerate into some modern atheist self-insert or cardboard Nietzschean will power attitude, but it doesn’t. We see and share his sense of the injustice of the gods.

It’s a violent film but then it is a violent story. Alba Longa looms threatening in the background and I recall John Ma’s throwaway tweet that Apocalypto inadvertently shows the expropriating power cities held over peripheral settlements. The violence is well done in most places. We see early just how deadly a dagger (which are not knives!) can be and most carry nothing more than a dagger, club, spear or adze/axe. There are a handful of swords, which seem discordant given the technology displayed in the film. Historically, yes, we spoke earlier about Greek/Phoenician trade and both Etruria and Calabria were metal producing/working at the time to a decent level. But in terms of internal consistency…[9]

The sword fights are kind of terrible and the inevitable final big battle, farcical and tragicomic. Yet when the final duel comes, as we have always known it must, there is an element of pathos. Very well done.

It would have been easy for the writers to resort to a kind of boring, cynical, euhemerism. They do not, instead (perhaps accidentally?) bits and pieces of the source tradition and culture do shine through at times. Remus’ forming of a comitatus/männerbund, his becoming the etymological archetype of a princeps following a hunt,[10] is well done.

Someone, I think Mary Beard, described Romulus as a “shadowy Mr. Rome”. Whilst I disagree as to what the sources can tell us, I love the narrative decision here to focus on Remus.

Much of the acting is incredible throughout. It really shines when the fugitives are just hanging around campfires. Sharpening, cleaning, preparing. You see the furtive, frightened, energy in their movements. The movements remind of those documentaries of early humans, actually, using their teeth as tools and so on and forth. The screen glistened with a flickering blue archaic energy and there were times where, solecisms aside, you felt as if you were at the campfire.

[1] Am I using that phrase right, Americans?

[2] For the avoidance of doubt, because some of you shits will come at me: I am aware that *sākris was originally an i-stem and that in Proto-Italic, as PIE, these were likely adjectives of one termination. However, comparison with Sabellic suggest that how these declensional classes converged is quite complex. I barely care. I doubt the film guys who can’t differentiate meus from mi. Stop being such a nerd.

[3] I thought at once of e.g status from *steh₂- but then recalled datus from *deh₃- and trembled a little. Reader, I fear no man but *h₃, it scares me.

[4] Obviously, settlement at the future site of Rome predates this (to about 1000 BC) and the Romans themselves seemed to have been aware of – and not at all troubled by – the confluence of two accounts of their founding. A single act of founding, a ktisis in Greek terms by Romulus, and a synoikisis of various settlements as celebrated by the septimontia festival.

[5] The possibility of Etruscan influence is not small. Leaving aside the literary tradition and the (much later) Francois tomb, the Etruscans had a similar burial practice during this era. The major difference is the Latins preferred to inter their ashes in mini houses with mini grave goods. This is how we know so much about their housing structures btw.

[6] You have two, and only two, good introductory volumes to Roman Religion: Georg Wissowa’s Religion und Kultus der Römer (1902) or George Dumezil’s La Religion romaine archaïque, avec un appendice sur la religion des Étrusques (1966).

[7] Actually, the situation here is quite complex. Whilst the original animate/inanimate distinction remains valid, the inanimate version did also have some ritual importance (funeral pyres, wedding fires). It simply wasn’t divine.

[8] Cf Sanskrit agníḥ where the animate fire is worshipped first as animate force and then as a deity.

[9] Swords are an important development in archaeological and cultural terms. See my brief note, here.

[10] I wish they had tried to get in words like *prisemokaps.



Disclaimer: I am not a Byzantinologist Byzantinist Byzantine specialist. However good my Latin and Greek; I don’t have access to Armenian, Arabic, Syriac etc and that inevitably colours my readings. In terms of secondary sources, I don’t have enough Russian or, indeed, any Slavic language. Make of that what you will.

Anthony Kaldellis is one of the most interesting historians working in our fields today in that he is actively seeking to revise something that needs revising and not needlessly prevaricating (‘problematising’ in current parlance) something for the sake of clicks/citations. Even so, I initially couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the idea of another work on identity. Thankfully, I was wrong.

K’s claim that the Byzantines were really just Romans is obvious to anyone with a smattering of familiarity with antiquity. The interest lays in his asking two fundamental questions:

  1. How has the occlusion of this self-evident fact came about, and why?
  2. What are the implications in how we read late Roman history, esp regarding ruled vs ruler?

Chapter 1 – A History of Denial – is largely concerned with the first of these. K begins by providing a few ‘snapshots’ which he uses to illustrate various arguments throughout. This is intuitive and familiar to both fledgling Classicists (‘gobbet questions’) and consultants etc (‘case studies’).  I am surprised this isn’t used more broadly. The conclusion he draws from these is that the Romans saw themselves as an extended kinship group for a lengthy period (from the election of Anastasius to the 13th century).

One of the most illustrative of these is a letter sent to the Byzantine court by the Frankish emperor Louis II, in 871. Therein, the emperor tries to make the case that the Byzantine’s aren’t really Roman.

What is fascinating is how little the Franks understood what made Romans Roman. Throughout the letter they decry the fact that Emperors are made and elevated by the Senate and the people (where have we heard that phrase before?)[1]. For the Franks, the only model is their own inherited monarchy. The Frankish (later French) kingdom benefited from an unusually uneventful succession in the main Capetian branch all the way down to the unfortunate sons of Philip Le Bel. In contrast, the Roman politics of the Byzantine state must have looked…well Byzantine. I half suspect this is the origin of the term as a pejorative.

The rest of the chapter is dedicated to explaining how this occlusion came about. In short, the Western stereotypes arose out of something like jealousy of anxiety over legitimacy and we have in part inherited this. I was fascinated by K’s mentioning that the Arabs would try to delegitimise the late Romans reasons of their own and wished this was further expanded.

References to Persian literary sources are sadly missing, I know that Rum often served as a romantic setting and that they had a schizophrenic relationship with Alexander ‘the Roman’.[2] But this is hardly a loss given the rest of the book.

I also wish the development of modern Greek identity got more of a showing.[3] One of K’s claims (right to my mind) is that if there was something of a proper modern Roman ethnicity (akin to how we have Jews, Armenians etc) to fight back against academics, none of this occlusion would have happened.[4] Well, the Greeks are the direct inheritors of Rome and the story of how a Greek identity was constructed internally and externally – through historians like Paparrigopoulos and selective readings of aberrant, classicising, authors such as Plethon – would have been useful. K touches on this material here and there, but he is clearly a master and I would be interested in reading further. But for a throw of a dice or two, we could have had a modern Romania or Roumeli.

You need to be warmed up for Chapter 2 – Roman Ethnicity – which introduces a few more snapshots and continues to strengthen the overall argument by referring a broad variety of evidence, readings, and modern theoretical framework.

One point in particular made me put down the book in astonishment: the tendency for scholars to dismiss Roman identity in favour of some atavistic label is…well its racist, or at least racialist and essentialising.

Much of the chapter is spent on fleshing out the Roman ethnicity in its own terms. One of the most interesting parts deals with how Byzantines envisioned their relationship with the Romans of the classical era. Suffice it to say they saw them as ancestors and evoked this past in interesting ways. Students of the early Byzantine period may be familiar with Julian’s Caesars, the antiquarian work of Giannis Lydus, or the classicising references in Procopius’ Buildings, but K undoubtedly makes the case for continued importance of the Roman past throughout Byzantine history.

By any theoretical framework, then, the Byzantines saw themselves as Roman by ethnicity and descent.

The last chapter of part 1, Romanland, is my favourite. Some of the charges against a Roman ethnicity have been to claim that this was only ever elite and at any rate restricted to political language and court ceremony. Again, I find this pretty racialist, the idea that we can see that they really were Greeks. K here lays out the case for a popular sense of Romanitas based at least in part on a good old-fashioned lexical study.

The philological evidence is undeniable. Words like Romania and Roumeli arose strictly in the vulgar tradition and made their way into high cultural discourse against the intensely classicising elite culture. That they managed to do so is surely testimony to the strength of this identity. The key takeaway is that during this period there is a transition from seeing Rome as an empire, ruled by Romans for Romans over non-Romans (imperium Romanorum) to an imagined community of Romans living in the titular Romanland. This is intuitive, and perhaps the expected outcome of changing demographics and the Constitutio Antoniniana. The transition from a Roman world of essentially allied city states, to one conceptual city state (as in the words of Themistios), to something like a nation state is interesting. The fact that academics have systematically avoided talking about this, is telling.

My favourite part, however, relates to the presence of Latin in Byzantium. Honestly, this is something I am incredibly interested in. I loved Planoudis’ translation of Ovid as an undergraduate and the work of Baldwin on Virgil’s Βyzantine reception. Before Greek was ‘cleansed’ it also had a fair few words borrowed from Latin, which makes sense historically.[5] This is really, really, interesting to me. If you’re also interested, here’s a link to a PDF bibliography via HistoryTwerp.

The fact that the Byzantines spoke Greek rather than Latin forms a huge mental hurdle in the minds of we moderns who have only ever known the nation state, for all we talk about diversity and multiformity. The ancient world has many such parallels and I do think this segment, which should have been expanded, could have benefited from a more expansive, comparative, framework. E.g the ancient near East where East-Semitic speakers like the Assyrians (speaking a dialect of Akkadian), inherited a culture in an unrelated language (Sumerian) before their own flourished, only to eventually adopt Aramaic as an everyday language. This would be a great area for sustained study.

The eventual preponderance of Greek over Latin was always going to happen as a matter of demographics. I find the semantic shift for the word Romaika interesting. The Hermeneumata Pseudodostheana use it to mean Latin, but it quickly shifts to mean Greek. Again, as late as the 19th century this was common. It’s used to mean ‘Greek’ through Dumas’ LE COMTE DE MONTE-CRISTO.

On to part two, and I will try to speed things up here. Having established that the Byzantines were Roman, saw themselves as such, the extent of how this ethnicity was imagined, constructed, and continued as well as the causes for its scholarly and popular obfuscation; K goes on to explain the implications of this for viewing Byzantine history. Answering the second of the two fundamental questions I posit at the start of this review.

Chapter 4 – Ethnic Assimilation – makes a few obvious points. We consistently talk about Byzantium being cosmopolitan, assimilating and so on, but for the first time we (by appreciating the majority population) we can accurately begin to see the cause and affects of these assimilatory processes.

The next chapter, The Armenian Fallacy, could just as well be called The Armenian Pathology given the apparent illogical urge for scholars to try and find Armenian ancestry for so many players in Byzantine history. K makes some interesting points, why single out Armenian ancestry and act as if its unusually resistant to Romanisation cf to others such as Greeks, Dacians, S. Italians etc etc? In part, its motivated by special interest groups, but on the whole, this seems unintentionally racist.

I was surprised to find just how little evidence we have for the alleged Armenian ancestry of Heraclitus and that so much in the otherwise brilliant Kaegi commentary is built on supposition. I recall an abject lesson in the reconstruction of epic motifs delivered to me years ago during a tutorial: You can read the evidence and make a conclusion, you’ll be on fairly firm ground, you can’t then continually make things up based on assumption after assumption: That’s castles in the air.

I had honestly thought his Armenian ancestry explained the increase in Greek court usage – though wondered how that tallied with his most important posting being in the Latin west – so, that really is something.

This chapter, which might seem random, is the most important from a methodological standpoint: Once you’ve laid out your framework and your toolset you have to test it on specific cases, and this is a great chapter for that reason.

The last two chapters directly access the concept of empire in the later period. Like the rest of this section, this is more a case of applying the method but are, of course, interesting in and of themselves.

So, as we reach the end, what do we make of this important book? I think it worrying that something so obvious and so consistently well evidenced has been ignored by academics, systematically. I don’t think, necessarily, there’s been a perfidious conspiracy. It’s a combination of inherited biases and training: How many medievalists can read Latin and Greek with anything like the fluency of a classicist? How many are immersed enough in the texts, epigraphy, and papyrological sources of the Roman period enough to understand Roman self-definition before their period? Scant few, I think.

Not that any of that forms an excuse. It is the job of the historian to work beyond such constraints. K goes beyond offering a mere corrective (however sorely needed), and shows an interesting new angle for mainstream byzantology to adopt.

For anyone interested in Byzantine history, for the intellectual history and historiography of working with our sources, or simply what the sons of Romulus were doing in the middle ages, this book is a must buy.

I am not a Byzantinologist Byzantinist Byzantonologos Byzantine specialist. This book almost makes me wish I was.

[1] For the role of popular sentiment and pseudo republicanism, it would also be worth reading K’s THE BYZANTINE REPUBLIC.

[2] We forget how important Greco-Roman antiquity was to the Persians. The Arascids were essentially a post-Hellenistic people, and when the Sassanid’s took over much of their ‘Achaemenid’ heritage was intermediated via Classical sources. Hence why they, e.g, had a special military unit called the ‘immortals’. This isn’t direct continuity! Despite what special interest groups claim.

[3] In a way this is unfair. K has written a whole book on this, HELLENISM IN BYZANTIUM, which is THE text on the topic.

[4] Of course, we would then have to deal with yet another special interest group. Christ preserve us.

[5] E.g ρήγας, king, < rex, regis (still a proper name, see the hero Ferraios), σπιτι, house, < hospitium. Greek assigns foreign verbs its own conjugation based on Latin coniugatio prima – are etc etc. The single best study is E. A. Sophocles’ GREEK LEXICON OF THE ROMAN AND BYZANTINE PERIODS.

#Neverbyzantium? We would be so lucky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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