A week or so ago Paul O’Mahony pulled together a few people from the Center for Hellenic Studies (Lanah Koelle and Keith DeStone) with me and several members of the Kosmos Society (including Janet Ozsolak, Helene Emeriaud, Sarah Scott) with an idea: bringing together Hellenists and actors in isolation to do readings and discussions of Greek Tragedy during these strange times. We talked about how important it is to retain human contact and communication to stay sane, how the arts help us reflect on being human and how in these frightening times the humanities have no less a purchase on our imaginations and our needs than at any other.
We sketched out a basic plan to read a play a week and invite professional actors to read scenes together. And then we tried it out the next day. We recorded it rather than performing it live because we had no idea how well it would go. Here it is:
Designed by Paul O’Mahony with consultation from the Kosmos Society and Joel Christensen (me!)
Scenes include: Helen’s opening speech Helen and Teucer (l. 68-164) Menelaos speech (l.386-438) Menelaos and Old Woman (l.437-484) Menelaos and Helen meet (l.528-661) Menelaos and Helen plotting (l.1031-1093)
I hope you take some time to watch this and read along (we use this text). The conversation was unscripted and mostly unplanned–some of the comments about seeming and being and living at the edge of things or through mediated experiences struck me pretty hard.
We plan to do this on a weekly basis and are looking for experts in tragedy and actors who would like to participate. Please reach out! We hope to give people a chance to spend time thinking about Greek tragedy, engaging with one another, and meeting new people, learning new things.
For next week, we will be running the show live and opening it up to the public:
I have been taking the end of the world seriously, but not really that seriously, for a while now. Last fall, I wrote an essay on Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin, called “Loving Latin at the End of the World“. Last Spring, I tried to think about the fate of Classical Studies in some kind of an apocalypse, sketching out ideas for “The Future of the Past.” Eidolon has had the market cornered on Classics and the end of the world, with Nandini Pandey’s article “Classics in a time of Quarantine” hard on the heels of their End of the World Edition. But, then things jumped off the screen into the real.
For the past few weeks the best adjective I can use to describe my general feelings is “elegiac”—and I mean this in the rather modern reception of the word which emphasizes its funereal tone, its use in epitaphs, rather than its metrical/generic use. Being part of a slow-motion disaster, a horrendous and at times horrifying transformation of our human communities, is in some ways indescribable, ineffable. In emails and with others I find myself trying to calm with the same phrases we all use about being in “unchartered territory” and how we need to be patient and reserve judgment for later.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
As I have talked about on Scott Lepisto’s Itinera podcast, my formative years were spent reading, in the isolation that living in a rural area before the dawn of the internet can bring you. I started graduate school at NYU a few weeks before 9/11 and my primary coping strategy—apart from drinking too much—was throwing myself into Homer. And for this disaster, I am a professor.
So, in a way, I should be really well-prepared emotionally for COVID-19’s brand of slow-motion destruction. I think this is probably true, on an intellectual level; on an emotional one, however, I am probably a wreck. And part of my particular brand of being a wreck is (1) I sleep even less well than usual and (2) fragments of poems fill my waking hours and sleep.
These are not fragments of my own, but poems ancient and modern that have been part of my life, either in education or from reading. I have engaged with the world through written words for nearly as long as I can remember—they are comfort, paradigms for guidance, distraction, etc. But poetry has a special place in my heart. Long before I poorly translated Latin and Greek for twitter, I spent time trying to write poetry (and was quite limited at it). These years gave me practice reading, memorizing, and keeping poetry close to heart.
And in the heart, there’s no timeline, there’s no catalog to separate things. So, when Langston Hughes jumps to mind with his Advice:
Folks, I’m telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean-
so get yourself
a little loving
I can’t help but thinking of Catullus’ Vivamus mea Lesbia (Carm. 5) and his “We must sleep a lonely endless night” (nox est perpetua una dormienda) summoning to mind 11th grade’s Andrew Marvell’s great beginning, from To His Coy Mistress “Had we but world enough and time” eventually receding into what I still find ridiculous in his “vegetable love should grow.” Poems join me when, like Billy Pilgrim, I come unstuck in time.
There’s no shortage of poems exhorting us to live. There’s Ashurbanipal’s famous epitaph, dishing out the wisdom straight: “Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart / By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.” (εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,/ τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις). For every serious injunction tomemento mori or carpe diem with Horace there are humorous ones too, like Martial’s poem 5.58 which ends, “Postumus, even living today is too late; / he is the wise man, who lived yesterday” (Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est: / ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.)
Ending the World in a Poem
The problem is that I don’t know many poems about the end of the world. There is not too much about the world ending in the modern sense in ancient Greek and Roman texts that I know of prior to the period that gives us the Biblical Revelation. Greek and Roman Cosmogony tends towards the cyclical and not the epoch-ending stuff we see in Norse Ragnarok. There are certainly a lot of disasters and they tend to reflect natural disasters like the flood which appears inset in the Gilgamesh Narrative, as part of the Sumerian Atrahasis, in the Biblical Genesis, or in the tales we have of the Greek Deucalion who survived a flood too.
Ovid’s version of this flood in the Metamorphoses is an unmaking of the creation that begins his poem. In the creation, everything which before was all mixed together and “compressed because of its own weight” (et pressa est gravitate sua, 1.30) is reorganized when ‘some god’ “separated the mass and apportioned the portion into parts” (congeriem secuit sectamque in membra redegit, 1.33). In anger over Lykaon’s sacrifice of human flesh, Zeus attacks the land until “the land and sea were showing no difference” (Iamque mare et tellus nullum discrimen habebant, 1.291). Of course, humans and their cities rise again, under the threat/promise that destruction is always imminent for hubristic and impious souls.
It is not that ancient authors are not concerned with death, but rather not with species death, with the eradication of humans as we know them. Perhaps this is because such an act prior to our anthropocene era of extinction was unthinkable, beyond the ken of the ancients. Perhaps, it is really too big for most of us to handle. (Which helps to explain our rapid, even if wildly imperfect, response to COVID-19 and our absurd denial about climate change.)
The end of a single life functions as easily as a metaphor for the end of humankind as the end of humankind does for the end of an individual life. (And this later function, I think, is important in popular, modern eschatology which uses civilization ending narratives to force us to think about mortality.) Mediterranean thought does show some evidence of the metaphor of one life as all of humankind, Philo sees the death of the individual as of no consequence to art “unless unless we believe that the death of one individual person in turn visits ruin upon humankind” (εἰ μὴ καὶ ἀνθρώπου τινὸς τῶν ἐν μέρει θάνατον φθορὰν ἐργάσασθαι φήσομεν ἀνθρωπότητι, The Worse Attack the Better 206). In this, he echoes lines in the Qu’ran and the Talmud making similar interrelational claims.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world
I first read Oliver with the poet Olga Broumas when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis. Olga encouraged us to read a book of poetry a week and I kept that up through my first semester of graduate school until Hektor took over completely.
Is there any reason for poetry to exist beyond the contemplation of life and death? I am sure there is, but many days I might be unable to hear it, searching instead in its words for that reflection of what I fear and seek myself. Modern poetry can differ from the major themes of ancient death in contemplating in how it communicates its stark simplicity: poets like Ibykos and Mimnermus acknowledge death is all around us while a modern talent like Gwendolyn Brooks turns our ear to the deaths of the unknown in The Boy Died in my Alley:
Without my having known.
Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died alone.”
“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the dead.
Greek poetry often celebrates the infamous and the famous alike, leaving forgotten the passing of most. (Although there are memorials of even minor figures if you look hard enough.) Brooks remarks on the momentous deaths that fail even to bring us pause. (And in this I shudder to think of the humanitarian disaster being prepared in our American prisons and on the streets for the homeless and unknown.)
But many poems home in on our personal relationship with death. Death’s coming is unexpected, as Pablo Neruda writes inNothing But Death “Death arrives among all that sound / like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it.” Yet, of all things in life it should be fully expected, fully anticipated. We know it is coming: we can prepare.
Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps the end of the life of an individual is ultimately unthinkable. We cannot see our way out of our bodies because they are all we have and no matter how many times we read Plato’s Phaedo the basic assertion—that because we think and exist now we must always have existed and just don’t remember it—does not square with the intuitive knowledge that I did not exist before so I will not exist again. Sometimes, we can embrace this, or at least make it more concrete as F. G. Lorca does in Gacela of the Dark Death, when expanding on the image of death as sleep:
I want to sleep the sleep of the apples,
I want to get far away from the busyness of the cemeteries.
I want to sleep the sleep of that child
who longed to cut his heart open far out at sea.
But this peace, this sense of surrender is beyond me. When wading into the news these days, I am too often reminded of the wordsDylan Thomas wrote for his father in is final years:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Rage in/Against Poems
Can a Homerist think of rage without thinking of Achilles? If I think back to the notion of the death of the individual as a metaphor for humankind (and the reverse), the Iliad itself is something different for me Everyone knows that Achilles has two choices: he can live a long life, without fame; or he can die young with glory. But the choice he does not have at all is about whether or not he has to die.
The Rage the poem sings from line 1 is variously anger over Agamemnon’s slight to his honor or his anger at Patroklos’ death. This second cause is his more famous rage, that which kills Hektor and drives much of the action of the poem. On the other side of that rage, as my friend Emily Austin emphasizes in her work, is longing, a desire for what is lost in the form of Patroklos. And Patroklos, like Enkidu for Gilgamesh, is a stand in for the hero himself.
There are 16 books of the Iliad before Patroklos dies. Perhaps a unifying feature of Achilles’ rage is anger over death and life itself? When we find Achilles in book 9, contemplating his own life, he insists “The coward and the noble man are held in the same honor / the lazy man and the one who does a lot die the same.” (ἐν δὲ ἰῇ τιμῇ ἠμὲν κακὸς ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλός· / κάτθαν’ ὁμῶς ὅ τ’ ἀεργὸς ἀνὴρ ὅ τε πολλὰ ἐοργώς, Il. 9.320-321). This is typically taken as indicating Achilles’ existential issue with the “heroic code” or Achaean society. But if we take the Achilles from the Odyssey more seriously, the one who tells Odysseus not to “sweet-talk me about death” (μὴ δή μοι θάνατόν γε παραύδα, 11.488), Achilles’ rage is more like Thomas’. It is that deep, fundamental incredulity that I who am now alive must one day be dead.
And in giving in to rage, Achilles lost much of the time he would have had to be alive—this, is, perhaps one of the lessons of the Odyssey. Perhaps Achilles would have benefited from reading Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival:
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
Creating Something with Poems
One of the more amusing memes to circulate over the past few weeks has been about the accomplishment of some famous people during plagues. Newton invented Gravity! Shakespeare wrote King Lear! The least we can do is put on pants!
The call to use this time of isolation well is predictably met by the objection that such expectations are a little bit unreasonable. (And also conditioned by some of the very dysfunctional aspects of capitalism central to our problems.) The desire to read something long and complex is understandable, but the reality is that our attention spans are fragmented. Why not start small? Why not read a poem?
Now, for me, a ‘poem’ is an expansive term: a song is a poem. This is especially true in Ancient Greece where song culture was a pervasive part of all life. No one ‘read’ Homer and Sappho in early Greece: they listened, they recited, they returned to it. (So listening is equal to if not better than reading in some ways). Modern high and low culture distinctions have obscured this; they too often deny the title “poem” to creations that do what poems do.
A poem should be defined not by some external aesthetics but by the internally sensed impact of what a poem does in the world: it creates. Our word poem comes from Greek poiêma, related to the verb poieô, “to make”. The Greek noun poiêtês, then, can be seen as “maker, creator”. This is an important meaning to me because poetry creates space, it creates worlds. A poem’s space is that of communion between its audience and others; it helps us see ourselves in humanity through that Aristotelian “identification” and it helps us develop humanity in ourselves, by seeing the world through other perspectives. Poetry should invite us, challenge us, and encourage us to see more than ourselves. And this, for me, is the goal of all reading, to bridge the gaps between our subjective consciousnesses, to help us see others as real and worthy of our attention, worthy of our regard, and worthy of our love.
Here in Scotland, for centuries, a poet was called a "makar." Today the national poet, appointed by parliament, is called "The Scots Makar."https://t.co/D9xpWw3F9j
Poetry in this sense is an act of creation, a reaffirmation of creation, by constituting and then providing access to the commonwealth of human understanding. My favorite metaphor for this from the ancient world is that passage from Plato’s Ion where Socrates describes poetic inspiration as being like a magnet imbuing successive links of metal with its force. The last link in the chain is the audience, the middle link is the performer/medium, the penultimate is the poet/creator and the source is “god/the muses”. For me, that source, that deity, is the human collective, the grand and sometimes random total sum of our shared memory (the Muses!), the shared wisdom and experience that helps us to define ourselves, to situate ourselves within a larger whole.
So I guess what I’m saying is that you should read a poem. Feel something, remember it. Share it with others. Carry it around in your head, in your heart. In these days of uncertainty and isolation, this is one way to be less alone. Or, in a way, even when alone, to be more together.
Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)
“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”
We will be putting up a call in the next few days for people to send in their own passages, favorite poems, and even posts for the site during the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you want something posted or would like to write a guest post, email me or Erik.
A random list of poets whose work was in earlier versions of this:
Franz Wright, James Wright, Nikki Giovanni, Mark Strand, Linda Gregg, Jack Gilbert, Maya Angelou, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. S. Merwin, Louise Gluck,Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, Adrienne Rich. At some point I just started keeping only American poets of the 20th century, ignoring way too much from the rest of the world but, for what it’s worth, keeping true to my own education. Happy to have further suggestions.
Also, Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets online:
2. When I was a child in the 1940s, my mother would cut up slices of fruit for me (there wasn't much) and as she put it in front of me she would say, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." How about, “A sonnet a day keeps the doctor away”? So…here we go: Sonnet 1. pic.twitter.com/kDoMNhdqcI
"On the sunny side a long empty beach and the light striking diamonds on the huge walls. No living thing, the wild doves gone and the king of Asini, whom we’ve been trying to find for two years now, unknown, 1/9
“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness)”
Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum
Amid all the uncertainty and chaos of current events, it seems strange to celebrate something like the paper publication of a book, but I did want to write a little bit about Homer’s Thebes, a book I wrote with Elton Barker, on the occasion of its official print publication date.
The book was born digitally in December and Elton and I have already written about the long history of its writing for the SCS blog. Books are strange creations: some people are tortured by them, some handle them with the loving care due infants. Many fall somewhere in between. I have a deep affection for this book because of how much time we spent working on it, because we finally got it done, and because it has, in the introduction, the most fully worked-out presentation of how Elton and I conceive of Homeric poetry as functioning in the world.
Michael Apostol 4.95
“My book is drunk: [a proverb] applied to those who ruin certain works; or to philologists.”
Our view of the aesthetics and poetics of early Greek poetry draws on much as what we know about orality and performance culture in the ancient world as it does on post-modern literary theory. One of the things I personally find frustrating about continuing conversations about authorship in Classical Studies is the tireless emphasis we put on individual geniuses to the detriment of the people who made their work possible.
This is both about the actual labor of the writing context and the intellectual frameworks that make ideas possible. People don’t write alone: they write while others cook, clean, edit, and care for them. They write in conversation with other people, in response to them, adding, subtracting, and changing as they mull over ideas.
Gnomologium Vaticanum 518
“Sophokles the tragic poet, after he heard that Euripides died in Macedonia, said “The whetstone of my poems is gone.”
The view that an individual creates something wholly on their own is the application of a heroic pattern to intellectual life—it is a willful interpretation of reality and history which ignores the evidence for multiple discovery (see Merton’s 1963 study of this and this New Yorker Article where I first encountered the idea.) I think a missing piece to strengthen this hypothesis is the understanding that human cognition and creativity happens as the work of group minds, as explored by Andy Clark and David Chalmers.
We are all recipients of similar intellectual and creative traditions mediated by time, place, and shared languages. Why is it so surprising that as we surf the same currents of history we have similar ideas at the same time? Now imagine this doubled and trebled in intensity; imagine groups of singers over time engaging with audiences in special language, performance, and ritual. Who is responsible for the outcome of this process? Why do we feel so strongly the pull to impose upon such works the name and idea of a single person?
Our conviction that Homeric poetry in the ancient world achieved its form because of not despite the lack of an individual author is rooted in aesthetics and a political understanding which goes hand-in-glove with it. Near the end of our SCS Blog entry it, we write:
In all likelihood, there is a relationship between how we research and what we research, between our collaboration and the model(s) of composition and reception we explore for Homeric poetry. In both cases, we value the contribution of the unseen and the hard to recover: that is to say, the generations of singers whose own poems formed the basis of the two that have survived; the audiences whose responses to each performance helped shape and give meaning to them; and the successive generations of writers who have edited, altered, and handed them down. Similarly, we see scholarship as an activity performed by many different people. Ideally, it is not owned or monetized for individual profit, but is presented in competition with each other for a greater good.
My experience of writing articles and books over the past decade has only strengthened by belief that I am less an “author” in a modern sense of the word and more a conduit, a voice that brings ideas together. Indeed, I think it is no accident that part of my growth as a reader and a writer over the years is connected to this blog: I am, at the core, an aggregator and a synthesist:
And all I need to do to remind myself that this book, like all others, is the product of a group over time is to look at our list of acknowledgements at the front and the bibliography at the end. The ideas of each chapter developed from conversations with our friends and scholars over the years; they were sharpened and improved in presentations in person and online; they were honed by editors in different journals; and they were brought into a presentable shape by the work of editors who saved us much embarrassment.
It is hard to honor these contributions any more fully without documentation that would fill pages of a book as long and dependent on others as this one. If anything, publishing in the time of coronavirus should remind us how heavily we rely on one another, how much we enrich each other’s lives, and how much we need our social, linguistic, and political networks to make our world possible.Take some time to think about the people who shape your life and make your work possible, to evaluate the boundaries between where you end and others begin.
We don’t receive any money from the purchase of this book. If you can order it, the money will go to supporting open access publication and the work of the editors and programmers who make it possible.
For more on this book see my video conversation with the Center for Hellenic Studies’ Kosmos Society:
“Let it stand as the singular fate of the monuments of Homer and his peers that in some sense they forced philology to be born—and that they did so even before the word for Critic or Grammarian was commonly spoken.”
Maneat igitur, singularem fortunam Homericorum et supparum monumentorum extudisse quodammodo philologam criticen, idque etiam antea, quam nomen Critici aut Grammatici vulgo auditum esset.
Today I published a piece in the Conversationabout the function of plagues in ancient myth as frameworks to think about human leadership and how we generally make things worse for ourselves because of our own stupidity, ignorance, or denial
Individuals and groups cope with trauma and fear by externalizing causality, by searching for people or things to blame apart from ourselves. This often takes the form of scapegoating–typically aimed at the weak or those we position as different from ourselves. In Athens’ calamitous plague, this happened too.
“The story goes that the sickness started in the part of Ethiopia above Egypt and then it moved to Egypt and Libya and then over most of the King’s land. When it suddenly fell on Athens, it afflicted people in the Piraeus first and it was there that it was said that the Peloponnesians must be throwing drugs into the cisterns, since there were no streams there. Later it spread to the higher part of the city where many more people begin to die.”
As historians note, epidemics during the time of Justinian were similarly sourced to Africa and the Near East and Medieval people saw the Black Death as coming from the Levant. Thucydides recounts that ,in their desperation to find a cause, the Athenians blamed the Spartans for poisoning their wells, just as Northern Europeans scapegoated Jewish populations in the 14th Century for the bubonic plague (See Marchant, 1891 ad loc.). The Athenians realized that they were wrong about sabotage when the Spartans and their allies started dying too.
The sad truth of this is not distant to us: as recently as today Fox News’ poster boy for white stupidity, Tucker Carlson, is arguing that it is not racist to call COVID-19 the “Chinese Coronavirus” [not linked too, because, well, it’s stupid and racist). And, last night, our brilliant commander in chief banned travel to and from Europe for non-Americans. This means US Citizens can come home. Oh, and people from the UK can come too. As such, the travel ban is mere improvisational propaganda, an attempt to seem to do something which actually may be worse than doing nothing at all.
Say what you will about the cupidity and stupidity of Agamemnon in the Iliad–when faced with the facts, he understood the cause of the plague and sent Chryseis’ daughter home.
I went through thirteen years of Classical education and only read ancient work by one woman in one of my classes. And that was in high school when we were preparing for the Catullus AP exam: we read a little bit of Sappho to help contextualize Catullus’ Carm. 51 (Ille mi par…). It is not that Sappho was not on the official courses when I was an undergrad or graduate student—I either missed the subject in rotation or skipped it.
My scholarly world was not wholly barren of Sappho, however. When I was in graduate school I worked my way through a fairly extensive reading list of Roman and Greek authors. I had some of it completed before I arrived, but spent the better part of every break and summer for three years working on a pared down canon of Classical texts. Of all those authors, there Sappho was the only woman on the list.
(And, to make matters worse, I am sure I encountered articles equivocating on whether or not Sappho’s poems can even be taken seriously as compositions by women).
PhD comprehensive exams are not just about reading Latin and Greek: you also need to pass topic exams and literature exams. I read the Conte, the Pfeiffer; with my peers I made bibliographies and Oxford Classical Dictionary-like summaries for all the authors on the reading lists. I passed my exams and the worst error I made was confusing Plato’s Gorgias and Protagoras.
These exams are both about providing students with sufficient exposure to the CANON! Of ancient literature as it has been passed down for us to do a credible job at imitating our betters. They also prepare us with the raw knowledge to speak and teach in the field. So, I made it through a PhD and into a tenure track teaching job knowing the names of only two women authors from the ancient world: Sappho and Sulpicia (and the latter only because I was a research assistant and got tasked with finding citations of an article about her). The Latin poet has also had her existence questioned.
And, I suspect like my own teachers, I perpetuated what I had learned. The first few years after the PhD are hectic, especially if you end up in a teaching heavy program where you are also expected to publish. When I taught a “Classical Literature Survey” course in my first year, it was pretty much the authors from my PhD reading lists (excepting those I really didn’t like.)
So I taught and wrote—I professionally professed!—with such an impoverished knowledge of the ancient world that I shudder to admit it know. I somehow didn’t know of the fragmentary work of Korinna—who allegedly made Pindar a better poet—or Praxilla. I did not learn of Nossis or Erinna until I started reading through the Greek Anthology to find more material for this website. I did not learn of dozens of other names until I received an email from a professor from my undergraduate English department. Certainly, some of this is my fault since I did not go looking for these authors. (And the list of the books below makes it clear that it was possible to learn more.) But the way we build and prioritize the received canon of works that a Classicist needs to read exacerbates it.
One gets the impression from reading overviews of ancient literature that women were not engaged in its production with the exception of a very few. Given the pervasive nature of song culture in early Greece, however, it seems incredible that there were not many more women’s songs. (And Andromache Karanika does a fabulous job of thinking about this in her bookVoices at Work, 2014.) We see depiction of women playing instruments and singing in art and we hear them depicted singing while weaving. And this is just the beginning.
Well into the imperial age, we have evidence that elite women were engaged in activities similar to those of men. But we have limited examples of their work because ancients did not keep them. While we have the work of Julia Balbilla (see Patricia Rosenmeyer’s book for more), it survives in inscriptions and not because it was preserved intentionally. The marginalization of women authors started when contemporary male audiences and subsequent editors did not record and circulate their poetry and songs. As Classicists we need to admit and publicize more broadly that the canon we have is not purely accidental. Women authors have been systematically left out for millennia.
And it is not just poetry and literary evidence which is either lost or ignored. We have, I think, sufficient evidence that women were actively engaged in philosophy as well. The philosophical fragments of Perictione—pseudonymous and attributed to Plato’s mother—the Pythagorian Aesara (5th Century BCE), and the Spartan Phintys (3rd Century BCE) are not included in any of the new philosophical collections in the Loeb Classical Library. Even though the editors find the time to track down nearly every testimony for most minor philosophers. A small part of Perictione’s fragmentary text preserved by Stobaeus is printed on LCL 527 (437-8) in support of other Pythagoreans.
Last year I spent some time reading through and translating poets like Nossis; this year I pushed myself through the fragments of the philosophers above. While the provenance and authority of the texts are beyond problematic, their content is important. Perictione and Phintys present what is purportedly treatises on how to be a good woman from a philosophical perspective. And they read more like male fantasy screeds. But I think we could also see them as engaged in some cultural and intellectual realpolitik. Perictione’s emphasis on what “likemindedness” really means to a wife (basically accepted everything her husband says, likes, and does) should make us re-think how audiences received Odysseus’ wish for Nausikaa in the Odyssey and reconsider James Redfield’s arguments for homonoia/homophrosune as signaling consent. Aesara’s work is fascinating to me because it breaks down the soul/body dichotomy which Plato really solidifies in Greek philosophical traditions and sees a more complex engagement between thought, anger, and desire.
I have made a little noise talking about the problem with canons in classical curricula and how we overlook that what we have been taught is beautiful shapes what we look for in the world. We have to be critical in examining the way previous generations’ curation of the canon has shaped what we consider marginal and what we pass down to our students. We need women philosophers in the Loeb Classical Library. We need handbooks of the history of Classical literature and scholarship that do a more accurate job of telling us what women were doing in the ancient world and why we have such little extant evidence. And I don’t mean to imply that there are not scores of people doing this work already; but I think we need to make this kind of work more central to what we do as a discipline.
Yes, the ancients did not preserve much of the work created by women. This does not mean that it did not exist. Our discipline’s history until very recently is shaped by not having the evidence and by not teaching it. (And thanks much to the work of the Women’s Classical Caucus.) But part of figuring out whether or not Classical Studies as a discipline can survive is a critical re-evaluation of how we teach and learn about the ancient world at every level.
There are many good texts about women in the ancient world. Below are some about women authors. Please email or comment to add some more. For great resources, please visit Diotima.
Balmer, Josephine. 1996. Classical Women Poets.
Greene, Ellen. 2005. Women Poets in Ancient Greece and Rome. Oklahoma.
Plant, I.M. 2004. Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology. Oklahoma.
Raynor, Diane J. 1991. Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece. Berkeley and Los Angeles
Snyder, J. M. 1989. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Southern Illinois.
“And what about you, Nikêratos—what kind of knowledge do you cherish?” And he said “My father, because he wished for me to be a good man, compelled me to memorize all of Homer. And now I can recite the whole Iliad and Odyssey.” Antisthenes said “Has it escaped you that all the rhapsodes know these epics too?”
Over the past few weeks there has been a bit of a frenzy over Oxford University’s potential move to drop Homer and Vergil from their required curriculum for Classics. We have heard the typical cries of “O Tempora, O Mores” in articles lamenting the fall of education and the decline of the west. This news even made The Blaze!, quoting only a student who calls it “a fatal mistake” because “Homer has been the foundation of the classical tradition since antiquity.”
(And you know that if a cultural question got Blazed. it is of real, deep, ethical concern.)
You know what I haven’t heard much of? People defending this proposal. Well, here I am, and that’s what I am going to do.
I am a Homerist. I have spent more than half my life reading, teaching, and writing on Homer. To say that I love the Homeric epics is such an understatement that it breaks my basic constative ability to do so. But this proposal makes sense. Let me tell you why.
Leonardo Bruni de Studiis et Litteris 21
“What is lacking in Homer, that we should not consider him to be the wisest man in every kind of wisdom? Some people claim that his poetry is a complete education for life, equally divided between times of war and peace.”
Quid Homero deest, quominus in omni sapientia sapientissimus existimari possit? Eius poesim totam esse doctrinam vivendi quidam ostendunt, in belli tempora pacisque divisa
First, the brouhaha mis-characterizes the proposal which is to make Homer and Vergil optional. From years of teaching Homer to undergraduates, I know that fewer are prepared to read something of this length and depth. They have read little in pre-collegiate classes of this length and intricacy. And we do not have the time in class to move from understanding a sentence to its relationship to the whole to its critical engagement with cultures over time.
The worst thing I see happening—and I know this happens at Oxford—is teaching Homer badly. Students don’t have the cultural frameworks, or the training to understand what they’re looking at. And this is in part because many people who teach Homer have a backwards idea of what the epics are and how they work.
These backwards ideas come from a teleological perspective that has over time selected from the past only works that conform to certain expectations and then force them to conform to others. Teaching Homer badly is objectively a bad thing. It turns students off to Homer; it gives them misconceptions about the ancient world; and it harmfully enforces the history of European literature.
Homer contains some nasty stuff. Taught in the wrong way, it glorifies violence, perpetuates misogyny, oversimplifies “heroes”, their faults, and gives terrible lessons on life and death. “Reading” a text is not merely passing one’s eyes over it or uttering the words aloud. It requires patience, contemplation, identification, alienation, communion with others and repetition
This is about the way we teach Homer as a holy, simple thing, with clear messages and heroes who can be understood in a few lessons. Homeric epics are dialogic, they are complex creations between audiences and the words themselves and without time, deep learning, and space, they function to advance a simplistic, but powerful policy of canon-enforcement
Henry David Thoreau, from his essay Walking (1862)
“The poet to-day, notwithstanding all the discoveries of science, and the accumulated learning of mankind, enjoys no advantage over Homer.”
Homer as often taught as canon—which is the main argument in many articles—is a product not of antiquity but of the time between antiquity and now. To disentangle the layers of interpretation and the centuries of misunderstandings that have accrued, students need sensitive reading skills and agile teachers.
Before reading Homer, students need to learn to read, to understand the relationship between text and audience, and the operation of literature—and especially the literary canon—as part of cultural discourse. We are better off by spending time teaching students a few poems by Sappho or lyric and elegiac poets, if what we want to learn about is Greek culture and poetry.
(And all of this sidesteps what modern program in Classical Studies is for. If we have only a small handful of credit hours to enlighten the mind and prepare it to engage fruitfully with the world it encounters, is slogging through an epic the best use of our time?)
But if you read even passively, the stalwart Homeric defenders aren’t really interested in the past. They are interested in Homer as a marker of their own culture. And look at the way people defend it! In one piece, the author cries that Homer is the beginning of a Trojan war story that made London “New Troy”. No cultural supremacy or appropriation there.
Werner Jager, Paideia (tr. Gilbert Highet, pp.35-36)
“We are right in feeling such bare utilitarianism to be repulsive to our aesthetic sense; but it is none the less certain that Homer (like all the great Greek poets) is something much more than a figure in the parade of literary history. He is the first and the greatest creator and shaper of Greek life and the Greek character.”
Homer, as taught in many places, is a ‘genius author’ who laid the foundations of western literature. Homer “wrote” the Iliad and the Odyssey and handed down the guidebook for mimetic narrative and human achievement. These ‘facts’ are demonstrably false and yet the way many teach Homer and position the epics as canon are based on these premises.
The ‘lie’ of Homer is an originary tale of ‘authenticity’ and cultural hegemony which intentionally overlooks that the Homeric epics are products and well as producers of this culture. This is deeply connected to how easily the Classics can be appropriated by white supremacists.
And the ‘Homer’ we possess is one of our own creation. There is a fundamental problem here in the concept of the word “authentic”, a quasi-religious belief and consequent search for the original, authoritative, and authentic form of Homer which goes back to antiquity (once “Homer” was separated from its performance context and reassembled by Hellensitic authors) and which is reborn and supercharged in that overlapping space between Classical and Biblical philology. M.L. West’s, an Oxford prodcut, posthumous text of the Odyssey, for example, operates on the principle that there was a single author and a single text and that the task of a textual critic—and philology at large—is to help us get closer to that original, that authentic, that divine genius.
And there is a Christian, revelationist stance in some of the philology that emerges from this background. In his recent commentary to Odyssey book 1, Simon Pulleyn, rejecting the idea of an oral tradition as critical to the epic we possess, tradition, revealingly combines belief in God with belief in Homer: “Just as the faith once put in God reposes nowadays largely in committees, so we are invited to see the epics not as masterpieces of an individual artist but as the product of numerous generations of bards each contributing their bit. We are asked to rid ourselves of anachronistic notions of the genius of individual authors” (2019 39).
Too much of what we call “classical studies” and canon are retrograde assumptions about the world and what it means to be human. They reduce everything to divinely-derived aesthetics and marginalize people and creeds who do not confirm to “Western” measures (as defined after the age in which the epics were formed). When we talk about what we should teach as the foundation of Classical Studies, we need to think about what our goals are, what we want students to be able to do when they are done.
“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”
Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant.
Making Homer optional is not “watering down” the curriculum. It is opening up our education to do what we are supposed to do: critically and pointedly examine the past. Sure, advanced students, graduate students, professionals in the field, they should probably read Homer, but should everyone?
I am not saying that we should not have students reading Homer—but that if we only have a small collection of classes, they can acquire critical language, reading, reasoning, and cultural skills in other ways. This is important both in focusing on what our undergraduate learning goals are and in thinking about what we want classical studies to become in the future.
Are we going to merely perpetuate the same training, beliefs and ideas over and over again without reflecting on where they come from or what they mean? Are we going to ignore the fact that our histories of the Mediterranean have been figuratively and literally whitewashed in the service of colonial, nationalist, and racist discourse? Or are we a field where we train people to think critically, to re-frame the past, and then reclaim it?
As a Homerist, I think I’ve found myself in part by searching for “Homer”—and I think this is indeed one of the most salubrious effects of literature. But this is not the only goal and this is not the Aristotelian end for Classical Studies. We need students to enter with the world with the ability to question and reframe the worth of the pasts we have inherited.
Because if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, it is not going to turn out well. And soon.
Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione
“The ancients decided that reading should begin from Homer and Vergil, though it requires a firm sense of judgment to understand their virtues.”
Veteres instituerunt, ut ab Homero atque Vergilio lectio inciperet, quamvis ad intelligendum eorum virtutes opus esset firmiori iudicio.
“It would be annoying to list all the people who spent their lives pursuing board games, ball games, or sunbathing. Men whose pleasures are so busy are not at leisure. For example, no one will be surprised that those occupied by useless literary studies work strenuously—and there is great band of these in Rome now too.
This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oarsmen Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”
Persequi singulos longum est, quorum aut latrunculi aut pila aut excoquendi in sole corporis cura consumpsere vitam. Non sunt otiosi, quorum voluptates multum negotii habent. Nam de illis nemo dubitabit, quin operose nihil agant, qui litterarum inutilium studiis detinentur, quae iam apud Romanos quoque magna manus est. Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.