Some More Things Were Published

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“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.

This year’s publications were not as numerous as last, but there was a book, some articles and some things. N.B. If you want a copy of anything, just email me.


E. T. E. Barker and Joel P. Christensen. Homer’s Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts Center for Hellenic Studies

Our “Frogs and Mice Book” came out in paperback, with corrections and a vastly improved price.

Joel P. Christensen and Erik Robinson. The Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice: Introduction, Translation and Commentary  Bloomsbury [Paperback, 2019]

HT Cover.jpg


J. P. Christensen. “Revising Athena’s Rage: Kassandra and the Homeric Appropriation of Nostos.” YAGE  3: 88–116.

Becoming Powerful Through Compromise: Hesiod’s Zeus as Chairman of the Gods,” SAGE Business Cases, Ancient  Leadership


Book Reviews

Loving Latin at the end of the World” a Review of N. Gardini, Long Live Latin!  (2019), Boston Review

Review of M. Alden, Para-Narratives in the Odyssey (Oxford, 2017), CR  69.1

Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.2

“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

Online Things

with Erik Robinson, “VII Philosophies for the Modern Bro.” Eidolon, Apr. 1, 2019.

with Evan McDuff, “Pour Some Pepper on Me: the King of Spices in Greece and Rome.” Eidolon, Feb. 19, 2018.

Harry Potter and Narrative’s Numberless Worlds

This post is a slightly edited version of a thread I posted on twitter yesterday #WorldsNotAuthors

Strabo, 1.2.7

“Humans love to learn; loving stories is a prelude to this. This is why children start by listening and making a common ground in stories.”

φιλειδήμων γὰρ ἅνθρωπος, προοίμιον δὲ τούτου τὸ φιλόμυθον. ἐντεῦθεν οὖν ἄρχεται τὰ παιδία ἀκροᾶσθαι καὶ κοινωνεῖν λόγων ἐπὶ πλεῖον.

This week, I discovered that my children were secretly making holiday gifts for each other. I walked into the office and found my daughter writing a Hogwarts acceptance letter for her brother, because he wants magic to be real.

The starting address killed me here. But then the level of detail!

Let’s just say that after witnessing this I left the room and had a sudden, prolonged attack of itchy eyes.

I was crying in part because the moment was just so sweet and emerged from a year of the children learning to love the world of Harry Potter. But this was the same day J. K. Rowling was in the news for supporting bigotry, for showing public support of a transphobic UK Academic. (And a lot of analysis online has made it clear that this is not a casual mistake, that she has a pattern of antagonism towards transgender people.) There was a lot of justifiable anger and disappointment online, as several communities wrangled with how to wrangle with this.

This is not, of course, the first time the author of the Harry Potter series has courted controversy. At times she has expressed offensive or poorly nuanced political views; at others, she has seemed to hastily adapt her fictional world to the realities of the contemporary one, claiming, for example, that Dumbledore was always gay.

Euripides, Suppliant Women, 913-917

“For even an infant learns to speak
And listen to things he has no understanding of.
Whatever someone learns, he wants to save
For old age. So, teach your children well.”

..εἴπερ καὶ βρέφος διδάσκεται
λέγειν ἀκούειν θ᾿ ὧν μάθησιν οὐκ ἔχει.
ἃ δ᾿ ἂν μάθῃ τις, ταῦτα σῴζεσθαι φιλεῖ
ἐς γῆρας. οὕτω παῖδας εὖ παιδεύετε.

As many of my former and current students know, I resisted the whole Harry Potter phenomenon for years because I was already teaching when it started (and was thus too cool for the narrative), because, like others, I was weaned on other narratives which had seemed forgotten, like Lloyd Alexander’s cycle, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence, or the unending Wheel of Time. But I was mostly frustrated that at its core, the Harry Potter books are just the same old heroic narrative recycled

As I have written about before the heroic pattern has a great potential to cause harm. The basic heroic narrative is regressive, heteronormative, male-centered, and often, when realized in a western context, racist. It limits roles, sets people up for severe disappointment, and can also eventuate in violence

I was worried about some of these influences when my kids started reading the books because narratives can have such powerful impact on how we view ourselves in the world. My children are young, already shaped by social expectations for gender. The Potter books don’t really give much space to women, they cast good and evil in a rather stark divide (until near the end), and they tokenize non-white characters. My children are bi-racial and are not Christian.

I was worried they would not see themselves in the books or would simply see themselves as peripheral. When it comes to people who look like them or have names closer to theirs, things get a little bleak: The Indian characters in the book are mere UK colonial props, like chicken curry in a pub.

But oh, whatever my reservations, how they fell in love! My daughter, who had read eagerly for a bit but then got overwhelmed by longer books, started listening to the audiobooks while we were driving and then would immediately go to the book when we got home. Before long, she would listen while reading and made a huge leap in her confidence and comprehension. My son, precocious in the way only younger brothers can be, tore through the books in a few months. And then started again a second time.

Seneca, EM 3.3

“What you see happen to children happens to us, too, who are but slightly greater children.”

quod vides accidere pueris, hoc nobis quoque maiusculis pueris evenit.

Experiencing the books together was something something I will cherish until I die. We all listened together in the car and I cried uncontrollably at their smiles when Gryffindor won the house cup at the end of the first book. I heard the stories through their eyes and listened as they debated who was good and bad, cringed at the burgeoning Romances, and wept when their favorite characters died.

Over six months we listened to all the books together, they read them separately, and they watched the movies. Relatives gave them Harry Potter Legos. A babysitter introduced them to the online House quiz. My daughter has a Ravenclaw Scarf; her brother, like Harry himself, is sometimes Slytherin, sometimes Gryffindor. They are now re-listening to the books any time we drive.

In many ways this is different from the way I experienced narratives with my parents: my father was deaf and we would sometimes talk about what we read, but we rarely ever watched movies together (until closed caption was common) and my mother’s genre interests rarely overlapped with mine. My siblings were almost always a little young for what I was reading. Such a deep, shared experience was new to me.

But as a parent, it was also not free of certain burdens. As someone who studies narrative and myth, moreover, I have been really cautious about the stories we tell them from the beginning. Because I was swept away with them to Wizarding world, I don’t know what they have absorbed and what they haven’t, so the world is theirs now. But when the creator of this series makes pronouncements in public, I hear it, but they do not. They don’t know who JK Rowling is. They know the story and they love it. They remake the stories in their play and they find their own lives within it.

I know from the comments in response to the twitter thread that there is a little too much naivete at work here, that the extent of the damage a story can do is unacknowledged, and that the fame and money our love of narrative bestows on authors gives them outsize power in the world. A boycott makes sense, from this perspective.

Yet, there is some wisdom in the child’s eye view here. As adults, we lionize authors/creators/artists mistakenly, partly because of the author/god metaphor but also because of capitalism and individualism. But this is a backwards way of seeing human creativity and creation. We need to change the way we see what artists do in the world; we need to change the way we talk about it.

As a Homerist I fight the tendency to worship authors and essentialize the relationship between them and their work all the time. I am always asserting that (1) there was no Homer and, at best, the name is a metonym and (2) more importantly, even if there were a Homer or if we could isolate a single singer who put together the Iliad and the Odyssey Epic and literature are a product of interaction between audiences and performers over time. Everyone always wants to talk about the performer but not the audience. Everyone wants to talk about the author, but it is the reader who matters more.

Languages, story-worlds, plot conventions, and all the other things that make narratives possible are products of groups and multiple creators: even individual poets do what they do by contrasting with what is already there. We have a modern collective insanity when it comes to valuing the contribution of individuals and rewarding them. Let me be clear: I don’t think it is a problem if someone creates something people love and gets rich. I just think it is a problem that they see getting rich as valorizing whatever they do and say apart from the work of art.

Sometimes bad people make good things; other times good people make bad things. But people always change and the work changes too. We face particular problems in our society when someone like Orson Scott Card gets rich from creative work and then uses it to hurt people. Let’s be clear here: the problem is not narrative or even Orson Scott Card, the problem is the cancerous effect that money has on human relationships and identity.

I have two responses to this, one a coward’s and one impractical. First, I don’t believe you can buy your way too or from virtue. Capitalism is so deeply thievery and exploitation that to refuse to spend on one corruption is merely to spend on another one. The choice is illusory agency. Of course, it is probably prevarication to say that how we spend does not matter. So, second, for the bold, infringe on copyright; for the more law-abiding, public libraries weaken the advantages that our passions confer.

Our passions are so often unpredictable. Works that move people, that change their lives, don’t necessarily have to be great pieces of art. As others have said, the Potter books are not terribly well-written and much of it is silly, retrograde, or derivative. But it works as story because young people are so willing to fall deeply, and madly in love with a world with rules, magic, and endings.

This inspiration comes from countless other readers, writers, storytellers, and singers. I think that ‘great’ authors just end up being in the right place and right time and have the privilege and luck to tell their stories and have them heard. They also need the cultural prestige and position to do so.

Because I have read the Homeric epics without author for so long and have spent so many years thinking about orality, authorship, and reader reception, it is easy for me to dismiss all authors. I extend this to musicians all the time and have often found myself arguing with my brother about whether or not it matters what a songwriter says a song is about. When artists release their work into the world it becomes something else. But it was already something different before it left them because our languages, images, and narrative patterns are in every part compressed potentials of meaning we don’t fully comprehend at any given moment.

My favorite metaphor to help me understand this comes from Plato’s dialogue, the Ion. Plato has Socrates provide a simile to the rhapsode Ion in about a magnet: he argues that a singer is like a metal ring which is endowed with magnetic power because from another magnetic ring (poet) touching a magnet (the muse/god). He makes it very clear that the audience is part of this process.


“Do you understand that the audience is the last of the rings which I was describing as transmitting through one another the power from the Herakleian stone and that you are the middle as the rhapsode and interpreter—that the poet himself is the first ring? The god moves the soul of all of these people wherever he wants, stringing the power from one into another.”

οἶσθα οὖν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ θεατὴς τῶν δακτυλίων ὁ ἔσχατος, ὧν ἐγὼ ἔλεγον ὑπὸ τῆς Ἡρακλειώτιδος λίθου ἀπ᾽ ἀλλήλων τὴν δύναμιν λαμβάνειν; ὁ δὲ μέσος σὺ ὁ ῥαψῳδὸς καὶ ὑποκριτής, ὁ δὲ πρῶτος αὐτὸς ὁ ποιητής ὁ δὲ θεὸς διὰ πάντων τούτων ἕλκει τὴν ψυχὴν ὅποι ἂν βούληται τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἀνακρεμαννὺς ἐξ ἀλλήλων τὴν δύναμιν.

This is my favorite way of thinking about artistic creation: imagine if the first ring is not god, but instead human culture in its messiness, in its synchronic and diachronic forms. Authors convey this power and direct it, and audiences transmit it on. I would even argue that magnetism is a good starting metaphor, but it fails to explain the multidirectional network of creative acts, how some nodes can weaken or strengthen their force, how feedback loops from recipient back to speaker can change the force, and how none of us can fully understand the scope of narrative creation because we are inside of not outside of time.

Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 8

“Quoting the good words of a bad author will never shame me.”

Numquam me in voce bona mali pudebit auctoris

So, when it comes to the importance of authors, I usually take a pretty hard stance. If JKR wasn’t going to write Harry Potter someone like her would have eventually. Our world was ready for it and the audience was willing to make it real.

When authors turn out to disappoint us—and they always will because they are human and not heroes in their own stories—we can ignore them and detach them from their narratives with no guilt. Perhaps we need to defund them or deplatform them at times, but the story lives beyond the storyteller before the tale is ever told. There’s a larger question here we need to have about loving or praising ‘good’ art from ‘bad’ people.

This doesn’t mean that their stories themselves are innocent. The HP universe has deep body image problems, is certainly ableist, racist and heteronormative. But it is not any of these things because of the author in particular: these stories reflect our world. They reflect us. More progressive authors like Ursula Le Guin or even Robert Heinlein pushed us to rethink our assumptions about gender and sex; and more recently N. K. Jemesin, Ann Leckie, or Ada Palmer help us to see how we are by depicting how we aren’t. And as we grow older and wiser as audiences, we can see these things and make new, better stories.

And I hope to read many of these stories with my children. Unfortunately, many of them also depict sexual acts and I am not ready for that just yet. For now, I am going to just wait to see the look on my son’s face when he gets his acceptance letter. It will destroy me. But, that’s probably because I’m a Hufflepuff, which is something my children, not JKR, taught me.

Strabo 1.8

“Whenever you also consider the amazing and the disturbing, you amplify the pleasure which is a magic charm for learning. In the early years, we must use this sort of thing to entice children, but as their age increases we must lead them to a knowledge of reality as soon as their perception has gotten stronger and they no longer need much cajoling. Every illiterate and ignorant person is in some way a child and loves stories like a child.”

ὅταν δὲ προσῇ καὶ τὸ θαυμαστὸν καὶ τὸ τερατῶδες, ἐπιτείνει τὴν ἡδονήν, ἥπερ ἐστὶ τοῦ μανθάνειν φίλτρον. κατ᾿ ἀρχὰς μὲν οὖν ἀνάγκη τοιούτοις δελέασι χρῆσθαι, προϊούσης δὲ τῆς ἡλικίας ἐπὶ τὴν τῶν ὄντων μάθησιν ἄγειν, ἤδη τῆς διανοίας ἐρρωμένης καὶ μηκέτι δεομένης κολάκων. καὶ ἰδιώτης δὲ πᾶς καὶ ἀπαίδευτος τρόπον τινὰ παῖς ἐστι φιλομυθεῖ τε ὡσαύτως·

Beauty and Privilege: Latin, Paideia, and Papyri

“How many there are who degrade the Latin language!”
Quam multi sunt, qui verba Latina depravant! -Piccolomini
“The very act of speaking Latin is to be held in high esteem”
Nam ipsum latine loqui…est illud quidem in magna laude ponendum -Cicero
So, I say, Latin speech is common and known to all, but literary speech is not so.”
Latinus, inquam, sermo et vulgaris erat et omnibus cognitus, litteralis vero non ita prorsus -Francesco Filelfo

Today the Boston Review has published an essay of mine on a translation of Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin! My review is, admittedly, less positive than some others will be (with almost none of the cheerleading another review lavishes upon it) and, truly, more negative than a Classicist’s should be. As a general rule, I prefer not to write hack jobs or take-downs, especially when the author’s sincerity and belief in goodness is so palpable. And I certainly believe that there was a time in my life when I might even have exulted in this book, both because of the pleasures afforded by its own prose and also thanks to the familiar passages it brings together. But, given the world we live in and what we have learned over the past generation, I can’t accept that this book is the way to promote the study of the past. To put it more starkly: this approach is part of the problem.

Image result for long live latin by nicola gardini

I cover my qualms with the book in the review in some detail, but the thing I want to focus on here is that Gardini’s ultimate argument is that Latin is worth studying because of the aesthetic pleasure it affords. This aesthetic pleasure arises from an essential circularity: the literature we love provides us with pleasure because it presents the pleasure of the elements we love. Our sense of what is good is created by the canon we have selected to shape us.

Gardini’s picture of the past and of the kinds of Latin worth preserving and contemplating is that of the Western Canon and his argument centers around appreciating the worth of the Western tradition, a beyond problematic category which many have dismantled (see Kwame Anthony Appiah in general and Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s recent blog posts for the history and impact on Classical Studies). The construction of the Western Canon and associated claims of Western Civilization are a kind of aristocratic nostalgia. It is a value-proposition, an identity to be espoused which does not admit additions or revisions easily. Replicating the contents of the past as we have in conventional Classical Studies programs has amounted to the reading of the same authors over and over again with the insistence that we read these things because they are good. And they are good because we read them.

“Good people flock to the tables of the good on their own.”

αὐτόματοι δ’ ἀγαθοὶ ἀγαθῶν ἐπὶ δαῖτας ἵενται. -Hesiod

Loving latin

Classicists who accept this view are often part of the same groups who have ignored or expressed hostility to what they call postmodernism. Indeed, a generation ago the question you had to be able to ask in interviews for jobs as Classicists was “what do you think about theory?” This is not a struggle peculiar to Classics but it is one which is particularly fraught because one history of our intersecting disciplines is not changing, not innovating, and fiercely defending the past as we have built it. And, although the resulting venn diagram of those who complain about postmodernism and those who espouse conservative, retrograde, or nationalist rhetoric is not a perfect circle, it does intersect and overlap.

The fact is that we must now recognize that at least since the rise of European colonialism, race-based enslavement, and the genocidal conquest of the Americas, what we call Classics has been instrumental in providing historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and political frameworks for justifying various supremacies and ethnonationalisms. When we lament that the Classics are being appropriated by white supremacists and Nazis, we are a little late to the party. The use of the past to justify hate and exploitation is a historical feature of Classics and not a bug.

The reason I am going through this all again, is that my reaction to Gardini’s book needs to be contextualized within the perturbations of our field. A month ago I gave a talk at Rutgers University and two subjects kept coming up in conversations afterwards: the real time erosion of faith in the Paideia Institute (thanks in part to the Sportula’s statement preceded by a thoughtful statement by former/current Paideia associates) and the confusing revelations of the Museum of the Bible’s Papyri collection and Dr. Dirk Obbink’s involvement in it. There are many things going on in and around these two stories, but I struggled for a while to figure out where I think they both meet.

“It seems to me to have been remarked wittily enough that it is one thing to speak Latin, and another altogether to speak grammatically.”

Quare mihi non invenuste dici videtur aliud esse Latine, aliud grammatice loqui. Quintilian 

And where they meet is in that same place where Gardini searches for Latin. What all of these approaches to the past have in common is that they reach for a “timeless”, decontextualized, and ahistorical past, that includes largely only “nice” and “beautiful” things, where truth and beauty as they define it is the lasting bequest of Greece and Rome to our times, and where there is nothing of the mess that makes today so confusing: no gender, no race, no sexuality (except that which they like), no disability, no Class, and nothing which might distract from their contemplation of human perfection.

The Paideia Institute is run by disaffected, mostly male, Classicists of an elitist bent whose view of the world resonates with Gardini because, shit, everything would be better if we could just move to the woods and read Horace. If this seems harshly dismissive, consider that work of the PI is strongly centered around Western Civ perspectives, that they believe that the study of the past can be apolitical, that they neither publish their by-laws nor make their funding transparent, that their origin story has as its center the nearly cultic hagiography of a single Latin expert, and that, if they had been given the tenure-track jobs our more complicated world has denied them, their organization would probably not exist. 

(For the Medieval Mindset of treating scholarship as apolitical, see Amanda Power’s recent piece in THE).

“What good is it to be noble / For those who are charmless in words and counsel?”

τί πλέον, γένος εὐγενὲς εἶναι / οἷς οὔτ᾿ ἐν μύθοις ἕπεται χάρις οὔτ᾿ ἐνὶ βουλῇ; -Phocylides

The Paideia Institute is Trad-Classics with a religious fervor. Let me be clear, I think they have a right to exist and pursue their view of the world; but we should all acknowledge what their work represents—a retrenchment and doubling down, a recommitment to a world that never was in order to seek refuge from the world that is.

To claim that Dirk Obbink’s confusing and likely felonious actions are of a kind with Gardini’s Love Live Latin and the troubles of the Paideia Institute may seem so much of a stretch as to be slanderous. But here’s my pitch. I have spent months thinking about what may have motivated him. I have had dozens of conversations about it and have heard plausible theories: from the altruistic (he did it to save a financially collapsing EES) to the sly (he duped naïve evangelists to get his hands on the New Sappho). And what I keep returning to is: would I have done the same thing?

See, like many of the Paideia Institute (I suspect), there was some religion in my upbringing and one of my first thoughts in these cases is the passing “there but for the grace of god go I…” So, when I read about Paideia’s missteps (and subsequent denials) or contemplate how Obbink broke bad, I think of that game we Classicists sometimes play: what would you trade of extant Classical literature for what we lost. This game assumes that these poems and speeches and books are things, aesthetic objects we can trade like horses or barter without any concern for where they come from or how they got there.

(And this story may be far from over, EES has recently admitted that over 120 recorded fragments are currently missing.)

As several articles in Eidolon drive home, modern papyri are things, with histories, trails, and an impact on the world around them. But as aesthetic objects that move us (and to which we move) they have a materiality and power beyond modern geopolitical borders and law-courts. They are the aesthetic objects of desire which Gardini loves and which we hold up as objects of study which in turn lead us to objectify the past. Such endless simplicity of aesthetic reification conditions us to treat what we encounter in the world around us as objects, as aesthetic experiences to be evaluated according to (seeming) Platonic forms.

Obbink already had lots of papyri but he wanted to get his hands on papyri of a certain type because they would increase and confirm the value of what we already have. And don’t get me wrong: our view of Greek poetry has been changed in the past generation by the publication of Archilochus’ Cologne Epode, the historical elegies of the New Simonides, the Telephos myth of the New Archilochus, and the pleasant beauty of Sappho’s Brothers poem. But, both now and in the aggregate over the centuries, how much of the past has been lost or misunderstood because of our ironic longing for more ‘new’ of the old? 

Beyond a lust for fame, a desire to contribute to the history of literature, and need to transcend his mortal bounds, I believe Obbink stole papyri to get his hands on a New Sappho because this is, at its core, a metonym for what we do and have done as Classicists. We endow some things with value and neglect others. We ‘innocently’ perpetuate a system and worship a canon without critically examining what the effect of this process is and has been on the world. And when people use theories and techniques outside of Classics to show how Classics works (and doesn’t), we too often reject them out of hand.

Some of the common ground between the refusal of the Paideia Institute to accept criticism (and the tonedeaf cowardice of its anonymous defenders) and Obbink’s actions is class and race privilege, people who are accustomed to doing what they want because consequences are for other people. The ideological stance of Classics as an aristocratic discipline reinforces privilege and provides us with an intellectualized framework for objectifying people and festishizing culture and human experiences into ranked categories. Classici are, after all, people of a certain rank.

If we center our discipline around a system of untested values and universal aesthetics, we not only fail to live examined lives and fall into the trap of emphasizing seeming over being, but we also willfully and violently ignore the scope of human knowledge and experience which is excluded from this closed system. I am not denying the beauty of the past or claiming we should stop studying it, but instead insisting that we stop drop the pretense or accept that some of us need to do something new.

διὰ τοῦτο … δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

“For this reason, we have two ears, but one mouth: so that we can hear more and say less.” -Zeno

To end with a bit less bile: I don’t think most of us who see the world in the way I just outlined started out seeing it this way. Indeed, I was trained as a pretty basic classicist from high school on. What has made the difference is learning from outside the discipline, listening to people who have been marginalized by traditional approaches, and considering new things without dismissing them out of hand. 

Modern rhetoric and social media seem to harden us into stances we may not have taken otherwise or assumptions about others which only echo reality. The Trad-Classicists need to listen: I think it is a basic litmus test of a decent person that, if someone tells you they are hurting and that you are involved, you should just stop talking, listen, and really hear what they are saying. Those of us on the other side? Some, like myself, are too impatient, we want people to change too fast, and we don’t give them enough time. 



25 Nov 2019

There have been a few complaints about some of the more polemical comments regarding the Paideia Institute. I apologize for any offense to individuals: I had the organization and its reputation in mind. It is my responsibility to make amends to any individuals on a person by person basis. Please reach out if you would like to talk to me

26 Nov 2019

Lee T. Pearcy has written an essay on Classicizing Philadelphia discussing some of the ideas in the essay, but somewhat disagreeing with the move away from treating the past ideally. One of the things his response clarifies for me is that we need to distinguish between discussions of what classics is as opposed to what we could make it.

A School Massacre and Toxic Heroism

The Story and School Massacres

“For, that which is instilled into young minds will set deep roots, and will not easily be removed by any force afterward.”
Nam quod teneris mentibus insitum est, alte radices mittit, nec facile postea divelli ulla vi potest
Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, XLIX

A few years ago, Amy Pistone emailed me during the aftermath of yet another mass shooting to ask if I knew of anything in ancient Greek literature to respond to this all-too-frequent terror. I threw together a collection of passages which didn’t really get to the heart of the issue: the absolute horror of people suddenly killing scores of others, compounded by the practically criminal failure of our public officials to respond with anything more than stock phrases and empty gestures. 

I have spent a lot of my life jousting with depression, death anxiety, and the ups and downs of facing up to (and sometimes failing to meet) the challenges of everyday life. For most of my adult life—and a good portion of my formative years—I found refuge and comfort in books, poetry, music and other forms of narrative art. For the past few decades, Homeric poetry and Greek literature in general have helped me guide my life, if not save it. But no matter how much I comb through the remnants of the past looking for that perfect quotation which will unlock the secrets of the universe, nothing seems to match up to the stupidity, the craven profiteering, and the visceral wrongness of children being gunned down in their schools, families executed in their place of worship, or communities torn apart by sudden and public demonstrations of raw, unforgiving violence.

And then, a few weeks ago, Aislinn Melchior sent me a message asking if I could remember a story of “the last hero…the wrestler who pulls down the building on top of his hometown’s school children.” To be honest, I didn’t know the tale, so I did what one does and I asked #ClassicsTwitter. Within a few hours, someone sent me the first passage I posted yesterday from Pausanias. After some simple searches, I found the others. Here’s the main translation again:

Pausanias, 6.9.6-9

“In the Olympiad before that one they say that Kleomêdês the Astupalaian killed the Epidaurian Hippos while boxing him. When he was charged by the referees with cheating and was deprived of the victory, he went out of his mind with grief and returned to Astupalaia.

There, he attacked a school there which held as many as sixty children and knocked down the pillar which supported the roof. After the roof fell on the children, the citizens threw stones at Kleomêdês and he fled into the Temple of Athena. Inside, he climbed into a chest and closed the lid over him.

The Astupalaians wore themselves out trying to open or break the chest. When they finally broke open the chest and did not find Kleomêdês there dead or alive, they send representatives to Delphi to ask what kind of thing had happened with Kleomêdês. The Pythia is said to have given the oracle that:

Kleomêdês the Astupalaian was the last of the heroes—

Honor him with sacrifices since he is no longer mortal.”

For this reason the Astupalaians have honored Kleomêdês as a hero since that time.

The story is short, simple, and strange. Yet in this brevity and strangeness it engages not just with the central problems of Greek heroism, but it also forces us to think about how narrative functions and to revisit our assumptions about this word hero. The more I have thought about these connections, the more I have come to believe that the story of Kleomêdês has something to say about what forces make a mind capable and compelled to slaughter children. To be honest, I have also been thinking about parts of this for years, in particular about the damage perpetuated by our simplistic idea of the heroic narrative. So, this might take me a few words to get through. But I’m going to try.


The Problem with Heroes: To Suffer and Cause Suffering

“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly: / For many who have been my enemy hate me.”
ὀρθῶς δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς εἰμ’ ἐπώνυμος κακῶν / πολλοὶ γὰρ ὠδύσαντο δυσμενεῖς ἐμοί
Sophocles, fr. 965

A starting point is that the story of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is not an exceptional heroic narrative. He flies into a fit of rage when he does not receive the portion of honor he believes his community owes him and then separates himself from that community. Subsequently, he commits an act of violence against an exposed portion of his community in order to gain vengeance for his perceived suffering. Although the community mobilizes against him, he is ultimately recompensed for his lost position through fame. Kleomêdês receives eternal rites as a hero. But—and this is important—the people of Astupalaia record that he is the final one.

While Kleomêdês appears exceptional for that last assertion, the rest of his tale resonates clearly with that of other better known heroes. Both Achilles and Odysseus separate from their communities and commit (or have committed) acts of violence in order to return and gain greater renown than before. Achilles prays for his people to die in the first book of the Iliad; Odysseus slaughters 108 of the suitors upon his return home. Both of them ultimately receive immortal kleos, despite (or perhaps because of) their complex and harmful nature.

It is the simplistic way we talk about heroism rather than anything true about ancient myth and literature that might make us surprised to realize that these two most famous of Homeric heroes could be seen as monsters who murder their own people. But the capacity to suffer or cause suffering is central to the identity of Greek heroes, as Erwin Cook argues well, and central perhaps even to the ambiguity of their names: “Achilles” has been analyzed as “woe for the people” and Odysseus’ named has been folk-etymologized since antiquity as the “hateful one” (who delivers or receives hate). The most heroic hero, Herakles, is also essentially anti-social: he murders his own wife and children and, among his labors, commits many horrors absent any kind of virtue.

When Kleomêdês is called a hero, then, it is not ironic nor is it transgressive. His murdering of children is a regular entry in the heroic CV. The overwhelming force of heroic power is matched by an overweening sense of entitlement and rage at the denial of an expected reward.


The Problem with Stories 1: The Heroic pattern and Metonymic Algorithms

“The first point is that it is not only poets who used myths, but cities and lawmakers did too for the sake of their usefulness, once they noted the native disposition of the story-oriented animal. For humans love to learn; loving stories is a prelude to this. This is why children start by listening and making a common ground in stories.”
καὶ πρῶτον ὅτι τοὺς μύθους ἀπεδέξαντο οὐχ οἱ ποιηταὶ μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ αἱ πόλεις πολὺ πρότερον καὶ οἱ νομοθέται τοῦ χρησίμου χάριν, βλέψαντες εἰς τὸ φυσικὸν πάθος τοῦ λογικοῦ ζῴου: φιλειδήμων γὰρ ἅνθρωπος, προοίμιον δὲ τούτου τὸ φιλόμυθον. ἐντεῦθεν οὖν ἄρχεται τὰ παιδία ἀκροᾶσθαι καὶ κοινωνεῖν λόγων ἐπὶ πλεῖον.
Strabo,  1.2.7-8

Part of what people miss by just reading collections of myth or skimming the Iliad is that early Greek poetry is not just ambivalent about ‘heroes’, it is highly engaged with criticizing conventional heroic qualities. We labor in part with the misunderstanding of what the word hero means. And there is dangerous beneath that cornerstone of every college myth class, “the heroic pattern”, perhaps most well-known popularly in the form of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the heroic journey. The “heroic pattern” is a crass oversimplification of narrative myth and a naive perpetuation of its limitations

Now, this is probably not the right place—or time—to unpack the problems of the heroic pattern completely, but understanding the impact of two of its features influences the way I think about the modern function of myth and storytelling. First, though, the basic definition: the “heroic pattern” is a narrative plot sequence shared by many stories, from Gilgamesh and Herakles, through the Gospel’s Jesus and to more recent characters like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Authors like Joseph Campbell argue that, in a sense, the monomyth is the one true story at the base of all others while more sensitive readers like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (who certainly influenced Campbell) saw the repeated narrative pattern as evidence of human psychology from experience (Freud’s “family drama”) reflected in turn in social patterns and expectations (Jung’s “archetypes”).

A general issue worth noting is that there is slippage here between descriptive and prescriptive treatments of the pattern. What I mean by this is that folklorists who work with similar concepts record the pattern as an observable phenomenon in the world and use the observation as part of a framework of thinking about how the stories work in the world. While psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung may start from the descriptive perspective, their treatment of human beings and communities becomes reductive and prescriptive when the pattern is used to interpret complex situations too narrowly.

The mythic pattern is already implicitly prescriptive as part of the shared narrative material that shapes our lives (or, from a post-modern perspective, discourse); but it is then made doubly prescriptive when culture salesmen like Campbell (and more recent televangelists like J. Peterson) offer it as a panacea. It becomes supercharged as a commodity: there are businesses that specialize in making sure that your movie script follows the monomyth. There is also no shortage of books to help you write the next film version of the Hero’s Journey.

Two fundamental problems that emerge from this are the monomyth’s content and form. Because the heroic pattern is reflective of latent and immanent social relationships and structures, it enforces damaging stereotypes. Women, for example, have little space to act as independent agents in its plot and heteronormative male sexuality is almost always a dominant structuring force even if it is not explicit (of course, there are multiple angles to a feminist critique of the hero’s journey.) So, the heroic pattern is simply harmful to audiences who are incapable of conforming to the external identity of the ‘hero’—it constrains who they think they can be and implicitly communicates that the best option is to work in service of someone else’s narrative.

But even for audiences who can see themselves as subjects of the hero’s journey, nearly all modern versions of it are deficient because the pattern generally says little about what happens after the hero’s return to his community. When I teach ancient myth, I emphasize that post-heroic narratives like those after the Odyssey or the stories of heroes who fail (e.g. Oedipus and Bellerophon) are critical moments in the continuation of the heroic pattern: they illustrate to their audiences that the heroic life ends and transforms. This, rather than the entertainment of an adventure tale, should be the true therapeutic goal of an exploration of the hero’s journey because it shows that there is value in putting up your sword, in joining a community, in having a family, and figuring out how to live a life of meaning once your youthful strength has gone.

Narratives that fail to explore this greater percentage of human life do us a terrible disservice. Ancient Greek myth, by focusing on what Gregory Nagy has called “the unseasonal nature of the hero,” reconciles the exceptional figure to the life cycle and the community through death and its attendant rituals. This is one reason kleos (“fame, glory”) can function as recompense for actual life lost, but the promise of fame itself distorts again the relationship between individuals and the process of life.

So far, these criticisms are about the content of the conventional heroic pattern. One might profitably suggest that by adjusting aspects of the content (say the gender or race of the participants, the emphasis on what happens after heroic deeds), one can preserve the value of the form. But I worry too that the way we talk about the form is damaging. When we talk about the heroic pattern we use, I think, a linguistic metaphor that seems to imply something discrete, concrete, and predictable. Now, while there is a difference between metaphor and reality, when we use metaphors to talk about something as ineffable and mysterious as the functioning of human minds, the metaphor can shape the development of our concepts about the things they are meant to describe.

As a metaphor, a “pattern” connotes something preset and knowable. The discrete steps and stages of the Campbellian popular version simplifies and “dilutes” the complexity of heroic narrative. But the manner of speaking and the way we treat the “pattern” has the added impact of curtailing how we think narrative and myth work. As a metaphor, the “pattern” or staged journey almost too easily slips into the language of programming. But this simplistic metaphor leads to many people thinking that storytelling and human actions are simply an issue of inputting a code and pressing “execute”.

If coding is the right metaphor for narrative—a thing which I highly doubt—it is much better to conceive of a generative and learning algorithm, one with potential codes which emerge depending on the environment and context. Here, I actually find it better to think about narrative in terms of viral DNA. Stories and narrative function much more like a living organism, with vestigial characteristics, combining and recombining and showing different traits under different epigenetic traditions. Similar narrative responses are triggered by similar contexts and environments.

But even this metaphor occludes the most important part of the way narrative and discourse work: these descriptions miss out on the fact that the audience shapes the tale and that the elements of the patterns in the complex engagement between story and audience necessarily contain their opposite. Each story and element of the story is a compact metonym which can be expanded or reduced and which will shift and evolve in response to audiences. 

So, while approaches to heroic patterns from folklore through psychoanalysis to the pop-cultural hit-making of the hero’s journey understand that the pattern is attractive to audiences, they fail to acknowledge that the pattern is shaped in response to an audience whose expectations and beliefs have been shaped by the pattern. There is a perilous circuity to this process as the repetition of the pattern accentuates its extremities even while attenuating the possibility that there are other narrative moves to make.


The Problem with Stories 2: The Heroic Pattern and Toxic Masculinity

“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory / than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”
οὐ μὲν γὰρ μεῖζον κλέος ἀνέρος, ὄφρα κεν ᾖσιν, / ἢ ὅ τι ποσσίν τε ῥέξῃ καὶ χερσὶν ἑῇσιν.
Homer, Odyssey 8.147-148

What does this have to do with the tale of Kleomêdês and the end of heroism? When I read his story now, I see both Pausanias’ and Plutarch’s accounts as showing an individual trapped into a series of actions by the stories he has heard and a community struggling to deal with the consequences of its narrative traditions. If we imagine Kleomêdês as a real person, he imitates and performs the roles he has absorbed; if we see him as fictional or a ritualized narrative, he helps the people who tell his stories to explore the the limits of the story he embodies.

Among these options is the very real possibility that ancient Greek communities understood the power of their myths to shape their lives, While this process is not as simple as a choose-your-own-adventure story, it does constrain us to certain modes of action in certain contexts. We all play social roles; our lives and senses of self are shaped by patterned assumptions about what these roles can and should do; when there is a mismatch between our expectations and our experiences, we feel a deep kind of grief, a crisis of belonging, even existential angst. 

When the cultural messages we have received have not taught us humility, compromise, or to accept complexity—indeed, when they have formed us instead to expect reward, a clear place in society, and an expression of value through access to sex, adulation, and freedom to do as we wish—we are ill-fit to respond to different contexts and new information. Some people adapt and thrive; the vast majority struggle emotionally. Many fantasize about different possibilities, about breaking the system that disappointed them. A small few turn brutally, unforgivably, and irrevocably nihilistic. And this turn is embedded in heroic narrative itself: if you cannot be the avenging hero or the savior, you can still be the suffering rogue or the tragic king. One city’s savior is another’s slaughtering demon. And when there is no city to save, what remains?

I don’t mean to say anything as simple as mass murder is caused by the stories we tell, whether they appear in movies, books, video games, music etc. But there is a formative and cyclical relationship between the immanent narrative forces in our culture and the extreme actions some members of our culture take. When we flatten out narratives and don’t explore them in their entirety, we refuse to acknowledge the complexity and range of messages conveyed in even the simplest tale. Heroes are about excess: ancient Greek heroes eat excessively, reproduce excessively, suffer excessively, and, when left without recourse, kill to excess.

A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell explored the influence of popular narrative on school shootings in the New Yorker (“Thresholds of Violence,” Oct. 19, 2015). In it, he uses the social economist Mark Granovetter’s work on “behavior thresholds” to explore the basic proposal that school shootings over time are akin to behavior in mob violence, that one’s limit or “threshold” for behaving extremely is lowered when surrounded by examples of extreme behavior. 

I have found this idea attractive for some time insofar as it avoids pathologizing individuals and instead examines how aggregate individual choices over time can in part be understood as a function of collective identity and the common repository of possible avenues for behavior. In essence, the argument is a statistical one about marginal behavior: marginalized individuals may be more likely to engage in socially destructive behavior; if they can regain some of their lost ‘rightful’ honor or glory through it and they have observed others glorified for it, then their threshold for engaging in such behavior can drop low enough to initiate action. This, in part, helps to explain the tendency in the US for mass killers to be white and male in a certain age group. This violence is an expression of assumed privilege denied.

But I hesitate when thinking through this explanation because it seems just a little too reductive, a modern form of Plato’s insistence that poetry is dangerous because most people are just too dumb to understand that it is allegory and they extract the wrong lesson from it. This is not to say that there is no truth to the proposal that the stories we experience in the world have a paradigmatic effect on what we think is possible—indeed, if we did not grant fame to mass murderers, there would likely be fewer mass murders.

(And Gladwell’s interpretation of Granovetter’s work seems to be something of a leap from the context and intention of the original work. I have read the latter’s articles and find some of the former’s inferences a bit maddening. This is not to say the conclusions are not powerful, but that they might be better supported with discourse analysis from Durkheim on up through post-modern theory.)

The threshold explanation, however, by focusing on some of the problem ignores the complex causes that put people in a situation in which they feel compelled to choose what the commentariat can only explain as the action of the “mentally ill”. There is, I think, an essential connection between the severe individualism that desires fame so desperately and the essential ‘maleness’ of heroes and ‘the heroic pattern’. The term toxic masculinity has emerged over the past few years to describe part of this. But like the term white fragility, its ability to indicate a basically true set of phenomena is countered by the nearly violent emotive response it elicits from the very people who best exhibit its traits.

Both of these terms describe the range of irritations to paroxysms of fear and violence that ensue when the assumed place of honor granted to an individual or group is ‘threatened’ by new social realities. Now, this might seem like a bit of a digression from where I started, but I think that part of this sense of dislocation and an additional piece to the puzzle of the problem of mass killings comes from our cultural discourse about who we are combined with the stories we tell. 

We have a general cultural belief in intrinsic, individual identities which remain largely unchanged through life. Even if this belief falls apart when tested, we can see how it is reflected—and projected—in our political/economic focus on individual responsibility and our political/judicial focus on punishment and incarceration over rehabilitation. The late therapist Michael White, following the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, argues that such a view of a person limits our sense of agency in the world: he calls it “internal state psychology” because it assumes that we have a specific and mostly unchanging set of characteristics which lock us into certain courses of action. 

Even if this is in some sense ‘true’—or, perhaps, more true than not—the belief in such a model of personhood has deleterious effects because it makes us believe that we—and others—cannot change. This framework is a type of psychological determinism, and it limits our sense of agency in the world and insists that some paths are closed off to us. The assumption of the internal state traps us in a deterministic world view. A hero must have honor and must gain it through extreme behavior; when the promised reward is not provided, a different narrative step slides into place. A paradigmatic act of violence both performs this determinism and gives the actor the illusion of breaking with the system.

While I have written elsewhere about Michael White’s emphasis on developing an “intentional state” psychology through therapy to facilitate positive change and break destructive patterns, the concept of “internal state” psychology also demonstrates how a concrete concept of identity, dependent on external markers of esteem and ‘patterns’ of  behavior, is ‘strong’ up until the moment it crumbles completely. It is a house of concrete cards: when it falls, its pieces crush everything around them.


The Last of the Heroes and the end of Toxic Myth

“It is hard for a man to be truly good, built evenly with hands, feet and mind without blame.”
ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν μὲν ἀλαθέως γενέσθαι / χαλεπὸν χερσίν τε καὶ ποσὶ καὶ νόωι / τετράγωνον ἄνευ ψόγου τετυγμένον·
Simonides, fr. 37.1-3

Is it too much to see in the collapsing school at Astyupalaia a metaphor for the elaborate interdependence and ultimately fragility of a community built together through narrative? Perhaps, but the tale of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is one of many set at the join between history and myth to emphasize not just the end of the heroic age but to reiterate its justification. The “hero” is opposed to the community structurally (he fights them) and symbolically (he kills the future). The nameless citizens band together only after realizing the damage he has done—they are not free of blame themselves because he was part of their community. The oracle’s instruction to honor Kleomêdês with sacrifices is a type of expiation and the preservation of the memory of what happened. Where later Christian authors like Origin and Eusebius criticize the account for showing how “pagans” would make anyone into a god, I think that the rites afforded to Kleomêdês are really about preserving the social memory of the damage that heroes can do while also marking out that he was the last one. 

So the narrative of Kleomêdês in part functions to put the heroic narrative to bed, to consign it to the past, and to offer its final interpretation. In the two variants we have for the oracular line “the last of the heroes”, we find both the temporal and the spatial aspects of this finality marked out. Pausanias’ temporal hustatos (ὕστατος ἡρώων) plots this experience as coming most recently; Plutarch’s spatial eskhatos (Ἔσχατος ἡρώων) puts the hero at the end of a sequence but far away. And I don’t think there is any accident in the fact that eskhatos can also describe extreme actions and the world of the dead. The oracle marks the heroic age as definitively over and leaves this last of heroes as an unambiguous cautionary tale. 

Such a narrative, I suspect, is evidence of the complexity of critical thought endemic to the living performance and reception of myth in the ancient Greek world. As I stated earlier, this implicit critical treatment of what a hero is or may be is part of the point of the Iliad and the Odyssey and no less central to the tragic stage in Athens. Indeed, I think that one would be hard-pressed to find an uncritical examination of heroic figures in most of what we have received from antiquity. (Or even in the better heroic tales we consume today.)

Simplistic lessons, constrained senses of self, lost opportunities for belonging—these are all important aspects of why the heroic pattern is insufficient for the complex lives we live and why someone like Kleomêdês turns to violence against his own people. Even to this day, members of our population are raised with expectations based on incomplete or childish narrative patterns which are sharpened and weaponized by a cultural message that our value is intrinsic, individualistic, and based on what we do alone. When the paradigms we are offered let us be saviors or destroyers, how can we be anything else?

Kleomêdês’ individual response represents the internalization of cultural narratives and beliefs; cultural narratives are the structural and institutional forces that act upon individuals and emerge from them in the aggregate. When the experience of the individual clashes with the structural, it creates crisis. We can engage with narrative patterns and alter them over time. But sequestering the tools of mass violence is the most effective way to preserve lives.

And I want to emphasize here again that this is not about pathologizing individuals. This is not about anyone’s personal mental health. This is a cultural problem of dysfunction and social organization that has neither simple explanation nor simple solution. We need to change the stories we tell about ourselves and each other; we need to educate our community from birth about how our minds work and how narratives can condition us; we need to break the restriction of narrative identities and lives lived imposed by biological gender, sex identity, and physical ability; we need to think about whether or not our social organization allows people to live with meaning and a sense of belonging. But, in the meantime, let’s not build schools on single pillars; let’s not give hopeful heroes weapons of mass murder.

As I explore when I teach myth and have over time come to understand as central to the importance of epic, the ancient Greek narrative and performative context was deeply sensitive to a need for storytelling complexity and richness of thought. The long-term engagement with sophisticated ideas provided by myth and poetry invited audiences into a dialogue of generations and ideas at the center of which was their own creation of narratives about themselves and their world, that blend between the stories they heard and the ones they experienced. I deeply believe that this process was in part therapeutic and that one of the reasons Greek epic is so shifty and challenging is that it comes at the end point of generations wrangling over difficult ideas like how a person is valued in their community, how communities govern themselves, and what makes a life worth living. 

(But, it is far from perfect: even if it deeply criticizes and effectively unmasks the corrosive nature of mythical patterns for men, it perpetuates oppressive structures for women.)

Literature in its context—and even outside of it—resists simplistic patterning and reduction and provides deep and ambiguous opportunities for engagement with audiences. It does not offer a simple map of directions or a simplistic path to completion because life itself is not a linear game. While we do have milestone moments which socially mark our moves from one “level” or “stage” of life to another, these are social constructions that give us context as we move through the most dangerous stages of adolescence and transition from one family group into another. 

Any narrative that does not help us conceive of what happens next, however, is potentially disastrous. The heroic pattern leaves us no paradigm for how to live life when there are no great challenges, how to navigate the world when we are not the strongest or fastest, how to age, bear children, face weakness, and live with imperfect others without killing them.

The story of Kleomêdês takes the heroic tale to what is actually a logical end: it unmasks its toxic core and may even hint at the damaging nature of kleos (epic “fame”) itself. Kleomêdês’ murder of the children is the destruction of his community and a symbolic attempt to outlive it.  The fame he gains through heroic rites are forbidden to others by the Oracle at Delphi, but this doesn’t stop people from trying.


File:Herakles as Pugilist, the smaller than life-size head originates from a statue that represented the Greek hero as a pugilist, Herakles was their patron deitey, 200-150 BC, Altes Museum (13958946167).jpg
Herakles the Pugilist, 200-150 BC, Altes Museum

Brillionaire’s Club

“Right next to this we find the sacred library [of Alexandria] on which is inscribed “The Healer of the Soul”; and next-door to it are the statues of the gods of Egypt….”

ἑξῆς δ’ ὑπάρχειν τὴν ἱερὰν βιβλιοθήκην, ἐφ’ ἧς ἐπιγεγράφθαι Ψυχῆς ἰατρεῖον, συνεχεῖς δὲ ταύτῃ τῶν κατ’ Αἴγυπτον θεῶν ἁπάντων εἰκόνας,

Diodorus Siculus 1.49

Early on in my first year at my current University, a graduate student was mulling over possible thesis topics and expressed an interest in one of my favorite distractions, fragmentary mythography. This student was specifically interested in the intersection between history and myth and the link between genealogy and epic formed most clearly in anecdotal evidence and early Greek records. This was a time for the fragments of the Greek Historians. (Sound the Jacoby Klaxon!)

Even though it was not that long ago (ok, closer to two decades than one) when I started, the informational landscape has utterly transformed since I entered my PhD program. When I was shopping for graduate school, I was told to ask about the library and to make sure they carried certain journals. It used to be that when I made a request for an Interlibrary Loan article or book, I would fill out a form (by hand) and then go to a dark window in the corner of the library weeks later to retrieve my request in an impersonal manila envelope, as if I were retrieving something forbidden, illicit.

(And, as I think of it, it was a whole lot easier to make many drug transactions than it was to get certain journals when I started graduate school.)

Today, ILL is slick, fast, and rarely demands that I leave the safe, enervating confines of my own office. Where twenty years ago a student would have had to sit down with a tightly printed, nearly inscrutable volume of Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians, two years ago my student and I emailed the librarian, found out the there was a digital version available through Brill, and made a request for the library to negotiate access.

It took an excruciating week. But when it came in? Well, it was glorious. Jacoby online presents all the fragments, translated, with notes! The online world of Classical Studies can turn a desk jockey anywhere into a world-class scholar by delivering bibliographies through the arcane but indispensable L’Annee Philologique and all the starting details you need with Brill’s New Pauly (now in English, fools. No German for you! And don’t give me that look, no less a leading light than Richard Porson allegedly quipped that “Life is too short to learn German.”)

Jacoby 2

this is just beautiful.

You can be transformed by this access, if you have the right library. But I knew from just a few months earlier, that this conditional makes a world of difference. Brandeis is not a wealthy University, but it is wealthy enough to drop a few grand extra so 3-5 people can benefit from a database 99.5% of the population has never heard of.

“There are those who accumulate books not from eagerness to use them, but from the desire to have them, and they possess them not as a bulwark to their minds, but as an ornament for their bedrooms.

Sunt enim qui libros, ut cetera, non utendi studio cumulent, sed habendi libidine, neque tam ut ingenii presidium, quam ut thalami ornamentum.

Petrarch, Epistles 3.18

Sometimes it is really easy to forget how much the information age has changed our access to the ancient world. The only scholarly text I saw before I picked up a copy of Cicero’s Pro Caelio at the Brandeis campus bookstore in 1998 was a dog-eared copy of Fordyce’s Catullus (that in-depth, but tragically incomplete commentary). I remember handling my first Loeb in the Classics section at the now defunct Borders (Books and Music); the first Latin text I actually owned was a bilingual edition of Catullus special-ordered from that same Borders by my high school girlfriend.

If you lived in certain regions, Greek and Latin texts were hard to find even if you could afford them. When I was in college and bar-tending in a seaside town in Maine, I noticed a patron reading Horace at the bar. I casually asked him where he was a professor, and he was like “Heavens, no, I am a stockbroker! The University is the death of the Arts.” (Really.) After a conversation filled with “o fons bandusiae” and the like, he asked me how often I frequented Schoenhof’s foreign language bookstore in Cambridge. When I said never, he had a heart attack. Ok, he only feigned a heart attack. But he did give me a 20 dollar tip and bid me to get there post haste.

For thousands of years, access to the texts bequeathed to us by antiquity was dictated by geography and class. You could be born into a family with a private library (rare) or endowed with the resources to send you to an institution which had one (less rare, but still, you know, 1% stuff) or you could happen to be near an institution that just happened to possess a Homer or a Vergil. (Assuming, of course, you’d get to look at it.) Or, of course, you could be lucky enough like Richard Bentley to get a tutoring gig for a family so well-endowed that the notes you made from their library helped launch and sustain your career.

Very few public libraries that aren’t also University libraries house Greek and Latin texts to this day. I read whatever was at the library when I was a kid. Every Stephen King book was there, so that’s what I read. When I wanted to read Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune was the book they stocked, so that’s the one I started with (and my favorite to this day). On the rare occasions we trekked to the largest library I had ever seen (the Portland Public Library), it was to browse and admire. It was, let’s say, simply too far to go to get a book just to return it.

Part of the radical legacy of the late Renaissance, the rise of the printing Press, and the Enlightenment is the democritization of material once so carefully cloistered. The spirit of access is clear in the creation of the French Budé editions of Greek and Latin texts and the Loeb Classical Library in the United States. These bilingual editions were (and remain) far more affordable than most scholarly editions and more readily available.

Thanks to Perseus, The Latin Library, Lacus Curtius,, the Suda Online, and Dickinson College Commentaries and the hundred other sites I am forgetting, even the casual student of antiquity has nearly instant access to more Greek and Roman texts and translations from a cell phone than Poggio, Petrarch, or Erasmus saw in their entire lifetimes. And forward-thinking institution like the Center for Hellenic studies publish their scholarly texts for free online when they are released.

(Full disclosure: I have a book coming out with CHS this year with Elton Barker. We selected CHS as a venue for the book in part because of their open access policy.)

Social media can break down boundaries between the Oxford Don and the Brazilian high school student in ways I think would have shocked William Gibson in 1985. But there are other stories behind this obvious social gain: the quality of the texts are curbed (we still have trouble sharing critical texts with functioning critical apparatus), the quality of some sources is unclear, and these sites often lack the funds and expertise to ensure they are accessible for the visually impaired. And, the newest and latest material is almost always pay-walled: the neoliberal publishing market has found ways to cloister some of our most useful contributions.

“For I seriously need both the Greek books—which I have an idea about—and the Latin ones”

nam et Graecis iis libris quos suspicor et Latinis quos scio illum reliquisse mihi vehementer opus est. Cicero, Letters to Atticus 1.20

Spending time in libraries ain’t what it used to be. Don’t get me wrong, free public libraries remain one of the most essential democratic institutions in our country and we should celebrate them and their librarians. But modern libraries reflect their use and function like any other place, with real estate. More and more space is given over to computers through de-accession and that terrible three word phrase, off site storage.

Again, don’t get me wrong. This is not to be a luddite’s rant against the computer or a bibliomaniacal fetish piece. The reason I lament the absence of books is that the computer terminals are only as good as what they have access to. In a way, computers are like books: you can’t judge the contents of either by the cover. And when the contents work, it can be transformative. I have never been a Classicist without the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. For some years, I used a purchased CD-ROM of the TLG-E; for a few, we negotiated through our library at UTSA a single computer subscription. (For others, well, let’s just say some people know how to put the ILL back in illicit. This is an essential tool for modern philology and everyone should have access to it, for free.)

If we were to re-imagine the current world of Classical Studies as one particular site, it would be a platform with different identity levels controlling access. If you have high speed internet access, you can get free public domain Latin and Greek texts with translations, the Suda Online, and random uncurated website, articles, all mediated by google and requiring time intensive labor to sift through. There are some e-books and pdfs, but many of them are teases and there’s always a threat of piggybacking malware. If you have entry-level professional organization or second tier public school access, you might get the Loeb Classical Library, and more articles through JSTOR.

But if you are at the top of the access food chain, if you’re a Brillionaire, you have L’Annee Philologique, Brill’s New Pauly, Brill’s Jacoby, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Latin and Linguistics, and more. So much more that you don’t know about it all and you just don’t care. This is what one might call eff you level access.

At my last institution, the University of Texas at San Antonio, I could get most articles I needed, but had access to very few databases. To use L’Annee Philologique, I had to go to UT Austin and ask for computer access. But they gave it to me because of my status (Professor) and my geography (TXShare, with some hurdles, allowed for people from public libraries to use the University library).

So, while we have democritized a lot of the past in some ways, we have created new boundaries in others. Who you are, where you live, and what you do still dictates the level of access you receive to the embarrassment of research riches at our fingertips. If you have no affiliation, you get the surface level, search engine mediated access. If you are lucky enough to be at a top tier institution, you have everything, but likely don’t know about it and, until you lose that status, won’t know that your work may be dependent on one bundling plan or some administrator’s choice. If you live too far or don’t have whatever relationship it is you need to get some special status, you are left on the outside looking in

And let’s not prevaricate here. Open access is about equity and inclusion. As long as we live in a world where historical and structural racism, gender bias, ableism, and classism influence where a person is born and the lives they lead, then any system which limits access to information based on geography or class will be at its foundation racist, sexist, ableist, and classist.

“I am not ignorant in the meantime (notwithstanding this which I have said) how barbarously and basely, for the most part, our ruder gentry esteem of libraries and books, how they neglect and contemn so great a treasure, so inestimable a benefitRobert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy 2.2.4

“Money is the cause of many of mortals’ evils

πολλῶν τὰ χρήματ᾿ αἴτι ᾿ ἀνθρώποις κακῶν #Euripides

The information access problem is tied in part to the labyrinthine economy of the neo-liberal university system. At its base is a heinous labor scam most of us in the academy are complicit in and which most of us are too busy to notice, too tired to fight, or too weak to resist. Almost all of the databases I mentioned above were produced through free (or nearly free) labor by scholars working to get or keep their jobs. (And this overlooks the unmentioned and often unpaid labor of students, administrators and family members along the way.).

I myself have written entries for at least one of the publications mentioned above: I received a 30% off promise for 2000 words. My university does not have access to an article I have never seen in its native form. And this is all a greater part of what is the bait-and-switch of academic publishing. What a perversion that we labor for years to produce books we cannot actually afford and which almost none of our friends or colleagues could afford to purchase!

(Another part of the story that needs to be told is how this economic system makes it possible for predatory publishers to take advantaged of those already marginalized by charging them fees to get work published…)

As the university has engaged in increasingly high-stakes brinksmanship, raising its perceived rankings value by pumping up the publication stats of its professors, non-profit and for-profit presses have joined the game by furnishing both a venue and a market for these intellectual markets. Young academics are trained not to write ‘trade’ books (that is, books that make money); instead, to secure the too often elusive promise of a job we write books for which we receive no compensation and for which we are often expected to pay for our own indexing (and in some cases, copy editing).

Articles are little different: peer review requires free labor from editors, referees, and the authors themselves. Some editors do get paid (more on this soon), but rarely is there more than an annual drink or meal for an editorial board and referees can at times receive a few hundred dollars for reading a book and a digital wink-and-a-smile for reading an article. The authors themselves, after scores, if not hundreds of hours of work, are compensated with 5% less existential angst and the chance that 1 of the 5 people who read their article might cite them. And the exclusivity can keep some people out of disciplines altogether: think of some of the nearly criminal tales dogging papyrology lately or how few people actually can get decent training in paleography. Where you are and where you started still guides most of our academic journey.

The scandal behind the publication heist is that most of this labor is subsidized by Universities themselves. Full-time faculty are expected to do research and service (and all the work I mentioned above falls into this category.) But many schools also provide funds to student and graduate student workers to assist in the publication cycle; others task administrative assistants or actual journal employees to the job. Untold millions of dollars are provided by public and private universities to support the publication of academic research. Then this subsidized research is repackaged and sold back to their over-extended libraries in an over-priced bundle. This is a cartel-level scam.

(This is why employees of universities in some countries (e.g. the UK) are required to publish open access material. Such a requirement might work for public institutions in the US and is already operable for work funding by certain federal initiatives, but it would be difficult to enforce universally.)

Problems with the cost of journal subscriptions are not new—giants like Elsevier gobble up journals, ‘bundle’ them together, and extort institutions. But this parasitic crisis is not going to end. We don’t face this problem with journals and database subscriptions alone—as textbook publishers go full on digital to keep their revenues rolling in, students and authors are getting screwed.

Give up the books and pay attention to only your own affairs”

ἄφες δὲ τὰ βιβλία καὶ μόνα ἐργάζου τὰ σαυτοῦ. Lucian, On the Ignorant Book-Collector 27

I know that there is another side to the story. I got to hear first-hand from the acquisitions editor for Brill Classics why their subscription costs so much. There are multiple people working full time to support the online databases for the New Pauly and the Jacoby. Editing, formatting, and tech support takes time and costs money. I would not want to take any stance that they should not be paid fair, livable wages. The costs of articles in other disciplines are even higher: in the sciences where editors need to worry about positive result bias, misused data, an undisclosed conflicts of interest, publishing can be labor intensive.

(To be clear, I am using Brill as a metonym here: there are far worse offenders.)

And I think that it is hard for us to think about the full economic cost of online resources. Databases need servers. Servers need bandwidth, energy, and, and maintenance. The more use they get, the more they cost. And, something we probably all live in daily denial about, this use has environmental and social costs: google searches have carbon footprints. Computers don’t run on love and hope; they run on electricity and much of this is still driven by coal.

Other economic pressures shape this system too. Some publications are supported by professional organizations. Companies like JSTOR buy rights to these publications from the organizations—these deals look really good to the editorial boards. Imagine this: you and your friends write something for free every year and you don’t have the expertise or the infrastructure to digitize it. You also depend on subscription fees and individual library purchases to break even in the printing of the work. Suddenly, a friendly digital giant comes along and offers you, I don’t know, $20,000 dollars a year for the rights to digitize and distribute your journal. You take this and use it to pay the editor, lower membership fees, fund journal production costs, and even create scholarships for students. This is a win-win-win!

Except, the FDG turns around, bundles the journal, and extorts Universities and libraries all over the world. Your organization’s 20K can easily turn into 200K for them while many of your friends and colleagues without institutional access can’t get to your work. (And some estimates put the gross receipts of one article in the sciences to be $5000.00 for the publisher.) This hypothetical is not uncommon. But I am not trying to impugn any single person or organization by telling the story. Like many trends, this is the aggregate result of individuals and small groups making rational decisions in isolation. Objection to the systematic exploitation of academic labor should not lead us to condemn or dismiss colleagues who are also being exploited by this system.

University presses do similar things with books and subscriptions. And, again, we can’t blame them because they are also part of an economic system that is suffering from public divestment and new informational paradigms. Things will probably get worse: education is facing an eighth year of lower enrollments, even more severe public funding cuts—many politically manufactured crises like that at the University of Alaska, or cynical attacks on functional schools like that at the University of Tulsa—and the late capitalist land-grab of corporate takeovers: Starbucks and Amazon are talking college partnerships and credentialing now, but how long until they just open their own schools or acquire financially troubled institutions in WSJ approved experiments in innovation and public-private synergy?!

If knowledge is a public good and publication makes knowledge available, is it too much of a twisted syllogism to insist that publication be treated as a public good?

Nosse bonos libros non minima pars est bonae eruditionis.

“To know good books is not the least part of sound erudition”

motto over Bishop Cosin’s library at Durham, Henry L. Thompson, Henry George Liddell: A Memoir

When I was finishing my PhD I lucked into one of those tutoring jobs that form the stuff of legends. A high school student wanted to learn Greek from scratch. The student’s home had its own elevator to the penthouse where it overlooked central park. For two years I happily went there once or twice a week and worked through all of Hanson and Quinn, Plato’s Ion and much of Herodotus Book 1. During the second year, the student’s mother asked me if I had seen the old books she had been giving her husband for birthdays and holidays. They were late Renaissance era texts of Homer, Pindar, and more. I trembled as I asked if I needed gloves to handle them—of course, not, why would I? These were just gifts to be presented and seen on the shelves.

If schools continue to lose funding and presses pursue what meager profit is left—or worse, cease supporting the tools and databases we have already created—we run the risk of returning to the plutocratic exclusivity of the finest resources for the rarest few. Don’t consider just the students at less well endowed and funded schools who cannot test-drive the Brill-iant cadillacs like the New Pauly. What about unaffiliated scholars or students and readers from outside countries with ‘world-class’ universities? Our scholarly production is already an exclusive country club with gilded chains on the windows and doors.

Internet publishing
Ultimately, we need a public funding system to support research and publishing that makes it available for everyone. Since this is highly unlikely in our current political reality, what can we do? Some of us break the rules individually, you know, engage in a little ‘innovation’ and ‘creative disruption’. We can handout articles as if they are candy; we can give people advice on how to find those pirated TLGs. I know that is another profiteering algorithm machine, but it and sites like it allow us to share our work with anyone with an email address.

Those of us who have secure positions can choose which venues we send our work in; we can support open access publication for our junior colleagues. We can ask our schools to host our work; we can choose to publish only in open access journals and venues, but this also means that when we judge people for employment and tenure, we need to re-evaluate the value of journal prestige.

Perhaps there is more we can do institutionally. Why can’t universities share their access more widely? At the very least they can use their informational footprint to sponsor our work and help shift the perspective on access. In our professional organizations we can make open access a clearly articulated mandate and we can raise money to support databases and journals that are subscription fee (and I am happy to hear that the TLG has a plan to do so. It is too bad it has not happened faster).

Again, there are projects that need to be done—like the digitization of the Lexicon Iconcographicum Mythologicae Classicae—which we should make sure are done for everyone and we should not only seek to support the scholars who do this work financially, but we should support their work ethically by counting open access and publicly facing work as equal to if not greater than traditional journal articles when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion.It is and will be personally and professionally difficult to disentangle this elegant cage we have helped make for ourselves. But the first step is acknowledging that it is there, that we have contributed to it, and that some of us have benefited from keeping many others in the dark. When you’re in it, the Club is a fine and rare place to be. But with the disappearance of full-time jobs, the increase casualization of labor in the Academy, and the fetishization of the gig-economy, more of us will be on the outside looking in.

“I confess indeed that I am obsessed with studying literature. Let this fact shame others who do not know how to make use of their books so that they can’t provide anything from their reading to common profit or to make their benefit clear in sight.

Ego vero fateor me his studiis esse deditum: ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt, ut nihil possint ex his neque ad communem adferre fructum neque in aspectum lucemque proferre: Cicero, Pro Archa 13


Here’s a survey about open access issues in Classics and the UK from 2008.

We can create our own publishing paradigms

Public libraries may be able to provide structure and scaffolding for more equitable access

Scarcity, Precarity, and Simile: Reading the Iliad

Homer, Iliad 12.421-426

“But, just as two men strive over boundary stones,
As they hold their yardsticks in hand in a shared field
and they struggle over a fair share of the limited earth,
So did the fortifications separate them.
But over them still they struck one another
On their oxhide circles and winged shields.”

ἀλλ’ ὥς τ’ ἀμφ’ οὔροισι δύ’ ἀνέρε δηριάασθον
μέτρ’ ἐν χερσὶν ἔχοντες ἐπιξύνῳ ἐν ἀρούρῃ,
ὥ τ’ ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ ἐρίζητον περὶ ἴσης,
ὣς ἄρα τοὺς διέεργον ἐπάλξιες· οἳ δ’ ὑπὲρ αὐτέων
δῄουν ἀλλήλων ἀμφὶ στήθεσσι βοείας
ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους λαισήϊά τε πτερόεντα.

Schol. T ad Il. 12.423b

“This is about the intensity. For those who possess more might look down on [fighting like this?”

ex. ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ: εἰς ἐπίτασιν· οἱ γὰρ πλείονα κεκτημένοι ἴσως καταφρονοῦσιν. T

As some already know, I am a Homerist by practice and training, which means I have spent the better part of the past 20 years, reading, thinking, and writing about the Homeric epics. After all this, I am still regularly surprised by how much I don’t understand and often shocked by the fact that I have spent so many years doing just this, re-reading, being surprised, and then trying to learn something new.

The truth is, there was a time when I had little regard for the Homeric epics. I started reading them because I wanted to understand the ‘literature’ that followed them. About the same time I started reading Homer in the original, which was transformative on its own, I read both epics again in translation. The oceanic gap between the experience of the Greek and the translations rattled my confidence in my own aesthetic judgments (and in the act of translation).

But the difference between Homeric phraseology and Vergil (the Latin author with whom I had the most familiarity at the time) was striking: nearly every line of Homer is a self-contained unit of sense. Rather than being hypotactic (subordinating and delaying meaning), Homeric poetry is paratactic, building by adding. It is useful to know the language and stories of the Iliad before you start reading; but it is not necessary for enjoyment: the epic constructs itself in front of you as it tells its tale.

The simile above is one of the first things that I carried around with me everyday once I started reading Homeric Greek (I eventually made investigating it into a senior thesis). It is such a small, nearly forgettable moment. But its simplicity belies a compact and complex representation of the way Homeric poetry works and why it still matters.

In the middle of the battle over the walls the Greek have constructed against the resurgent Trojan defenders, the warring sides are compared to two men fighting over measuring their share of a common field. Even to this day, this comparison seems so disarmingly true as it reduces the grand themes of the struggles between Trojans and Greek, Agamemnon and Achilles, to that of two men over shared resources. The Iliad, at one level, is all about scarcity: scarcity of goods, of women, of honor, of life-time, and, ultimately, the scarcity of fame.

This simile works through metonymy to represent not just the action on the field of battle at this moment, but the conditions that prompt the greater conflict and those that constrain human life. It leaps through time and space and indicates how this poem differs from simple myths. The normal mortals who love this poem aren’t kings or demigods; we live small, sometimes desperate lives, the conditions of which are improved or exacerbated by how well we work together to make fair shares of our public goods.

The scholiast’s comments above, then, are doubly laughable. If I am reading them right (and the verb καταφρονοῦσιν without an object can be annoying), the commentator is imagining that these men in the simile are struggling over this small bit of land because they are poor and that wealthier men would not bother. Not only is this a tragic misunderstanding of human nature (wait tables or tend bar for only a few weeks and you will discover that the good tippers are not the wealthiest ones), but it is a poor reading of the epic, where the wealthiest and most powerful men alive are more than happy to keep fighting and ensuring that their people die.

The point of the simile is that it provides a meeting point between the actors of the poem and the worlds of the audiences; the line that separates imaginative story in the audience’s minds from the lives they live becomes permeable and the hero meets the mortal in the shared experience. This is how the world becomes a part of the story and how it also  shapes the poem.

Right after this, there’s another simile.

Iliad 12.427-438

“Many were struck across their flesh by pitiless bronze
Whenever they turned and bared their backs
As they struggled, although many were also struck through their shields.
The towers and walls were decorated everywhere with the blood
Of men from both sides, from Trojans and Achaeans.

Yet, they still could not force the Achaians to flee—
No, it held as when an honest weaving woman holds
The balance and draws out the weight and the wool on both sides
to make them equal so she might earn some wretched wage for her children.
So the battle and the war was stretched even on each side
Until Zeus gave the glory over to Hektor
Priam’s son, who first broke through the wall of the Achaeans.”

πολλοὶ δ’ οὐτάζοντο κατὰ χρόα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ,
ἠμὲν ὅτεῳ στρεφθέντι μετάφρενα γυμνωθείη
μαρναμένων, πολλοὶ δὲ διαμπερὲς ἀσπίδος αὐτῆς.
πάντῃ δὴ πύργοι καὶ ἐπάλξιες αἵματι φωτῶν
ἐρράδατ’ ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἀπὸ Τρώων καὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν.
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἐδύναντο φόβον ποιῆσαι ᾿Αχαιῶν,
ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα γυνὴ χερνῆτις ἀληθής,
ἥ τε σταθμὸν ἔχουσα καὶ εἴριον ἀμφὶς ἀνέλκει
ἰσάζουσ’, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα μισθὸν ἄρηται·
ὣς μὲν τῶν ἐπὶ ἶσα μάχη τέτατο πτόλεμός τε,
πρίν γ’ ὅτε δὴ Ζεὺς κῦδος ὑπέρτερον ῞Εκτορι δῶκε
Πριαμίδῃ, ὃς πρῶτος ἐσήλατο τεῖχος ᾿Αχαιῶν.

Schol D + bT ad Il. 12.433-435 ex.

“The equal balance of those fighting, [Homer] compared to the beam of a loom, again. For nothing is so precisely similar to an even balance. And the one weighing this out is not the mistress of the household—for she does not often trouble this much for so small an equal bit—nor is it one of the household maids—for they would not seek to make so precise a measure since they are fed by the household’s master and do not risk their nourishment if they mess up on the loom weights—but it is a woman for hire who must provide what is needed for living by the effort of her hands.”

ex. | D ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα<—μισθὸν ἄρη-ται>: πάλιν τὸ ἰσοπαλὲς τῶν μαχομένων παρέβαλε ζυγῷ· οὐδὲν γὰρ οὕτως ἀκριβὲς πρὸς ἰσότητα. καὶ ἡ ταλαντεύουσα οὐκ ἔστι δέσποινα οἰκίας (ταύτην γὰρ οὐ λυπεῖ πολλάκις τὸ παρὰ βραχὺ ἴσον), ἀλλ’ οὐδὲ θεραπαινίς (οὐ γὰρ αὗται ζητοῦσι τὸ ἀκριβὲς εἰς τοσοῦτον, ἅτε δὴ ὑπὸ τοῦ δεσπότου τρεφόμεναι b [BCE3E4] T καὶ οὐκ ἐν τῷ διαμαρτεῖν περὶ τὸν σταθμὸν κινδυνεύουσαι περὶ τροφήν), T χερνῆτις (433) δέ, ἡ χειρὶ τὰ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν πορίζουσα, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα (435) φησίν.

This passage has long  moved me too because, as with the earlier simile, the great ‘epic’ themes and images of war were reduced to something simple, daily, and completely understandable. Even in the ancient world where many members of the audiences probably had considerably more experience of violence than we do and where most aristocratic audience members would certainly have nothing but contempt for working for a living, many probably heard a crucial echo of their own lives in this surprising comparison.

I also appreciate the way that the scholiasts here home in on how dire this woman’s position is, making the dubious but nonetheless striking claim that the household servants led less precarious lives than the woman of the simile who draws the weight so precisely because her pay—and the lives of her children—depend upon it. In a crucial way, this simile evokes the same sense of scarcity as that of the men on the field—but it adds that an all too familiar anxiety from the precarity that emerges when one lives constantly with the sense of how scarce those things we value are.

It may seem a stretch, but the image of the weaving woman evokes for me the creative power of women presented elsewhere in Homer–Helen weaves the story of her own kleos, Penelope weaves shroud whose images are never revealed. In a way, the tension prepared by the woman’s hands within the simile is a comparison for the balance of war and a metaphor for an act of creation. The epic’s plot and the audience’s experience are similarly drawn out in the narrator’s hands.

Indeed, the scarcity and precarity evoked by this simile and the one that precedes it extends the transitional moment begun with the image of the farmers to create anticipatory tension in the audience. At the epic’s middle, before we move from book 12 to 13 and to the slaughter of the Achaeans at the ships, the balance hangs ever briefly before it breaks. Hektor surges through the Achaean fortification: the balance of action fails just as the balance of the plot will too—the story of Achilles’ withdrawal will now translate into the slaughter he asked Zeus to precipitate leading to the death of Patroklos, Hektor and, ultimately, Achilles too.

These similes stand at the middle of the poem and convey the sense of tension at the passing of this moment and the spinning of the tale itself. The nameless men and the nameless woman stand in contrast to the named heroes who will suffer and die in the following books. But they are also vehicles moving between the lives of the audiences and the heroes’ deeds marking off the small stakes for which all are struggling and the limited life by which we are all constrained.



Venetus A Book 12
Iliad 12, from the Venetus A Manuscript (via the Homer Multitext Project)

When I’m Dead, Y’all Can Go Screw

CW: Profanity.

Anonymous, Greek Anthology, 7.704

“When I’m dead, the earth can be fucked by fire.
It means nothing to me since I’ll be totally fine.”

Ἐμοῦ θανόντος γαῖα μιχθήτω πυρί·
οὐδὲν μέλει μοι· τἀμὰ γὰρ καλῶς ἔχει.

This statement is no less potent or poignant now than 2500 years ago. It signals the vampiric and internally apocalyptic solipsisms of the powerful and the elite. But it also engages with a universal human denial and naive narcissism that allows us to ignore and exacerbate global warming and to throw other people’s children into cages while we cherish our own. This is the voice that says only the now matters, that this quarter’s profits are more important than sustainability and justice, that today’s ends justify any kinds of means.

Unsurprisingly, it is attributed to the Roman Emperors Tiberius and Nero.

Suda tau 552 [cribbing Dio Cassius]

“And Tiberius uttered that ancient phrase, “when I am dead, the earth can be fucked with fire”, and he used to bless Priam because he died with his country and his palace.”

τοῦτο δὲ τὸ ἀρχαῖον ἐφθέγξατο· ἐμοῦ θανόντος γαῖα μιχθήτω πυρί. καὶ τὸν Πρίαμον ἐμακάριζεν, ὅτι μετὰ τῆς πατρίδος καὶ τῆς βασιλείας ἀπώλετο.

Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta
From Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta

Here’s one explanation:

Appendix Proverbiorum 2.56

“When I am dead, the earth can be fucked by fire.” Note that this [proverb is used] to express that it isn’t necessary to think or worry about the future

᾿Εμοῦ θανόντος γαῖα μιχθήτω πυρί: ὅτι οὐ δεῖ περὶ τῶν μελλόντων φροντίζειν ἢ δεδιέναι.

The saying seems to predate the Roman Emperors, however. Cicero riffs on this sentiment.

Cicero, De Finibus 3.64

“In turn, they believe that the universe is ruled by the will of the gods and that it is like a city or state shared by humans and gods and that everyone of us is a member of this universe. This is the reason that it is natural for us to put shared good before the personal. Truly, just as the laws prefer the safety of the collective over that of individuals, so too a good and wise person, obedient to the laws and not ignorant of his civic duty, pursues the advantage of the collective over that of an individual or himself.

A traitor to a state need not be hated more than one who undermines common advantage or safety on account of his own. This is why the person who faces death for the republic must be praised, because it bestows glory upon us to care more for our country than ourselves. And this is why it seems an inhuman and criminal voice when people say that they don’t care if all of everything burns when they are dead—as it is typically construed with that common Greek verse—and it is also certain true that we must care for those who will live in the future for their own sake.”

Mundum autem censent regi numine deorum eumque esse quasi communem urbem et civitatem hominum et deorum, et unumquemque nostrum eius mundi esse partem; ex quo illud natura consequi ut communem utilitatem nostrae anteponamus. Ut enim leges omnium salutem singulorum saluti anteponunt, sic vir bonus et sapiens et legibus parens et civilis offici non ignarus utilitati omnium plus quam unius alicuius aut suae consulit. Nec magis est vituperandus proditor patriae quam communis utilitatis aut salutis desertor propter suam utilitatem aut salutem. Ex quo fit ut laudandus is sit qui mortem oppetat pro re publica, quod deceat cariorem nobis esse patriam quam nosmet ipsos. Quoniamque illa vox inhumana et scelerata ducitur eorum qui negant se recusare quo minus ipsis mortuis terrarum omnium deflagratio consequatur (quod vulgari quodam versu Graeco pronuntiari solet), certe verum est etiam iis qui aliquando futuri sint esse propter ipsos consulendum.

Here’s a more genteel variation on the sentiment:

A note about the translation: I use the English profane “fuck” for mikhthênai here for two reasons. First, mignumi is often used in periphrases or euphemism for sex. Second, I think the speaker is effecting a dismissive and aggressively narcissistic stance towards the world which will exist after his death. Such narcissism and self-absorption is so perverse and twisted and yet so utterly common as to demand obscenity and plunge us all into the painfully profane. Third, as my students, and unfortunately my children, can attest, I am profane in real life. This is in part a class issue (I lack certain refinements) but it is also part character (my slight discomfort at class mobility and playing the professional role is expressed through this minor, adolescent rebelliousness).

But, there’s also the zeitgeist. There have been  complaints  over the years about profanity coming from this website and twitter account. While I understand that language use can be harmful and seem inapposite, I fear that I am insufficiently sympathetic to complaints about vulgar or profane language. We are living in a perverse and obscene time. Effective language, a man once said, is when the sound is an echo of the sense.

Seneca gets the same sense, but makes it a bit more active in his Medea.

Seneca, Medea 426–428

“…The only rest
Is if I see the whole world uprooted along with my ruin.
Let everything depart with me. It is pleasing to destroy while you die.”

…Sola est quies,
mecum ruina cuncta si video obruta;
mecum omnia abeant. trahere, cum pereas, libet.

Thanks to @mwiik and @ericvonotter for this.