Blogging My Way to a Book

In 2014 or so I was a tenured professor, less than happy in my job, but without any plan for making a change. It is not easy to get a job as a professor in classics; it is harder to get job after you have tenure; and it is nearly impossible to do so without that holiest of holies, the single authored monograph.

I was tenured without a book because the department I was in didn’t expect one and I had published a lot otherwise (including a co-authored general audience book on Homer). The fact is that I really did not want to write one. Most successful academics are expected to turn their dissertation into a book. I hadn’t done that on purpose (I was sick of my dissertation and I wanted to do something different).

Perhaps more importantly, I also didn’t know how to write a book. It is not that I didn’t want to write about things. I just wanted to write about them in shorter segments. It may have been a lack of imagination as much as anything else, but I found many more reasons not to write a book than to write one: the fact that no one reads them, that lives are disrupted to write them, that we have an entire economy of knowledge dedicated to big books about small things, etc. etc.

That last phrase is not fair, completely. But, to crib from an ancient proverb, there’s a difference between a book that needs to be written and needing to write a book. After 2012, however, I started talking, thinking, and writing about the Odyssey in a way that clearly pointed to a lengthy treatment of a topic, if not wholly original, at least markedly different from work I had read before.

Some graduate programs do better jobs than others in training you how to do independent research. Many do a great job in preparing students to turn their dissertations into books. But few anticipate what to do next. This is not a huge problem, since the paths people take are so different depending on their institution, interests, etc. But the irony is that although I was a book review editor for a journal, had reviewed a dozen books, and had helped to write one, I really didn’t know what I was doing.

So, once I gave in to the desire to write a book, I started lamenting that I didn’t have enough time to do it. Fortunately, I have a spouse who is constitutionally incapable of not calling me on my bullshit. Over drinks in 2015, while I complained again that I just needed the time to write a book, she said, “look, you ran a stupid marathon last year. You spent hours every day running, training, and keeping track of every thing you did. I don’t know why you can do that and not write a book. You’re not a runner; you’re a Homerist.”

Now, to be honest, the conversation hurt my feelings a little bit because (1) running marathons didn’t come easy to me (I run like a rhinoceros, except uglier) and (2) she was absolutely right. I started to keep track of hours a week spent on the book project, making lists and schedules, and trying to break down the project into little bits.

It worked: I have books out in 2018, 2019, and 2020 (changing institutions and getting some summer funding for childcare also made a huge difference; the blog was crucial to those books too). But part of the story is also this website. I have written about the importance of the discipline of posting daily on the blog, but what I haven’t explained clearly enough is how each of the books I just mentioned relied on this regular writing practice for drafting, brainstorming, and progress.

So, for curiosity, inspiration, mockery, and whatever else may come, here’s an overview of the more than 30 blogposts that are part of my book on the Odyssey, out this week (The Many Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic). I am posting one each day on twitter with the hashtag #BloggingABook for about a month, but here’s a more organized collection.

Let’s start at the beginning. This post was one of the first that directly translated into content in the book, showing up as a table on page 16. It helped me to organize my thoughts about the structure of the poem without making an entire labor out of the structure of the poem.

Less often, I used posts to explore combining theoretical modern work with ancient concepts as in this early post about the work of Mark Turner, Aristotle, and narrative character was written at a Starbucks in San Antonio and is well integrated into the theoretical framework of the first chapter on Homeric psychology. Similarly, this post on correspondence and coherence in Odysseus’ lies.which became the framing for Chapter 5.

A good deal of the theoretical research of this book took me through post-structural theories like those in disability studies, which made me think differently about ideal bodies in Homer. I used some posts, like this one about Telemachus and monstrosity, to think through this. This ended up in a chapter NOT about Telemachus.  Several posts arose from my reading of disability studies texts alongside Homer, like this one about Thersities and beautiful minds, which in turn became parts of chapters and a forthcoming article.

I won’t even list all the posts on ancient medicine and mental health—I spent some time trying to learn more about these topics and most of the research ended up on the website (at least a dozen or more). This scholion on drugs made me think about ancient beliefs about addiction. As I explored ancient ideas of madness in philosophy and medicine, it was helpful to see how mythical figures at times appeared to help explain things like isolation and mental anguish (as in this passage from Aristotle). This contributed to Chapter 3’s examination of heroic isolation

Just a sample of posts and chapters

IntroductionSex, Trees, and the Structure of the Odyssey
Addiction and Self-restraint
1 Homeric Psychology Mark Turner, Aristotle, and narrative character
2 Treating TelemachusStudy of Scholia What’s Troubling Telemachus?
3 Escaping OgygiaHeroic Madness and Isolation
Sex and Anhedonia
4 Narrative Therapy[!]
5 Correspondence and CoherenceCorrespondence and coherence in Odysseus’ lies.
Eumaios, Storyteller
The Meaning of Odysseus’ Pseudonyms
6 Marginalized AgenciesA Little bit But not Too Long
Telemachus is not a Monster
The Millwoman’s Sorrowful Sign
Thersites and Beautiful Minds
How Much is a Slave’s Life Worth
His heart Barks
The Origin of Thersites
7 Penelope’s Subordinated AgencyPenelope and fidelity Naming Odysseus
Penelope Lays into a Suitor
8 Politics of IthacaThe Heroic Tale of Laertes
The Suitors Debate Killing Telemachus
The Trial of Odysseus
9 The Therapy of OblivionWhere Does the Odyssey End and Why?
Penelope’s Web Agamemnon on Feminine Fame
Conclusion, Escaping the Story’s BoundsPorphyry’s On Styx, Pseudo-Plutarch allegories from Metrodorus Allegories attributed to Porphyry by Stobaeus, Death and the End of the Odyssey

Part of what I love about research—when I get to do it freely—is the wandering path I take through things. Blogging gives me a sense of accomplishment (and that important reward feedback loop!) because it provides an end of sorts to a journey that lasts a day or just a few hours. Many posts are just me trying to make sense of scholia, especially longer ones like the large segments attributed to Porphyry in the Odyssey scholia. These were fodder for notes and content in the book.

Sometimes posts came from work in the scholia, like this one, where I tried to figure out the details of Telemachus’ journey for chapter 2. Indeed, many of my mythographical footnotes started or ended as posts on the site, like this one about Penelope and fidelity which contributes to one part of chapter 7. Some of the mythographical posts and studies didn’t make it to the book, but that’s ok because doing the work, as in this one on Nausikaa’s name, sharpened what I would say by helping me figure out what I didn’t need to.

Mythography doesn’t explain what audiences knew, but it can help show what they might have known which is why several posts talk about Thersites’ story outside of Homer like this one. A mere footnote in the book, but a useful one. On many occasions, I would think something might be important or interesting and find out only the latter is true, making it good for a post as in this scholion on Alkinoos’ marriage wish. It didn’t make it into the book, but Alkinoos did.  And I can’t even begin to figure out how to map my dozens of posts on Odysseus’ family and multiple sons onto the chapters of the book. But they were definitely formative.

Of course, some of the details I mined were important: this post on the end of the Odyssey was essential for footnotes in more than one publication. Often work on philological and literary problems, like what Penelope was weaving, produced posts that also involved scholarship and ended up in multiple chapters. In this case, a significant part of chapter 9. Sometimes philological investigations started as posts and then later added to larger arguments, as in this exploration of a speech introduction for Telemachus. This speech of Agamemnon became critical for both chapters 7 and 9 and appears in an article on Kassandra too.

Other posts respond to epic and other readings, shaping the tone of a section or chapter without necessarily being part of them as in this post on the hanging of the enslaved women.

Part of writing is figuring out which path to take. Some times this means writing stuff that gets moved around a lot. I had a series of posts on allegory and Homer which eventually contributed to half of the conclusion (originally a transitional segment between the two halfs of the book). Posts include translations of Porphyry’s On Styx, allegories from Pseudo-Plutarch, allegories from Metrodorus, and others attributed to Porphyry by Stobaeus

And, of course, there are posts on expected topics in the Odyssey. Naming Odysseus is no minor affair, so I have several posts looking at Homeric epithetis and their ancient reception of a man of may ways who is also quite shifty. Researching this book forced me to rethink the political situation on Ithaca from ancient perspectives, showing that Laertes likely unified a somewhat odd island ‘state’. This is an important part of chapter 8, which looks at Ithaca as a traumatized community

Rethinking the representation of agency in Homer really made me look differently at the representation of women’s agency in Homer. Some posts arose out of shock at reading passages anew as I had never read them before. The emotion and scene made it to the book. Part of the journey of writing this book was thinking about the suitors as full human beings rather than simple villains, especially in their political wranglings as in this post looking at their debate about killing Telemachus. This scene is critical in the book’s chapter 8.

In rereading representations of agency in the Odyssey it was necessary to think about heroes, non-heroes, children, enslaved people, and women and how these categories intersect. Some of the more explicit comments on these topics informed chapter 6 but are clearer in posts, like this one on the cost of an enslaved person’s life. This post contributes to chapter 6.  In the same vein, I also used a post to lay out the passages where Odysseus thinks about or responds to enslaved women’s sexuality. Working through these passages helped me understand the infantilization of enslaved people in the Odyssey.

Many posts were part of my writing process, which is to translate passages I want to write about. Laborious, but it gives me opportunities to post Penelope laying into a suitor like this one. This passage became part of thinking about where Penelope claims agency (and doesn’t). I cover the end of the Odyssey in two chapters, so thinking carefully through the trial of Odysseus was really important, I started this process by translating and discussing the scene in a post. The translations are improved in the book, but have the same core.

A second part of my writing process after translating is looking at scholia and commentaries, a step  often preserve in posts like this one on Eumaios as a storyteller. Again, this becomes part of footnotes and discussions, not central arguments in the book. Other posts like this one on the meanings of Odysseus’ pseudonyms ended up as footnotes and detail.

On many occasions I wanted to think more broadly about ancient literature and narrative. Early drafts from chapter 9 look like this post on how liars communicate but ended up being edited quite differently. Similarly, I would at times start to right grandly and in generalizations not fit at the point of the book I was writing. This one on complementarity can be seen in some footnotes from the introduction, but not very clearly.

Many posts start with questions about what lines mean from the perspective of Homer—so doing the whole clarify Homer through Homer thing—like this one on Odysseus’ lack of pleasure from sex in with Calypso. The work here influenced some ideas in the introduction and chapter 3.

Some posts also emerged as summaries of the thoughts in the book, like this one written at the beginning of the pandemic. It reflects on a project finished rather than attesting to work in progress. Others draw on the frameworks developed during research, like the post on Toxic Heroism and a School Massacre. Sometimes ideas started in the book but had no space there. This is true of my work on Kassandra, which went into a post before it became an article elsewhere and my personal reflections on the scene of Argos, the dog.

I did not know what the conclusion of this book would add until one day I saw a line from Cavafy online and then wrote a post about death and the end of the Odyssey. This post formed a third of the conclusion once expanded.

Where there are fewer blog posts, it is because I wrote directly to publication for some topics as in the work that forms some of chapter 4 (“The Clinical Odyssey: Odysseus’ Apologoi and Narrative Therapy.” Arethusa 51: 1–3) and a chapter in a collection that contributed to parts of chapters 2 and 3 (“Learned Helplessness, the Structure of the Telemachy and Odysseus’ Return.” in conference proceedings, Psychology and the Classics, Jeroen Lauwers, Jan Opsomer and Hedwig Schwall (eds.): 129–141). And many sections were also written for talks at professional conferences and invited lectures.

I don’t think there’s a clean and just-so way to end this post. There’s lots of advice out there about writing  a book in an hour or two a day and I am here to tell you it is possible. But it helps to have short term goals and ‘outputs’ to work towards. It also helps (probably more than anything) to have a stable job, good funding, and a partner who calls you on your bullshit.

Some sites say this is out tomorrow (in ebook and print); some say it is out November 22nd and December 25th.

We’ve Been Doing This for 10 years: A Personal History of Sententiae Antiquae

“…It brings pleasure
Whenever someone discovers some new notion,
To share it with everyone…”
… ἡδονὴν ἔχει,
ὅταν τις εὕρῃ καινὸν ἐνθύμημά τι,
δηλοῦν ἅπασιν -Anaxandrides

What is this Fresh Garbage?

Today, October 22nd, this website has completed its tenth year. Such round numbers, if they don’t invite deeper reflection on life and its apparent meanings, can at least prompt us to ask what we are doing and what is this garbage we set on fire.

What does 10 years of Sententiae Antiquae mean? It means over 7000 posts in a decade from more than 20 different contributors (many of these have been repeated once). It means 400 page views for its first year, 8000 for the next year and over 500,000 thousand page-views just last year alone (to go with 37k+ followers on twitter. Check out the SA Tweetbook for more of that).

In the internet age these stats too often come to represent our worth (as commodities and moral agents!). I’d certainly be lying if we weren’t at times delighted with the popularity of this thing or that. But, as any good educator knows, quantity and quality are not coterminous. Indeed, there is a superabundance of shit on this website and some of the things that have gained the most views and likes are far from those for which we’d hope to be remembered.

So there’s the thing: what is this project for? What does it do in the world? After 10 years, I find myself regularly asking this, especially as time in front of a screen or on an app becomes all the more tiring in our panoptical pandemic omnipresence. For the sake of trying to figure this out and sharing some history of the site, I am going to go back to the beginning, to tell its story as best as I remember it.

“Beginnings are from Jove, oh Muses! Everything is full of Jove”
ab Jove principium, Musae; Jovis omnia plena  -Vergil

The Beginning

This site was born out of uncertainty, frustration, and sleeplessness. The first time I heard of twitter was, like most of the world, during the 2008 election cycle. When I ‘finally’ gave in and got my first smartphone in 2009, I was a twitter lurker, trying to suss it out. I had more experience with the world of blogs—I had never started one myself, but I had friends who tried them out in the early days of livejournal. I was also really suspicious of social networks, but like nearly everyone else in the existential aughts, I was pretty desperate for connections outside of the narrow world of work.

2010-2011 created a perfect storm that led to sententiaeantiquae’s beginnings. To start, my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world and I spent a lot of late hours bleary-eyed, staring at a smartphone, trying to will an infant to stay asleep while I occupied my fragmented mind. One night I read episode summaries of every season of Star Trek: The Next Generation; another, I spent 4 hours straight on (the sleeplessness).

When I found myself on twitter, I naturally started to look at what was happening in Classics. Apart from the good work of the Rogue Classicist, I encountered countless accounts trafficking in unsourced and often false Plato and Aristotle quotes (there’s the frustration). I had been collecting quotations for years and had assembled a long list I used in my Greek classes. I was always frustrated when I found lines attributed to ancient authors without citations or the original language.

During the same period, my father died and we found out another child was on the way. In mid 2011, I was untenured, still furiously trying to finish some publications at night before the next child appeared, and I was starting to play around with twitter and wordpress for a music blog with my brother (we ran the blog for 4 years or so and then called it quits for various reasons).

I was also trying to find a way out of Texas. Even though the great recession was then 3 years behind us, the academic job market didn’t really recover and I hadn’t done myself any favors by publishing relatively little in my first few years after graduate school and not starting a book. More and more, jobs were asking for expertise or interest in the digital humanities. I knew then that social media does not equal DH, but I figured a quote account might be a start (and there’s the uncertainty).

On a weekend afternoon in October of 2011, I started texting my then-colleague Bill Short with a pretty simple idea: a website that would present daily Latin and Greek quotations with English transition and clear citations paired with a twitter account that would propagate ‘quality’ content. I think my pitch might have been wordier and less cogent, but that’s the gist.

I quickly set up the accounts and we soon had our first post (Homer, Iliad 22.304-5): May I not die without a fight and without glory but after doing something big for men to come to learn about” (μὴ μὰν ἀσπουδί γε καὶ ἀκλειῶς ἀπολοίμην, / ἀλλὰ μέγα ῥέξας τι καὶ ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι).

“The result for the ambitious and bold young men is that they are always trying to work around and cover up their cultivated ignorance.”
 τοῖς δὲ φιλοτίμοις καὶ θρασέσιν ἀεὶ περιστέλλειν καὶ ἀποκρύπτειν συνοικοῦσαν τὴν ἀμαθίαν -Plutarch

The Early Years

For the first few months, Bill and I took turns, putting up Latin one day (Bill) and Greek the next. I still remember the first time notable things happened like getting retweeted and followed by the Society for Classical Studies or by Rogue Classicist. When Daniel Mendelsohn followed the account, we thought we had made it. By the following summer we had 500 followers and thought that was kind of special.

But the daily grind quickly became a daily grind: it was hard to keep up with the demand for new quotations (my long list gathered didn’t last a half year!). I started to search for new passages and made reading randomly a daily practice. Bill had other work to attend to (we both had small kids and tenure hurdles to worry about) and was less habit-oriented than I was. During the summer of 2012 we tried to vary our practice by inviting people to join us. We launched an Initiative called the (Un)Commonplace Book and sent out the following invitation:

There are many passages from ancient Greek and Roman literature whose beauty, complexity and influence are ill-fit to the epigrammatic style of Twitter but whose sound and sense stick with us and, in many cases, help to shape our perspective and to guide our lives.  The ancients would comb through texts for edification and take such purple passages to heart. Later European readers kept commonplace books to record similar endeavors and vouchsafe certain selections against the ravages of memory and time.

Here at Sententiae Antiquae we know that the sententia cannot always convey the full sentiment of a work and, further, when presented alone, does not always do full justice to the depth or impact of a passage. So, we are inviting readers, lovers of ancient wisdom, and thralls of the words of Greek and Roman literature to translate longer passages that have affected their lives in some meaningful way from deeper forms such as consolation and inspiration to no less significant responses like laughter or even scorn. To accompany these passages, we will also ask for short accompanying essays (under 500 words) to elucidate their place in your personal story.

We hope that these posts will help to illustrate the way that dead texts are reborn with each generation and how they evolve even as we change with and because them. In turn, those of us who internalize our love of Classical literature will be able to share it with the external world.

So, if you’re interested please email your submissions or interest to In a few months, we will select entries to post on a semi-weekly basis (alternating Latin and Greek)

From the SA Vault

We sent out a few dozen invitation to well-known scholars, both those we knew and those we didn’t. We didn’t receive any responses.

“Your books have turned your life upside down.
You have philosophized nonsense to heaven and earth.
They don’t give a shit about your words.’
ἀντέστροφέν σου τὸν βίον τὰ βιβλία·
πεφιλοσόφηκας γῇ τε κοὐρανῷ λαλῶν,
οἷς οὐθέν ἐστιν ἐπιμελὲς τῶν λόγων.’ -Theognetus

What’s This Nonsense for?

I don’t know if it was the open-endedness of the project or my incessant, intolerable enthusiasm for it that slowly drove Bill away; but he eventually stopped posting and, to be honest, we never really talked about it (in those years we used the same log-in, so it is not easy to discern one poster from another). For a while, Osman Umurhan helped out with some Latin and, eventually, Erik took over some of those responsibilities.

In the meantime, I doubled down on the whole thing even though I hadn’t the slightest idea why. As we moved from Austin to San Antonio and I spent more time shuttling kids around and less writing, I found myself reading twitter more and engaging with different people (my tenure file went through, prompting my chair at the time to congratulate me by saying “The only thing worse than getting tenure here is not getting tenure here”). 

The pseudonymity of this account accompanied by its implicit appeals to cultural authority of different stripes attracted a strange crew of experts, enthusiasts, tourists, and shit-posters: what we now call #classicstwitter. Even back when twitter was 30% sexbots, it was still a gentler place. #Classicstwitter was not a named thing, but the motley and changing assemblage of obsessives and weirdos who showed up in my timeline where the closest thing I’d had to a community around Classics since I was in graduate school.

Still, it was clear that I was spending a lot of time doing something that I couldn’t really describe to anyone and that I had even more trouble justifying. Anything we do on a regular basis has some kind of impetus: we get paid for going to work (even if we get meaning out of it). I guess for a while I thought of contributing to SA as a practice, something like exercise. I knew from my early years out of graduate school that my ‘skills’ in Latin and Greek were degrading from under-use or over-specific use (introductory Greek, every year ad infinitum).

I also realized something I hadn’t anticipated from graduate school: it is really easy to stop learning much new as a professor. We are incentivized to work on the same material over and over again to first establish and then maintain expertise. When I started branching out from my list of quotations, I realized that there were dozens—if not hundreds—of authors from the ancient world whose names I barely recognized and whose works I had never seen. What kind of expertise is this!?

So, I used SA as a kind of professional development/intellectual challenge program. You know how some men in their late 30s suddenly need to train for a triathlon? Well, I decided to spend 1-2 hours a day just reading stuff I hadn’t read before in Latin and Greek. Call it an early-career crisis, or whatever, but it was the first real intellectual exercise without a specific end-goal of publication I had done in a decade. If I didn’t enjoy it every day, I did more often than not. And I learned a lot.

(I never did the triathlon thing, cycling freaks me out. I did do the marathon thing to check off the mid-life crisis box)

“Friendships transform your character and there is no greater sign of a difference in character than in choosing different friends.”
ἠθοποιοῦσι γὰρ αἱ φιλίαι, καὶ μεῖζον οὐθέν ἐστιν ἠθῶν διαφορᾶς σημεῖον ἢ φίλων αἱρέσεις διαφερόντων. -Plutarch

Erik Changes it All!

There’s a longer story to be told about Erik and me becoming friends. It both does and does not include sententiae antiquae. I think we can put it this way: if Erik and I had not become friends, SA probably would not have lasted as long as it did and definitely would not have turned out to be what it is now.

The short of it is that one summer, perhaps in 2009 or so, I had a summer reading group for some Greek students and Erik asked to join in. (He had never been in any of my classes and was already graduated by that point.) Within the first few meetings we started debating something about the beginning of the Iliad and he sent me a screed of an email about it and I thought, well, this guy’s nuts.

But, as I learned over time, Erik was my kind of nuts, you know, the reading until your eyes hurt and obsessing over any kind of narrative nuts. He kept coming back each summer for different reading groups and we found common ground in ridiculous television shows we both loved (sure, we were into Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones like everyone else, but we also really got into the absurdity of Dexter). At some point in this process, I asked if Erik wanted to take over some of the posting to the blog that had been given up by other collaborators.

Erik’s first post was from Florus! In April of 2013 and he posted occasionally that summer and Fall (with winners like the Latin Anthology) without any regularity or plan. (Indeed, this has been a hallmark of our approach. Sometimes one of us will start a project or theme and the other one will join in, but we rarely plan anything.) He disappeared for several months, coming back to the blog in March of 2014.

So far, one might be surprised by my assertion that Sententiae Antiquae is what it is because of Erik, but I think that during this period he wasn’t any surer than I was about what the whole thing was for. He was also struggling to figure out what to do with his life, something he should tell you, not me. But in July of 2014, he started a madcap period where he really started to use posting as his own personal commonplace book, recording his readings and some of his favorite passages as he worked through Euripides’ Hippolytus and Ion.

Erik started to reach for scholia and less common texts like Macrobius and, although I had previously dabbled in obscure stuff here and there, I have to say many of his posts inspired a cheerful aemulatio. We would often respond to each other offline, excited or horrified by some fresh new delicacy or turd from the ancient world. Ausonius is a terrible poet—we had to have him on the website.

“Some one could rightly jeer at me for assuming a side-project greater than my actual work”
Εὐστόχως ἄν τις εἴποι ἐπιτωθάζων μοι, μεῖζόν σοι τοῦ ἔργου τὸ πάρεργον. -Zonaras

Longer Projects

Erik was also the first to think of the website as a place for longer term projects. Around the time that we started a non-summer reading project of working on the Homeric “Battle of Frogs and Mice,” Erik started translating and posting sections of the untranslated “History of Apollonius of Tyre”. He and I both benefited from this structure and vision. I don’t know if he ever finished it—but the basic principle of using blogposts as a way to ‘publish’ an ongoing project while also forcing accountability has been crucial in our work. I don’t know if Erik’s idea was innovative or not, but it shaped what happened next.

Yes, part of it was the friendly aemulatio, I mentioned earlier. At times, we competed to find the worst poems from antiquity (Rufinus wins this race currently) and to see whose posts could make a splash. At this time, our pageviews were still pretty limited, so a post that got 100 hits was huge and certain to earn bragging rights. The number 1 post from 2014, for instance, was a typical combination of scatology and mythology (Odysseus Dying From Feces!). It received 343 pageviews.

We started to post more thematic sequences: Late 2014 saw the beginning of our serial translation and commentary on the Homeric Batrakhomuomakhia along with a sequence of mythography posts, anticipating future projects like the history of Zonaras, translations of paradoxographers, or brief obsessions with animals sounds or the Non-Achilles-Non-Agamemnon-Iliadic Hero Bracket. In each of these cases, we tended to start an investigation and continue to the end (or near enough) because the logic of the public accountability demanded it!

Now, we likely took our readership (if it existed) and ourselves too seriously, but these projects were really somewhere between serious research and preparation for class. Sometimes they were fun, sometimes people could find them useful later, and often (for me at least) they helped me explore the kind of research I realized I didn’t want to do during the process.

At the same time, Erik found humor and wit in obscure places, pulling out amazing passages from much larger works, as in his early “A Spurious Etymology for Anger” or “Seal Sex, What do They Want?” Working with Erik, and watching him work, reminded me of something I so often forgot as a trudged my way to and through tenure: reading ancient texts can be hilariously—and naughtily—fun.

Responses to Erik’s posts and mine inspired by them made me remember something else too, important in the classroom, scholarship, and over time: people will engage with good material, but they need to notice it first. Every year the internet gets more cluttered with projects, information, and various spasming new media that it is hard to cut through the noise. For social media work or any kind of content, basic design and marketing principles do matter: pictures help, titles help too. We have been justly accused of going full-on clickbait from time to time.

From 2014 through 2016, Sententiae Antiquae was mostly something Erik and I did for fun, the way some people go to weekly trivia nights or play fantasy football. We’d post stuff, chortle at each other, text about it, and get together almost weekly to read, shoot the shit, and drink the occasional (group of) beer(s). And sometimes, these conversations would inspire some of our more needling posts, like which ancient authors were most despised.

One of Erik’s passions was always the history of scholarship and anecdotes about scholars. In 2015 he started posting about these and they proved to be extremely popular. The amazing thing is that these passages are like being part of an every day conversation with Erik, whether it’s talking about Richard Porson and the Devil or dwelling on peculiarities of Liddell and Scott. (Seriously don’t get Erik started about Bentley or Housman, unless you really, truly want to know about Bentley or Housman!)

If you scroll back through this period, you can see all the postings getting more varied and stranger. We pushed each other to be more creative and posts got longer, reflecting on travels or exploring scholarly questions like the meaning of the name Nausikaa. As 2015 moved on, I felt more comfortable writing about experiences in the classroom and on teaching in general.  (Erik joined in this too and opened up conversations about this later.)

We also started to repeat annual events, like our posts of how to say happy birthday in ancient Greek or our annual Halloween focused Werewolf Week or our increasingly numerous posts for Women’s History Month. Along the way, we learned that essential social media lesson: it is almost impossible to repeat something too much to break through the online noise.

“Occasionally I laugh, joke, and play, and if I wanted to claim all of the parts of my harmless leisure, I would say I am human.”
aliquando praeterea rideo iocor ludo, utque omnia innoxiae remissionis genera breviter amplectar, homo sum -Pliny

Part of Something Bigger

Part of what kept me keyed into twitter was a community of ‘friends’ who gathered over time. There were silly days of limericks about byzantine scholars; there were random attempts to come up with etymologies for kerberos and later ridiculous discussions which enriched my life, like whether Achilles or Odysseus was more likely to “shoot a man in Reno / just to watch him die”. (Don’t @ me. The answer is always Odysseus.)

But before all of this there was “Two-Ears One Mouth”. One weekend in September 2015, I joked that Paul Holdengraber’s 7 word autobiography ( “Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.” ) sounded like something from a Presocratic philosopher. He loved this, we then enlisted a group of classicists online to put this into Greek, Latin, and in Greek and Latin verse. Of course, other scholars joined in to let us know that this was in fact originally from Greek and, well, by the end of it, I lost track of how many people joined in, the path this sent me down roads of paroemiology, and that one time Salman Rushdie retweeted me.

The point is, there was something delightful and playful about this. It was erudition but without specific purpose or bound. It was, in a way, like sitting around shooting the shit with Erik.

Of course, there was a Classics blogopshere long before there was SA. The rogueclassicist was doing his thing on wordpress since 2003 (and earlier in other forms) while Michael Hendry’s or Michael Gilleland’s had been posting ancient passages, reflections, scholarship and miscellany since at least 2004 and 2005. While the rise of app-based internet and computers presaged the alleged “death of the blog”, in the years since we started, academic and classically-theme blogging has expanded incredibly.

Blogs are just part of what for many people (and organizations) is a multi-pronged and somewhat variegated social media presence. Established scholars like Edith Hall, Neville Morley, Sarah Bond, and Rebecca Futo Kennedy have blogs of their own to go along with traditional publications and other kinds of writing, while graduate students and independent scholars make their own space in the field with blogs like Mixed-up In Classics or genre-smashing brilliance like the occasional medium posts by Vanessa Stovall.

Before the raging, endless trumpster fire ignited in 2016, Classicists under a certain age were part of different online networks, some personal, some impersonal like the little lamented Famae Volent. When Eidolon first debuted in 2014, their posts made us see that we could do things differently, and that there were audiences for longer essays.

Eidolon’s success with essays made me realize how poorly we were differentiating our use of twitter and the blog. So, in 2015, I started to experiment a little bit with twitter. Prior to spring of that year, we used to tweet a few times a day. I started scheduling tweets every few hours ahead of time using tweetdeck. The twitter account went from gaining 1 or 2 new followers a day to 3, then 4, then, well, it kept going. In that summer as well, Erik started a facebook feed for the content, and the site’s traffic started rising.

Although I understood implicitly from the beginning that blogging and tweeting were different media, it wasn’t until 4 or 5 years in that we started to differentiate the content, adding more to the twitter feed and expanding the content on wordpress. We don’t really optimize facebook well—and, let’s be honest, who does? And we also just haven’t had the time to think about other platforms like reddit or instagram. If we were a real brand or a business, we’d probably have people do that. But we’re just two classics nerds all grown up.

“Let’s put aside these games and focus on serious things”
amoto quaeramus seria ludo -Horace

Making like Montaigne?

I mentioned Eidolon and “Two Ears One Mouth” in the last section because both were important in reshaping the classical studies media landscape (the former) and expanding how we used the space of the blog (the latter). Later, I would use the blog to post things for classics or talks, sometimes expanded into mini essays like “Paroimiai: proverbs from Ancient Greece to Star Trek” (June 2016).

The more time we spent online, the more we engaged with topics people were talking about. Erik really opened up the space here: before we started making more field-oriented comments, Erik started to experiment with shorter literary essays, like “Humanizing a Monster: The Saddest Scene in Classical Literature” and we both found space to talk about “real life”, as when Erik eulogized his former teacher and my former colleague James Gallagher, freeing me in a way to be more personal in latter essays on parenting and teaching badly, or death anxiety and classical literature.

Classics—as many people will remember—seemed to get drawn into a political quagmire step by step following the 2016 election. In retrospect, what really happened was an unveiling of what was already there and needed to be addressed, the field’s structural and historical racism. Classicism wasn’t misappropriated by white supremacists, but white supremacy is deeply ingrained within it and perhaps inescapable. Erik started to joust with these topics early on with “Antiquity for Everyone: How Classics is Misappropriated” and “Classics [Itself] is Not Classist”. I followed suit in time, moving on to talk about Pedantry in the field, my own experiences with Classism and feeling like an imposter and the exclusionary history of the field.

A real inflection point for me was when I made the decision to write about the classical studies job wiki and message board Famae Volent. The indulgent, long first post (“A Personal History”) was a combination of therapy and exorcism for me, as I admitted to myself why I had spent so many years lurking on that site and what it said to me about the field and our direction. This set off a series of revelations and surprises (I knew some of the founders; I had made some of the suggestions for the site!) and surprising turns: the site closing down permanently a few months later. In the second post, (“Who Killed Famae Volent”) I talked about some of our conversations and the negative, harmful turn the site had taken in recent years. And, as usual, I ended with too many words and an aporia. To continue the indulgence, here’s a quote:

“After so many words, if I were a better writer, I’d loop back to the beginning—I could marshal some kind of ‘just-so’ point to bring all this together and to inspire anyone compulsive enough to read to this sentence to act. But that’s not who I am and that’s not what this situation needs. We need to continue a difficult conversation about the state of our field, the choices we make that exacerbate it, and the health of all participants. We need to break taboos against speaking about class, race, and mental health. We need to care about each other”

Living partly online and writing about it made me feel ownership of and responsibility for the shared space. I found myself playing parts of translator, guardian, policeman, pleader, and now undertaker. I felt I could talk about the field now in I way I didn’t feel permitted before. Was this age? Was this experience? I still don’t know.

“I cannot abide, while I still live, not doing something which might help my friends and family.”
 me, ne dum vivo quidem, necessariis meis quod prosit facere. -Varro


Part of the ‘dream of the blog’ at an early date, back when we sent out the invitation to get other people to write posts, was building a community around shared interests. We have had some fun over the years by bringing in other contributors. The first was the notorious SP Festus (AKA Prof. Robert Phillips) who gave us a series of posts on the dog days of summer, Roman law, and scribal marginal notes in his characteristic erudition and hectic charm (and 27 posts in total over the years).

We’ve had some great posts from new friends, like Mary McLouglin’s lyre-building story, Christopher Brunelle’s far underrated mock musical papyrus (hilarious!), the humorous posts of Amy Coker or Amy Lather, T.H.M Geller-Goad’s ridiculus magnetic Latin Poetry, Arie Amaya Akkermans’ challenging essays on art, culture, and history or Dani Bostick’s brilliant combination of fake Latin and barn-storming critiques of secondary Latin education and pedagogy. We have also been able to offer spaces to young scholars working on transgender topics and sexuality like Hilary Ilkay and Cassie Garison or people disgarded by the field like the inimitable Stefani Echerverria-Fenn. Most guests post only once or twice and I am always sad not to have them write again because I learn so much from what they give.

Part of me was ready long ago to cede more of this space to others. But what I have seen, and welcomed as well, is how many of these friends make their own spaces instead. Indeed, the recent announcement of the closing of Eidolon has made me worried that there will be too many individual spaces, and no center to unite them. But what is this other than the essential condition of the age of (dis)information?

(if you want to post something to this blog, contact us. we make it easy.)

“He used to say that it is strange that we sift out the chaff from the wheat and those useless for war, but we do not forbid scoundrels in politics.”
ἄτοπον ἔφη τοῦ μὲν σίτου τὰς αἴρας ἐκλέγειν καὶ ἐν τῷ πολέμῳ τοὺς ἀχρείους, ἐν δὲ πολιτείᾳ τοὺς πονηροὺς μὴ παραιτεῖσθαι. -Antisthenes

Why’s Your Blog So Political?

There’s an alternate timeline where this blog just carried on, perfecting the art of posting about ancient shit (literally), masturbation, and various stunt translations like “sharknado”. We always had a tendency to refer to politics obliquely and events through our blog posts. But, as the first half of 2016 unfolded, I found myself increasingly unable to resist being more explicit, even if it was just adding a video or comment, or pointedly talking about ancient views on citizenship and refugees.

When I had the opportunity to move from UTSA to Brandeis in 2016, I didn’t think much about what that meant for the blog. I did not realize until I got to Massachusetts how much I had hesitated in Texas because we were warned of the dangers of being political as employees of the state. It was a confluence of space and time that saw the blog focus more and more on the world outside. I had the space as a tenured professor at a private school and during the time, well, how could anyone be silent?

I got in a few twitter spats in 2016 and 2017, but after white supremacists marched in Charlotte and I spent a year just feeling deader inside every day, I lost my shit in 2017 (figuratively) when several people complained that our account had gotten too political and asked for a nice, simple, apolitical classics. Not only is no academic field truly apolitical, but the claim that something is apolitical is just an oppressive fiction to advance the supremacy of the ruling class. It is white supremacist to demand that Classical Studies not be political, it is that damn simple.

The fire of this rage, once stoked, kept burning, in part because Erik and I are both excitable, but also because our politics and views are so closely aligned. Without a word, Erik followed up on the soullessness of Political Correctness, inaugurating a glorious period of spitfire, brilliant polemic from the man which includes some of my favorites like: Classics for the Fascists, The Tyranny of Ancient Thought, MAGA Cap and Gown, or From Odysseus to Lindsey Graham. These posts and our conversations combined with our ongoing reading made us see our field differently: I could no longer divide the aesthetics projected by our field from our problematic ethics and history and Erik embarked on a long project on the facile, evil Classicism of the leaders of the American revolution.

As we have become more strident, we have, of course, received more criticism. We don’t block followers quickly, and we are generally pretty good at ignoring the ignorant and hateful. But we have received some threats in email and elsewhere and there’s always a line I am afraid someone might cross. I do fear our plunge into fascism and our president’s fanning of racist and sectarian violence. I think there’s a very real threat that if he is re-elected, his proponents will become bolder both legally and extra-legally. I don’t think it is completely paranoid to imagine a day when we might have to shutter the blog to protect ourselves and our families.

But we’re not quite there yet.

“No mortal has ever discovered a faithful sign of things to come from the gods: we are blind to the future.”
σύμβολον δ’ οὔ πώ τις ἐπιχθονίων / πιστὸν ἀμφὶ πράξιος ἐσσομένας εὗρεν θεόθεν, / τῶν δὲ μελλόντων τετύφλωνται φραδαί -Pindar

The Future

I can’t really think of where this project is going without fully acknowledging some of its advantages. We have somehow ended up with a platform that gives us more attention than we deserve. While I feel that we have mostly used it well, I stumble a bit in trying to figure out how ego-driven it is. Of course, the twitter feed is part persona, part self, but I will always struggle with the ethics of taking up too much space.

Part of this concern comes from really thinking hard about our field’s problems with racism and white supremacy. I have little confidence that a field that has been a primary enforcer of colonialization can be decolonized or truly focus on anti-racist action without erasing itself. While I think that someone who is an ideal subject and production of colonization (me) can be a positive force against it, it takes incredible care and time and will always be suspect in terms of motivation.

This has to do with the blog only insofar as I wonder if I can bring my values and actions into harmony. I know that as a white, male, tenured professor, I am complicit in an exclusionary system; I also realize that, although I can make some changes and advocate for others, I am at best a sorry incrementalist. So, I find myself wondering what cultural and structural forces the work we do online supports. I don’t always love the answers.

We have definitely received clear benefits from the site. Publishers ask about social media accounts on book proposals these days, and being able to claim an active profile with many followers helps convince them that you’ll be able to sell the book. There have been invitations, opportunities, etc. These have been gratifying at times, but at other times I’ve felt guilty, undeserving. Still, I’ve gotten to know so many people I genuinely like along the way that I hesitate to name any lest I forget to name one. And the fact of the matter is that the work of writing online has become inseparable from my writing and research in general. In November or December I hope to write a post laying out how much of my book on the Odyssey was written in or around this website.

The pandemic and its rolling lockdown, moreover, have made the social media work more urgent and even therapeutic. In the first few weeks of the lockdown I wrote about reading while the world is ending, isolation and humanity in science fiction and myth, and the therapy afforded by epic for trauma. Once our emergency remote classes ended, I even found time to finish a long-delayed post on reading Homer and tackling a too long read on my terrible history with pets.

Once the semester returned, however, and I had to commit fully to zoom life (I am teaching remotely and our children are learning remotely), the sheer number of hours online each day started to take its toll. Most of the posts on this site from September through November will be repeats (that’s ok, I think). But there’s something about this year that makes wool-gathering and navel-gazing inescapable. It is hard to think during a time of constant anxiety; it is hard to write through endless distraction.

What has ten years on this site meant to us, to me? Am I going to keep doing this for another ten years? I think the answer to the first question is simply, a lot. I have learned more than I learned in graduate school, accomplished more professionally while posting nearly every day than I did in the decade prior, and made more friendships I cherish than I can count. That seems like an unmitigated success.

Ah, but the future! Over the past year I have found myself wondering how much I can continue being a version of myself online before it becomes an obstacle. This is tied in part to what do I do next? I am in my third year as chair of my department and second as chair of the faculty senate. My file for promotion to full professor is working its way up the ladder right now. Much to my surprise, the work on this site was counted as an enthusiastic positive both in my tenure and promotion processes at Brandeis. But will the world want to hear the thoughts of a 50 year old full professor of Classical Studies? (That’s eight years from now…) Should I focus on writing different things?

Part of what has made this site what it is is our independence. We are un-funded, which means we have only the limits we put on ourselves. But this also means that the limits of the site are, well, ourselves.

There are a few other challenges coming down the road that will occupy my time and the further past the putative midpoint of my life I get, I wonder if this is the way I should spend my days. In all honesty, I don’t think I will stop: I am too compulsive and too much a creature of habit to give this up. But I think it would be great to share this space with others to a greater extent and see what they want to make of it

Whatever the next ten years brings—shit, whatever November brings—I could not end this history without expressing my deep gratitude for everyone who engaged with this site and made us feel welcome, valued, and needed over the past decade. This site has grown and changed in large part in response to what people have liked, commented on, and shared with others. In a way, all of you are as much authors as we have ever been. Thank you.

P. S. Please Vote.

Introducing the SA Tweetbook

This often ridiculous site and its associated twitter feed turn 10 years-old this Thursday (October, 21). In typically self-indulgent style, I will run a post on the history of the site then, but I wanted to start with a kind of gift/curse to the world: the SA Tweetbook.

What in all that is sacred is a Tweetbook? It is a collection of tweets! Is it a real book? No, just a somewhat edited, collection of some of @sentantiq’s most common tweets from 2011-2020. This document is a cleaned up version of my tweet rotation document (cleverly titled “tweetmaster”).

I have made the Tweetbook available as a public google drive document (both .doc and .pdf) and on as a .pdf. I have provided the .doc version in case people want to create documentseven books–of their own. (And, let’s be honest, it’s me: there are likely mistakes and typos.)

It starts like this:

Homer, Iliad 22.304-5

“May I not die without a fight and without glory but after doing something big for people to come to hear about”

ὴ μὰν ἀσπουδί γε καὶ ἀκλειῶς ἀπολοίμην, ἀλλὰ μέγα ῥέξας τι καὶ ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι.

It ends like this:

Sophocles, Antigone 737

“The state which belongs to one man is no state at all.”

πόλις γὰρ οὐκ ἔσθ᾽ ἥτις ἀνδρός ἐσθ᾽ ἑνός.

And there are 450 pages in between.

Most of the passages appear in some form or another on this website. The translations in this collection will not perfectly match those that have been shared over time. Our views about using non-binary and gender-neutral language have evolved over the past decade. Where, due to our rather conventional classical training, we were pedantically strict concerning the number and gender represented in Greek and Latin, we have seen the value in offering more inclusive translations. (And the internet has presented us with countless instances to illustrate the closemindedness of pedantry.) We have retained clear gender where the context or meaning seems to demand it in some way.

Ok, but what is a tweetbook? This document’s pages contain over 2000 passages drawn from over 2000 years of Greek and Latin. The quotations below are not exhaustive, broadly representative, or ordered in any systematic or pleasing fashion. Instead, the order is more or less chronological in terms of first appearance on the website or the twitter feed. Thanks to the editorial assistance of Julia Greig, the tweets have been presented with their citations in a more-or-less correct and consistent fashion. (If there are inconsistencies, their fault lies not with Julia, whose work was exemplary, but with my incessant meddling.)

But Why a tweetbook? Over the years, several people have asked for a document with our favorite lines. I have considered assembling a kind of coffee-table quote book at times, but my interest in doing this is on the other side of tepid. So, as a compromise I have used the occasion of our website’s tenth anniversary to share this strange fruit of our labors with the world. I don’t know what the next ten years may bring, but this is a version of a document I keep called “tweets master” from which I schedule daily tweets.

This ‘book’, then, gives you, dear reader, the power to become your own ancient tweetbot. Someday, there may be no twitter. Perhaps this document will be the source of a quote-feed in some future communal space. Perhaps it will just me something you search (through reading or ctrl+f) for words to match to your feeling or time. Perhaps you want to take these lines into new worlds, to boldly conquer instagram or some other social media we have not heard of. Or, maybe you just want to start up your own twitter feed. Whatever the case, I let this rather unpolished collection into the world and give it and you my best wishes. Re-use at will. But reuse for good, where possible.

“Something for people in the Future to Sing About” Reading Homer’s “Iliad” Online

Homer, Iliad 22.304-5

“May I not die without a fight and without glory
but after doing something big for men to come to learn about”

μὴ μὰν ἀσπουδί γε καὶ ἀκλειῶς ἀπολοίμην,
ἀλλὰ μέγα ῥέξας τι καὶ ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι.

The Center for Hellenic Studies , the Kosmos Society and Out of Chaos Theatre has been presenting scenes from Greek tragedy on the ‘small screen’ since the beginning of the US lockdown in March. As our director Paul O’Mahony has put it, since we are “unable to explore the outside world, we have no option but to explore further the inner one.

This week, we turn to the most tragic of epics (according to Aristotle, at least), Homer’s Iliad


As everyone knows, the Iliad begins with the rage of Achilles. As many of us forget, it ends not with the Trojan Horse or the death of Achilles, but instead with the burial of horse-taming Hektor. I think it is probably dangerous to ask a Homerist to tell you about the Iliad, because so often we don’t know where to start, whether it should be in thinking about its relationship with the Odyssey or about what it means to say the word “Homer”. True Story: many years ago, while patronizing a drinking establishment in Queens, my wife asked me to tell her what the Iliad was about. After about 45 minutes, she asked how much more there was to it. I had not even finished book 1 yet…

Ancient performers of the epics didn’t have these challenges because audiences grew up hearing stories about most of the events and characters they would be singing about and because the performance contexts didn’t expect them to tell the whole story. We don’t know a lot about the actual performance contexts and practices of Homeric poetry in the ancient world (see the work of José Gonzalez on rhapsodes, Casey Dué’s work on multiformity, Egbert Bakker’s From Formula to Poetics or any of Gregory Nagy’s Poetry as Performance or Plato’s Rhapsogy and Homer’s Music), but it seems likely that the stories were performed in episodes at various occasions and at times in monumental performances at festivals. How these performances were prepared is another issue: some think they were memorized from a script, others think they were composed in performance. I tend towards the latter belief with the acknowledgement that even when something is composed in performance, there are various degress of fixity from one performance to another and one singer to another…

And, here again, I have started to trail off. Often people talk about performance of song within Homer to start us thinking about epic performance (the songs of Demodokos and Phemios in the Odyssey; Achilles singing to his lyre in the Iliad) but there’s some evidence outside the poems too. One passage comes from Plato’s Ion:

Plato, Ion 535d-e

Ion: Now this proof is super clear to me, Socrates! I’ll tell you without hiding anything: whenever I say something pitiable, my eyes fill with tears. Whenever I say something frightening, my hair stands straight up in fear and my heart leaps!

Socrates: What is this then, Ion? Should we say that a person is in their right mind when they are all dressed up in decorated finery and gold crowns at the sacrifices or the banquests and then, even though they haven’t lost anything, they are afraid still even though they stand among twenty thousand friendly people and there is no one attacking him or doing him wrong?

Ion: Well, by Zeus, not at all, Socrates, TBH.

Socrates: So you understand that you rhapsodes produce the same effects on most of your audiences?

Ion: Oh, yes I do! For I look down on them from the stage at each moment to see them crying and making terrible expressions, awestruck by what is said. I need to pay special attention to them since if I make them cry, then I get to laugh when I receive their money. But if I make them laugh, then I’ll cry over the money I’ve lost!”

ΙΩΝ. Ὡς ἐναργές μοι τοῦτο, ὦ Σώκρατες, τὸ τεκμήριον εἶπες· οὐ γάρ σε ἀποκρυψάμενος ἐρῶ. ἐγὼ γὰρ ὅταν ἐλεεινόν τι λέγω, δακρύων ἐμπίπλανταί μου οἱ ὀφθαλμοί· ὅταν τε φοβερὸν ἢ δεινόν, ὀρθαὶ αἱ τρίχες ἵστανται ὑπὸ φόβου καὶ ἡ καρδία πηδᾷ.

ΣΩ. Τί οὖν; φῶμεν, ὦ Ἴων, ἔμφρονα εἶναι τότε τοῦτον τὸν ἄνθρωπον, ὃς ἂν κεκοσμημένος ἐσθῆτι ποικίλῃ καὶ χρυσοῖς στεφάνοις κλαίῃ τ᾿ ἐν θυσίαις καὶ ἑορταῖς, μηδὲν ἀπολωλεκὼς τούτων, ἢ φοβῆται πλέον ἢ ἐν δισμυρίοις ἀνθρώποις ἑστηκὼς φιλίοις, μηδενὸς ἀποδύοντος ἢ ἀδικοῦντος;

ΙΩΝ. Οὐ μὰ τὸν Δία, οὐ πάνυ, ὦ Σώκρατες, ὥς γε τἀληθὲς εἰρῆσθαι.

ΣΩ. Οἶσθα οὖν ὅτι καὶ τῶν θεατῶν τοὺς πολλοὺς ταὐτὰ ταῦτα ὑμεῖς ἐργάζεσθε;

ΙΩΝ. Καὶ μάλα καλῶς οἶδα· καθορῶ γὰρ ἑκάστοτε αὐτοὺς ἄνωθεν ἀπὸ τοῦ βήματος κλαίοντάς τε καὶ δεινὸν ἐμβλέποντας καὶ συνθαμβοῦντας τοῖς λεγομένοις. δεῖ γάρ με καὶ σφόδρ᾿ αὐτοῖς τὸν νοῦν προσέχειν· ὡς ἐὰν μὲν κλαίοντας αὐτοὺς καθίσω, αὐτὸς γελάσομαι ἀργύριον λαμβάνων, ἐὰν δὲ γελῶντας, αὐτὸς κλαύσομαι ἀργύριον ἀπολλύς.

Note in this passage that Plato’s Socrates assumes that Ion is faithfull performing a ‘text’ ascribed to Homer and that they both identify as salient features of the performance the context (“sacrifices” and “festivals”) the emotional affect (crying and carrying on, channeling the emotive content of the scenes) and the impact on the audience (making them cry too) all while emphasizing the material benefit accruing to a rhapsode who pleases his audiences.

When I think about Homeric performance, I think a lot about how little we know about the audiences and their responses and how crucial this was to the shape of the poems we have. I too often forget that the performers were an important part of this process in shaping the reception through their use of intonation, voice, gesture, and tune. So, in our readings from the Iliad today, I will be thinking about the parts, and not the whole, and how performance creates a new text of its own.

We’ve selected some passages today for performance from different parts of the epic to give an idea of the power of the whole and to provide a range of characters for our actors. We will get some of the debate in book 1, some family scenes in Troy, and a whole range of lament and regret. What more could one ask for a Wednesday?

Homer, Iliad 1.158–168 [Achilles addressing Agamemnon]

“But, you great shamepot, we follow you so that you feel joy,
As we collect honor for Menelaos and you, dog-face,
From the Trojans—you don’t shudder at this, you don’t care.”

ἀλλὰ σοὶ ὦ μέγ’ ἀναιδὲς ἅμ’ ἑσπόμεθ’ ὄφρα σὺ χαίρῃς,
τιμὴν ἀρνύμενοι Μενελάῳ σοί τε κυνῶπα
πρὸς Τρώων· τῶν οὔ τι μετατρέπῃ οὐδ’ ἀλεγίζεις·

Selected Passages (Using the Stanley Lombardo translation with permission from Hackett)

Iliad 1 Agamemnon and Achilles’ argument
Iliad 6 Hector and Andromache
Iliad 19 Agamemnon and Achilles reconcile – may be cut for time
Iliad 22 Andromache’s first lament for Hector
Iliad 24 Achilles and Priam
Iliad 24 Priam, Hecuba, Andromache and Helen laments for Hector

Iliad 1.224–228 [Achilles Addressing Agamemnon]

“Wine-sod! Dog-eyes! You have the heart of a deer!
You never suffer to arm yourself to enter battle with the army
Nor to set an ambush with the best of the Achaeans.
That seems like death itself to you!”

οἰνοβαρές, κυνὸς ὄμματ’ ἔχων, κραδίην δ’ ἐλάφοιο,
οὔτέ ποτ’ ἐς πόλεμον ἅμα λαῷ θωρηχθῆναι
οὔτε λόχον δ’ ἰέναι σὺν ἀριστήεσσιν ᾿Αχαιῶν
τέτληκας θυμῷ· τὸ δέ τοι κὴρ εἴδεται εἶναι.


Tabatha Gayle
Paul O’Mahony
Rhys Rusbatch
Sara Valentine
Special Guest, Lynn Kozak

Homer, Iliad 9.32-34

“After a while, Diomedes good-at-the warcry, addressed them:
“I will fight with you first because you are being foolish, son of Atreus,
Which is right, Lord, in the assembly. So don’t get angry at all.”

ὀψὲ δὲ δὴ μετέειπε βοὴν ἀγαθὸς Διομήδης·
᾿Ατρεΐδη σοὶ πρῶτα μαχήσομαι ἀφραδέοντι,
ἣ θέμις ἐστὶν ἄναξ ἀγορῇ· σὺ δὲ μή τι χολωθῇς.

Producers and Crew

Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre)
Associate Director: Liz Fisher
Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University)
Dramaturg: Emma Pauly
Executive Producer: Lanah Koelle (Center for Hellenic Studies)
Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society)
Poster Artist: John Koelle
Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies)

Iliad 21.461-465

“Then lord Apollo the far-shooter answered,
“Earthshaker, you would not think that I would be prudent
If indeed I fought with you over mortals,
Wretched men who are like the leaves now flourish
Until they grow full, eat the fruit of fields,
And then they diminish until they die…”

Τὸν δ’ αὖτε προσέειπεν ἄναξ ἑκάεργος ᾿Απόλλων·
ἐννοσίγαι’ οὐκ ἄν με σαόφρονα μυθήσαιο
ἔμμεναι, εἰ δὴ σοί γε βροτῶν ἕνεκα πτολεμίξω
δειλῶν, οἳ φύλλοισιν ἐοικότες ἄλλοτε μέν τε
ζαφλεγέες τελέθουσιν ἀρούρης καρπὸν ἔδοντες,
ἄλλοτε δὲ φθινύθουσιν ἀκήριοι…

Upcoming Episodes (Go to CHS Project Page for more information)

October 14 Rhesus, Euripides
with Mary Ebbott (College of the Holy Cross)

Saturday, October 17 Assemblywomen, Aristophanes
with Francisco Barrenechea (University of Maryland, College Park)

October 21 Agamemnon, Aeschylus
with Fiona Macintosh (University of Oxford)

Iliad 24.503-6

“Achilles, respect the gods and take pity,
Once you think of your own father. I am even more pitiable,
Since I endure what no other mortal person ever has,
To reach my hands to the lips of the man who slaughtered my child.”

ἀλλ’ αἰδεῖο θεοὺς ᾿Αχιλεῦ, αὐτόν τ’ ἐλέησον
μνησάμενος σοῦ πατρός· ἐγὼ δ’ ἐλεεινότερός περ,
ἔτλην δ’ οἷ’ οὔ πώ τις ἐπιχθόνιος βροτὸς ἄλλος,
ἀνδρὸς παιδοφόνοιο ποτὶ στόμα χεῖρ’ ὀρέγεσθαι.

Iliad 24.732–738

“You, child, will also either follow me
Where you will toil completing the wretched works
Of a cruel master or some Achaean will grab you
And throw you from the wall to your evil destruction
Because he still feels anger at Hektor killing his brother
Or father or son, since many a man of the Achaeans dined
On the endless earth under Hektor’s hands.”

… σὺ δ’ αὖ τέκος ἢ ἐμοὶ αὐτῇ
ἕψεαι, ἔνθά κεν ἔργα ἀεικέα ἐργάζοιο
ἀθλεύων πρὸ ἄνακτος ἀμειλίχου, ἤ τις ᾿Αχαιῶν
ῥίψει χειρὸς ἑλὼν ἀπὸ πύργου λυγρὸν ὄλεθρον
χωόμενος, ᾧ δή που ἀδελφεὸν ἔκτανεν ῞Εκτωρ
ἢ πατέρ’ ἠὲ καὶ υἱόν, ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλοὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν
῞Εκτορος ἐν παλάμῃσιν ὀδὰξ ἕλον ἄσπετον οὖδας.

Iliad 24.801–804

“After heaping up the mound [sêma] they returned. Then
Once they were well gathered they shared a fine feast
In the halls of the god-nourished king, Priam.
Thus they were completing the burial of horse-taming Hektor.”

χεύαντες δὲ τὸ σῆμα πάλιν κίον· αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
εὖ συναγειρόμενοι δαίνυντ’ ἐρικυδέα δαῖτα
δώμασιν ἐν Πριάμοιο διοτρεφέος βασιλῆος.
῝Ως οἵ γ’ ἀμφίεπον τάφον ῞Εκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο.

Media preview

Teledidaskalos, Or, How I am Trying to Teach Greek in a Pandemic

Gnomologium Vaticanum

164: “Glukôn the philosopher called education a sacred refuge.”

Γλύκων ὁ φιλόσοφος τὴν παιδείαν ἔλεγεν ἱερὸν ἄσυλον εἶναι.

This semester I am teaching Introductory and Intermediate Ancient Greek fully online. I had the experience of “emergency remote” teaching in the spring and I taught Greek in a hybrid (both online and in person) format almost a decade ago. At my institution, we had the choice to teach in-person, “hybrid”, or fully remote. For reasons of safety and equity, I did not select the first option. I avoided the second option too because “hybrid” in this case is really a bi/multi-modal delivery which also has serious problems in equity and relies on incompletely tested technology.

Solon, fr. 18

“I grow old, always learning many things.”

γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·

Given the likelihood of another surge in cases and family considerations (our children will be remote learning as well), I considered it best for student learning to stay in the same mode and practice for an entire semester. Subjects like languages can be taught well in an online format because they present discrete sets of material which can be presented clearly. The challenge is practice and assessment.

I am writing up my process of preparing for this type of teaching not because I have any special insight into teaching online (there are other places and people that do that better than I do) but because some readers might be in similar positions and find it useful and, equally, because some might have good feedback or suggestions for doing this better.

Pindar, Olympian 8.59-60

“Teaching is easier for someone who knows; not learning first is stupid. “

τὸ διδάξασθαι δέ τοι εἰδότι ῥᾴτερον• ἄγνωμον δὲ τὸ μὴ προμαθεῖν•

Here’s the syllabus for the class. One of the things I emphasize in the syllabus and in the teaching of the class is transparency about learning. I explain to the students in the first class that there is a difference between assessment of learning and grading and that the course is built on a basic tell-show-do model with a “flipped” lecture.

Heraclitus, fr. 40

“Knowing much doesn’t teach you how to think.”

πολυμαθίη νόον ἔχειν οὐ διδάσκει

Our schools LMS (learning management system) is a home-grown modification of blackboard called LATTE. I find most LMS platforms to be over-engineered with a range of tools not really worth using for classes under a certain number. I use our platform for file and link sharing and centralized communication. Each chapter of the semester gets its own module.

So week 1 looks something like this:

For each chapter of the book I have a prerecorded grammar lecture where I go over new material in the book (the “tell”) and then go through an exercise and some practice (“the show”). Part of the students’ work for each week is to submit a response to the lecture through google forms where they tell me three things they learned, three things that confused them and three things they want to learn more about. (I cribbed this from my friend Norman Sandridge a few years back).

Alcman, fr. 125

“Trying is the first step of learning”

πῆρά τοι μαθήσιος ἀρχά 

The classes meet twice a week for 90 minutes virtually, so the asynchronous videos provide extra work with Greek and the trissakephalos sheets provide both (1) feedback to me for how effective the videos are and (2) structure for talking about the grammar at the beginning of the first class. Class time is then dedicated to a combination of exercise review, group work, and problem solving

I provide students with two kinds of videos. The first is a narrated powerpoint presentation. (You can make these by recording the slide show with narration). I have added some material from the text book to do some practice within the grammar presentation and I suspect in the future I will have to add more of that. Each video is around 20-30 minutes.

Making a video from a slide show is easier than it used to be. You can select export from the file menu and create a video directly.

Sophocles, Fr. 843

“I learn what can be taught; I seek what
can be found; and I ask the gods what must be prayed for.”

τὰ μὲν διδακτὰ μανθάνω, τὰ δ’ εὑρετὰ
ζητῶ, τὰ δ’ εὐκτὰ παρὰ θεῶν ᾐτησάμην

Students come will (ideally) come to class after viewing this video and submitting the trissakephalos sheet. I designed a simple form using google forms and just copied it for each chapter. I have provided a link to each form in LATTE for the students.

So a given week looks something like this. I may add assignments to be completed in the future, but for now I am going to keep it really simple. With the asynchronous videos and the 90 minute class meetings, the students are getting more contact hours than typical. I also am worried about how much focus students will have out of class in a pandemic. My basic assumption is that most of the work they will do for Greek will be with me

Libanius, Autobiography F90 17

“The education of the young had been taken up by people little different from the young themselves.”

τῆς ἀρχῆς τῶν νέων ὑπ᾿ ἀνδρῶν οὐ πολύ τι νέων διαφερόντων ἡρπασμένης

For the first session of every week we will spend our time reviewing based on the questions from the trissakephalos sheets and then working on reading and exercises in the textbook. I have also created supplementary videos for them to watch in between the class meetings. I made these using zoom’s “record on this computer function”.

Zoom is a good enough utility for this because you can (1) record, (2) share a screen while doing so, and (3) annotate the screen while talking. As you can see from the shot below, the students get my face, voice, Athenaze, and my mad scribbling, so it is almost like being in the room!

Quintilian, 2.19

“In sum, nature is education’s raw material: the latter shapes, the former is shaped. There is no art without substance; material has a worth apart from art; and yet, the highest art is superior to the best material.”

Denique natura materia doctrinae est: haec fingit, illa fingitur. Nihil ars sine materia, materiae etiam sine arte pretium est; ars summa materia optima melior.

I also almost forgot to talk about my tech setup. In addition to a second monitor attached to my laptop using the extend screen function I use a galaxy tablet. I login through a different ID and use the tablet to check what students are seeing.

The setup looks a little messy from my angle, but it allows me to use the tablet to write on a whiteboard that students can use too.

Coffee not included with tablet. Note I also use an affordable USB camera and a USB microphone. These allow me to create higher quality videos (marginally).

My main challenges are getting students to learn vocabulary and then quizzing them on it alongside morphology. A real simple solution is to meet with them individually on zoom and quiz them (which is intense for me), to create a google form quiz or LMS quiz, or to stray from quiz like assessments and use more games and activities in the class time. I am going to practice using the exercises on Ketos and other similar sites.

All exams in the class are going to be take-home because I am trying to emphasize learning the skills students are actually here for: reading Greek on their own. This means it is ok if they have access to a dictionary or grammar.

Zenobius 1.89

“The doors of the muses are open”: a proverb applied to those readily acquiring the best things in their education.”

᾿Ανεῳγμέναι Μουσῶν θύραι: ἐπὶ τῶν ἐξ ἑτοίμου λαμβανόντων τὰ κάλλιστα τῶν ἐν παιδείᾳ.

“Full of Ticks and Fleas”: The Odyssey and a Life of Pets

CW: Animal abuse

Odyssey 17.290-304

“So they were saying these kinds of things to one another.
And a dog who was lying there raised his head and ears.
It was Argos, enduring Odysseus’ dog the man himself
Had raised but never used before he went to sacred Ilion.
In earlier years young men used to lead him to hunt
Wild goats and hares and deer. But now
he was lying there, put aside in his master’s absence
on a pile of manure heaped up from mules and oxen
right in front of the door waiting for the slaves
to take it away to fertilize Odysseus’ great dominion.
There Argos the dog was lying full of ticks and fleas”

ὣς οἱ μὲν τοιαῦτα πρὸς ἀλλήλους ἀγόρευον·
ἂν δὲ κύων κεφαλήν τε καὶ οὔατα κείμενος ἔσχεν,
῎Αργος, ᾿Οδυσσῆος ταλασίφρονος, ὅν ῥά ποτ’ αὐτὸς
θρέψε μέν, οὐδ’ ἀπόνητο, πάρος δ’ εἰς ῎Ιλιον ἱρὴν
ᾤχετο. τὸν δὲ πάροιθεν ἀγίνεσκον νέοι ἄνδρες
αἶγας ἐπ’ ἀγροτέρας ἠδὲ πρόκας ἠδὲ λαγωούς·
δὴ τότε κεῖτ’ ἀπόθεστος ἀποιχομένοιο ἄνακτος
ἐν πολλῇ κόπρῳ, ἥ οἱ προπάροιθε θυράων
ἡμιόνων τε βοῶν τε ἅλις κέχυτ’, ὄφρ’ ἂν ἄγοιεν
δμῶες ᾿Οδυσσῆος τέμενος μέγα κοπρίσσοντες·
ἔνθα κύων κεῖτ’ ῎Αργος ἐνίπλειος κυνοραιστέων.

Attic Red Figure Chous, Penn Museum

I have always had mixed feelings about this very famous passage from the Odyssey. I side in part with Plutarch who notes that Odysseus seems to shed more tears (one) for his dog than he does his wife. And I also bristle at how much empathy people seem to be able to generate for the aged hunting dog when they can muster so little for the mutilated Melanthios or the hanged enslaved women at the epic’s end.

If I have to be honest with myself, this scene does not inspire contempt in me as much as a deep sorrow. We talk much of Argos’ loyalty, but his loyalty is a mere prop to aggrandize Odysseus and increase the value of his return home. I care far less about Odysseus’ tear than I do about the neglect: Argos, abandoned by Penelope, Telemachus, and Laertes. Argos, infested with fleas and sleeping on a mound of shit.

My wife wants us to get a puppy and name him Zeus. The second half of that sentence is calculating because she knows that I would enjoy nothing more than training a dog to follow commands in ancient Greek and shouting the vocative O Zeu in city parks. She also made this argument after watching me play with her sister’s dog, Apollo: down on the floor wrestling with an energetic English cream retriever of over 70 pounds, she said I looked happy.

Apollo as a puppy

I have been saying no to pets for a decade. After our daughter and son were born our first cat together, Chineh had to be put to sleep. She had been on hormone supplements for a year and was suffering from congestive heart failure three weeks after our son was born. I took her to the vet knowing it would be the last time and did not know that the Dr. would ask me to stay and hold her while he administered the drugs. I told myself that would be the last time. And I had to say that, because it was not the first by far.

Anyone who follows the twitter feed for this account knows that my promise went unfulfilled. Last year, we capitulated and got a cat from a shelter. He’s a polydactyl tuxedo cat named Mowgli. He might be the sweetest cat I have ever known. But he was so sweet that he ruined our family. There was just not enough cat to go around.

One day, I came home from some summer meetings at work and the family was huddled around a computer. The three of them (with Mowgli in hand at 10 weeks) had been watching cat videos all day. My wife informed me that we had to drive to Maine. My first thought was that someone had died (I grew up in Maine). When I asked what was wrong, she told me, “Oh, nothing, we have to go put a deposit on a cat and choose which one we want.”

I do not talk a lot about my wife in essays because she is not a social media person and values her privacy. But anyone who knows her also knows her powers. We were in a car and looking at Maine Coon Cat kittens within three hours. Three weeks later, we returned.

Again, anyone who follows this account on twitter knows Hermes, his attempts to escape our home, his eye infections, and his surgery. (Oh, the cat birthday parties too.) What people do not know is that when I can’t sleep at night and lay on the couch wondering what the fuck is happening to the world, Hermes comes over and starts grooming me. He licks my hair from root to end and then, if I do not start petting him, he bonks me in the cheek with his massive hairy paw.

If we get a dog, it’s Hermes’ fault. He’s, well, unleashed something that’s hard to explain.

Homer, Od. 17.301-305

“Then, indeed, [Argos] noticed that Odysseus was near
And he wagged his tail and relaxed both ears,
But he wasn’t able to go any closer to his master then.
Odysseus saw him to the side and wiped away a tear,
Keeping it secret from Eumaios….”

δὴ τότε γ’, ὡς ἐνόησεν ᾿Οδυσσέα ἐγγὺς ἐόντα,
οὐρῇ μέν ῥ’ ὅ γ’ ἔσηνε καὶ οὔατα κάββαλεν ἄμφω,
ἄσσον δ’ οὐκέτ’ ἔπειτα δυνήσατο οἷο ἄνακτος
ἐλθέμεν· αὐτὰρ ὁ νόσφιν ἰδὼν ἀπομόρξατο δάκρυ,
ῥεῖα λαθὼν Εὔμαιον….

When I talk about the Odyssey’s crucial recognition scenes, I always forget about this one. Odysseus needs his scar to be known to Eurykleia; he needs the story of the bed to finally prove himself to Penelope; and he has to tell the story of generations of trees to calm his father’s suspicions. Argos seems to need no sign, he just knows (ὡς ἐνόησεν). All that worry about some other Odysseus coming home dissipates with a wag of the tail.

I came from one of those families that always had a dog. I do not think it was possible for my parents to conceive of a family that did not have a dog. Before I was born, that had an Irish Setter named Duchess and a St. Bernard named Sam who used to follow the kids to the school bus and ride around town to the school (it was the 1970s, the world was different). When I was born, in a rare show of unity, my grandmothers made them give Sam away because they thought he was too dangerous. I used to see him at my godfather’s farm, tied up on a heavy chain, laying a distance from the house, flies swirling around him.

One of the things that is hard for me to explain to my spouse and impossible for me to talk about to my kids is that my life with pets is not a source of happy memories. My earliest memories of Duchess are of fear. And not fear of her, but fear for her. My parents, unlike Odysseus it seems, never trained their dogs well. Duchess used to run away and return after some time. It was such a regular occurrence that once my grandfather showed up in a pickup with someone else’s Irish Setter because he thought she was ours.

Duchess used to have accidents in the house because she was never walked and she was poorly trained. Every time, my father would scream, swear (“duchess, you fucking stupid bitch” is probably the earliest profanity I ever heard), and often hit or kicked her. More than once, he opened the door to the basement and threw her down the stairs. These are some of my earliest memories of my father and they do not add up to the man my wife met nearly 20 years later. And my siblings never saw him that way either.

When Duchess was a decade old, she gave birth to a single puppy. I must have been too young for kindergarten at the time, but I remember the utter confusion this inspired in our household but I do not quite remember my parents’ response. I was enchanted with this little squealing thing, this new life in our home. I named him Mud.

Three days later, I found Mud stiff and dead in the basement. My parents tried to explain to me that Duchess was too old to take care of a puppy and that Mud wasn’t meant to be born to begin with. We buried him in our back yard not too far off from where we grew squash and green beans.

We moved a few years later. Duchess was alive when we were getting ready to sell our home. Then, she was not when we moved. I have no memory of what happened to her. My father died almost ten years ago and I never asked him about it.

Homer, Od. 17.305-310

“…then Odysseus asked him
‘Eumaios, it is a great wonder that this dog lies in the manure.
His form is beautiful and I do not know clearly
Whether his speed was equal to his looks,
Or he was like those table dogs of certain men,
Those ones their masters raise for appearances.”

…ἄφαρ δ’ ἐρεείνετο μύθῳ·
“Εὔμαι’, ἦ μάλα θαῦμα κύων ὅδε κεῖτ’ ἐνὶ κόπρῳ.
καλὸς μὲν δέμας ἐστίν, ἀτὰρ τόδε γ’ οὐ σάφα οἶδα,
ἢ δὴ καὶ ταχὺς ἔσκε θέειν ἐπὶ εἴδεϊ τῷδε,
ἦ αὔτως οἷοί τε τραπεζῆες κύνες ἀνδρῶν
γίνοντ’, ἀγλαΐης δ’ ἕνεκεν κομέουσιν ἄνακτες.”

When Odysseus is asking about Argos, he wants to know if he grew up to be the dog he trained him to be. Odysseus applies an epic physiognomy here he also assumes for people: beauty should translate into good deeds; beauty without action makes you a useless suitor (or Phaeacian prince). But Odysseus also taps into an ancient distinction between working animals and, well, ‘pets’. Do we keep animals close to us just for show?


Hermes is a “show” cat, for sure. He’s handsome, it’s true. Part of the reason I am so undone by Hermes is that he’s not like other cats I have been around. Where other cats are skittish, he is still. Where Mowgli and other cats I have had have rushed to the sound of cat food being opened, Hermes takes his time, eats a little and then walks away. He watches me do everything. My wife says I anthropomorphize his actual limited intelligence as contemplative. But who knows the thoughts of a quiet cat?

I did not grow up with cats. The first cat we ever had was an accident. We moved to 3 or 4 acres on the age of a large re-forested area in southern Maine (some of the land had been farmland in the late 19th century; some of it had been logged before the second World War; much had been burned in a famous fire mid-century). We had no neighbors by sight and few within a quarter mile.

One day, a small white and brown kitten was sitting, meowing at our door. Honest to goodness, I don’t know if there is anything cuter in the universe than a kitten. My mother was allergic to cats and forbade us to bring it in the house, but my sister and I took out a saucer of milk for the kitten creatively named, “Kitty”. When we returned from school, she was still there. At great urging from three children, my mother got some cat food and we fed her more.

The next day? Kitty was still there. We fed her and played with her outside, losing time the way only kids and new pets can. When we returned from school, she was still there. Later, after dinner, I went out to check on her and she was running strangely in the driveway. I caught her, and something was coming out of her rear end: a lot of something, most of her intestines. I called to my dad, who had recently returned home, and he looked at me, at the kitten and went inside.

He came out with a loaded .22, took the kitten, and walked into the woods. I have no idea how far he walked but there’s no way I wouldn’t have heard the report of the gun firing. I didn’t realize until later than Kitty had probably been hit by a car. It took me years to really think about which car that most likely was.

Homer, Od. 17.311-317

“Eumaios, my swineherd, you answered:
“Yes, this is the dog of a man who died far away.
If he were the way he was in looks and speed
When Odysseus left him to go to Troy,
You’d soon observe his great speed and valor.
Nothing ever escaped him in the deep forest
When he pursued. And he was clever at tracking too.

τὸν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφης, Εὔμαιε συβῶτα·
“καὶ λίην ἀνδρός γε κύων ὅδε τῆλε θανόντος
εἰ τοιόσδ’ εἴη ἠμὲν δέμας ἠδὲ καὶ ἔργα,
οἷόν μιν Τροίηνδε κιὼν κατέλειπεν ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
αἶψά κε θηήσαιο ἰδὼν ταχυτῆτα καὶ ἀλκήν.
οὐ μὲν γάρ τι φύγεσκε βαθείης βένθεσιν ὕλης
κνώδαλον, ὅττι δίοιτο· καὶ ἴχνεσι γὰρ περιῄδη.

Argos has heroic qualities, even specifically Iliadic ones. Speed and valor (ταχυτῆτα καὶ ἀλκήν)? You have an Achillean dog there, sir. But he’s also smart, like Odysseus: he is preeminent at tracking (ἴχνεσι γὰρ περιῄδη) and nothing ever escaped him in the deep darks of the wood. I don’t know if this is some foreshadowing of the murder of the suitors, but if a student claimed it on a paper, I’d give it a nice big check.

I stayed home the next day from school and generally made enough of a nuisance of myself that we got a kitten I named Nina the next week. Nina was the first pet who was almost solely mine. (My sister got a cat the next year named Jackie, mainly to taunt my father whose nickname was Jack.) I tried to establish the rule that she could not go outside, and this held for a while. When she was a month home, I was dropped off by a family friend early from school at the end of our dirt road. I came home to someone breaking into our home and stealing my father’s firearms.

The man in our driveway told me my mother was inside (which I knew to be a lie) and I silently stood at the end of the driveway. I probably scared the thief more than anything, and I certainly never felt myself in danger. He got in his car and drove off. I ran inside, through the door that had been kicked in, and called 911. The dispatcher was, in retrospect understandably, quite concerned about my safety. But I told her I had to put the phone down to find my cat. She was outside and in danger.

(I found her. She was fine, that day.)

My attachment to cats at that moment was linked to our trouble with dogs. After we moved, we had a new home so of course we needed a new dog. We picked up a shepherd-retriever mix from a shelter and named her Alfie after the ever present television Alien. Alfie was pure joy for three kids living on the edge of a forest with no friends around. My strongest memory of the time is just running around that house chased by that adorable puppy.

Puppies grow up to be dogs and when they are not fixed and are let to wander around outside, they get pregnant. Alfie gave birth to a litter of puppies a year later. Neither of my parents talked about her being pregnant and when she started giving birth to puppies, I was the only one down in the basement with her. She had six puppies. Over the next few months, we found homes for four of them.

No one who hasn’t spent time with a half dozen puppies understands how exhilarating and exhausting they are. We named each puppy and trounced around in the Maine snow with them until each one left. The two who remained, stayed for good. And it did not go well with Alfie. My parents built a pen outside and a large shed and the dogs were kept there, rain, snow or otherwise. They got loose once, attacked a neighbor’s dog, and nearly ripped his leg off. Alfie kept trying to run away from her puppies.

One day, I tried to corral the three dogs in the basement. Alfie would not go down the stairs with her offspring. She turned on me and attacked, leaving a four-inch gash in my leg. I don’t think I was mad at that dog for even a second because I never thought she was mad at me. My parents called the game warden. They told us Alfie was getting a “new home”. At age 11, I knew this was not how these stories ended.

I have no memory of what happened to the other two dogs. I do know they were still around two years later when a friend from junior high came to visit. Upon seeing the dogs, chained to trees a 100 feet from the house, dirty and ragged, he asked me how we could treat animals that way. I don’t know if I answered.

Homer, Od. 17.318-323

“But now he is overcome by evil and his master has died
Far away in another land. These shameless women don’t care for him.
The Enslaved women, whenever their rulers are gone,
Aren’t willing to do the right thing any longer.
Wide-browed Zeus strips a person of half their worth
Whenever slavery’s day overcomes them.”

νῦν δ’ ἔχεται κακότητι, ἄναξ δέ οἱ ἄλλοθι πάτρης
ὤλετο, τὸν δὲ γυναῖκες ἀκηδέες οὐ κομέουσι.
δμῶες δ’, εὖτ’ ἂν μηκέτ’ ἐπικρατέωσιν ἄνακτες,
οὐκέτ’ ἔπειτ’ ἐθέλουσιν ἐναίσιμα ἐργάζεσθαι·
ἥμισυ γάρ τ’ ἀρετῆς ἀποαίνυται εὐρύοπα Ζεὺς
ἀνέρος, εὖτ’ ἄν μιν κατὰ δούλιον ἦμαρ ἕλῃσιν.”

Argos serves here, I think, to represent some of the general entropy of the household in Odysseus’ action and as part of a process of vilifying the enslaved women before their deaths. I don’t understand why Eumaios says nothing of the rest of the family. (I mean, Telemachus parades around the island with two dogs.) Perhaps his place as the “good slave” makes it impossible for him to criticize family-Odysseus. But I’ve always thought a pet, because it depends on us, is a family’s shared responsibility.

I don’t usually get to the part of my story where Alfie is put to sleep. And I don’t know if I ever mention her puppies because even though I was not yet a teenager, I feel guilt for their lives and their ends. It is harder to tell the whole story because it is long and it seems embellished. And that’s before the next part.

Our second cat Nina eventually got to go outside. We lived on a large lot and we spent all our time outside in the summers. My mother was a school teacher and now I understand that she was suffering from depression and other issues. At the time, what I knew was that in summers, she slept a lot and spent the rest of the time in her bedroom, with the only air conditioner on, and the door closed. My siblings and I did what kids did then in the summer: we watched TV, we wandered in the woods, and we tried not to bring ticks in the house.

Nina turned out to be pregnant at the beginning of one summer vacation. I don’t know if my parents ever took her to a vet and we had gotten her from someone in the southern part of our town. She gave birth to seven kittens and they were just the cutest things I had ever seen.

The problem was that that summer saw the worst plague of fleas in decades. Our cats brought them home and the infestation was so bad when you stepped on the carpet, you could see dozens of fleas jump up and start to crawl up your leg. A day or two after they were born, the kittens were covered. I would pick one up and they would drip off them like water. And Nina stopped feeding them.

I told my mother. I told my father. Eventually, they called the vet and let me speak to them. I was told to use a comb and rubbing alcohol to try to get the fleas off the kittens. I did this with each one. Multiple times. The fleas came back. Then Nina stopped caring for the litter. One by one, the kittens stopped moving.

I don’t know what was going on between my parents. My father was gone for long days and overnight trips; my mother was distant as always. Neither of them came done to the basement to see the kittens. And I didn’t even think of asking how I would know if they were really dead. Even when I was burying them in our yard, I kept thinking I could hear them meow. We never discussed it.

We had the house fumigated, but the fleas came back. And you know what else? Nina came back, pregnant at the end of the summer. This is the part of the story I shake my head at even now. She gave birth again in a house covered in fleas. The kittens each died again one by one even after I combed them clean and tried to feed them with a washcloth dipped in milk. No one called the veterinarian the second time. Neither of my parents ever talked to me about that summer. That was three decades ago. I still feel nauseous when I think about it.

Homer, Od. 17.324-328

“So he spoke and went inside the inhabited home.
He went straight among the arrogant suitors in the hall.
But then the fate of dark death overtook Argos
Right after he saw Odysseus in his twentieth year.”

ὣς εἰπὼν εἰσῆλθε δόμους ἐναιετάοντας,
βῆ δ’ ἰθὺς μεγάροιο μετὰ μνηστῆρας ἀγαυούς.
῎Αργον δ’ αὖ κατὰ μοῖρ’ ἔλαβεν μέλανος θανάτοιο,
αὐτίκ’ ἰδόντ’ ᾿Οδυσῆα ἐεικοστῷ ἐνιαυτῷ.

Does Argos count as blessed in Solon’s words because he had a happy moment before he died? Does that one moment of relief at his master’s return make up for two decades of neglect? Will Odysseus go and get a puppy after the epic’s end?

There was another cat named Skye who lost an eye in a fight with a raccoon and like my sister’s cat Jackie just ended up wandering away one day as cats on the edge of a forest sometime do. Now I know that the cats probably fell prey to some predator or disease. But then, well, pets just kind of disappeared.

Once the last two of Alfie’s offspring were gone—wherever they went—my parents wanted another dog. This time, they went to a breeder with the plans of doing things right. We got a male chocolate lab and for reasons that are too convoluted to explain but include community theater, he was named Tevye.

We must have gotten Tevye in late spring or early summer, because by the fall he was a good-sized dog, but not yet full grown. My parents tried to keep this dog inside, closer to us, but they never put in the work to train him not to go to the bathroom in the house. He would go sometimes, my dad would explode and open the door and kick him outside. This went on until Tevye mostly whined at the door until someone let him out.

While we lived on a dirt road on one side of our property, the other side was bounded by a state road that ran north-south. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road and at night you could hear a car coming from a mile away. Our mailbox was a good walk from the front door to this main road. Tevye would go down there and look over the stone wall. My father would scream if he got too close.

One day, we were outside repairing the stone wall because some car had skidded off the road. As my father and I levered stones back into position, Tevye jumped over the wall and neared the road. My father started screaming and went after the dog, but I stepped in front of him and just said “no.” I pushed him back. I was in eighth grade and I was nearly the height I am now and the same weight. It was the only time in my life that I thought he would hit me and I wanted him too. But he didn’t.

On Thanksgiving, we were racing around the house trying to get everyone ready to go to my grandmother’s when there was a knock on the door. We rarely received door knocks, rarely enough in fact that my father was as likely to answer the door with a gun as he was to answer at all (he was deaf). At the door were two young men. They asked if we had a brown dog and said that one had jumped in front of their car.

They did not have a dog with them. My mother started screaming at them. My younger brother and sister started crying. I don’t know where my father went. But I was silent. I didn’t see any sense of losing it when we knew nothing. The world has more than one brown dog.

The walk from our home to the place where the dog was on the side of the road is three to five minutes, depending on your speed. Tevye was there, definitely dead, near the stone wall we had repaired. I had never handled a corpse that large before. My father hand grown up hunting, but when he took me out to learn to shoot at age six, I had no interest in the firearm or what you might do with it. Tevye was almost 50 pounds of deadweight and carrying him over that wall to a stand of pine trees felt like a lifetime.

No one else had exited the house yet. I walked the same distance back to the garage and got a shovel and then back to the stand of pine trees near the road. I started to dig near a large stone and had a large enough hole dug by the time my father came out to see what I was doing that there was no work left to be done. When I think of this now, I tremble, still confused: it was at least 20 minutes from when I left the house and started digging the hole before either of my parents came to see if their dog was really dead.

 I finished the job alone. I went to three funerals that year and one of them was a cousin who died at age 16 in a car accident. I remember that fourth funeral the most, standing alone over Tevye’s shallow grave.   

In similar tone to Odysseus’ dismissal of “table dogs”, Greek and Latin words for “pets” tend to emphasize their status as a luxury or adornment. In a fragment, Euripides calls a dog a “decoration [agalma] of Hekate” (Ἑκάτης ἄγαλμα φωσφόρου κύων ἔσῃ, fr. 968). Catullus’ Lesbia has a delicia; Martial’s Stella has a delicium (Ep. 1.7; cf. Seneca Apocolyntosis 13, subalbam canem in deliciis habere adsueverat). Exotic pets are signs of decadence: Theophrastus sees an obsequious person as likely to have a pet monkey (Characters 5); Plutarch records that comic poets slandered Perikles’ friend for his pet birds (Perikles 13.14). Diogenes Laertius tells of Heraclides and his pet snake (5.6, 89-90 These animals are different from foodstock and working animals: Alciphron calls his mistress’ Maltese puppy a “delight” (ἄθυρμα, Letters of Farmers 3.22) an here, as in Lucian (Assembly of the Gods, 5) and elsewhere the pet dog gets a diminutive: κυνίδιον.

In ancient literature, we see animals functioning as reflections for human characters. When Achilles’ horse Xanthus talks to him in the Iliad, he has the same color hair as his master and speaks to give a very Achillean message: you’re going to die. Alexander is paired in legend with Bucephalus, a horse who could be tamed only by the man who tamed the world. And Odysseus comes home to a loyal dog he forgot when he went to war. Bucephalus exists in narrative only to confirm Alexander’s greatness. Xanthus would speak for no other hero. Epic Argos exists only to increase Odysseus’ sense of loss and meaning.

Lip-cup from the British Museum

My family got a Newfoundland puppy after Tevye’s death. I kept a cautious distance from that dog and was off to college by the time she was four years old. I never had a conversation with my father about dogs and their deaths. I know he grew up with hunting dogs and my mother grew up with barn cats and farm animals and that both of them saw animals come and go in a way I never would. When my father died, he left behind a golden retriever and a wish that any donations in his name be made to the ASPCA. I bit my tongue at the irony.

When I turned 21 my future wife got me a kitten for my birthday. In truth, I think she really wanted a pet because she had never had one, but she also said that the way I talked about animals made her want to get one. I couldn’t tell her why getting a kitten caused me so much pain because I did not want to detract at all from the joy she experienced at getting one.

Chineh—which was a bastardized version of Tamil for “small”—was a feral cat who hated everyone except for my wife and me. When we went to the shelter, she put her paw outside the cage at us and meowed and it was over. My roommates and parents called her a devil cat. When I was in graduate school, my apartment burned out in an electric fire and somehow she survived. We put several thousand dollars on a credit card and spent a month cupping her rib cages to get her to cough up the smoke. I don’t know if that caused her health problems later, but it may have.

Chineh was 11 when our daughter was born. She was already having serious hormonal problems and was already less friendly than before. But I swear she changed around the baby. As our daughter grew and started to move, she would follow the cat around, pulling her tail, abusing her at every chance. And Chineh, who had scratched and bitten dozens of people before never hurt her at all.

When I left the clinic where Chineh was put to sleep, I gave them two different cat carriers and other accessories (they specialized in cats). They were hesitant because they thought I might get another cat someday. I told them I wouldn’t.

And here we are, a decade later, with two cats and hundreds of pictures on twitter to prove that I am, as my wife declares, obsessed with Hermes. Yes, he follows me to get a treat near dawn every morning. Yes, I brush him every night so his long hair won’t get matted. During the day, though, we stick to our own business.

I didn’t want to get more pets because I didn’t want to fail them. I resisted getting them because I don’t want to feel the grief of loss again. I didn’t want to get pets because I don’t want to see the pain in my children’s eyes when they die. But, as my wife says, that’s really no way to live at all.

I am going to resist getting a puppy named Zeus. Right now, my argument is that it will upset Hermes, because I can’t get these old stories out fast enough to make sense.

Good Words from Bad People

“Quoting the good words of a bad author will never shame me.”
Numquam me in voce bona mali pudebit auctoris
Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 8

Every so often—and perhaps too frequently in some fields—in turns out that a scholar or artist of some renown is a terrible person. Sometimes, they are garden-variety racists masquerading as free speech warriors; sometimes they just might be international criminals, selling ancient objects they don’t own, and trading on their fame and institutions to manipulate others; and, in the worst of times, they are sexual predators, causing irreparable harm while hiding in plain sight.

When these things happen, academic fields face the same challenges we have seen in recent years in film, SFF fiction, and nearly every industry where fame is a commodity that brings power and the cover to abuse with near impunity. We try to cut out the cancer before it does any more damage, but the presence is there for good, in the body. The debate on the existence and merits of ‘cancel culture’ dances around the hard questions of why some people think they’re entitled to fame and why we do in fact have the right to deprive bad actors of financial gain.

But these questions don’t really talk about what happens afterwards. In her 2016 Eidolon piece “Making a Monster”, Sarah Scullin writes about the strange horror of the Holt Parker fiasco, when an author of some influence on ancient sexuality turned out to be a child pornographer, and trying to figure out the balance between cries for a damnatio memoriae and our disciplinary standards of citing work where citation is due.

I have struggled with this question during what seems to be, thanks to our ever restrictive interconnections, the golden age of public assholery. Certain high profile cases of longterm problems suing undergraduates and famous Geniuses stealing papyri have forced me to face the monsters in my bibliography, and the compromises in my acknowledgements. Should I erase the names of people who have broken bad from my forthcoming work? Should I publicly disavow those who helped me in the past?

People and what we make of them

I guess I ask this because, like Scullin in her article, I am not sure of the answer. I incline in part towards not changing a thing, for two reasons. I feel in part that footnotes and acknowledgements to bad men are a kind of disclosure, a owning of the truth that our field is populated by flawed humans like any other. It also attests to the hierarchy of patronage that is central to the academic enterprise. It is a rare person who can make their way in this world without help from someone more experienced and powerful. And, well, power corrupts in all forms. And, well, getting to the top of the academic ladder does not require being a good human being.

So I guess part of the problem is that our performative obeisance exposes us to a chain of associative kleos which, given the tides of time, can go dus- or eu-. But I am also interested in how much of our behavior is based on a static and deeply problematic view of human beings. It is hard for most of us to accept the degree to which persons and personalities are contextual and that in a culture such as ours so much of what we see as signs of character are reactive and transactive negotiations.

A proverb erroneously attributed to Aristotle, “a friend to all is a friend to none”, would seem to indicate that constancy in treatment from one person to another is some kind of a value. In truth, Aristotle seems to come down on the side of not making all the friends in the Nicomachean Ethics 1170e-1171b) where he does say that “people who have many friends and shout familiarly to everyone appear to be friends of no one” (οἱ δὲ πολύφιλοι καὶ πᾶσιν οἰκείως ἐντυγχάνοντες οὐδενὶ δοκοῦσιν εἶναι φίλοι) because Aristotle argues that one significant goal of friendship is the pleasure of sharing each other’s perception of existing and being good.

Is there anyone who is good or bad to everyone they encounter? Indeed, another proverb from ancient Greek—that justice is doing good to your friends and evil to your enemies—would argue the opposite. Why is it so hard for us to comprehend that someone who was kind to us individually was cruel—if not abusive and worse—to someone else? Part of the problem with our response to the fall of great idols is that our shock and surprise runs counter to what we should already know about human beings. We are not stock characters; we are not constant beings; we are, at best, thin veils of temporary will over conflicting insecurities and desire.

Now, I know that pseudo-Lacanian description will gall many, but I would relent only to say that we conflate the reputations we grant to people for work we appreciate or use with the person themself. We make a metonymic error in seeing the kindness done for an individual as a sign of the sum total of a person’s identity. We make people into things they are not and then suffer the paralysis of horror when they turn out to be something different.


Things and what we make of them

For me, this runs up, to, and alongside current conversations about cancel culture. I have written before about my reaction to J. K Rowling being a transphobic trainwreck doing to Hogwart’s what not even Voldemort could achieve. My solution is naively simple: separate the art from the artist. We made Rowling into someone who matters because the world she created matters to us.

Any model of reading and reception that persists in centering the author over the audience is, in my ever so humble opinion, a dangerous distraction from reality rooted in a stubbornly individualistic worldview, steeped partly in monotheism and partly in capitalism (on which, more later). A painting had to be made by someone, of course, but it relies on a syntax of space, color, story, and meaning within and against which the painter operates and whose existence is only completed by the viewer who shares some frames of reference. (And this leaves out the contribution of the laborers who made the canvas and paint, the partner who made the painter’s lunch, the friend who sparked an idea, the custodian who cleans so the painter can paint and so on and so on.)

Literary and academic products draw more on conventions and the contributions of groups, especially audiences, than the individual who brings them to shape in the world. As I talked about probably too much, my favorite metaphor for this from ancient Greece comes from Plato’s Ion, where Socrates explains that a rhapsode (like Ion) is merely one of a series of metal rings that translates the magnetic charge from the “magnet” (which is the Muse or divine power) through a poet, through the rhapsode, to an audience. The one thing I would change about this metaphor is to acknowledge that it is iterative and reflexive. The divine Muse is the sum total of a cultural consciousness, that nearly indescribable shared mind of a language and people particularized in one form of art at one time or another.

Ah, yes, what heady language for academic work! One of the great ironies about the work we do in academia, however, is that despite how collaborative it is, how much it depends on the work of prior scholars, current editors, students, friends and teachers, we mostly credit and prize the individual genius of the scholar who somehow manages to write it down. I tend to thank a lot of people in acknowledgements because I am deeply conscious of my own limitations as a thinker and of how much I have been prompted to think, write, and say by others.

There are different ways to talk about how our minds work with each other. From simple things like cognitive offloading—e.g. couples over time specializing in remembering somethings and not others, relying on each other—to more complex models of group minds and distributed cognition (language etc.), it is clear that not only is no man an island, but each of us is less like a leaf on a tree than a cell in a complex organism. We don’t sense it this way because this is just too big a thought for our limited brains. The human species-wide Dunning-Kruger effect just may be that our individual consciousnesses are for the most part too simple to apprehend how complex we are collectively.

But what if someone is really, really bad? Do we need to socially distance ourselves from bad ideas too?

Where do Ideas come from?

Later, in the same passage of the Ion where he describes the metaphor of a magnet offers as proof the case of Tynnichus, a terrible poet who composed a song everyone loves (Plato, Ion 534d-535a)

“The greatest proof of my argument is Tynnichus of Chalcis who never composed any poem worth remembering except for the paean everyone sings, nearly the most beautiful of all songs, a thing he himself calls “some discovery by the Muses”.

In this example, especially, the god seems to me to demonstrate to us so that there is no doubt, that these poems are not human nor by humans but divine and by the gods and, moreover, that poets aer nother other than interpreters of the gods, inspired in the way that each one is inspired. And the god demonstrated this by having the worst poet compose the finest song.

μέγιστον δὲ τεκμήριον τῷ λόγῳ Τύννιχος ὁ Χαλκιδεύς, ὃς ἄλλο μὲν οὐδὲν πώποτε ἐποίησε ποίημα ὅτου τις ἂν ἀξιώσειεν μνησθῆναι, τὸν δὲ παίωνα ὃν πάντες ᾁδουσι, σχεδόν τι πάντων μελῶν κάλλιστον, ἀτεχνῶς, ὅπερ αὐτὸς λέγει,

‘εὕρημά τι Μοισᾶν.’ ἐν τούτῳ γὰρ δὴ μάλιστά μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐνδείξασθαι ἡμῖν, ἵνα μὴ διστάζωμεν, ὅτι οὐκ ἀνθρώπινά ἐστιν τὰ καλὰ ταῦτα ποιήματα οὐδὲ ἀνθρώπων, ἀλλὰ θεῖα καὶ θεῶν, οἱ δὲ ποιηταὶ οὐδὲν ἀλλ᾽ ἢ ἑρμηνῆς εἰσιν τῶν θεῶν, κατεχόμενοι ἐξ ὅτου ἂν ἕκαστος κατέχηται. ταῦτα ἐνδεικνύμενος ὁ θεὸς ἐξεπίτηδες διὰ τοῦ φαυλοτάτου ποιητοῦ τὸ κάλλιστον μέλος ᾖσεν

Tynnichus was, in a way, an original one-hit wonder of ancient Greece. It can indeed make sense to wonder when someone creates a piece of art so impactful that its greatness is universally acknowledged why they fail to ever approach the same heights. We psychoanalyze the artist’s anxiety and fear of failure, that they are suddenly flame-throwing relievers who have lost the strike zone. But perhaps Socrates’ solution is simpler and more elegant. Tynnichus did not compose a great song again because he never composed it to begin with.

Where do great ideas come from? Our answer to this is almost always shaped by what we are already conditioned to look for. We gaze at the biographies of great men. We peer into their minds, looking for the difference that made them greater than others. But our gaze in many cases needs to look outward in time and space.

We give credit for inventions and innovations to individuals despite evidence to the contrary. There is good reason to lend credence to theories of multiple discovery or convergent evolution, showing that the intellectual background and shared conditions of a period can lead individuals like Newton and Leibniz to the same place (calculus!). Convergent evolution shows that similar solutions can develop for similar problems in similar circumstances without assigning genius to one place or another

And as my Brandeis colleague Aparna Baskaran explores in her work, complex systems that appear to have intelligence and intention (from cell movement to blocks of birds) can be explained by physics and mathematics as having neither. We impose agency and genius on the world because this is the way we see it.


Hit those Moneymakers?

“Simonides seems to have been the first to adapt money-making to songs and to compose his works for pay. This is what Pindar says deceptively in his second Isthmian: “For the Muse was not then greedy or out for hire.”
ὁ Σιμωνίδης δοκεῖ πρῶτος σμικρολογίαν εἰσενεγκεῖν εἰς τὰ ᾄσματα καὶ γράψαι ᾆσμα μισθοῦ. τοῦτο δὲ καὶ Πίνδαρος ἐν τοῖς Ἰσθμιονίκαις φησὶν αἰνιττόμενος·
. . . ἁ Μοῖσα γὰρ οὐ φιλοκερδής πω τότ᾿ ἦν οὐδ᾿ ἐργάτις . . . (2. 6).
Scholiast on Aristophanes’ Peace 695-700

A few weeks ago, a few lines of a song by Micah P. Hinson floated into my head and I went to spotify and started listening. I had not listened to Hinson in years and had nearly forgotten about him. So, I started reading about what had happened to him and discovered pretty quickly that I found him to be quite the objectionable chap. Indeed, so objectionable that I felt uncomfortable using a streaming service to send a fraction of a penny to his bank account. But can we truly buy our way into virtue or out of vice?

One indication of the problem in academia is the way we cite work in most systems: author, date, page. It flattens everything about the process of ideamaking and credits an individual. But the meaning made from that citation has the author of the footnote to thank as well as all the unnamed people who contributed to those ideas. Works have lives far beyond the minds of their authors—imagine if children walked around named Christensen 2010 and Christensen 2011! But citing by article name instead of author would be just a way not talking about the problem

The impetus behind boycotting and de-platforming bad actors is to my mind a good one. It is about depriving harmful people of both the ability to cause further harm and to profit from their harmful action. The melodramatic overreaction to “cancel culture” is in part an entrenched power class’s fragility at being held accountable and in part a panic over what was assumed to be an limitless field of earning. (Although, to be fair, the mobbing part of such cancellation introduces new problems.)

The danger comes in the way we translate our social value into economic worth and how our models of remuneration, citation, and authorship are thoroughly commodified. This is easy for me to see in the proverb “give credit where credit is due,” a saying, perhaps coined by Samuel Adams in 1777 . That word credit from the Latin loan or debt (creditum), according to the OED came through French and Italian conveying both the sense of belief trust and the sense of a loan to be made based on belief and trust.

This overlap between an estimation of moral value and a valuation in financial terms is truly ancient, likely predating Alkaios who famously sings “Man is money—no one poor is noble or honored.” χρήματ᾿ ἄνηρ, πένιχρος δ᾿ οὐδ᾿ εἲς πέλετ᾿ ἔσλος οὐδὲ τιμίος (fr. 360). The conceptual metaphor between reputation and potential financial worth is so ingrained in our culture that we rarely question the logic of rich people deserving their riches. (When we know that great wealth cannot actually be acquired without theft and exploitation.)

Our laws and practices in artistic copyright, intellectual property, publication, patents and more are wholly shaped by the definition of ideas as commodity. Even in the humanities, lines of credit on CVs translate into higher paying jobs, higher wages, better positions. In a school like mine, a book published early in a career might yield no royalties, but the raise I receive of 5% of my salary compounded over 30 years of a career can translate into significant wealth. Our lives (Greek, bioi) are shaped by the translation of our activity into livelihood. And this is one of the most pernicious elisions in our language: the worth of a life in nothing but the value of its work.

To what degree is citing or not citing someone we (or others) find reprehensible about deferred credit, about anxiety over the devaluation of our own esteem. In this, perhaps, is an acknowledgement of the collective nature of our ‘products’ in the risk that others bring us.

“Canceling” a terrible person targets cultural esteem and in many cases may harm them economically. (Although, I think that for someone like Rowling, her income growth will turn merely incremental from exponential.) Because I think poets are not wholly responsible for their poems, I can enjoy the verse of a bad person. But I don’t want to pay for it.

But if citation and mention translates into esteem, what does it mean to talk about the good works of bad people in public? What does it mean to cite the useful article of the shitbird academic? My first answer—to be honest about the field that makes us all complicit in propping up petty and nasty people—does not stand up well to the danger that an unmarked acknowledgment now may translate into future benefit for the person whose work I don’t despise.


Everything’s Coming Up Solon

“People have an ancient famous proverb:
That you should not judge any mortal lives
You can’t see them as good or bad before someone dies
Λόγος μὲν ἔστ᾿ ἀρχαῖος ἀνθρώπων φανεὶς
ὡς οὐκ ἂν αἰῶν᾿ ἐκμάθοις βροτῶν, πρὶν ἂν
θάνῃ τις, οὔτ᾿ εἰ χρηστὸς οὔτ᾿ εἴ τῳ κακός·
Sophocles, Trachinae 1-3

Some of us like to think that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but instead, I think we’re really talking about a sphere giving in to entropy. Most things get worse, or at least get to be less of what they were, over time. The likelihood of someone you know upsetting or disappointing you overtime is non-negligible. That’s because none of us are consistently anything except for alive, until we’re not.

In the same essay where he declares himself immune to shame over quoting good words from bad authors, Seneca quotes from Publilius Syrus that “whatever can happen to someone else can also happen to you” (cuivis potest accidere quod cuiquam potest, De Tranq. 9). This line is part of an anti-hubris “check yourself before you wreck yourself” ethic, but it also reminds me of Herodotus’ Solon, who warned Croseus not to count a man as lucky before his days have ended

If you live a thoroughly wretched life but your last day is good, does that mean people to come can call you happy, Solon? And if you do mostly good, but have a really bad day, does that undo the good? And can we even manage to think about whether Solon’s notion is about pleasure at your own good and not actually doing good for other people? Clearly, this is not the place to answer this, but it seems likely that at the end of every person’s life we hear something like, “Indeed, Socrates, after all this talk, I guess we still don’t know what happiness is.”

One peril of admiring (or citing) anyone is that over a lifetime we’re all pretty much certain to disappoint. I like to think that Solon’s logic also contains the corollary that if life can turn out badly at the last moment, it can also turn out well. To believe in the possibility of education one must believe that people have the capacity to change. So, perhaps the bad words of a good author will improve and a bad author might turn out to be a better person some day.

But then we are back to the pageantry of withhdrawal and return, of wondering if someone has reformed truly or is merely back in disguise for more lines of credit. What are our limits on forgiveness? How much do we believe in personal growth? Separating the work from the life and the person from work may help liberate us all. And then we can get back to the hard work of living together and understanding ourselves.


Go here for a scholarly debrief on footnote practices.


File:Quentin Massys 030.jpg
Quentin Matsys Allegory of Folly

On Reading Homer

In what feels like a lifetime ago, I responded to a mostly online fandango about Oxford no longer requiring Classics majors to read Homer with a cleverly titled post On Not Reading Homer At the time, some takes justifiably interpreted it aselitist while others eventually straw-manned it as a super PC Homerist cancelling Homer. In the middle, some people asked to hear more. And then the world went to hell.

As anyone who reads this blog will know, I have not always talked about my discipline in the kindest fashion. But under the combined force of an era-defining pandemic and the largest political movementin our lifetimes protesting white supremacy and the state-managed killing of Black people, it felt simultaneously small and yet urgent to think about Homer.

Why read Homer if the world is coming to an end? Why teach Homer if the Homeric epics have been instrumentalized as part of colonialism and white supremacy? These are not idle questions. They are the questions that need to be answered if the discipline of Classics to continue in any form at all.

I expressed some of these views early on and was, again rightly, criticized for inserting such navel gazing was taking space away from BIPOC classicists. In the meantime, I have been thinking and working at my own institution (virtually) with Homer always somewhere near. There will never be a time when my voice, embodied as it is in the privilege and experience I bring with me, does not drown out others. I feel a responsibility to think about this and use the space I have to advocate for the change I can. As a Homerist, even if I am not one of great renown, I think it is my duty to think and write critically about my field and to help make space for others.

Why read Homer? I think I made clear some feelings about why reading Homer badly is counterproductive. This may be a surprise, but I do think there is a good reason to read Homer. First, let us get through the reasons people typical give I find disagreeable. I have listed them in my opinion of silliest to most serious. Let me be clear: I think that there is some truth and utility to each of these, but there are challenges too.

Homer by Mattia Preti (1635)

Entertainment: The epics are good stories! This argument is related in part to the aesthetics of literature (although the pleasure of a good yarn is different from the aesthetics I talk about below). Sure, the epics can be riveting, but there are parts that even seasoned readers can find challenging: for example Iliad 13-15, Odyssey 2-4 and 12-16. I suspect that many people who make this argument have not had the challenge of leading students through a whole epic from beginning to end. I also think that many people who make this argument may have not read the epics in their entirety. (P.S. it is perfectly ok to read excerpts).

Homer is historical: I just can’t get on this train. The Homeric epics are no more historical than Arthurian legend. They can give us ideas about the values of the historical peoples who formed their audiences, but even this is not simple: which version of Homer and which audiences at which time radically challenge anything we can say. My favorite formulation about what Homer is vis a vis history belongs to Hans Van Wees who calls the Iliad a “fantasy of the past” (Status Warriors, 1992). Anyone reading this who believes there was an actual Trojan War in some way corresponding to the events of our Iliad will be sorely disappointed by my stance.

As far as I can see it, from Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations to more recent excitement about Hittite names, the importance placed on historical correspondence is almost entirely due to the interest and enthusiasm of the interpreter who desires to make a positivistic identification between some mythical past and material remains. This is not to say that the Homeric epics can’t be useful in talking about the past, but that they have been used almost exclusively to see Ancient Greece in a particular way and have been an obstacle for this reason. Trevor Bryce’s work (e.g. “The Trojan War: Is There Truth behind the Legend? “Near Eastern Archaeology 2002, 65: 182-195) has marshaled a lot of the evidence, concluding in part that even if there is some historical ‘truth’, the creative work of the poems far exceeds and surpasses it (and Bryce is one who relies on the idea of a genius poet). Anyone familiar with the fine work of H. L. Lorimer a half century earlier would reach a similar, even bleaker confusion (Homer and the Monuments, 1950).


“I am not contending for the morality of Homer; on the contrary, I think it a book of false glory, tending to inspire immoral and mischievous notions of honor” Thomas Paine

Sculpture of Homer (1886) by Harry Bates, ARA.

It was most excellently set down that a student’s reading should begin with Homer and Vergil, even though one needs a firmer judgment for understanding the virtues of those poets, for there will be time to develop it, since they will not be read just onceQuintilian

Noble Values: Read Homer for the heroes? They are a bunch of amoral shitbags. Perhaps we can learn by reading Homer that oftentimes the people in positions of power are there because they are in it for themselves and they don’t care if all of their people perish. Read the epics: Agamemnon, Achilles, Hektor, Paris, Odysseus all make choices that increase the death toll of their people without increasing their chance of success. One of the real strengths of epic is what I will call below its indeterminacy. The problem with texts of indeterminant meaning is that audiences will disambiguate complexity and choose to take away simply recognizable or facile lessons.

In one of our most famous early responses to myth and Homeric poetry, Plato has his Socrates banish tales of civil strife, children punishing parents, and gods warring with one another. Such tales, Socrates continues, “should not be allowed into the state, even if they were composed with secret meeting or without secret meaning. For a young person is incapable of judging what is allegorical meaning and what is not, but whatever opinions they take up during their young are hard to rinse off and tend to become unchangeable (ὅσας  Ὅμηρος πεποίηκεν οὐ παραδεκτέον εἰς τὴν πόλιν, οὔτ’ ἐν ὑπονοίαις πεποιημένας οὔτε ἄνευ ὑπονοιῶν. Ὁ γὰρ νέος οὐχ οἷός τε κρίνειν ὅτι τε ὑπόνοια καὶ ὃ μή, ἀλλ’ ἃ ἂν τηλικοῦτος ὢν λάβῃ ἐν ταῖς δόξαις δυσέκνιπτά τε καὶ ἀμετάστατα φιλεῖ γίγνεσθαι, Republic 378d-e).

Any sense of this passage must take the purpose of the Republic into consideration: Socrates apostrophizes Homer and asks, “What city was governed better thanks to you?” (λέγε ἡμῖν τίς τῶν πόλεων διὰ σὲ βέλτιον ᾤκησεν, 599e). For the Republic’s Socrates, Homer cannot provide instruction for governing a city any more than he can instill proper morals and opinions in individuals. But this is because, according to Plato, people don’t understand Homeric hyponoia, literally something like “sub-meaning, under-meaning, secret meaning”, translated cleverly in the most recent Loeb edition as simply “deeper meaning” (replacing the older allegorical).

Even today, we often find people claiming that reading the epic can give readers good values. Homer can teach you to be loyal, manly, brave, etc.! The problem with literary exemplification like this is that good examples come with counter-examples and it is often hard to tell the difference. Further, any praising of Homeric epics for positive values needs to acknowledge that they are filled with horror and danger too from Agamemnon’s greed to Odysseus’ murderous vengeance. (In addition, this does not even include the deep structural problems of gender and class.) This is at best a naïve approach to literature: most readers project values onto a text and select what they want to see (or what they avidly don’t want to see). As with most of these points, this argument suffers from a limited sense of what ‘reading’ is and how it works.

The noble values also work the other way. Many have been justifiably moved by Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, written in Nazi-occupied France. She reads the poem with “force” as the “true subject” and moves that the Iliad may be a “historical document” illustrating “force….at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.” Perhaps, intentionally or not, Weil channels Aristotle’s attribution in the Rhetoric that “Alcidamas called the Odyssey a fine mirror for human life”. I do not disagree with Weil about Homer—indeed; this influential essay has done more to show Homer’s depth than much of Homeric scholarship. Nevertheless, I do think that Weil’s context and experience trained her gaze in a particular way. See this passage from the end of the essay:

Weil bit

While I almost giddily agree with Weil’s sentiment on Vergil, I think her take on the Odyssey is less generous and shaped by her identity and the moment of writing. How much sense can an epic of return, survival, and renewed life make when German tanks are rolling down your city’s streets? In a way, Weil’s comments on the Iliad as a mirror for human life also reflect how interpretation works. The way we read a work is a reflection of who we are and what we bring to it.

In the smartest thing in all the Star Wars movies (ok, maybe the only smart thing), the Empire Strikes Back brings us a Luke Skywalker in training, lured into a cave on Dagobah where Yoda tells him the tree is “strong with the dark side of the Force. A servant of evil it is. Into it you must go”. To Luke’s question, “what’s in there”, the Jedi Master responds, “Only what you take with you.” The subsequent scene has Luke taking his light saber in with him and facing an ersatz Darth Vader who turns out to be….himself.

The Homeric poems are powerful shapers of perception, but in the end, they contain so much that we come away from them with very different notions of the poem. The Iliad is about force, but it is also about scarcity, anger, desire, love, loyalty and how people value one another. Moreover, it is a prolonged contemplation on when we choose to use force as opposed to when we have to. To pull one melody out of a multi-day symphony is to block out the  majority of the composition as mere sound. We each hear our own Iliad and even these changes over time.

“You want a horse race? There is a fine one in Homer. Go get your book and read through it. You hear them talking about dancing pantomimes? Forget them! The children dance in a more manly way among the Phaiakians. You have there the citharist Phemios and the singer Demodokos. There are plants in Homer which are more delightful to hear of than to see.” Julian

Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) – Homer Reciting his Poems

Aesthetics: I have argued elsewhere that an approach to literature and art with a primary focus on aesthetics can be corrupting in encouraging us to think about things and peoples as aesthetic objects too. Our pursuit of pleasure too often neglects to consider how we as interpreters and agents were shaped to experience pleasure by our cultural context.

Now, as someone thoroughly drawn to Epicurus, I cannot say that aesthetics and pleasure are not important, but that that they are symptomatic of both effective works and those that appeal to our weaknesses. There is a circuitous and replicative process in the aesthetic process that enforces traditional normative ideals and dis-incentivizes meaningful change. Therefore, when people say they love the beauty of Homer, I worry that they are selecting and privileging parts of Homer that have been culturally marked as attractive and have shaped their expectations for literature.


“Our poets steal from Homer; he spews, saith Aelian, they lick it up,” Robert Burton

Canon: Advocates often imagine that the strongest argument for Homer is that Homer was influential in the “Western Canon” and that you need to be familiar with Homer to appreciate and understand everything that came after. I think that this argument sounds nice, but it overstates the existence of the “Western Canon” (which is relatively recent), ignores the motivations for enforcing it, and radically misunderstands the impact of Homeric epic in the development of European literatures. If one is studying the history of ideas (especially the history of the idea of literature and canons) this “argument” is a good question as a starting point (I.e., how influential was Homer actually on European literatures?) but it is deeply insufficient for building a curriculum.

It is not that Homer was not and has not been important, but that the idea of Homer was far more influential than the epics in their entirety. For most of the history of the reception of the epics, they were read in summary or in part. For most of the history of education in the west, they would be mined for rhetorical excerpts. I think that relatively few readers in the ancient world had access to full texts and that when people talk about Homer in the ancient world we are really mostly talking about the sum total influence of Trojan War narratives and Greek myth on the development of culture and literature. In this category, a myth handbook like that of Apollodorus or Hyginus or the epics of Ovid and Vergil have been much more directly influential on later authors and tradition. The fact is, outside of the Byzantine Empire, Homer was not read that much in Northern and Western Europe prior to German Philhellenism, a period in which Northern philologists did everything they could to try to discredit, ignore, and de-center continuity and authority in Greek culture.


And the true bards have been noted for their firm and cheerful temper. Homer lies in sunshine; Chaucer is glad and erect; and Saadi says, ‘It was rumored abroad that I was penitent; but what had I to do with repentance?’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Universalism:  I will not easily dismiss the assertion that the Homeric epics reflect and advance essential ‘truths’ or visions about what it means to be human. I do have structural and intellectual quibbles with this approach, however. First, I wonder about the universal humanistic appeal of a text that denies full humanity to a majority of the human race (all those who are not aristocratic men). This leads into my deeper concern, namely that appeals to universalism can appeal easily to observer effects and selection bias. Whose view of humanity is assumed universal in this approach? Who counts as human in the world projected and received?

Further, I think that universalism assumes a unitary or singular point of view. If this argument is that the Homeric texts are polyvalent and reflect the pluralism of human experience in a multicultural and changing environment, then I can agree. Nevertheless, I think that this is not what people mean. Instead, universalism is too often a series of general bromides ignoring detail and saying more about the interests and assumptions of the interpreter than anything about the text.


“What is lacking in Homer, that we should not consider him to be the wisest man in every kind of wisdom? Some people claim that his poetry is a complete education for life, equally divided between times of war and peace.” Leonardo Bruni 

Homer is unique and different! This assertion introduces some inextricable problems about defining difference. In some forms, I find this argument somewhat convincing but probably not in the same way that many others do. I think that the polyvocal, oral-derived, multilocal background of the Homeric epics renders their tone, perspective, language, and impact both quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything I have ever read. The problem with this approach is that it tends to be teleological: ‘Homer’ is positioned as a unitary and foundational genius whose DNA has spread majestically throughout the artwork of later generations.

The difference between what we actually have in the Homeric epics and what we find in later generations can help us unlearn what we think we know about literary traditions. This argument makes me nervous in general because it runs the risk of merely repeating the damaging “Greek Miracle” nonsense. But it is also an argumentum ex silentio. I don’t know that other works we lost were any less unique and different.

I think we are also conditioned by the tradition and our received aesthetics to see unique difference here only and not to look for it or see it in traditional poetry elsewhere, the epics of India, the philosophy and poetry of China and oral traditions in the Middle East and Africa. Instead, what I want to emphasize is that the Homeric epics developed through and because of the Rationalizing Revolution and contributed to it in turn. I will return to this more below, but my point is that history and cultural context were formative in the epics’ development. And, in turn, they contributed to a shifting in the cultures that hosted them.

While I don’t agree with all he says about Homer, Adam Nicolson puts it well when he summarized Homer as “Multiple in origins, multiple in manner and multiple in meaning, Homer in this light both knows the deep past and moves beyond it (2014, Why Homer Matters).


“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.” George Bernard Shaw

Why read Homer? 1: Homer is Multivocal and Multicultural

The biggest problem with what most people say about Homer is that it is based on a ‘modern’ view of Homer that projects upon the past post-Christian and post-Renaissance notions of authorship, genius, and identity on a past tradition. This is probably not the best place and time to talk about what Homer is, but it is worth a few sentences to say what Homer isn’t.

Homer was not an individual who wrote two epics. The epics we have are the process of a long period of formation in different linguistic groups over different regions over a long time in a performance context in which audience participation and response was significant in shaping the contents, interests, and tones of the poems. I think two good places to start reading about this are Nagy’s Homer’s Text and Language, Casey Dué’s recent Achilles Unbound: Multiformity and Tradition in the Homeric Epics, and Graeme Bird’s Multitextuality in the Homeric Iliad.

The poems we have, moreover, reached the shapes we have during a period when the people who told their stories were engaged with the local pluri-vocality of their own amalgam culture and the multicultural influence of the migratory and trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean. The ritual, religious, linguistic, narrative, and artistic traditions of Archaic Greece were indisputably influence by Ancient Africa (including but not exclusively Egypt) and the Ancient Near East. They were also likely influenced by innumerable lost stories and languages of cultures from around the Mediterranean who stories have been lost to time.

In addition, the epics came much closer to the form we have them during the period we call the ‘Rationalizing Revolution’ which was defined by philosophers/scientists coming from the Greek states of Asia Minor and moving west under political pressure (Persian expansion?). It was no accident that these thinkers hailed for so long as originating geniuses came out of cosmopolitan, multicultural cities: where do we think they got their ideas from?

We too often treat Homer as being suddenly ex novo and sui generis. Instead, the Homeric epics we have come at the end of a long process of differentiation and integration. They are unique insofar as they were uniquely successful in surviving the past. Accepting them as standard is falling into the trap epic sets for us: part of epic style is to assume its own supremacy and superiority. We know from mythography, that Homeric detail is often out there on its own and in service of its own ends. (Elton Barker and I talk a lot about this and how to interpret Homer in our recent Homer’s Thebes.)


“If the works of Homer are, to letters and to human learning, what the early books of Scripture are to the entire Bible and to the spiritual life of man; if in them lie the beginnings of the intellectual life of the world, then we must still recollect that that life, to be rightly understood, should be studied in its beginnings. There we may see in simple forms what afterwards grew complex, and in clear light what afterwards became obscure; and there we obtain starting-points, from which to measure progress and decay along all the lines upon which our nature moves.” William Gladstone

Antonio Zucchi (1726-1796) – Homer Crowned as Poet Laureate

Why Read Homer 2: Transformation  

There’s a lot more to say and there’s not a Homerist alive who won’t take issue with the way I have framed some of this. The real reason I think people should read Homer is that the process of doing so—especially with other people—is transformative. How and why this transformation happens is a little involved, so I am about to get really annoying. But, to put it simply, Homeric epic refuses to give its audiences simple answers and forces us to think deeply, if we do it right.

Again, to Nicolson: he concludes that Homer matters…”because Homer…understands what mortals do not….That is his value a reservoir of understanding beyond the grief and turbulence of a universe in which there is no final authority” (2014, 244). I think that this is partly right, that the epics hold out the Siren call of knowledge, but that there is something much more important here. Homer offers up a mirror to life for us to inspect but it is a fragmented funhouse mirror in a nightmare.

We get partial pieces of information about greatness and loss about nobility and ugliness and are repeatedly told nothing about which paths we should choose. Again, Nicolson is right that Homer “provides no answers” but his closing recourse to poetic rhetorical questions misses the opportunity to articulate the significance both of why Homer provides no answers and of how the origins of Homeric poetry make it necessary for the poems to be this way. The Homeric epics are dialogic and aporetic and in these functions they teach us not what to do but how to think about what we do as communities.

Before I talk about the poems as dialogues and proto-philosophical experiences leading to states of aporia, let me just return to their origins for a moment. I think that the sophisticated, even therapeutic nature, of the poems is likely a historical accident of the demands of the performance context rather than some testament to the genius of the poems. In this, I do not deny the impression of genius or the magnitude of these epics’ monumental impact over time, but rather that their character was a product of environment rather than intention (an argument for a different space, I believe).

Homeric poetry is what others have already called dialogic, as Anna Bonifazi describes dialogism, following Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis, is when texts show a “a multiplicity and stratification of voices” or, to use Bakhtin’s words, a “plurality of consciousnesses” ( Bakhtin 1984:81). Homeric poetry, as Egbert Bakker has described it is intensely dialogic because of its development over time in multiple contexts and for multiple audiences over time (2006b). In addition, some of my favorite modern scholars who write on Homer like John Peradotto  (who also calls it heteroglossia, 1990, 53-58) foreground the multiplicity of meanings that emerge from dialogism. This is part of what makes Homeric poetry feels different: it channels untold numbers of voices for an equally unknown number of ears.

Such characteristics make it necessary that Homeric poetry will show empathy and understanding to multiple perspectives while refusing to take sides or give clear answers. Earlier literary theorists like William Empson struggled to describe the power of ambiguity or what someone else might call indeterminacy as the most potent of poetic forces. Whereas modern theorists debate the source of indeterminacy in reception or creation (i.e. is it authorially intended or created in reader response), Homeric indeterminacy is part of the poetic tradition from the level of utterance all the way through structure.

Now, I just mixed and rendered equivalent three terms that many literary theorists would prefer to keep separate: dialogism, the quality of multivocality in a text; ambiguity, when a text can have multiple meanings at once; and indeterminacy, when multiplicity of meaning cannot be disambiguated even to certain options. Rather than seeing these descriptions as overlapping, I think they help to identify different ways in which the multiplicity of Homeric meaning can translate into polysemy, multiple meanings at different times and for different audiences. As with the example of Simone Weil above, we bring our own experiences and eras to bear on the epics; but we as interpreters can also change while reading, because of reading, or over time when we return to a poem with new life experience.

In addition, the multi-vocal nature of the epics helps us to understand that despite their structural misogyny, classism, and latent justification for slavery, they still offer moments of deep empathy and understanding for those out of power: Andromache’s speeches about her son; similes about men struggling over scarce land; the almost lost image of the mill-working enslaved woman, desperate and exhausted. Eumaios is apostrophized by the narrator to a similar effect—just as the Homeric epics stand apart from most other war narratives in expecting their audiences to see the shared humanity of the Trojans, so too are they deeply sensitive to different positions in life.

The danger of this is its very intoxication, however. Andromache’s lamentations distract from the silence of all the other Trojan women; Eumaios’ valorization obscures his suffering and total surrender of agency; and the mill-woman’s prayer recenters Odysseus’ vengeance and leaves us wondering if despite all her trials, she still might be one of the women brutally hanged after cleaning up their dead lovers’ corpses.

But the different types of polysemy I mention above also help to produce what I think is one of the most important functions of Homeric poetry, the creation of aporia. Most people who know what aporia is will associate it with the early Platonic dialogues. Aporia—literally, “pathlessness”—is that state reached after the end of a dialogue like the Lysis when Socrates announces that despite their philosophical turnings they still do not know what friendship is. Such a moment emphasizes process over product and directs the audience to go back to the beginning and think the whole thing through again.

From inconsistent similes to debated omens, to interpretive crises like the split assembly and the amnesty at the end of the Odyssey the epics do not only fail to provide us with easy answers, but they produce the conditions for nearly endless debate. Not an interpretation of the epics in two thousand years has decisively argued for Agamemnon or Achilles in Iliad 1; no one has as yet fully unpacked the meaning of the meal shared by Priam and Achilles and the latter’s strange tale of Niobe taking a break from mourning to eat. Will any conversation convince us Odysseus is superior to Achilles or vice versa? Will any group ever agree over the ethics of Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors and his failure to bring his companions home? As Mark Buchan argues in The Limits of Heroism, “…these disasters offer us an invitation to rethink the kind of unreflective assumptions that produced them” (2004, 4).

Homeric epic, like Platonic dialogue, invites its audiences to follow the folly and success of its characters and then to retrace them, to come to a deeper understanding of the conditions that put them in the position to fail. For Platonic dialogue, Laura Candiotto (2015) has argued that the state of aporia itself is transformative, that it forces us to “imagine an otherness” (242) but that this process requires shared or collective emotional and intellectual work. The shared work of interpreting epic with its characters is a kind of extended mind over time. When we read them and discuss them with others, we engage in the transformative process of creating community around the interrogation of the self.

Now, I would be so bold as to say that this last step is possible with many different kinds of art and narrative traditions—the importance of community and group minds in interpretation and the creation of meaning is almost always underappreciated, especially in an aesthetic paradigm that privileges the author as a divine creator and prizes some interpreters as having exclusive access to that providential mind. What makes Homer different from reading Game of Thrones together or spending semesters contemplating Marcel Proust’s associative sense of smell is the depth of interpretive traditions to add to the complexity of the community of meaning and the nature of epic poetry itself. Homeric ambiguity, interdeterminacy, and dialogism provide a capaciousness of time rare in any art form and the essential, irrefutable absence of the author provides the opportunity to think and rethink without that devils’ trap of authorial intention.

The act of judgment is central to epic poetry from lexical through thematic levels. Homeric poetry provides many clues that it privileges the act of interpretation over all else. In addition to the stories, omens, and similes left unexplained throughout both epics, the Iliad presents a fascinating study on the surface of Achilles’ shield:

Homer Il. 18.496-508

“The people where gathered, crowded, in the assembly where a conflict (neîkos)
had arisen: two men were striving over the penalty for
a man who had been killed; the first one was promising to give everything
as he was testifying to the people; but the other was refusing to take anything;
and both men longed for a judge to make a decision.
The people, partisans on either side, applauded.
Then the heralds brought the host together; the elders
sat on smooth stones in a sacred circle
as they held in their hands the scepters of clear-voiced heralds;
each one was leaping to his feet and they pronounced judgments in turn.
In the middle there were two talents of gold to give
to whoever among them uttered the straightest judgment.”

λαοὶ δ’ εἰν ἀγορῇ ἔσαν ἀθρόοι· ἔνθα δὲ νεῖκος
ὠρώρει, δύο δ’ ἄνδρες ἐνείκεον εἵνεκα ποινῆς
ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου· ὃ μὲν εὔχετο πάντ’ ἀποδοῦναι
δήμῳ πιφαύσκων, ὃ δ’ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι·
ἄμφω δ’ ἱέσθην ἐπὶ ἴστορι πεῖραρ ἑλέσθαι.
λαοὶ δ’ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπήπυον ἀμφὶς ἀρωγοί·
κήρυκες δ’ ἄρα λαὸν ἐρήτυον· οἳ δὲ γέροντες
εἵατ’ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοις ἱερῷ ἐνὶ κύκλῳ,
σκῆπτρα δὲ κηρύκων ἐν χέρσ’ ἔχον ἠεροφώνων·
τοῖσιν ἔπειτ’ ἤϊσσον, ἀμοιβηδὶς δὲ δίκαζον.
κεῖτο δ’ ἄρ’ ἐν μέσσοισι δύω χρυσοῖο τάλαντα,
τῷ δόμεν ὃς μετὰ τοῖσι δίκην ἰθύντατα εἴποι.

Here, we find two parties arguing over an act of interpretation. The reward set out for either side does not go to the combatants but to the interpreters themselves: there is a prize dedicated to whoever can present the most just judgment for the aggrieved parties. The frozen moment of the shield, however, can no more resolve what the best judgement is any more than the poem can decisively tell us to prefer Agamemnon over Achilles in book 1 or whether the suitors’ families were ultimately better off in not trying to kill Odysseus in the final book of his epic. (And there are historical parallels from the Ancient Greek world for privileging judges and interpretation from West Lokris and Chios). The shield anticipates a world of conflict and judgment where people use their intelligence and their shared community to navigate their challenges through interpretation and deliberation.


Why Read Homer 3: Allegory

If I dismissed traditions of reading Homer earlier, I did so because the way we read Homer in schools—for facts of the story, for models to apply to later texts, for pleasure—is a recent departure from ancient traditions that beyond the moralizing of Plato saw in the Homeric epics opportunities for enlightenment. And, again, I apologize for the likely alienating tour through some theoretical terms and bibliographies above, but my journey to these conclusions has come from despising Homer in high school to dedicating now half of my life to figure out why I respond so deeply to Homer in Greek.

As Robert Lamberton argues in his 1986 Homer the Theologian complexity and opacity of meaning were assumed by ancient audiences and critics. Before Plato took on Homer by taking him out of the Republic, Pythagoreans saw allegory for the body and soul in the Iliad and Odyssey and contributed to interpretive traditions that extended well into the Christian era.

Our literalist and formalist approaches hail back to the scholarly pursuits of Alexandrians (and Hellenistic philologists) who worked in establish authoritative texts. Their insistence on establishing authority stood opposed by the later “Porphyry’s assertion of the existence of numerous valid possibilities in the interpretation of a single text ”…which was by no means evidence of a lack of clearly defined principles of interpretation, but rather a logical consequence of Neoplatonic psychology and epistemology” (Lamberton 1986, 127).

Ancient interpreters who pursued this could be quite adventurous as when Porphyry—as recorded by Stobaeus (i. 44. 60)—explains that the events of book 10 centering around Kirkê are really a coded message about reincarnation and the way the soul’s rebirth in corporeal form is dictated by its relationship to its desires—its ability to balance the rational (to logistikon), the emotional (thumoeides) and physical (or appetitive) desires (epithumêtikon). In this reading, these parts (ta merê) of the soul may be governed—or at least ameliorated—by education and philosophy. For Heraclitus the allegorist, Odysseus’ entire journey was an allegory for our navigation through virtue and vice, a metaphor the Neoplatonist Proclus echoes. The Homeric scholia are filled with records of allegorical meanings and an ancient tradition makes even Paris’ between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite an allegory about human lack of self-control (Lamberton 1986, 2; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 42).

My point in going through this even in brief is that there are ancient traditions of Homeric interpretation which find deep, ethical, psychological, and even mystical meaning in the texts. Classical studies of recent centuries has tended back to what Seneca the Younger calls “that sickness of the Greeks” (Graecorum iste morbus, Brevitate Vitae 13) to focus on pedantic detail over and above a greater search for meaning, seeking in desperation for “Homer’s homeland” (Moral Epistle 88), striving not to “nourish our soul but to sharpen our wit” (ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium, EM. 108). Even Cicero asks “what impact does this ‘grave’ and ‘acute’ stuff have on the pursuit of the highest good?” (ed, quaeso, quid ex ista acuta et gravi refertur ad τέλος? Ep. To Atticus 12.6)

It is fine to read Homer in translation, in summary, or in excerpt. It is fine to read Homer out of curiosity about peoples in the past, to understand the history of our ideas about literature, to think about claims of universal humanism or that literature can give us values and ennoble us. Whatever brings you to Homer, the reason I think you should read the Iliad or the Odyssey is to be transformed by powerful narratives that seek to make you try to understand more of the universe inside and through yourself. I dare say you may not even require teachers to do this, but it does help to have friends to read with you.

Statues and Canons

“You’re the carpenter’s square ” A proverb instead of a straight-rule [kanôn] and precise weight.”

Γνώμων εἶ: ἀντὶ τοῦ κανὼν καὶ ἀκριβὴς σταθμή.  Arsenius, 5.56f


What do we mean when we talk about a canon?

Over the past few years we have seen a return in public discourse to a question of “the canon”. To be honest, calling this a return is a bit dishonest because the issue has been central to discussions about public and university education, the rise and fall of the humanities, and the problematic (re)-construction of “western civilization” since the culture wars of the 1980s. Each iteration is a reactive reassertion in response to justified pressure to question the canon, to open it up, to break it down, and to make space for the majority of people some canons exclude.

One of the most frustrating things about this conversation is that reactions to disassembling or even questioning the canon are basically recycled spasms with different words. Today we hear panic about “cancel culture” and attacks on Aristotle or Homer. Such complaints present the canon as part history, part DNA, but almost always something which unites and forms us. Earlier conversations (e.g. the first period of Bloom) at least debated what belonged in this canon; the recent commentariat is mostly just enraged at the hubris of women and BIPOC students and scholars daring to ask serious questions instead of just imitating and emulating white scholars of old.

This post is already another tired rehearsal, but here’s where we can still do some work. Our discussions rarely ever follow some of the basic tenets of this so-called canon and start with definitions. What is a canon? How long have we had the canon.

In ancient Greek a kanôn is an instrument of measurement. It seems to have non-Greek origins.

Beekes canon

As fans of Robert Beekes will undoubtedly report, he often says that unclear roots are non-Greek in origin. The Mycenaean reflex demonstrates that the word—and perhaps the concept—was available in Greece long before the Classical period, so there’s an extent to which the ultimate etymological origins really don’t matter.

From the Archaic period on, we find the kanôn as a tool for measuring, a standard for building, and then, following the broader cultural discourse around the cognitive metaphor of crooked and straight, symbolic uses for right/just behavior and other kinds of rectitude. A clear and potentially ‘canonized version of this appears in Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 1113a 29-1113b):

“The good person judges everything rightly, both how things seem and are in truth. For in each thing in particular there are noble and pleasing aspects and a good person differs most in being able to observe what is true for each thing, as if they are a kanôn and measure of these things. It seems that most people are deceived by pleasure. For even though it is not good, it seems to be so and they choose what is pleasing as good and they avoid what causes pain as an evil.”

ὁ σπουδαῖος γὰρ ἕκαστα κρίνει ὀρθῶς, καὶ ἐν ἑκάστοις τἀληθὲς αὐτῷ φαίνεται· καθ᾿ ἑκάστην γὰρ ἕξιν ἴδιά ἐστι καλὰ καὶ ἡδέα, καὶ διαφέρει πλεῖστον ἴσως ὁ σπουδαῖος τῷ τἀληθὲς ἐν ἑκάστοις ὁρᾶν, ὥσπερ κανὼν καὶ μέτρον αὐτῶν ὤν. τοῖς πολλοῖς δὲ ἡ ἀπάτη διὰ τὴν ἡδονὴν ἔοικε γίνεσθαι· οὐ γὰρ οὖσα ἀγαθὸν φαίνεται·αἱροῦνται οὖν τὸ ἡδὺ ὡς ἀγαθόν, τὴν δὲ λύπην ὡς κακὸν φεύγουσιν.

Here a philosophically informed person demonstrates the intelligence and wisdom—what some today might rephrase as taste or good sense—to judge a thing for its worth and to guide their behavior based on this. Of course, one might make the mistake of imagining that different folks might have different takes on what is pleasing and good. Aristotle addresses this elsewhere (On the Soul  411a):

“If the soul must be made out of the elements, it doesn’t need to be from all of them! It is enough for only one pair of opposites to judge itself and its counterpart. Thus we understand the straight and the crooked by the same method: the kanon is the test for them both—but neither the crooked nor the straight provides its own proof. Some might think that the soul is mixed up in everything, which is perhaps why Thales believed that everything was full of gods.”

εἴ τε δεῖ τὴν ψυχὴν ἐκ τῶν στοιχείων ποιεῖν, οὐθὲν δεῖ ἐξ ἁπάντων· ἱκανὸν γὰρ θάτερον μέρος τῆς ἐναντιώσεως ἑαυτό τε κρίνειν καὶ τὸ ἀντικείμενον. καὶ γὰρ τῷ εὐθεῖ καὶ αὐτὸ καὶ τὸ καμπύλον γινώσκομεν· κριτὴς γὰρ ἀμφοῖν ὁ κανών, τὸ δὲ καμπύλον οὔθ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ οὔτε τοῦ εὐθέος. καὶ ἐν τῷ ὅλῳ δέ τινες αὐτὴν μεμῖχθαί φασιν, ὅθεν ἴσως καὶ Θαλῆς ᾠήθη πάντα πλήρη θεῶν εἶναι. τοῦτο δ᾿ ἔχει τινὰς ἀπορίας

Here, he uses kanôn as a metaphor. As any amateur carpenter knows, just because something looks straight or level, does not mean that it is. This passage seems to imply that our soul or mind has the ability to judge things outside of it. But Aristotle makes how these kinds of judgments might work more interesting in a different passage (Nicomachean Ethics 1138a26-35):

“This is the nature of equity itself: it is a correction of the law where it is deficient because it is too general. This is the reason that not all things exist according to law: there are some cases in which it is impossible to establish a law so that we need some kind of vote. For the kanôn of the undefined can only be undefined itself. This is how it is with the lead kanôn used by builders in Lesbos. Just as that kanôn does not stay the same but is reshaped to the curve of a stone, so too a vote/ordinance is made to fit the affairs at hand.  This makes it clear what equitable is, that it is just, and that it is better than certain kinds of justice.”

καὶ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ φύσις ἡ τοῦ ἐπιεικοῦς, ἐπανόρθωμα νόμου ᾗ ἐλλείπει διὰ τὸ καθόλου. τοῦτο γὰρ αἴτιον καὶ τοῦ μὴ πάντα κατὰ νόμον εἶναι, ὅτι περὶ ἐνίων ἀδύνατον θέσθαι νόμον, ὥστε ψηφίσματος δεῖ. τοῦ γὰρ ἀορίστου ἀόριστος καὶ ὁ κανών ἐστιν, ὥσπερ καὶ τῆς Λεσβίας οἰκοδομῆς ὁ μολίβδινος κανών· πρὸς γὰρ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ λίθου μετακινεῖται καὶ οὐ μένει ὁ κανών, καὶ τὸ ψήφισμα πρὸς τὰ πράγματα. τί μὲν οὖν ἐστὶ τὸ ἐπιεικές, καὶ ὅτι δίκαιον, καὶ τινὸς βέλτιον δικαίου, δῆλον.

In a passage one could argue is potentially revolutionary, Aristotle notes the slippage between descriptive measures and prescriptive measures and that standards of judgment will need to be changed for different circumstances, especially in search of what is equitable.

During the Roman imperial period, Dio Chrystosom calls law “a straight-edge [kanôn] for affairs, against which we must each align our own manner. Otherwise, we will be crooked and wrong.” (Ἔστι δὲ ὁ νόμος τοῦ βίου μὲν ἡγεμών, τῶν πόλεων δὲ ἐπιστάτης κοινός, τῶν δὲ πραγμάτων κανὼν δίκαιος, πρὸς ὃν ἕκαστον ἀπευθύνειν δεῖ τὸν αὑτοῦ τρόπον· εἰ δὲ μή, σκολιὸς ἔσται καὶ πονηρός, Discourse 75: On Law). Longinus echoes a similar use when he quotes Demosthenes’ On the Crown as complaining that those who betrayed their countries to Philip and then Alexander transgressed “the boundaries and measures [kanones] of all that the Greeks used to hold as good” (, ἃ τοῖς πρότερον Ἕλλησιν ὅροι τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἦσαν καὶ κανόνες, ἀνατετροφότες, Longinus, On the Sublime 1 32, quoting De Corona 96).

The idea of the kanôn as a thing we measure ourselves against overlaps with the philosophical notion of a kanôn as presenting rudimentary basics necessary for a discipline: Epicurus is said to have composed a Kanôn where he “says that our perceptions, preconceptions and feelings provide the criteria for truth. So, Epicureans also make perceptions of imagined ideas function in the same way” (ἐν τοίνυν τῷ Κανόνι λέγων ἐστὶν ὁ Ἐπίκουρος κριτήρια τῆς ἀληθείας εἶναι τὰς αἰσθήσεις καὶ προλήψεις καὶ τὰ πάθη, οἱ δ᾿ Ἐπικούρειοι καὶ τὰς φανταστικὰς ἐπιβολὰς τῆς διανοίας, Diogenes Laertius, Life of Epicurus 30). Such definitions are questioned by Sextus Empiricus as the “Kanon of the verifiable truth” (κανόνος τῆς κατ᾿ ἀλήθειαν τῶν πραγμάτων ὑπάρξεως,) which underlies the positions of Dogmatists and the subtraction of would undermine their belief system (Against the Logicians 1 27).

In philosophy, canonical principles of a discipline can also be extended to principles of canonical behavior, satirized by Lucian (Hermotimus 76):

“If you ever met the kind of Stoic who is at the peak, that kind who neither feels pain nor is attracted by pleasure and never feels anger, but is stronger than envy, looks down on wealth and is completely happy, we need some straight-edge and square for a life of virtue from this sort of person. If this stoic is imperfect in even the smallest way, even though possessing more of everything else, well then they’re not yet happy.”

εἴ τινι ἐντετύχηκας τοιούτῳ Στωϊκῷ τῶν ἄκρων, οἵῳ μήτε λυπεῖσθαι μήθ᾿ ὑφ᾿ ἡδονῆς κατασπᾶσθαι μήτε ὀργίζεσθαι, φθόνου δὲ κρείττονι καὶ πλούτου καταφρονοῦντι καὶ συνόλως εὐδαίμονι. ὁποῖον χρὴ τὸν κανόνα εἶναι καὶ γνώμονα τοῦ κατὰ τὴν ἀρετὴν βίου—ὁ γὰρ καὶ κατὰ μικρότατον ἐνδέων ἀτελής, κἂν πάντα πλείω ἔχῃ—εἰ δὲ τοῦτο οὐχί, οὐδέπω εὐδαίμων.

The applications of canonical standards move easily from description to prescription and are not merely philosophical and ethical, but they also move into the aesthetic. Do just a little searching and you will find reference to the kanôn of Polyclitus, a description about the “proper” proportions of a human body described by Lucian (The Dance, 75)

“I am planning to show the body which is aligned with the kanon of Polycltius. Let it be neither too tall and long now short and dwarfish in shape, but a precisely correct proportion, not being fat, which makes the dance unbelievable, or too thin, which would be skeletal or corpse-like.”

τὸ δὲ σῶμα κατὰ τὸν Πολυκλείτου κανόνα ἤδη ἐπιδείξειν μοι δοκῶ· μήτε γὰρ ὑψηλὸς ἄγαν ἔστω καὶ πέρα τοῦ μετρίου ἐπιμήκης μήτε ταπεινὸς καὶ νανώδης τὴν φύσιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἔμμετρος ἀκριβῶς, οὔτε πολύσαρκος, ἀπίθανον γάρ, οὔτε λεπτὸς ἐς ὑπερβολήν· σκελετῶδες τοῦτο καὶ νεκρικόν.

A tool for measuring, metaphorically or literally, can function to describe the qualities of a thing but can also prescribe the boundaries of a thing itself. A measuring tape can be used to find the length of a thing but a measuring rod can also be used to indicate that something fails to adhere to some externally imposed model. In the example of Polyclitus’ kanôn the ‘ideal’ body is used to mark other bodies as deformed. In the Greek tradition of Aristotle we could say that the male body functions as a kanôn against which the female body is judged monstrous or sub-standard. In the same way, an aesthetic and intellectual canon demarcates space around it outside of which other forms, contents, and peoples are found lacking.

An additional problem comes from the dangers of exemplification: learning from representative models must be done with care. If they are haphazardly offered as “great” and admirable, audiences can be led astray. Plutarch notes this in his How to Study Poetry (25e):

“And so, the young should understand when we urge them to read poems not to have such high beliefs about them and their impressive names because they believe that they are wise and just men, the best kinds and models [kanones] of virtue and rightness.”

Οὕτως οὖν τούτων ἐχόντων ἐπάγωμεν τοῖς Eποιήμασι τὸν νέον μὴ τοιαύτας ἔχοντα δόξας περὶ τῶν καλῶν ἐκείνων καὶ μεγάλων ὀνομάτων, ὡς ἄρα σοφοὶ καὶ δίκαιοι οἱ ἄνδρες ἦσαν, ἄκροι τε βασιλεῖς καὶ κανόνες ἀρετῆς ἁπάσης καὶ ὀρθότητος

Oftentimes, the process of canonization tends to level with an upgrade: people who do big things (in fiction or real life) are never simply one thing or another.

Implicit then in the metaphorical use of the canon is the meaning we have in the modern world, but before we get to these meanings, it is worth considering some more recent history. Following the rise of Christianity, canon came to mean that which was authorized as legitimate by the Church (which Biblical books were divinely inspired; and these are some of the first definitions in the OED) and, eventually, laws and judgments issues by Ecclesiastical authorities. Our first use of the term canon to denote a group of authors seems to be by David Ruhnken in 1768 (Historia Critica Oratorum Graecorum see Montanari in Brill’s New Pauly, s.v. Canon and Easterling in the OCD3 and this blogpost).

Ruhnken uses the term to refer to the groups of lyric poets, orators, and tragedians who were handed down from antiquity. His use seems to have been prescriptive: if we follow his career in Sandys or Rudolph Pfeiffer, he seemed to have been dedicated to working with texts that were not in these groups. As Pat Easterling notes, however, the prescriptive meaning was long latent in scholarly circles: Photios uses it to denote the earlier model on which a later author based his work. As an authoritative, evenly divinely inspired model, the use of canon which emerges in the 19th century probably has more to do with Biblical studies than Aristotelian ethics.

How does any of this matter today? If you search google books or other sources there are very few uses of the term Canon to refer to a collection of ‘Western Great Books’ prior to the 1980s. So let’s be clear about what a canon is and what it does in this post-Biblical tradition: it provides a model with the hope of directing behavior, including ethics and aesthetics. This canon works by excluding one thing from another, by de-authorizing some traditions and burying them, and by rendering the selected object as sacred.

This, I suspect, is central to Harold Bloom’s use of the word canon in 1994’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages which functions almost entirely to exclude certain kinds of things from the halls of good taste (most often meaning any works not by European men). Regular mentions of the Western Canon at All prior to the culture wars of the 1980s/90s are further evidence of a very reactionary stance: in 1870, the Western Canon is used to refer to the imposition of the selection of New Testament Books on African Bishops. And it seems that century’s use of the phrase focused on the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church to the exclusion of others. (Although, to be honest, I would really prefer a church historian to confirm some of these assertions.)

If we can, we need to think about the other phrases people seem to use to mean something similar: in the early 20th century there was an effort to great curricula based on Great Books motivated by the overall concern that education had become too specialized and that students were missing out on the broader interdisciplinary tradition of the liberal arts and “western civilization”.

Both this movement and the subsequent culture wars of the humanities in the 1980s are reactions to higher education being opened up to new audiences: the middle classes of growing universities in the west before and after WW2 and the increasingly class, gender, and race diverse classrooms of the 1960s-1980s. Great books, Western Civilization, and The Western Canon are reactive creations, attempts to impose strict measures and rules on a world in flux.

The problem with the prescriptive canon is it obscures, I think, the aesthetic rule, responsibility of judgment, and any acknowledgment that both aesthetics and judgment are subject to experience and context.

The bigger problem is that our public discussions about canons do not acknowledge the religious and authoritative history of the term and that earlier debates about the canon—even the attempt to establish a singular one—are intentional attempts to create an authoritative culture that privileges a 19th century, Eurocentric, white supremacist, colonialist world view

A few weeks ago, I started asking myself how a canon is like a statue. Both are purportedly erected to honor something which has been lost. But both are much more about the present than they are about the past: they are raised to project a certain view of the world. And while some memorials of this kind are certainly aspirational, even these can be constrictive: those who don’t fit into that view are excluded. The implicit and explicit aesthetic and normative rules of a canon of literature of art has the same impact on expression, belief, and belonging.

A canon is unlike a statue because it cannot be brought down easily and parts of it are so thoroughly knit into our culture that it would be impossible. But we can talk about what it is, we can acknowledge the disproportionate impact canons can have, and we can broaden them understanding, following Aristotle, that to achieve equity, sometimes you need to change the measures you use.


Unknown Roman after Polykleitos Pentelic marble, Minneapolis Museum of Art

Twenty Links for Twenty Days of Protest

“Surely, justice will overcome the architects of lies and their false witnesses.”

καὶ μέντοι καὶ δίκη καταλήψεται ψευδέων τέκτονας καὶ μάρτυρας.

Heraclitus, fr. 118

αἱ εἴκοσι ἡμέραι, “twenty days”

We have now seen 20 days in first local then international  protests over the death of George Floyd, police violence, and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. We are only at the beginning of our shared action and responsibility. (And not near the end of the protest: Breonna Taylor‘s killers have bot been arrested and Rayshard Brooks was killed mere days ago.)

Below are some resources and links I have found helpful and hope others will use to think about our place in this particular space and time and our obligations moving forward. Since this is a Greek and Roman literature blog with a focus on Classical Studies in general, a good deal of the material assembled  is concerned with that.

As Classicists, we have a lot to think about, but our thoughts and actions need to be for the long term in support of what the protests achieve and to help advance and solidify their aims. One question as a starting point, how is a canon like a statue?

N.B. Please do let me know if you want anything else added to this list. I have assembled this mainly for those who don’t spend a lot of time on twitter, etc.

Resources for action and education

  1. A homepage for resources to engage in protest and support Black Lives Matter. See also the Movement for Black Lives homepage
  2. Mariame Kaba on Defunding the Police
  3. Collection of Resources for Anti-Racism compiled by Rebecca Futo Kennedy (see also her blogposts about the racism intrinsic to the concept of “western civilization“). See this Anti-racist reading list too and this slightly older one.
  4. Keeange-Yamahtta Taylor:  “How Do We Change America?
  5.  If someone doubts police brutality: a list of videos.
  6. Education from Academics 4 Black Lives Video
  7. Racism in Publishing


  1. The SCS Statement is pretty good and the ACL Statement shows much improvement thanks in part to the activism of Dani Bostick and others like Ian Lockey. As a long time member, I would like to single out the CAMWS Statement for its weakness (a call for “robust, respectful dialogue” but no mention of black lives, police violence, white supremacy or the complicity of classical education).

    Screenshot 2020-06-14 19.34.38
    Just in case they edit the statement….
  2. Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity in Classics Consortium (MRECC) Statement in Solidarity and Action Plan
  3. EOS (Africana Receptions of Greece and Rome) and their special session of EOS Reads. My colleague Cat Gillespie and I are bringing this to Brandeis.
  4. Asian American Caucus’ Statements of Solidarity and links for donations.
  5. A Student response to the Oxford Classics Statement (statement here)
  6. Classics and Social Justice Statement
  7. Brandeis’ Statements: followed by a community meeting and a two-day workship: President’s call for proposals and the superior statement by students in the Justice; and a presentation on America’s Racial Reckoning by Chad Williams, Anita Hill, Leah Wright Rigueur, and Daniel Kryder. My department has not issued an individual statement because we stand by our institutional response and believe that we need to listen and learn before making significant changes to our policies and our curricula. I say this as Chair of the Department and with deep respect for my colleagues at other institutions who have felt compelled to make statements of solidarity: statements are not enough from our field.


  1. Sportula and Sportula Europe. Just donate to them.
  2. Vanessa Stovall’s  “A Tale of Two Creons: Black Tragedies, White Anxieties, and the Necessity of Abolition.”
  3. Pria Jackson’s “Fight or Die: How to Move From Statements to Actions.”
  4. The Our Voices: A Conference for Inclusive Classics Pedagogy actually happened in this calendar year
  5. A personal account of how racism and ableism in Classics can drive someone out: Stefani Echeverria-Fenn’s “On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything
  6. The Queer Classicist on Racism in Classics

Black Lives Fucking Matter“, “A.C.A.B.“, and “Fuck 12” graffiti on a looted Target store on Lake Street in Minneapolis the morning of May 28, from Wikipedia

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