A Reader’s Decline and Fall

Years ago, in the innocent haze of late youth, I lay in bed on a perfect, sun-lit spring afternoon, and drifted pleasantly to sleep as I read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You may be surprised that this is by way of a recommendation of the book, and not chiefly for its soporific qualities. Our memories are hardly continuous or sequenced narratives. Rather, they are dotted constellations of individual events, and this event stands forth as one of my most charming and pleasant recollections. As I fell asleep, setting aside that narrative of imperial corruption, I thought “this is life.”

Of all Dickens’ novels, my favorite apart from The Pickwick Papers (but is it even a novel?) is Our Mutual Friend. This aesthetic preference can no doubt be reduced to my fondness for the scenes in which Silas Wegg reads The Decline and Fall to Mr. Boffin:

Mr Boffin seemed a little unprepared for this conclusion, but assented, with the remark, ‘You know better what it ought to be than I do, Wegg,’ and again shook hands with him upon it.

‘Could you begin to night, Wegg?’ he then demanded.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Mr Wegg, careful to leave all the eagerness to him. ‘I see no difficulty if you wish it. You are provided with the needful implement—a book, sir?’

‘Bought him at a sale,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘Eight wollumes. Red and gold. Purple ribbon in every wollume, to keep the place where you leave off. Do you know him?’

‘The book’s name, sir?’ inquired Silas.

‘I thought you might have know’d him without it,’ said Mr Boffin slightly disappointed. ‘His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.’ (Mr Boffin went over these stones slowly and with much caution.)

‘Ay indeed!’ said Mr Wegg, nodding his head with an air of friendly recognition.

‘You know him, Wegg?’

‘I haven’t been not to say right slap through him, very lately,’ Mr Wegg made answer, ‘having been otherways employed, Mr Boffin. But know him? Old familiar declining and falling off the Rooshan? Rather, sir! Ever since I was not so high as your stick. Ever since my eldest brother left our cottage to enlist into the army.’

Wegg and Boffin were familiar to me long before Gibbon was, and so I cannot help but wonder whether my general sense that this was an important book was set by casual reading as a teen.

My first experience of the book was an abridged Penguin Classics version which I held in my hands in the scene above. I saw a full (closely packed) set of the work for sale and purchased it in 2011, and made a few attempts at reading it through, but rarely found the time or hardihood to do it. Four summers ago, I cracked it open and gave it a fair amount of attention, but it was something of a struggle in my then-distracted state to get through all of it, but I at least finished. Last year, I found a deluxe version, edited by J.B. Bury with supplemental notes, maps, and indices (in seven volumes!) for only $50. A few weeks ago, I set out to read it, and – yes, dear reader – I gave it the heroic forced-march treatment, reading through all ~3,400 pages of it over the past three weeks. I don’t know why I decided to read through the book again, but it exercises over me something like the fascination of the ancient mariner’s eye, and I always find myself mysteriously drawn back to it.

The Decline and Fall is not fashionable today, and perhaps for good reason. Anyone who has read the book with a knowing eye can tell you that it is problematic in various ways. The treatment of various periods and figures is wildly uneven. Julian’s rise to power and brief tenure on the throne occupies a good chunk of a volume, while most of the Byzantine emperors after Heraclius are given the hyper epitome treatment in one chapter which does little more than provide the basic vice/virtue character sketch and the circumstances of their death. In some instances, the reasons for the imbalance are likely due to personal inclination (Gibbon’s fondness for Julian), but in others, it may simply reflect the availability of materials.

Gibbon’s style is also very much out of fashion. Clive James, though an omnivorous reader, nevertheless confessed that he could never read much of Gibbon because it was all style and too ‘rococo’. Indeed, it is interesting that Gibbon himself regularly inveighs against the rhetorical-sophistic prose of various ancient authors whom he himself suspects of being all style. But criticisms of Gibbon’s prose date back as far as Porson, who suggested that there was no better exercise for the young student than to turn a page of The Decline and Fall into English.

Yet, for all of that, I am an utterly unapologetic fan of Gibbon’s prose. Some of its quirks stem, I suspect, from the infusion of Gallic idiom dating to his years writing and thinking in French. His reckless abandon in the use of commas is pretty characteristic of 18th century English prose, and once can profitably compare Gibbon’s deployment of that workhorse of punctuation to Jane Austen’s. Perhaps the most admirable synthesis achieved by Gibbon is the admirable mixture of two classical modes: the sonorous periods of Cicero, and the pointed antitheses of Tacitus. Gibbon is not nearly as diffuse as Cicero, but his periods always manage to be perfectly balanced, and he cannot resist the temptation of a well-regulated tricolon. He hasn’t the clipped and telegraphic brevity of Tacitus, but he managed to imbibe that author’s utter cynicism, and he regularly employs that hallmark of Tacitean style, imputing in an entirely non-committal way the darkest designs and most sinister motives to almost every action.

For all of the care and attention which he has given his subject, he cannot but approach it with a sense of contempt and disgust. As he himself writes, “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Yet he also indulges in a dangerous inclination to see a more distant past as a kind of idyllic utopia of good character and good government. Famously, he assigns the happiest period of the entire history of the world to the period under the adoptive and Antonine emperors. Throughout the history, later Italians and Greeks are conceived as semi-barbaric and wholly unworthy successors to their “manly” and “virtuous” ancestors.

The standard trope seems to be: perfection on a grand scale was achieved in the past through virtue, but it insensibly (Gibbonian style!) gave way to vice, and the declining state of the world reflected that; there is an inevitability to the collapse, but the decline can be slowed by virtuous (or effective) individuals. This explains why, for example, the western empire fell much sooner than the eastern: the west was overrun by barbarians, but the east was propped up by the heroics of Justinian and Belisarius, whose exploits helped the system to coast for a while longer. When scrutinized, this view is simplistic, but it does at any rate make for a fun and engaging narrative.

Gibbon’s original intent in writing The Decline and Fall was much more narrowly circumscribed by the limits of the city Rome itself, but it quickly expanded outward to include more or less everything with some bearing on any of the lands once controlled by the Romans. But Gibbon is only as good as his guides. For example, his narrative of the period between Commodus and Constantine is pretty faithful to the Historia Augusta, going so far as to incorporate the moral censures included in that work. (Of course, Gibbon did not know that it was an elaborate forgery.) Yet, once he reaches the end of the reign of Justinian, Gibbon goes off the rails a bit. His panoptic survey takes in a lot of eastern history, but for all of this, he relies on an admixture of Byzantine authors and later treatments by European scholars (since he did not know Arabic, Farsi, etc. himself). The separation from primary sources for the latter half of the work, combined with Gibbon’s manifest contempt for the Byzantine intellectual in general, result in a narrative that can be tedious, confusing, and in many instances requiring substantial correction. Added to this is the casual racism and contemptuous xenophobia of the 18th century Englishman. One can readily see why almost no one reads the work in full, and why abridgements generally summarize most of what happened following the reign of Justinian.

Yet, for all of the problems which the work manifests, it is nevertheless an incredible monument to heroic reading. In his Memoirs, Gibbon downplays the time which he spent reading and working in earnest in any given day, but surely this is just the awkward affectation of an English gentleman’s sprezzatura. A survey of Gibbon’s footnotes is enough to assure us that he was always reading. Everywhere we hear that one can read more about such and such a topic in x number of thick folio volumes or dense octavos. A.E. Housman once remarked that being a scholar involved countless hours reading what was not really worth reading, and this seems to have been the case with Gibbon. As noted before, he has more or less just synthesized what he read in various ancient and secondary sources. (Though it’s true that this is more or less what writing history is.)

We should not be surprised if we find the book riddled with faults, given that it spans a tremendous temporal and geographical expanse and was one of the first real attempts at a scholarly but engaging narrative history in English. That is, it may fall short by today’s standards of scholarship, but as a work of popular history, it still holds up pretty well. Gibbon was allowed the leisure to read and write so much because he was, though not rich, at least a gentleman of sufficient means, but one must bear in mind that he was also in modern parlance a college dropout. Having left Oxford during his brief conversion to Catholicism, he never returned to take his degree. Yet he certainly read more widely than many of the formally-trained scholars of his time and ours.

In sum, I know that Gibbon is problematic, and likely to become more and more unfashionable with time, but I find something entirely irresistible in his work. Perhaps the most shocking confession I could make to my friends and peers is that Gibbon’s collected works would be my “desert island book.” (Does that make it my favorite? I don’t even know.) Unlike most fanboys, I am not willfully ignorant of its faults, and I can definitely see why people hate The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But goddammit, I love it.

The only way to read a book like this.

The Future of the Past

In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.

Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.

Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.

The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognota series or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”

ὁ μὲν γὰρ Θετταλοῖς περὶ Ἄρνης δοθεὶς χρησμὸς ἐκέλευε φράζειν: “κωφοῦ τ᾿ ἀκοὴν τυφλοῖό τε δέρξιν”  Plutarch, Obsolesence Of Oracles (Moralia 432)

A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.

For the sake of argument (and acceding to science), let’s say that we should be preparing for one of the worst-case scenarios. While it would be great if all of us consumed less, recycled more, and gave up internal combustion engines, the fact is that late-stage capitalism is an out of control freight train which no single government or group of governments appears to have the will or the resources to slow down. The vast majority of all world carbon pollution is perpetrated not by billions of human beings making bad decisions each day, but by the profit-driven interests of a hundred corporations. We are not going to stop this with anything short of massive collective and revolutionary action.

“What is worst from bygone days provides the best safeguard for the future.”

ὃ γάρ ἐστι χείριστον αὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ παρεληλυθότος χρόνου, τοῦτο πρὸς τὰ μέλλοντα βέλτιστον ὑπάρχει, Demosthenes, Philippic 1.2

In the meantime, maybe some of us should be looking past that destructive horizon to what comes next. I don’t do this cynically—there is a part of me that thinks the neo-fascist maniacs who are creating concentration camps and clamoring for border control now are rehearsing for the inevitable migrations caused by climate change and attempting to habituate an American populace to the murder and carnage needed to survive in that apocalyptic contraction scenario. By pursuing an insane set of policies, the very actors who deny climate change is happening are actively bringing it about. Yes, I do suspect there are those who would rather dehumanize and slaughter other human beings rather than make difficult decisions and sacrifice a standard of living now.

(And, truth be told, a disturbing number of Americans seem ok with this).

“if you find good luck in the time that is left
Perhaps it will be solace for the things in the past”

εἰ καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ τῆς τύχης εὐδαίμονος
τύχοιτε, πρὸς τὰ πρόσθεν ἀρκέσειεν ἄν.

Euripides, Helen 698-699

My question is: what are we of learned societies doing to plan for the collapse of the social and political infrastructure that has produced the deepest learning for the broadest number of people in the history of humankind? For those who study the ancient world and the way that earlier societies have dealt with change, we must ask ourselves what is the future of the past and what ability do we still have to shape it.

Asking this question, of course, leads to a series of ancillary concerns which in themselves are likely useful to debate. With only a little scrutiny, it is clear that this coming challenge is unlike anything we have faced before (with the exception, perhaps, of the Late Bronze Age Collapse as some have imagined it). To the contrary of popular imagination, antiquity never fell: instead, it went through a period of transformations, stalled cultural developments, geographical shifts, and technological change under the influence of new religions, mass migrations, social senescence and, perhaps, even climate change.

Indeed, to think about the “future of the past” we need to consider the “past” of the past and its present status. We have spent nearly 700 years ‘reconstructing’ a past that never actually existed. Take, for instance, the textual wealth contained within the Loeb Classical Library: no figure or library ever possessed all of this collective knowledge in one place prior to the 20th century. In fact, I would be hard pressed to imagine that there were more than a handful of individuals in the ancient world who had access to 20% of it.

As Classicists we often can be found lamenting everything we don’t have, the imagined texts we have lost and whose titles alone give some indication of their promise. But we do not often enough stop to consider how remarkable it is that we have as much as we do and how much we have intervened and produced since the Renaissance to create what we now consider Classical knowledge. Contemplating and then gaming out how to preserve the past we have now can help us better understand the processes that occurred over the past 1000 years and the extent to which they have created a tremendously biased if not mostly fictionalized view of the past.

“It is undoubtedly foolish to be unhappy today simply because you may be unhappy in the future.”

est sine dubio stultum, quia quandoque sis futurus miser, esse iam miserum, Seneca EM 3.3

There are, then, important differences between earlier epochal shifts and this. First, the “loss” of antiquity that occurred from the building of the first Museion at Alexandria, through its multiple burnings, civil wars in Rome, sacks of the city, the ‘decline and fall’ of the empire, and the sack of Byzantium by Christian crusaders, was a slow attrition and loss by neglect. If there were more texts and art works available in 200 CE than there were in 1200 CE, it is because (1) of what we are counting as mattering and (2) a generally higher standard of living and access to resources to a non-religious leisure class in the earlier period.

An unvarnished examination of the recovery of Classical knowledge must acknowledge that the Renaissance was not a recuperation of all of antiquity, but a selective curation of its remains. What we face with the next possible civilizational collapse is the loss of the knowledge that has been reconstructed and the tremendous body of work we have produced since then. Where a 15th Century humanist had but a handful of manuscripts of Homer to worry about, we have dozens plus the papyri fragments, plus the commentaries, original and edited scholia introductions, monographs, articles, and edited texts with critical apparatus we have created over centuries.

And that’s just Homer. I am not saying that I am turning full doomsday prepper on you, but I am saying that we should take the threat of civilizational collapse seriously and that it is not just within our remit as academic classicists to make some plans for how the material of the past might survive to benefit future generations and to provide a record of what came before our era, but it is our responsibility to be having these conversations now.

“I think that it is clear to everyone that it is not in our nature to predict the future”

Οἶμαι γὰρ ἅπασιν εἶναι φανερὸν ὅτι τὰ μέλλοντα προγιγνώσκειν οὐ τῆς ἡμετέρας φύσεώς ἐστιν, Isocrates, Against the Sophists 13.2

If we don’t, none of the scenarios look great. In many cases, 12th century CE Byzantine manuscripts and papyri (still buried) have a far better chance of surviving than the rapidly degrading and poorly printed books of the past 50 years. If we are to imagine that someone else might make these plans, we must consider who will do it instead. Should we leave it up to silicon valley disrupters? What works would they choose to preserve? Should individual universities be responsible? Will governments and libraries do the work? Should we hope that religious organizations will do this again? What choices would modern Christian sects make?

(Sidebar: when I was in elementary school we viewed the full series of Tomes & Talismans during library time each week. The central characters were librarians with a bookmobile; the threat were an alien species in a post-apocalyptic earth who were trying to wipe out accumulated human knowledge. They were called “The Wipers”.)

I think that it is probably best for professional organizations across linguistic and geographical territory to start to have this conversation. Most of our current output is currently stored in digital form across myriad platforms, with little concern for data degradation or recuperability. Not only are our blogs, tweets, open access articles, and personal correspondence at risk, but the very texts we have worked so hard to preserve, establish, and edit, are mostly in cheap, glue-bound paper versions. And this does not even begin to touch the challenges presented by material culture in a changing climate. Should we continue to excavate when climate change and geo-political stability threaten anything not under the earth? How does the possibility of future collapse change museum studies?

We need to talk about what will be preserved, how we will preserve it, who makes these decisions, and what aid we can store up for the historians of the future. We need to talk about the overlapping responsibility of universities, professional organizations, and governments to work together to preserve what we have won. And we need to make sure that voices from different backgrounds and experiences are central to this conversation

“Prudently the god covers the outcome of the future in dark night”

prudens futuri temporis exitum
caliginosa nocte premit deus, Horace Ars Poetica 25

Years ago, I used to teach a course called “Classical Myth and Literature”, which I think was originally designed as a bridge between straight up myth courses and more focused literature in translation offerings. I used it as a means to trouble the definitions of both myth and literature. One of the final essay questions asked students to imagine a flight from planet earth under the threat of alien invasion and to explain the choice of preserving either the corpus of 1990s pop songs or early Greek poetry (usually, specifically the Homeric Hymns). It was a fascinating assignment because students had to justify their answers using examples from the corpora. And, let me tell you, the pop songs were preserved nearly as frequently as the Hymns.

We are at a unique albeit horrifying moment in history. Perhaps the younger among us or the less thoroughly institutionalized will find ways to fight or forestall coming events. Those of us who are committed for better or worse to the study of the past even as the present crumbles around us need to start having hard conversations now before it is too late.

“For, it is right, Athenians, to use prior events as a guide about what will happen in the future.”

χρὴ γάρ, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, τεκμηρίοις χρῆσθαι τοῖς πρότερον γενομένοις περὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἔσεσθαι, Andocides, On the Peace with Sparta 2


Tomes and Talismans (1986)
Tomes & Talismans Still Shots from IMDB

“Our Culture”, Anatolian Edition

Editorial note: in response to an earlier post about the exclusionary character of the history of Classical Studies several people commented that the views were almost exclusively Anglo-American. This is the first of hopefully several posts addressing that narrow perspective. –JPC

Dimonisos, the Halkedonian island, took its name from Dimonisos, the first one who worked there; the place has mines of steel and malachite. The best from this mine commands prices comparable with gold; for it is a drug for the eyes. There is also copper to be dived for, two fathoms in the depth of the sea; from there is made the statue in the ancient temple of Apollo in Sicyon, and also those in Pheneus, called from yellow-copper. On them there’s an inscription: “Heracles, son of Amphitryon, dedicated these on capturing Elis.” He captured it under the guidance of a woman, whose father Augeas he had killed, in accordance with the oracle. Those who dig for copper become very able-sighted, and those who have no eyelashes grow them; therefore doctors also use the blossom of copper and Phrygian ash for the eyes.

Pseudo-Aristotle, de Mirabilibus Auscultationibus, 58 (Loeb)

Δημόνησος ἡ Καλχηδονίων νῆσος ἀπὸ Δημονήσου τοῦ πρώτου ἐργασαμένου τὴν ἐπωνυμίαν εἴληφεν· ἔχει δ’ὁ τόπος κυανοῦ τὸ μέταλλον καὶ χρυσοκόλλης. ταύτης δ’ἡ καλλίστη πρὸς χρυσίον εὑρίσκει τιμήν· καὶ γὰρ φάρμακον ὀφθαλμῶν ἐστίν. ἔστι δὲ αὐτόθι χαλκὸς κολυμβητὴς ἐν δυοῖν ὀργυιαῖς τῆς θαλάσσης· ὅθεν ὁ ἐν Σικυῶνί ἐστιν ἀνδριὰς ἐν τῷ ἀρχαίῳ νεῷ τοῦ Ἀπόλλωνος καὶ ἐν Φενεῷ οἱ ὀρείχαλκοι καλούμενοι. ἐπιγέγραπται δ’ αὐτοῖς “Ἡρακλῆς Ἀμφιτρύωνος Ἦλιν ἑλὼν ἀνέθηκεν.” αἱρεῖ δὲ τὴν Ἦλιν ἡγουμένης κατὰ χρησμὸν γυναικός, ἧς τὸν πατέρα Αὐγείαν ἀπέκτεινεν. οἱ δὲ τὸν χαλκὸν ὀρύττοντες ὀξυδερκέστατοι γίνονται, καὶ οἱ βλεφαρίδας μὴ ἔχοντες φύουσι· παρὸ καὶ οἱ ἰατροὶ τῷ ἄνθει τοῦ χαλκοῦ καὶ τῇ τέφρᾳ τῇ Φρυγίᾳ χρῶνται πρὸς τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς.

A recent post on the blog, discussed at length (once again) the efforts of decolonization in the field of Classics, a conversation that, though not as widespread as we would like, has occupied some of us for a while. There is an ongoing debate on the use of Western civilization and its relationship to Classics—why is an area study of a rather small part of the ancient world even called classical? Is it about class?—that has indeed traveled far this year, all the way to the darkest corners of the alt-web.

But one of the main caveats in this complex, longer-than-a single-life task, has been in my opinion, the heavy reliance on Anglo-Saxon sources and discourse; I pointed this out to Rebecca Futo Kennedy about her blog post on the history of Western civ, and more recently, to that post on this blog. There’s a wealth of sources in other European languages that we can turn to, in order to understand better the symbolic violence of the Western historical discourse. So, on this occasion I want to turn your attention to an “imperialist other”, a territory (and today a national state) outside of the Western world, but yet at its very borders and part of the geography of the ancient world, to further complicate the relationship between westernization, classical culture and imperialism.

In the Turkish Republic (1923-present), classical culture never played the same kind of pivotal role that it plays in European public life, but its emergence in the early days of the republic (and subsequent eclipse) provides an idea of the depth of interactions between modernization, westernization, archaeology, classical culture and nationalism that shaped the world between the world wars.

As the Turkish Republic emerged from a War of Independence in the course of which the Christian minorities of Anatolia (including its Greek speakers, dating back to the archaic period) were forcibly deported or murdered with the nodding approval of the Western powers wishing to draw a new map of the post-Ottoman Middle East (Muslims, on the other direction, were also murdered and deported in a series of population exchanges between Turkey and Greece), the Greek presence in Anatolia came to an abrupt end. At the same time, however, that the young republic was looking West and not to the “Middle East” (considered backward, ‘Arab’, Islamic) in order to disavow its Ottoman heritage. Modernization is in full force for Turkey to join the community of European nations, and many reforms in the field of education, language and heritage take place. Soon we will find out what Classics has to do with this.

In what follows I will share some anecdotes, documents and sources that are more or less scattered, as the research is still very preliminary, and since Classics and Turkish modern history (not exactly my field) are not necessarily contiguous, I am venturing here into unknown territory; but it will be enough to give an idea of a process that needs to be studied more closely (I wonder for example about the modern reception of Classics in Israel, or the Arab world). I apologize in advance for my incomplete ideas.

The Princes Islands, 2015

As a resident of the Princes Islands, Istanbul’s most remote neighborhood in the Marmara Sea, a group of nine islands known to be inhabited by Greek-speaking population since at least the 4th century BCE (attested in a pseudo-Aristotle), and still one of the very last pockets of a ghostly Greek presence in Anatolia, it has become almost a matter of necessity to dig out these submerged histories, to see if they can shed some light on the absurdities of the present. As the ‘Rums’—the Romans or Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire—were being driven out (see the novel ‘Farewell, Anatolia!’ by Dido Sotiriou, a moving but by no means objective account of this period), Turks would travel far back in history, seeking for a new mythology once the owl of Minerva had flown away.

  1. Greek during the Ottoman Empire

It is traditionally argued that the end of the Byzantine Empire translated into a death sentence for Greek culture in the Near East, but this was hardly the case. As many historical studies show, though Greeks were a minority, they were ubiquitous throughout the new empire, and adapted rapidly to the sloppy, chaotic and often inefficient Ottoman rule.

We don’t know so much about the Greek educational institutions of the early Ottoman empire, but some schools are thought to have transitioned from one rule to another and survived, and the Phanar Greek School, for example, was founded in 1454. A number of Greek libraries were founded under Ottoman rule, but most remarkable was the library of the Holy Trinity monastery of Halki (our island, known in Turkish as Heybeliada) founded by Metrophanes III in the early 16th century with the donation of 300 books, to be found today in the library of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A French research project is centered on the history of the library and a critical edition of the manuscripts of the library has been published in French just last month. The Greek scholarship of this long period is rich and vibrant, and most literature of importance written in Greek in this period was written outside of Greece: Istanbul, Venice, Alexandria, Smyrna.

Holy Trinity of Halki, 2019

Knowledge of Ottoman would be handy here, but we know from the writer and translator Yasmine Seale’s piece on the reception and translation of Homer in Turkey that the first translation of the Iliad into Ottoman Turkish was done in 1886 by Naim Frashëri. A relatively recent text on the history of classical philology in Turkey (Turkish) puts us in the context of what took place in Istanbul University (founded in 1453) in the 19th century: With the reforms of 1869, arrived in the university courses in Greek, Latin, archaeology, numismatics and Roman law, and then followed by more offerings in Greek and Latin literature, mythology and archaeology in 1874.

This wasn’t haphazard: As the colonial powers began their journey into the collapsing empire through technology and education, German professors of classics arrived in Istanbul University at the same time that authorized European excavations in all the Ottoman lands would begin a frenzy of looting and exporting that not only would enable some of the most groundbreaking discoveries in Near Eastern studies, but would also solidify the modern Western museum, where vast holdings from the region still sit today. The redistribution as appropriation began with the past, and then expanded to the denizens of the present.

  1. The Turkish History Thesis and the Early Republic

The early history of the Turkish Republic presents a picture of confusion. Being a late comer in a world of (already fading) nation states, it was necessary to produce not only a myth that could unify them but also a grand(iose) narrative that would smooth out any gaps, and it is here that archaeology proves useful. As Turkish scholar Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir argues, “archaeological knowledge was used to create citizens out of subjects of the fallen Ottoman Empire. […] Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic, the intelligentsia of this newly formed Turkish nation embarked on a quest to discover its ancient history.”

This discovery, known as the Turkish History Thesis and the basis of official historiographical ideology, would of course inevitably lead back to the Hittites: “According to the thesis, the Turks were believed to be the direct ancestors of the Hittites and the Sumerians, and were also thought to have influenced native peoples living in the Aegean Basin, this contributing significantly to the development of Greek civilization. This theory allowed the Turks to claim to be the legitimate heirs (and indeed, practically the progenitors) of all civilizations that had existed previously on the soil of the new Turkish Republic.” (Tanyeri-Erdemir)

It would be of course impossible to travel back into the 2nd millennium BCE without a fair amount of conspiracy. Pan-Turanism, appears in the 19th century as a theory, largely discredited, that all Turkic and Uralic peoples descend from a pre-historic common ancestor in Turkestan, who in the modified republican version, migrated to Anatolia in the 2nd millennium. The typology is interesting because of a detail highlighted by Tanyeri-Erdemir: Between the first and second Turkish historical congress (attended by Atatürk) there’s a shift in mood and audience, from nationalistic archaeology to professional archaeology. In the years between these meetings, there was also a language congress during which Turkish linguists presented the Sun-Language Theory, with the thesis that many languages descended from Turkish after a series of migrations from Central Asia, and their mythical proto-language was severely criticized by the international audience.

The relationship with the Turkish History Thesis is here crystal clear, and though the focus moved to archaeology’s modernization, the discourse had already penetrated the Turkish historiographical consciousness. The thesis of the Altaic languages, encompassing Turkic, Mongolian and Manchu-Tungus, has also been discredited since then.

Another Turkish scholar, Can Erimtan, has written an incredible account (and I strongly advise you to read all of it) of the propaganda tract “Pontus Meselesi” (1922), by Ağaoğlu Ahmet Bey, a Turkish politician and publicist of Azeri background, dealing with the (argument against) establishment of a Greek state in the Pontus region, combined with nationalist propaganda about the grand narrative of the Turkish presence in Anatolia, as follows: “[Anatolia] has been the Turk’s home country, the Turk’s homeland for thousands of years. […] As a matter of fact, the Turks did not arrive in Anatolia with Ertugrul Gazi or even with those who constituted the Seljuk governments. The Turkish race has been present in Anatolia since the oldest and most unknown of times. As has been illustrated by history the first inhabitants of Anatolia were Turanians.”

Ataturk and the Sumerians, 2012

There’s so much one would like to say here. Archaeology is deeply embedded in the political geography of Turkey, but the readings are currently ambiguous. There’s still a large apparatus of scholarship on Near Eastern studies in the Turkish language, particularly in Hittite. Nazif Aydin published in 2017 a Hammurabi lexicon and a book by Assyriologist Muazzez İlmiye Çığ, “Ataturk and the Sumerians”, was published as late as 2012.

  1. Classical Philology in Turkey
Textbook for learning Classical Greek in Turkish, first published in 2006

The nationalist narrative obviously couldn’t easily disassociate between Classical Greece, the Greece of Anatolia and the newly emptied out and newly mythical Anatolia. According to Bedia Dirimiş‘s text (Turkish) on the history of classical philology in Istanbul University, Classics is defined as such: “The main purpose of classical philology is Ancient Greek and Roman civilization, paleography, grammar and rhetoric. On the basis of reinterpreting ancient texts from a linguistic and literary point of view, there is a perfect reconstruction of these texts.”

Written only in 2009, this reveals the European bias of the discipline, not only as an apparatus of knowledge, but one strictly separated from the historical continuity of Anatolia. In her account, classical philology as a department appears in Turkey with the university reform of 1933, overseen by Atatürk himself (just like the history and linguistics conference, he’s always at the helm of historiographical ideology), after his first visit on January 15, 1930. Here the young republic’s leader reveals the extent to which the history of the region had been permeated by the question of Anatolia’s past.  Atatürk asked a question (recorded in the writings of Mehmet Uysal, 1981): Why is it important to study classical philology in Turkey?

After he wasn’t satisfied with the answer, he asked a different question: Who are the first people of the Aegean, the bearers of the Aegean civilization? Fazil Nazmi Bey (probably a teacher in the department) answered the question with a legend. Atatürk replied: “History is based on the findings of archaeology, paleography, and philology, not myths. I think history shows that the first Aegean people, the bearers of the Aegean civilization came from Anatolia to the Aegean islands.”

With this, the agenda for classical philology in Turkey was set, so that Dirimiş reports in her brief history that as late as 2005, in an academic conference, a professor confirmed this thesis by means of philological and paleographic evidence. And here comes the bomb: “Since the Tanzimat, we have adopted Western civilization as the basis of humanism, human beings at the center of the world, rather than merely imitating the discipline of classical philology.” It has been a long way from pre-historic Turan, to humanism. The humanism of the Enlightenment that whitewashed the ancient world, and provided ample legal justification for the plunder of the earth, so that all universal treasures are kept in one place, for all the universals to see, except when you’re not universal enough.

It is also hard to assess the larger meaning of civilization in a country such as Turkey, living in the no-longer-and-not-yet of globalization, and adopting a postcolonial identity while at the same time remaining an expansionist state, actively engaged in soft power and economic colonization. The depoliticization of the Greek tradition (and the Romans, almost accidentally) is only matched by the hyper-politicization of remote antiquity, from a time when Hittite hadn’t been more fully deciphered, therefore it was possible to make all kind of questionable speculations.

The classical philology, however, that Dirimiş posits as “an education that provides an awareness of the process of spiritual evolution through its history”, is however no longer a part of the grand narrative of the republic. In what follows in her history, there’s a long list of professors, from the first German appointees (including Jews who sought refuge in Turkey during the war and later returned to Europe; this is also discussed in Seale‘s account) through the later Turkification of the department as they received training from earlier teachers. Seale also speaks about Azra Erhat, an early republican translator of Homer, whose life seems fascinating and about whom I haven’t been able to dig anything but vague references. It is also interesting to notice that at least one academic employed by Ankara University was also an instructor of Latin at the Atatürk Lise (high school) during the early republic  but I have no evidence at the moment of when this began or ended, or whether it also took place in other public high schools.

  1. Decolonization of Classical Greek in Turkey

A question needs to be posed before it can be answered. Broadly speaking, Turkish academia is not thinking about decolonization of Classics. Still, there are some interesting examples of decolonization practices happening outside of the academia. The Theological School of Halki, an Orthodox seminary shut down by the Turkish state in 1970s (this has been long disputed and is a frequent topic of Turkish-Greek relations) but it still houses the library founded by Metrophanes III (although the original 300 manuscripts are elsewhere in Istanbul), that is open to researchers and contains thousands of volumes in philosophy, history and theology, mostly in Greek but also in other languages.

Despite the enforced closure, the building (located also in Heybeliada) hosts events and academic conferences regularly. The Greek-language publishing house Istos, founded in 2012 in Istanbul (as the local Greek newspaper was disappearing) and the first Greek-language publisher in Turkey in half a century, publishes books in Greek and Turkish, including history books dealing with the history of Greeks in Anatolia and books aimed for a younger audience introducing them to classical Greek literature in Turkish. Recently Istos published an English translation of Skarlatios Byzantios 19th century book, “Constantinople”, topographical, historical and archaeological description of the city.

From “The Land Across the Blind”, Galeri Mana, 2014

Greek-Armenian artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, herself an islander, has been engaged in decolonization throughout her practice. In her work, largely informed by Classical and Byzantine eras, she has used visual compelling storytelling, iconography, and deep memory-time and traces, to parse fragile moments in the history of the region and reveal the continuity between text and image, past and present, in different contexts that go beyond the boundaries of the city: an aqueduct in Naples, a cave in Athens, or bringing metaphorically the city of Bergama to an exhibition space Berlin, questioning the Pergamon museum, engaged in extended contemporary readings of Greek (and other languages) across eras.

In an exhibition from 2014, “The Land Across the Blind”, the artist creates a magical journey between the Princes Islands—traditionally places of exile— and the San Lazzaro degli Armeni in Venice (another island), traveling between centuries of displacements. The land across the blind is Byzantion, the city founded by Byzas of Megara, lying across from Khalkedon, the place that Persian general Megabazos is recorded to have said that they had to be blind to settle there: “Must we not be blind not to see this? This is the land across the blind. This place that we see every day is the point at which Byzas begins to see!” (Buyuktasciyan)

The Greek-Armenian artist is also responsible for the programming of the Galata Greek Primary School in the central district of Beyoglu, a building now empty as the student population disappeared already decades ago, now being used as cultural institution hosting exhibitions and cultural events; a last attempt to keep alive the faint memory of the long Greek presence in Istanbul. Most recently, Buyuktasciyan opened an exhibition at the IFA Gallerie in Berlin, “Neither on the Ground nor in the Sky”, making reference to the mosaic of an Alexandrine parakeet from Pergamon, held at the museum in Berlin. In the exhibition, the artist created a historical bridge between different historical periods, from the famous Library of Pergamon once at the Acropolis, to the final exile of the Anatolian Greeks. As a part of the public program of the exhibition I gave a lecture/performance in April in Berlin, during which I read poetry of Seferis in both Modern Greek and English, in reference to ruins and the life of stones.

From “Neither on the Ground nor in the Sky”, IFA Gallery, 2019

Classical culture does have its representatives in Turkey, for example the very active department of Classics at Istanbul University regularly hosting events and talks, the Twitter account of a young classics lecturer, Cengiz Cevik, tweeting in Turkish about classical literature and ancient philosophy, or the Ancient Greek/Latin recitation competition held at Koc University. All of the above of course deeply embedded in the paradigm of white European humanism. The cultural programming of Türkiye Bankasi, includes a series devoted to translations of classical literature into Turkish, but with a very small pool of translators and a large yearly output, it still remains to be seen if the quality matches the expectations.

And the future isn’t quite looking bright. As the Turkish state turns more and more erratic and isolationist, recently the use of Greek or “Rum” as an insult has reappeared in public life in light of the convoluted Istanbul election, as the opposition candidate has been labelled a Pontus Greek in a propaganda effort to smear his name. A journey through the country’s provincial archaeological museums reveals the dismal picture of the current state of antiquities (where there’s any left, that is), and the neglect of Turkey’s Byzantine and Early Modern Greek heritage, crumbling in front of your eyes, like the Greek Orthodox Orphanage on the island of Büyükada, the largest wood structure in Europe and now at risk of collapse. The most apt metaphor I could find is that of a ruined ruin, based on a fragment of a poem by Seferis:

These stones that sink into the years, how far will they

drag me with them?

The sea, the sea, who can ever drain it dry?(*)

G. Seferis, Mythistorima, XX. (*) the poet translates into Modern Greek line 958 of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, spoken to Clytemnestra as she lures her husband to death. (R. Beaton, 2016)

Αυτές οι πέτρες που βουλιάζουν μέσα χρόνια ως που

θα με παρασύρουν;

Τη θάλασσα τη θάλασσα, ποιος θα μπορέσει να την εξαν-


Greek Orthodox Orphanage, Büyükada, 2019

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based on the Princes Islands of Istanbul. He is interested in the Greek heritage of the Asia Minor and the relationship between (pseudo)archaeology and nationalism in the Eastern Mediterranean. He’s also tweeting about Classics, Byzantium, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.


“Our Culture”: Classics By Exclusion

“Indeed, what is believed overpowers the truth”

τό τοι νομισθὲν τῆς ἀληθείας κρατεῖ. Sophocles, fr 86

A few days ago, a lovely senior colleague of mine reached out with this article from The Daily Kos, expressing shock at how racists are using the ancient world and wondering what kinds of conversations Classicists are having about it. The article does a good job of pointing to the illuminating work of Curtis Dozier with the Pharos project, the public advocacy of Sarah Bond, and the work of Donna Zuckerberg in her writing and her work with others at Eidolon.

I didn’t take the time to tell my friend who has been teaching at Brandeis over 40 years about Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s work on race and antiquity in the Ancient World and on the problem of “western civilization”, the ragtag band behind Classics and Social Justice, the trail-blazing kindness of the Sportula or the work of Dan-el Padilla Peralta.  I can keep listing the people who do good work and try to make sense of the world, but in our own field there is doubt and derision.


The people I just listed and the many others who work alongside them face conflict on multiple sides. There is the fight of the field against this racist appropriation; but there is also a fight for the field that I think we are still trying to make sense of. We are constrained both by the disciplines we trained in and the way the history of these disciplines is entwined with structural and institutional racism.

Oh, boy. Do we need another post on this topic? And—this is certainly a fair question—do we need another post on this topic from me? I don’t work specifically on race in the modern world or antiquity. I don’t have any specialized academic training apart from a handful of undergraduate courses and professional training over the years. The fact is, it is really easy for me not to write this.

But, like many of us, I do teach students who see the world differently than I do; and I do train students in disciplines that are steeped in historical problems. Furthermore, I am in the position of trying to lead people who do this with me. I also somehow have helped create a space where some things might be heard. For each of these reasons, I think it is irresponsible not to engage with these issues and not to examine how deeply they go.

I got thinking about this again over the weekend after receiving this in response to a post on the misogyny of the story of the Lemnian Women:

“Are you actually saying that describing certain odors as foul is misogynistic? and You are a tenured professor? hahahahhahahhaha!

btw, How is your quickly collapsing civilization at the hands of a swelling muslim horde going? At least when it’s all razed to smouldering embers and muslim men are raping, impregnating or beheading your wives and daughters you can have the satisfaction of saying you weren’t racist or a misogynist.”

Now, this is a typical troll-technique in an attempt to elicit an aggressive response: first, belittle and mock the credentials of the addressee; second, cut to the chase and try to inspire fear by painting a picture of the cultural apocalypse to come. I am pretty good at not taking the bait of the first move, because, hey, sometimes it is surprising that I am a professor and tenured—not only because I will never shake off the old imposter syndrome, but also because I have known plenty of smarter and better people who for some reason did not make it at every level. For the second, well, all I said was the truth: a good part of my family is Muslim. It is pretty hard to fear a murderous, rapacious horde, when you’ve shared their tables, prayed alongside them, and love them.

“He commits a second crime, who is not ashamed of his first”

geminat peccatum, quem delicti non pudet  Publilius Syrus, Sent. G11

We periodically encounter push-back like this when we re-post the Hellenistic poet Palladas’ claim that Homer hated women or when someone complains that we should not talk about politics. But the exchange, which I have left up, reminded me yet again of a comment that has been “pending” on the site for over two years in response to a post on Harmodius and Aristogeiton.

“Your introduction sounds like you are in favour of the ongoing white genocide – bizarre from someone who would appear to admire white culture and civlization. Or perhaps you are a Jewish Supremacist? Personally I’m with Apion, Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, Manetho, Cicero, Juvenal, Horace etc – letting Jews control the discourse is never a good thing.”

(I am going to sidestep the anti-Semitism here except to say that the comment is clearly made by someone deeply indoctrinated in hate. This is repulsive but unsurprising. Indeed, I have been the target of anti-Semitic comments online on several occasions. I suspect this is because of where I teach. I block Nazis as soon as they announce themselves.)

This was not the last time I was accused of being in favor of white genocide (I have also been called a race traitor). The thing is, well, complicated. First, we can say that white genocide is an insane piece of nonsense sourced locally in South Africa and embraced by certifiable nutballs in Europe, Australia and the United States, as charted out in Harper’s.

(Don’t be confused, though. This poison is one among a number of fine American exports.)

I want to mock the very notion because whiteness itself is a myth. But just like “white genocide”, whiteness is a fiction which has real effects on the world. Whiteness is an oppositional category, an oppressive concept that has expanded to embrace most of Christianized Europe only out of necessity. It exists to obscure boundaries between some groups only for the purpose of oppressing others. When embraced as an identity, it is so empty of content that it consists entirely either of mere platitudes or of weaponized hate.

“We call those studies ‘liberal’ which are worthy of a free person”

Liberalia igitur studia vocamus, quae sunt homine libero digna, Vergerio de ing. Mor. 23

So, if one were to insist to me that there is a white race—and not a bunch of people with various degrees of comparatively paler skin who come from a variety of different linguistic and religious groups but largely speak dialects of English in the US, UK, and Australia—I would probably be in favor of ending the concept because it exists as a weapon of exclusion. This, in such deranged logic, makes me a race traitor. (Among other things, of course: my family is multiracial).

Now, it may seem like there is only a twisted path from the destructive and demeaning construction of whiteness and our problems with Classics, but let me get back to the point. It has become de rigeur for ‘intellectuals’ with certain affinities who rave about the rise of ‘identity politics’ and post-modernism to lament the collapse of Classical Education and the loss of some kind of shared culture. This concept of a ‘shared culture’ is as chimerical as whiteness. But it is no less damaging.

Indeed, when I wrote a thread in response to Roger Kimball’s paint-by-numbers indictment of the modern academy, our account was unfollowed by someone who felt we were insufficiently championing “our” culture.

My friend, this cultured response is not innocent; it may be ignorant, but it remains an expression of an ethnonationalism that is merely a reflex of white supremacy. (It is also absurd: no one invents a culture. (1) I cannot see how it is ever logical to claim any credit for actions performed by others before you were born. (2) And if you claim the credits, you also owe the debts.) When one person frets over threats to “our” culture, another chants “you will not replace us” with a burning tiki torch.

“For it is not easy to take a false belief from them, not even if someone should refute it completely”

οὐ γάρ ἐστι ῥᾴδιον τούτων ἀφελέσθαι τὴν δόξαν, οὐδ’ ἂν πάνυ τις ἐξελέγχῃ, Dio Chrysostom Orat. 11


There are many kinds of exclusionary approaches. Some are clearly racist (ethnonationalists so proudly wave their black, white and red banners). Others are intellectually decorous, but amount to the same. When Erik exposed the counterfeit claims of modern conservative intellectualism, one respondent chortled (if one can describe a tweet that way) and offered up the example of T.S. Eliot.

When my colleague emailed me, rather than brag about all the smart and insightful people I know who are leading the fight against this racist nonsense, I sputtered, and meandered, talking about how much more there is to do in recognizing that exclusion and, yes, racism, have been central to the disciplines we call Classics not just for a few generations, but for most of the history of the discipline.

Here’s the thing. This is not just about misappropriation. This is about the nature and history of the field itself. Yes, we need to stand against the use of antiquity for hateful and destructive ends; but we also need to work to examine how our discipline has been shaped by these forces. As the kids say, racism is a feature not a bug of Classics as a field. And this gets straight to a conversation I have been having with myself and others since I posted about my myth class earlier in the year: How do you decolonize something that is has developed hand-in-glove with essential exclusionary, colonialist, and racist discourse?

(I am avoiding here the claim that that the material treated by Classical studies is necessarily racist. Much of it is ideological driven and used for racist ends, but I do think we need to be careful to separate material from use.)

“Humanity thinks only about temporary seeds, / Its pledge is nothing more than the shadow of smoke”

τὸ γὰρ βρότειον σπέρμ’ ἐφήμερα φρονεῖ, / καὶ πιστὸν οὐδὲν μᾶλλον ἢ καπνοῦ σκιά Aeschylus, fr. 399

Already, I know heads are spinning, but let me just sketch out without supporting evidence the areas of inquiry available to explore how exclusionism has shaped our field and how and when this went from ideology to bigotry and violence. For ease, I will break it into stages:

Pre-Archaic Greece to Hellenistic Period: The material preserved by most forces communicates Aristocratic values with a strong structural misogyny. Ableism is assumed. Much of the early material is, indeed, plurivocal, but the process of selection by later, elitist editors, exacerbates the nature of our evidence. Post-Persian wars the dichotomy of Greek and Barbarian develops. Almost no representation of women and lower classes. Mass enslavement.

Hellenistic period: Less stuff about barbarians! But even more of a skew toward elite culture and the literary remains of a few traditions from Greece proper. Poetry and oral culture did not perish, but it was not preserved to the same extent our already canonized tragedy, lyric, and epic were. Voices of women, lower classes, and non-Greek groups were largely excluded from the record keeping at this time. Flirtation with trans-linguistic cosmopolitanism. Mass Enslavement.

Roman Period: Willful occlusion of pre-Roman and non-Roman cultural groups; adoption of a Hellenistic veneer; Primarily recorded voices are those of male aristocrats. Some use Latin; some use Greek. People can become Roman by speaking Latin and Greek. Growth of empire means even greater occlusion of local and diverse perspectives. Mass enslavement.

Early Christian Period: Burgeoning of anti-Semitism. Perpetuation of much of the Hellenistic canon. Erasure of pagan cultures. Breaking of the Empire into Greek and Roman sides. Roman side preserved Latin Culture; Greek Side preserved Greek culture. Continued ableism. Misogyny. Enslavement.

Medieval Period: Even before crusaders sacked Byzantium, the largely Roman Catholic histories and focus from Rome (and wherever the Papacy moved) discredited, dehumanized, and dislocated the contributions of “easterners” (this, despite the fact that most people who have studied the time period would likely prefer to live in Byzantium to Rome). Christian readings and tending of the canon altered our tradition even more; most intellectual training in Western Europe during this period was theological in focus. As Stephanie Frampton has taught me, the term Classici emerges in the Medieval period to mark off scholars of a certain Class or Rank. This is, in part, about aesthetic judgment; but it is also a continuation of the process of selection and exclusion that began in the Hellenistic Period. Our field’s title, Classical Studies, is therefore implicitly—if not explicitly—exclusionary.

This period also saw the steady narrowing of whose perspective and contribution on Classical Studies is valued: non-Christians (e.g. Muslims, Jews, and even those farther afield) have had their scholarly histories expunged. This continued into the modern era in Europe where Protestants in the North (and England) undervalued and marginalized Catholics.

Rebirth of Philology: From Luther’s theses to the translation of the King James Bible and the religious conflicts prior to the Enlightenment, the seeds of Philology were sewn. Biblical and Classical philology—which first influenced each other in Hellenistic libraries like the one at Alexandria—were odd step-siblings united by basic assumptions about the search for authority and truth and the perfectability of the word of God by man. Anti-Semitism, explicit and not, excluded many voices from these conversations; a majority of the scholars who worked on texts and traditions were upper class; almost all were men; almost all were ‘white’ in the modern, unreflective sense. Mass enslavement in the US and British Empire. Classical ideas and philosophy are used to defend and advocate for colonialism, slavery, and genocide.

German Philhellenism: The rise of European nationalism saw many different types of identities emerge, but one of the more consequential was the German one. Among the intellectual class, there is a deep and confounding correspondence between German national pride and scholarly Philhellenism. Most Classicists acknowledge that our very concept of our field today owes much to 18th Century German Altertumswissenschaft, but few of us as readily acknowledge that one of the central concepts—the uniqueness of the Greeks and their language—was the method by which that very uniqueness could be claimed as a heritage for Germans. The impact of this is clear in German philosophy and in Nazi-adjacent authors like Martin Heidegger.

“Indeed, ignorance is a kind of weakness, but the detestation of knowledge is the sign of a depraved will.”

nescire siquidem infirmitatis est, scientiam vero detestari, pravae voluntatis Hugo St. Victor, Didascalion, Preface 1

There is more to be said about the rise of Classicism in the US and UK following German norms, but I will leave that for others. It is fairly safe to say that the majority of the voices within Classics complaining about the opening up of the field hew to ‘regimens’ and ‘standards’ developed prior to WWII.

The way we train our students, the languages we think are important, the books we think we should read, and the arguments we think are worth making are all shaped in some way by the intellectual and disciplinary prejudices we have acquired over a thousand years. Now, we can take a certain pride in claiming a heritage that is so old, but here again, the credit must be accounted with the debt.

There will be many objections to this periodization, but that is part of the point, it is an invitation to a discussion. But we still live with many of the consequences in our scholarship. For instance, in N. G Wilson’s From Byzantium to Italy—which represents what most Classicists seem to think happened during the Renaissance—the author spends a precious few pages talking about the work of Byzantine scholars. (Although, as has been pointed out to me, Wilson dedicates considerable space to Byzantine scholars in another book. The separation, which was likely not his choice, represents the way most people in Classics think about the transmission of ancient culture.)

The story that is typically told about the Renaissance is usually of how Italian scholars “rediscovered Greece”. This is a patent falsehood. Byzantine scholars from before the 6th century advanced the work of the Hellenistic period to a point not rivalled until after the Enlightenment (even if then). But northern European scholars denigrate and marginalize their contributions to this day (much as in the English speaking world we pretty much ignore the scholarship of modern Greeks.) Such designed ‘oversight’ emerges in every history of Classical Scholarship (Pfeiffer and Sandys are the worst for this). By continuing to tell this story, we reinforce an erroneous notion that centers Rome and Northern Europe as the inheritors of some virtuous past.

“For one who is falling cannot lift others; one who is ignorant cannot teach”

οὔτε γὰρ πίπτοντός ἐστιν ὀρθοῦν οὔτε διδάσκειν ἀγνοοῦντος, Plutarch, Moralia 780a

But, really, the entire notion of the “Greek Genius” or the “Greek Miracle” is built on a willful racist denial of the influence of Ancient Near Eastern peoples on Greece (and others) and rooted in an ignorance of the deep cultural and trading networks that connected the Ancient Mediterranean. Diogenes Laertius can claim that Greek philosophy came from Egypt; we ignore him as a naïve mythologos, while we reserve our most forceful mobilization for the Western de-centering work of Black Athena. Few people have the expertise to move from Hittites and Hurrians to Gilgamesh and Egyptians. Even when we can get them together, we still have evidence largely of upper classes. There is new work being done on the Bronze Age all over the Mediterranean, but our disciplinary and institutional boundaries have trouble funding and housing the scholars who do it.

And where we draw disciplinary boundaries is only part of the problem. Our field is still demonstrably hostile to women and people of color. Our professorships and placements in top PhD programs still go predominantly to people of the highest classes. Our journals still publish mostly work from white men.

Now, please do not misunderstand me, historians and archaeologists over the past century have used a range of tools to recuperate the voices and experiences of non-elites in Ancient Greece and Rome, but the impact of the evidence they generate is constrained by the conventions and assumptions of the fields they try to change.

The voices of fear and protest that worry over the loss of “our culture” are mostly unaware of what a fantastic confabulation “our culture” is. Instead of worrying about what we risk, we should celebrate what is to be gained from the admission of different voices. In brief, our understanding of the past has been transformed over the past few generations by women’s voices and by those less mutilated by heteronormative culture. Historians from different classes and backgrounds have looked for evidence of past peoples whose lives were never even imagined. Scholars of varied abilities and perspectives on gender and sexuality have helped us understand that the stories we received about the Ancient World were wrong. But there is more work to be done: consider how much of digital classics material is actual accessible? How many of our conferences and conference panels are hostile to women, non-binary scholars, and those of different abilities? 

“So, I did not want to write what the unlearned could not understand or what the learned would not care to.”

itaque ea nolui scribere quae nec indocti intellegere possent nec docti legere curaren, Cicero Academica 1.4

A few years back another internet troll told me I was not a real Classicist because a real classicist™ wants to emulate the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Others have called me out for dedicated my life to something I clearly hate. This is, as with most internet trollery, unrefined horseshit. What an impoverished definition of love one must have to think that you can only appreciate something you think is perfect? I have spent the past 20 years of my life reading, learning, and teaching Homer and Ancient Greek out of love and enchantment, but not with blind eye to the cruelty and the pain these things can represent and still effect in the world.

To study the past—to study the humanities—is to engage in inquiry about what it means to be human. To love the human race does not mean we need to deny its imperfections—to me it means that we learn the contours of our weakness as much as our strength so we may help with one and support the other. If I am not a Classicist because I do not emulate the Classical world, perhaps I can be a humanist because I aemulate it in the strictest Latin sense—I strive with it, I struggle to understand it, and I wear myself out trying to improve it.

This is what we need to do in our field. We need to root out and understand what has shaped us and improve upon it for the generations to come.


A Few Updates:

  1. In response to Dr. Ben Cartlidge’s very reasonable response on twitter, I softened the language about N. G. Wilson’s work on Byzantine scholarship. I unfairly used him as a straw man and may have misrepresented his work.
  2. I received a great email from Dr. Lara Fabian who noted that much of what I have written is conditioned by Anglo-American chauvinism and isolationism and, as she rightly points out, is evidence of a type of privilege of  English-language scholarship. She has some fascinating and enlightening things to say about the development of Classical Scholarship in Russia and I think I have persuaded her to write some blog posts.

If anyone has responses or work that can help correct/adjust/improve this conversation, please do let me know.

More evidence of my cultural blindspots and fascinating avenues for investigation:

MAGA Cap and Gown

Social commentator/reactionary mediocrity Roger Kimball recently wrote one of those wonderfully masturbatory fap rags designed to appeal to that reified oxymoron, the “conservative intellectual.” Kimball takes the old decline and fall route in his analysis of the university, arguing:

“Once upon a time, universities were institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth and the transmission of the highest values of our civilization. Today, most are dedicated to the destruction of those values.”

Sentimentalist claptrap is cheap, and bullshit is more palatable if swallowed in the elixir of lofty ideals. The land of mass incarceration and children in cages doesn’t quite tickle the ear like the land of the free. Ah, how that last phrase rolls off of the tongue and into the heart, stanching any meaningful reflection. Any claim which begins with once upon a time is likely to be a total fabrication, just like the fairy tales which so consistently feature that phrase. Some people artfully conceal their ignorance, but in the space of one short sentence, Kimball makes it clear that he knows nothing about the history of the university as an institution.

Europe’s original universities, such as those in Bologna and Paris, were formal institutions for vocational training in law, medicine, and divinity. Education and intellectual activity predated the invention of the university by well over a thousand years, and one might see schools like Plato’s Academy or the Alexandrian and Pergamene libraries as embodying something closer to the apparent ideal of purely intellectual devotion. But the university as we know it was founded as a credentialing office for the trade guild of intellectuals. The very idea of the university is so thoroughly Medieval that American universities, which did not possess the same meaningful ties to the historical moment which Bologna, Paris, and Oxford enjoyed, had to artificially create the semblance of Medieval respectability with Gothic architecture and the absurd (but no doubt lucrative) ceremonial use of the cap and gown at graduation. It was fashionable a few years ago to discourage students from pursuing a PhD in the humanities by informing them that graduate school was not about “the life of the mind,” but rather, a form of professional certification for a career in academia. It may surprise some to learn that the life of the mind must be sought elsewhere, but the university has always been a professional guild which certifies members for entrance into that guild. This means that it has never been a wholly disinterested or purely objective haven for the pursuit of ethereal Platonic ideals.

Kimball and other “conservative intellectuals” find the PC culture on campus particularly galling because they see it as a threat to free speech. There is something singularly disingenuous about a victimhood narrative told by a faction which has its hands on the levers of political power in this country. Moreover, the university was never historically a bastion of free inquiry or free speech. Through much of their history, universities were propaganda machines in bitter theological controversies. Edward Gibbon was unable to finish his education at Oxford because he flirted for some time with Catholicism, and in the following century, Newman had to resign his post at Oxford following his conversion. Forcing students to subscribe the 39 Articles does not seem to represent the spirit of truth and dispassionate free inquiry at one of the world’s premiere universities.

When people like Kimball begin to wax nostalgic about ideas like Enlightenment Values, they are simply signaling membership in a club to other people who have read the same few authors of whom they particularly approve. What they mean to say is something like, “I support the promotion of values which I, an enlightened person, already hold.” Men like Kimball use the fashionable term grievance studies to include a whole range of cultural, philosophical, and historical thought which they find wholly unpalatable. Curiously enough, Kimball complains that PC lefties have ruined free speech in the university by shouting down conservative thinkers, and responds by suggesting that the university as a whole should be abolished. The way to increase free expression in academia is, naturally, to prevent anyone from ever saying anything in academia again.

In addition to his wide-ranging ignorance in other fields, Kimball seems wholly unaware that the “pursuit of truth” and the “transmission of values” are inconsistent aims, and the subject of a bitter controversy in 19th century Oxford between Benjamin Jowett and Mark Pattison. Jowett was a towering figure at the university less because of his scholarship and more because of his hobnobbing with gentlemen and his general air of “a man of learning and good taste.” His aim was to ensure that Oxford served as a finishing school for gentlemen: to make sure that all of its students who went on to civil service or clerical sinecures had an appropriate store of ornamental classical quotations at their fingertips, and could recognize each other as members of an elite and exclusive club. This is of course what Kimball means by “transmission of values” – an expensive set of disgusting prejudices coated over with a veneer of classical respectability. Mark Pattison, on the other hand, was the scholar’s scholar. He was a withdrawn and reclusive man, who proudly announced in his memoirs that he had lived the last several decades of his life entirely devoted to study. Pattison worried that Oxford had become too much of a school, and that devotion to teaching was the surest way to impede the intellectual pursuit of truth. In many ways, this debate is still central to the cognitive dissonance of the university: promotion and tenure require publication, but meaningful scholarly work requires countless years of unexciting drudgery in the library. The public, however, still maintain the memory of the Medieval university as trade guild, and expect that its primary function should be teaching. Only those who are entirely unfamiliar with the real work of either teaching or of research can idly spout off codswallop about the “pursuit of truth” and “transmission of values” as though they were the same thing.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. The Past is not a discreet entity, but a construct based either upon your memory of your own limited phenomenological perspective of previous time in your own life, seen dimly through the mist of subsequent experience and mental revisionism; or upon your understanding of a more distant past built by sifting isolated (and often curated) fragments from an era which you never experienced. Neither of these is particularly reliable. (Our understanding of the present is no better, so please don’t read this as a slander upon the study of history.)

If Kimball and the conservatives are hurt about the apparent left-tilt of the university, they have only themselves to blame. During the culture wars beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, conservatives ceded education entirely to the left, not only because they embraced instead the worst vices of the military-industrial complex, but because they allied themselves with the religious right of villains like Jerry Falwell, who required an audience of ignorant dupes to whom they could peddle their horseshit. The most cynical expression of this recognized alliance is Rupert Murdoch’s intention, when creating Fox News, to attract the NFL and NASCAR crowd. He intentionally eschewed a mainstream but fickle audience in favor of the cult-like devotion of reactionary idiots. For decades, conservatives have doubled down on their assault against education, but express surprise when the stewards of that educational system oppose their reactionary agenda. Of course, a man like Kimball, who endorsed Donald Trump as a modern Pericles, cares neither about intelligence nor about history. His conservatism is no more than a cocktail of reactionary hatreds and nostalgic yearning for a world that never was.

Image result for ralph bovine university

Epic Fabrication! Creating and Curating Fragmentary Traditions

About a month ago Hannah Čulík-Baird wrote a blog post about citation of authority and the quotation of fake or misrepresented quotations (among other themes). Now, perhaps it is in part guilt for this site’s own participation in the quotation-economy that drives my interest, but I have been at times obsessed over the past year with false attributions to Aristotle and with coming up with some kind of a scale for the general fakeness of a quotation. But, as I found out at a workshop at MIT organized by Stephanie Frampton, it is not just the ‘vulgar mob’ that is misappropriating the past—no, we professionals have been actively selecting, shaping, and fabricating it for a long time.

Some ways in which we do this are simple, and understated, as in the editing of a text where we apply inconsistent, unfair, or unclear criteria in choosing one form or variant over another. But some things we do are quite bolder. And this brings me to something I love (and Hannah does too): fragments.

I think that there is a misconception—which I once had—that fragments of lost poems and texts are exactly what they sound like—lines that exist on scraps of manuscript, stone, metal, and papyrus. While this is true for a few, the vast majority of the things we call fragments are actually embedded in other places and we have been excising them from the parent text and recreating them as something else since at least the Renaissance. (Florilegia, essentially quote books, and miscellany texts going back even further are another topic too).

Let’s look at two examples of fragmentary epic poets to make some sense of how we are actively engaged in the creation of the past, Creophylus and Peisander. Creophylus of Samos is dated to the Archaic period and is said by some to be Homer’s friend or even son-in-law. He is said to be the author of an epic “Capture of Oikhalia”. The best testimonia (“witnesses”) for this are a combination of imperial Greek (i.e. “second sophistic”) and later, although a passage from the Hellenistic period is embedded in Strabo (Strabo 14.1.18 including Call. Epigram 6 PF; Proclus Life of Homer 5; Hesychius Miletus, Life of Homer 6, Suda k 2376 [drawn from Hesychius]. Also: schol. ad Plato’s Republic, 600b; Photius, s.v. Creophylus).

There are three fragments attributed to Creophylos. They might all be bogus. The first fragment [ὦ γύναι, <αὐτὴ> ταῦτά γ᾿ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὅρηαι, fr. 1] is from the Epimerismi Homerici  dated to the early Byzantine period. This line can be justified as an entry in an hexameter poem. But there is nothing about it that makes it necessarily appropriate for a poem by Creophylus about the sack of Oikhalia by Herakles. It could be “To the woman complaining that there was nothing to eat, I said, / “Woman, you see these things in front of your eyes at least…” Or many, many other possibilities. None of which necessarily have to be about Herakles.

Kreo Fr 1
From West’s 2003 Loeb

The second “fragment” as it is listed in West 2003 is not fairly a fragment at all but two late testimonies to content. The first part is from Strabo 9.5.17 and the second is Pausanias 4.2.3. Both use a reference to Creophylus to or a poem attributed to him to discuss the location of the mythical Oikhalia.

It is, I think, somewhat distortive to even group these together. In Strabo, we get a reference to the “Author of the Capture of Oikhalia” (ὁ ποιήσας τὴν Οἰχαλίας ἅλωσιν) while in Pausanias Creophylus is credited with a Heraklea which told the story set in Oikhalia. Neither “fragment” presents any clear language from a poem. It is debatable, as well, that these references are to the same poem and poet rather than using a brief reference to the past as evidence for the authority of an assertion. The use of these ‘fragments’ says much more about the people whose opinions are being reported, the methods of the authors doing the reporting, and cultural ideas about authority and antiquity than they can possibly say about a legendary lost poem.

Kreo fr 2

The third fragment is also a summary of content and not a citation of actually lines. It comes from the Scholia to Sophocles’ Trachiniae and presents three different numbers of the sons of Eurytus. This detail has been selected for the purpose of showing the range of options and depth of research. It has been selected in service as well of elucidating another text from a different genre and it too says very little about any poem.

There is a circuity in what we say about figures like Creophylus as well. Compare Joachim Latacz’s entry on Creophylus in Brill’s New Pauly to the entry in the Suda:

Kreo Pauly 1

Here’s the Suda. From what I can see, our official “modern entry” adds the testimonia from above and some details from the Suda with little critical engagement with either.

“Kreophylos, the son of Astukles, a Chian or a Samian. An epic poet. Some say that he was homer’s son-in-law through his daughter. Others claim that he was only Homer’s friend and that after he welcomed Homer he received from him the poem “The Sack of Oikhalia

Κρεώφυλος, ᾿Αστυκλέους, Χῖος ἢ Σάμιος, ἐποποιός. τινὲς δὲ αὐτὸν ἱστόρησαν ῾Ομήρου γαμβρὸν ἐπὶ θυγατρί. οἱ δὲ φίλον μόνον γεγονέναι αὐτὸν ῾Ομήρου λέγουσι καὶ ὑποδεξάμενον ῞Ομηρον λαβεῖν παρ’ αὐτοῦ τὸ ποίημα τὴν τῆς Οἰχαλίας ἅλωσιν.

Let’s do this again briefly with with Peisander. According to the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda (s.v. Peisandros), Peisander of Rhodes wrote about the “deeds of Herakles” in two books in the 7th Century BCE (and Herakles was also prominent in narrative lyric poetry like that of Stesichorus)— but his earliest testimony goes back to the Hellenistic period as well, in an epigram ascribed to Theocritus. But the rest of the testimonia are later: another collection of Strabo, Quintilian, Clement, and more. Almost all of his ‘so-called’ fragments consist of other authors claiming that Peisander gave some version of known tales about Herakles. Here’s a list:

  1. The Nemean Lion: Peisander, fr. 1 (Ps. Eratosthenes, Catast.12)
  2. Learnean Hydra: Peisander, fr. 2 (=Pausanias, 2.37.4); Panyasis, fr. 6
  3. Cerynian Hind: Peisander, fr. 3 (= Scholia to Pindar. Ol. 3.50b)
  4. Stymphalian Birds: Peisander, fr. 4 (=Pausanias 8.22.4)
  5. Sailed Across the Ocean in a Cup: Peisander fr. 5 (Athenaeus, 469c)
  6. Antaeus: Peisander, fr 6 (=Schol ad Pind, Pyth 9.185a) [giant wrestled on way to Hesperides]
  7. Conflict with Centaurs: Peisander, fr. 9 (=Hesychius nu 683)
  8. Sacking of Troy with Telamon: Peisander, fr. 10 (=Athenaus 783c)

Fragment 7 (preserved by the schol. To Aristophanes’ Clouds) has “Athena the grey-eyed goddess made a warm bath for him at Thermopylae along the shore of the sea.” (τῶι δ᾿ ἐν Θερμοπύληισι θεὰ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη / ποίει θερμὰ λοετρὰ παρὰ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης.) In typical late antique style, something about this is repeated at several other places (Cf. Zenob. vulg. 6.49; Diogenian. 5.7; Harpocr. Θ 11.) indicating a proverbial status for the lines or a common source. Other than the contextual information and the tradition that Athena helped Herakles (and other heroes) there is little here that makes a certain part of a poem about Herakles by Peisander.

Fragment 2 is a line with no context from Stobaeus: “There’s no reason to criticize saying even a lie to save a life.” (οὐ νέμεσις καὶ ψεῦδος ὑπὲρ ψυχῆς ἀγορεύειν.). This is another proverbial utterance with nothing particularly Heraklean about it as is fragment 9 (“there’s no thought in Centaurs” νοῦς οὐ παρὰ Κενταύροισι) cited by Hesychius.

So, again, as with Creophylus, Peisander’s ‘fragments’ are for the most part distorted quotations and receptions which are willfully presented as evidence of a lost poem when they are more fairly evidence for the way that ancient authors in the post-Hellenistic period constructed authority or explored variation and multiform myth in their own research and retelling. To be clear: I am not saying that these passages are not worthy of study or that they have nothing to tell us about the past. I am saying that the way we treat them is far from transparent and probably not that useful.

As discrete entries in collections of fragments and encyclopediae about the past, these details seem rather anodyne, but once you really think about them, the patterns they represent should give us some concern about the degree to which we fabricate and stitch together elements of the past to our liking. Once these ‘fragments’ enter scholarly texts—as they do in Davies 1988, Benarbé 1996, and West 2003—they become re-canonized as evidence for lost poems and mythical traditions. The last decade or so has seen an uptick in research and publishing on the fragments of the so-called epic cycle with insufficient acknowledgement for the contribution of this scholarly enterprise—all the way back to the Hellenistic period—in fabricating both the concept and its content.

Such thin evidence is then re-presented as concrete blocks upon which we build intricate arguments. And the level of knowledge, patience and time it takes to evaluate the veracity of these constructions is increasingly available only to a select few. And even those of us who have the time and training to understand that this house of cards is really a sculpture of broken toothpicks and tissue paper are too habituated to the claiming of these textual artifacts as fragments that we are unable or unwilling to call them something else.



For the standard version of the fragments and testimonies see


Benarbé, A. 1996. Poetorum Epicorum Graecorum. Leipzig.

Davies, M. 1988. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen

West, M.L. 2003. Epic Fragments. Loeb Classical Library.


For More:

Burgess J. S. 2001. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore.

Davies, M. 1989. The Greek Epic Cycle. London. [a moderate reconstruction]

Fantuzzi, M. and Tsagalis, C. (eds). 2014. The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception. Cambridge: 213–25. [collection of essays from somewhat different expectations]

West, M. L. 2013.The Epic Cycle. Oxford. [the most extreme of the reconstructions]



Death of the Dictionary

Nietzsche tells us that philology is the art of slow reading. Philologists naturally like to quote this tag as a part of the broader program of fetishizing slow reading and meticulous textual scrutiny, but amidst all the fictive glamor, one might lose sight of the fact that it is a habit which is instilled by compulsion in the first stages of learning ancient languages. Many of our readers have at least made a foray into the exciting world of Latin and Greek, and many will also be old enough to remember a time when early attempts at reading authentic texts in these languages required substantial dictionary thumbing.

I cannot imagine how things must be now that students have untrammeled access to wonderful resources like Logeion. Anytime they tell me that they are consulting Whitaker’s Words, I urge them to cast that garbage aside. I then draw forth the weighty, august, and extremely expensive copy of Lewis & Short which I keep in the classroom and say, “All this and more is right there on a free app.”

At the age of 32, I have begun to adopt fully the posture of the cantankerous old man, so this advice to download that revolutionary application is always accompanied by a story which begins with “Back in my day…” and ends with everyone thinking that I am hopelessly out of touch. Of course, the natural response of students when I tell them how much time I spent flipping through pages in the dictionary is that it all seems like a tremendous waste of time. To this I can only say that it was the most profitable waste of time that I ever engaged in.

Invariably, in such situations, I recur to my favorite dictionary tale: When I was first reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses and trying to give it the straight cover-to-cover treatment (the first text with which I did this), I found at some point that I was looking up the word squama for what felt like the trillionth time. I was conscious of the fact that I had seen it several times before, and even seemed to have developed a muscle memory for flipping to the appropriate page, yet I could not remember the word. Those who have spent time learning the languages this way will remember the heartbreaking feeling of looking up a word, registering the meaning, and then – once your eyes have returned to the text – realizing that you have already forgotten what the word meant. And so, being conscious of the fact that I had spent so much time searching for squama, I made it a point this time to stare at the word, to read every part of the entry for it, to swish it about the palate, and to write it on the remembering tablets of my mind. I burned that word into my memory, and not only did I not have to look it up again, I strongly suspect that it is one of the most secure possessions of my mind – so well remembered that it serves as an anecdote employed at least once a year.

Dictionary work was tedious, sometimes frustrating, and even then felt like a waste of time. It is also the genesis of the Classicist’s fetishization of slow reading. Slow progress through a text because of lexical roadblocks can be illustrated in an exchange recorded by Lionel Tollemache, in which Mark Pattison grills him on the value of exclusively classical education in schools:

A trifling incident may show how strong was his antipathy to the narrow classical instruction which used to form the chief staple of our public school education. I had been talking about my own school-time at Harrow. He turned round and asked abruptly, “Did you learn anything there?” I hesitated. “Answer me, Yes or No. Can you recall a single thing worth remembering that you learnt during all the years that you spent there?” I replied that, owing to my extreme short sight and consequent slowness in looking out words in a dictionary, I was not a good sample of a Harrow boy, but that some of my schoolfellows certainly learnt much. “Yes,” he said, doubtfully, “perhaps you may be right.” [Tollemache, Recollections of Pattison]

Yet there is something to be said for the inefficiency of the method as its chief value. Dictionary work was unpleasant, so one tried to avoid it when possible. How could it be avoided? Through memorization. And so, the reluctance to open the dictionary yet again could bring about the salutary educational aim of ensuring that you tried when possible to commit new vocabulary to memory, though you had no quiz or exam on the horizon lighting the fire beneath your feet.

Today, I envy my students’ ability to answer any of their lexical queries immediately without having to carry around a massive (or even a still inconvenient pocket-sized) volume. Certainly it is more efficient than the young John Stuart Mill’s approach:

But my father, in all his teaching, demanded of me not only the utmost that I could do, but much that I could by no possibility have done. What he was himself willing to undergo for the sake of my instruction, may be judged from the fact, that I went through the whole process of preparing my Greek lessons in the same room and at the same table at which he was writing: and as in those days Greek and English lexicons were not, and I could make no more use of a Greek and Latin lexicon than could be made without having yet begun to learn Latin, I was forced to have recourse to him for the meaning of every word which I did not know. This incessant interruption, he, one of the most impatient of men, submitted to, and wrote under that interruption several volumes of his History and all else that he had to write during those years. [Mill, Autobiography]

Yet, at the same time, I am glad that I am part of the last generation to suffer through compulsory dictionary work, as I doubt very much that I would have achieved anything like my current proficiency in the languages if I had had access to something like Logeion. Perhaps one of the reasons I despise the Cambridge Latin Course the most is the fact that all new vocabulary is simply pre-translated in the book itself, so students simply look into the vocabulary box and transpose meaning onto unfamiliar words. Dictionary work required, at a minimum, recognizing the declined or conjugated form of a particular word, understanding its grammatical function, and then identifying the appropriate form to search for in the dictionary. Similarly, any students whom I have taught using texts like Phaar’s Aeneid (which provides not just a running commentary at the bottom, but even a full list of potentially difficult vocabulary) tend to be exceptionally weak readers, precisely because there is no premium placed upon the memorization – nay, the internalization – of vocabulary.

When I graduated college, my aunt wanted to get me a triple-decker of a graduation gift. I requested THE Oxford Latin Dictionary, which cost at the time something like $300. It was my first impressive dictionary (certainly better than the Cassell’s with which I bullshitted my way through college), but I can barely recall using it. It’s fun for flipping through on occasion, but I couldn’t say that I use it in any functional sense. Over the years, I have spent several hundred dollars more on other dictionaries: a full-sized LSJ that I found for $50; a 19th century edition of the LSJ; my full-sized Lewis and Short (I actually do use this one); a Lexicon Pindaricum; some smaller (and super functional) paperbacks like the Autenreith of Cunliffe Lexicons for Homer.

In terms of pure functionality, all of these have been supplanted, yet I love them nonetheless. They stand as a physical metonym for the study of Classics itself: something fetishized and quaintly outmoded, a focal point for a past seen only dimly through the roseate lens of retrospectacles. But, like Classics, they also serve as an anchor for so much in my life, and I cannot open their musty pages without a certain nostalgic warmth suffusing my heart.

The old and the new.


Flyleaf of my old LSJ