“A Wolf…Chases Christ into the Rivers”: Some Latin Magnetic Poems

A friend of mine (not a classicist) found a vintage Latin Magnetic Poetry set and gave it to me.  It’s not so much for Latinists as it is for English-speakers familiar with Latin: it’s got all the familiar phrases from law (habeas corpus) and Catholicism (in nomine patris) and general fancy talk (caveat emptor).

I decided to give it a go, and see what syntactically coherent sentences and phrases I could put together in classical-ish Latin. I set myself the rule of using every word in the kit, and not reusing any word that wasn’t duplicated in the kit.  Don’t bother scanning them, as they’re not metrical, but who’s to say they aren’t Saturnians?

Photograph of Magnetic Poetry, in Latin: 18 small clusters of tiny white rectangular magnets with Latin text printed in black.  The rest of this blog post consists of a transcript of that text, with translations and a tiny bit of commentary.  The translations are colloquial rather than literal, but T. H. M. believes he can justify his colloquialisms (at least as long as every journal and book editor he's run into aren't the arbiter!).

some Magnetic Poetry, in Latin, assembled during a frantic semester teaching Latin Prose Composition

Some of them sound like they could plausibly have been written or at least thought by an actual historical Roman:

ars firma uitae est scientia in libris
life’s reliable skill is book-knowledge

homini est nihil beati
humankind has no share of happiness

Magna Mater omnes forma mala amat
the Great Mother loves everyone who has a bad body

uidi populum
facile errare
et labi ad bellum

I’ve seen the populace
easily going astray
and slipping towards war

aurea uox mea non est pura
my golden voice is not pure

sic ego rebus maximis gratias non emeritus sum
that’s why I haven’t earned thanks for my super-great accomplishments

Some had a feeling of banter that could, if you squint real hard, fit in a comedy of Plautus:

amor ab ipso bono
quem hominem amas;
te uici, Maria

I’m loved by the very nobleman
whom you love;
I’ve beaten you, Maria

idem sum
de quo delirium est
I’m the very guy
everyone’s crazy about

tu Brute carpe artes pauperes salis
dum gratia patris fiat tibi absurdo

you, Brutus, pick out the impoverished arts of wit
so long as you’ve got your dad’s good will, you ridiculous man

aue homo quid in curriculum uadis
de quo non bene cogito?

hey, dude, why are you wandering onto the racetrack
that I don’t think well of?

Others entered the danger zone, of either hanky panky or sacrilege:

ueni ad opus sub toga filii proximi
I got to work underneath the toga of the boy next door

coitus habeas tremens ante nauseam
may you, trembling, have sex to the point of nausea

pax alma mirabilis
pacifici Satanas domini beati
toto anno aureo
in cetera terra beata

the wondrous nourishing peace
of the peace-bringing blessed lord, o Satan,
within the entire golden year
in the remaining blessed land

nosce unum partum e culpa dei:
filius caueat de te pater
et de poena dura
et nomine minimo delicti

recognize one born out of God’s mistake:
the Son is on guard against you, Father,
and against harsh punishment
and against the slightest name of criminal action

But the best ones took me into the realm of the bizarre:

lupus bipes Christum in flumina sequitur
minima cum cura

a wolf walking on its hind legs chases Christ into the rivers
he don’t give a fuck

alter emptor lupi mortui exit e gloria populi
the dead wolf’s other buyer has lost the good reputation of the public

uiam inueniam
aut bona faciam absentia
nulla fide

I’ll find a way—
or I’ll make all my property disappear
with no regrets

mortem malo
sed corpus magnum uirile ago
per uitam
annum perpetuum

I prefer death
but I drag my giant manly body
through life
for an endless year

And in case it wasn’t clear what the whole Magnetic Poetry set was trying (with middling results) to do, notice that one standalone magnet at the top of the photo:

I managed to use every single word in the kit, which means this page has the sum of all Latin Magnetic Poetry options — so now it’s your turn to mix & match. Post your handiwork in the comments!

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Associate Professor of Classics and Zachary T. Smith Fellow at Wake Forest University. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Satire, and co-organizer of Feminism & Classics 2020 (err…2021? 2022?). Send quibbles, emendations, and scandalized expressions of dismay to him at thmgg@wfu.edu.

Building a Lyre and Playing Sappho

My name is Mary McLoughlin, and I am the creator of the Playing Sappho project (and of many lyres). Playing Sappho is both the name of my project, and my website where I have a blog and YouTube page dedicated to helping people re-create the music of Sappho, through How-To guides on building lyres, and signing in Ancient Greek, as well as some overall background for Sappho and her context.

I designed this project in fulfillment of my Senior Independent Study at the College of Wooster. I deeply love Sappho’s work, but I did not feel like I could add anything significant to the current scholarly debate surrounding her. So, I thought it would be worthwhile to design a project of public history and accessibility. One of the problems with classics, and the study of Sappho, is that it happens almost exclusively at a level of academic discourse (which is what makes websites like Sententiae Antiquae so cool!).

I wanted to make Sappho’s music more accessible, in its entirety. Which meant also helping people build lyres on the cheap, and figuring out how to sing in ancient Greek. I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to do this work, and post-graduation intend to keep the project going (and building better lyres). It’s important to understand my re-creation of Sappho’s performance is far from ‘accurate’. Today, not much is known about what her performance would have looked like (though I do agree with scholarship suggesting it was public and choral).

I do the best I can, but I am just one person, now in quarantine, as we all are. When I sing in ancient Greek I am trying to make it sound good to a modern ear, Sappho probably would have thought it sounded ridiculous. This project is a love letter to Sappho, and in a lot of ways I feel as though I’m a little kid putting on a grown woman’s appearance and mimicking her work. I am ‘playing’ at Sappho. I believe the beauty of her work is enough; and I hope to share it with others and encourage them to re-create it themselves.

All that being said, I made my fair share of mistakes. I had a ton of issues making different lyres. Bending wood/ other materials was a consistent problem for me in lyre building, as was my final design shape (my final lyre looks more like a lyra than a barbitos). I had issues sourcing materials, and had to compromise on my final lyre by using a turtle shell, rather than a tortoise shell. This lead to its own issues and challenges. I am by no means a skilled craftsman, and my inexperience lead to a lot of mistakes. I am very lucky I still have all my fingers after building several prototypes and my final lyre. I’m also not a great videographer, which is clear from my many videos of my project and process.

My biggest issue in this whole project is that I would often not refer back to my source material as often as I should have – which resulted in my final lyre being the wrong shape, and essentially looking like a different type of instrument (a good way to conceptualize this is that it’s as if I was trying to build a bass guitar, and I have an instrument that sounds like a bass guitar, but looks more like a really big guitar, rather than a bass one). I made the errors of someone unfamiliar with this sort of research and execution, which I am. Though I am fortune in that I did succeed, I have a final lyre which looks cool, and a functional website to showcase my platform.

I also want to make it clear that whatever success I did have is due to the tremendously skilled people that helped me throughout this entire process. I was really lucky to have amazing people help me (Such as Stefan Hagel, Michael Girbal, the creators of Lyreavlos, Sententiae Antiquae, my advisors, my parents, different technology experts and the wood shop technician at my college, to say nothing of all my friends and family who encouraged me). Overall, I was challenged by my absolute lack of knowledge and experience but I never let that hold me back. That doesn’t mean that I was successful or courageous, I just had a good idea which I felt could back up my lack of know-how. How well I executed that is up to debate, but I’m proud of the work I did. I truly hope other people can enjoy it.8D7E63DA-DC37-448C-BBD6-7DBEEEBB7949

Reading Tragedy Together When Sheltering Alone

Greek Tragedy Readings, Week 1: Euripides’ Helen (Supported by the Center for Hellenic Studies and the Kosmos Society and Out of Chaos Theatre).

A week or so ago Paul O’Mahony pulled together a few people from the Center for Hellenic Studies (Lanah Koelle and Keith DeStone) with me and several members of the Kosmos Society (including Janet Ozsolak, Helene Emeriaud, Sarah Scott) with an idea: bringing together Hellenists and actors in isolation to do readings and discussions of Greek Tragedy during these strange times. We talked about how important it is to retain human contact and communication to stay sane, how the arts help us reflect on being human and how in these frightening times the humanities have no less a purchase on our imaginations and our needs than at any other.

We sketched out a basic plan to read a play a week and invite professional actors to read scenes together. And then we tried it out the next day. We recorded it rather than performing it live because we had no idea how well it would go. Here it is:

Actors: Evelyn Miller, Richard Neal, Paul O’Mahony, and Eunice Roberts

Questions and comments by Joel Christensen

Designed by Paul O’Mahony with consultation from the Kosmos Society and Joel Christensen (me!)

Scenes include: Helen’s opening speech Helen and Teucer (l. 68-164) Menelaos speech (l.386-438) Menelaos and Old Woman (l.437-484) Menelaos and Helen meet (l.528-661) Menelaos and Helen plotting (l.1031-1093)

I hope you take some time to watch this and read along (we use this text). The conversation was unscripted and mostly unplanned–some of the comments about seeming and being and living at the edge of things or through mediated experiences struck me pretty hard.

We plan to do this on a weekly basis and are looking for experts in tragedy and actors who would like to participate. Please reach out! We hope to give people a chance to spend time thinking about Greek tragedy, engaging with one another, and meeting new people, learning new things.

For next week, we will be running the show live and opening it up to the public:

Wednesday at 3 PM EST we are reading Sophocles’ Philoktetes (using this text) and will be joined by Howard University’s Norman Sandridge. Watch here and the Center for Hellenic Studies website for news.

Tragedy readings

Miraculous Things and Gullible People

Palaephatus, Peri Apistôn 1

“I have composed this work about unbelievable things because rather gullible people believe everything that is said because they are unfamiliar with wisdom or knowledge—but those who are naturally sharper and concerned with many things disbelieve that anything like these things happened at all.

It seems to be that everything which has been narrated happened—for names do not develop on their own when no story exists about them, instead the fact is there first and then a story develops later—but however many shapes and notions are described and existed in the past but do not exist now, these sorts of things never existed at all. For if anything existed at some point in the past, then it also exists now and will again in the future.

And I am always praising the authors Melissos and Lamiskos of Samos who say “What there was in the beginning exists now and will be. But the poets and the storytellers twisted what happened to more unbelievable and amazing things for the sake of surprising people. But I know that if these things couldn’t have happened at all they would not be stories.”

Τάδε περὶ τῶν ἀπίστων συγγέγραφα. ἀνθρώπων γὰρ οἱ μὲν εὐπειθέστεροι πείθονται πᾶσι τοῖς λεγομένοις, ὡς ἀνομίλητοι σοφίας καὶ ἐπιστήμης, οἱ δὲ πυκνότεροι τὴν φύσιν καὶ πολυπράγματοι ἀπιστοῦσι τὸ παράπαν μηδὲ γενέσθαι τι τούτων. ἐμοὶ δὲ δοκεῖ γενέσθαι πάντα τὰ λεγόμενα (οὐ γὰρ ὀνόματα μόνον ἐγένοντο, λόγος δὲ περὶ αὐτῶν οὐδεὶς ὑπῆρξεν· ἀλλὰ πρότερον ἐγένετο τὸ ἔργον, εἶθ’ οὕτως ὁ λόγος ὁ περὶ αὐτῶν)· ὅσα δὲ εἴδη καὶ μορφαί εἰσι λεγόμεναι καὶ γενόμεναι τότε, αἳ νῦν οὐκ εἰσί, τὰ τοιαῦτα οὐκ ἐγένοντο. εἰ γάρ <τί> ποτε καὶ ἄλλοτε ἐγένετο, καὶ νῦν  τε γίνεται καὶ αὖθις ἔσται. ἀεὶ δὲ ἔγωγε ἐπαινῶ τοὺς συγγραφέας Μέλισσον καὶ Λαμίσκον τὸν Σάμιον „ἐν ἀρχῇ” λέγοντας „ἔστιν ἃ ἐγένετο, καὶ νῦν ἔσται”. γενομένων δέ τινα οἱ ποιηταὶ καὶ λογογράφοι παρέτρεψαν εἰς τὸ ἀπιστότερον καὶ θαυμασιώτερον, τοῦ θαυμάζειν ἕνεκα τοὺς ἀνθρώπους. ἐγὼ δὲ γινώσκω ὅτι οὐ δύναται τὰ τοιαῦτα εἶναι οἷα καὶ λέγεται·

A bonnacon uses feces for weapons. 

Annual Top 10

These are the top most viewed posts of the year. (For Comparison, here are last year’s)

  1. No, Aristotle Din’t Write “A Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts”
  2. Nope, Aristotle Did not Say “It is the Mark Of an Educated Mind to Entertain a Thought Without…”
  3. A School Massacre and Toxic Heroism
  4. An Ancient Greek Horror Story to Make You Scream
  5. Racists Use This Fake Quote From Aristotle
  6. Head and Heart: a Quotation Falsely Attributed to Aristotle
  7. A List of Women Authors from the Ancient World
  8. Our Culture: Classics By Exclusion
  9. ‘Classics for Everyone’ Must be More than a Slogan
  10. The Future of Classics, From “Below”

“How many there are who degrade the Latin language!”
Quam multi sunt, qui verba Latina depravant! -Piccolomini

The Aristotle posts were all written before last year but seem to get a lot of hits from search engines. Here is the list of last year’s top posts that debuted last year

1. A School Massacre and Toxic Heroism

An essay starting with the heroic tale of Kleomedes the Astupulaian and suggesting that heroic “patterns” are part of our problem with school shootings

2. Our Culture: Classics By Exclusion

A reflection on the history of exclusion that characterizes Classics as a discipline

3. ‘Classics for Everyone’ Must be More than a Slogan

Dani Bostick’s essay on how superficial our efforts to expand the appeal of classics can be

4. The Future of Classics, From “Below”

Dani Bostick’s essay on how discussions of the future of Classics rarely includes high school teachers and students

5. Non-Elite Latin for the Classroom

Brandon Conley’s excellent introduction and selections of non-literary texts for the classroom

6. From the Iliad to the Irishman

Erik’s review of Martin Scorsese’s recent film from the perspective of Classics

7. Dumpster-Fire Retrospective: Hanson, Homer, Horseshit

If you don’t remember Who Killed Homer?, this might be a good place to start

8. Against Pedantry

An essay on the harmful stances we take in public and the classroom and how it shapes the way we learn and behave

9. Beauty and Privilege: Latin, Paideia, and Papyri

Who is foolish enough to try to connect a recent book about loving Latin with the cultural problems of the Paideia Institute and Dirk Obbink’s Papyrological shenanigans?

10. “Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down” in Ancient Greek

Pretty much exactly what it sounds like

The essays on academia, our discipline, and culture seem to be some of the most popular, but Erik’s review of “The Irishman” has been only live for a few weeks. I am also a big fan of his takedown of “Who Killed Homer?” (#7). The title is great; the fire inside is better.

Death Board

A Digital Apolococyntosis

Introducing a new series (#SciencethePast): My colleague, Dr. Alexandra Ratzlaff, has been working with the Brandeis Techne Group as Residents at the Autodesk Technology Center and in partnership with the Brandeis MakerLab run by Brandeis’ very own Ian Roy. They have some pretty amazing work to feature, but in our autumnal mood, here’s a post-Halloween Update.

We posted earlier on the Pumpkinception, but here are some images and links to higher resolution models. We used the pumpkin exercise to practice some of the work we do with objects in the Brandeis CLARC (Classical Art Research Collection) and to train for work we do in the field (more on that soon).

We scanned the Techne pumpkin using an Artec Spider 3D scanner and then rendered it in Metashape.  (Here’s the Artec 3D website.)

Here’s a link to the Sketchfab version

For comparison, we did the same thing with photogrammatry using the SCAPP and rendered it in Metashape too.

What’s the SCAPP bot? Stay tuned…

If you go to this link, you can see the 3D model and some other cool stuff they are doing.

Bad Manners, Worse Quotations: Some More Fake Socrates

In this week’s Globe Magazine piece “Why Kids Today are So Rude…” by Nicole Graev Lipson, we find a pretty piquant line uncritically attributed to Socrates.socrates (2)

Surprise! This does not actually come from ancient Greece.

The earliest attestation of this quotation I could find with a google search appears in The Massachusetts Teacher, volume 3 (1923), but quote investigator traces this back to 1907.

Luxury 1923

After this, it begins to appear widely in educational writing after the 1950s. The phrase certainly has words that occur in English translations of Plato with some frequency (“tyrant, Luxury” etc.). But essential ideas of disrespect in the passage such as crossing legs or not rising to greet  parents are wholly modern.

I searched a bit through Plato and there is a chance that something like this is somewhere, but for now this seems to be total nonsense. Bartleby got to that point, but buried the lede.

luxury 2

It is disappointing that there was no fact-checking on this one. The Boston area just might host the greatest density of Classicists in the United States. How hard would it be to reach out to someone about Classical quotations?


h/t to the peerless .@professormortis for pointing this out


My colleague Dr. Alex Ratzlaff and the Brandeis Techne Group at Autodesk carved this pumpkin, then 3D laser-scanned and rendered it with training from Ian Roy and the Brandeis MakerLab.

Talk about tekhne and partnerships! This is awesome and super meta. Also, it reminded me of Apocolocyntosis, Seneca’s neologism for “becoming a gourd” (Pumpkinification, his description for the apotheosis of poor Divus Claudius)

What would you call the digital apotheosis of a gourd?


Alex does really cool work and is going to start blogging about it. So, this is a preview. But, hey, it is also a season for pumpkins. (Werewolf week starts tomorrow.)

Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 4-5

“And he spat up his soul and then he seemed to stop living. He died, moreover, while he listened to comedians, so you understand that I do not fear them without reason. His final voice was heard among people as follows. When he emitted the greater sound with that part with which he spoke more easily, he said “Oh my, I shat myself I think”. Whether or not he did this, I do not know: but he certainly fouled up the place.

The things that were done next on earth are useless to report—for you certainly know it clearly. There is no risk that the memory left by public celebration will disappear—no one forgets his own joy. What was done in heaven, you should hear—the proof will come from the author!

It was announced to Jupiter that a man of certain good size had come, really grey. I don’t know what he was threatening, since he was constantly moving his head and dragging his right foot. When they asked what country he was from he responded with a confused sound and troubled voice—they could not understand his language. He was not Greek or Roman or of any other race.

Then Jupiter sent Hercules who had wandered over the whole earth and seemed to know every nation. He ordered him to go and explore what people this man was from. Then Hercules was a bit undone by the first sight because he had not yet feared all the monsters. As he gazed upon this new kind of a thing with its uncommon step, a voice belonging to no earth-bound beast but more like something coming out of a marine monster, coarse and wordless, he thought that he had arrived at a thirteenth labor. As he looked more closely, it seemed to him to be a man. Se he went up to him and said what comes easiest to a Greek tongue. “Who are you among men and from where? Where is your city and parents?”

Et ille quidem animam ebulliit, et ex eo desiit vivere videri. Exspiravit autem dum comoedos audit, ut scias me non sine causa illos timere. Ultima vox eius haec inter homines audita est, cum maiorem sonitum emisisset illa parte, qua facilius loquebatur: “vae me, puto, concacavi me.” Quod an fecerit, nescio: omnia certe concacavit.

Quae in terris postea sint acta, supervacuum est referre. Scitis enim optime, nec periculum est ne excidant memoriae quae gaudium publicum impresserit: nemo felicitatis suae obliviscitur. In caelo quae acta sint, audite: fides penes auctorem erit. Nuntiatur Iovi venisse quendam bonae staturae, bene canum; nescio quid illum minari, assidue enim caput movere; pedem dextrum trahere. Quaesisse se, cuius nationis esset: respondisse nescio quid perturbato sono et voce confusa; non intellegere se linguam eius, nec Graecum esse nec Romanum nec ullius gentis notae. Tum Iuppiter Herculem, qui totum orbem terrarum pererraverat et nosse videbatur omnes nationes, iubet ire et explorare, quorum hominum esset. Tum Hercules primo aspectu sane perturbatus est, ut qui etiam non omnia monstra timuerit. Ut vidit novi generis faciem, insolitum incessum, vocem nullius terrestris animalis sed qualis esse marinis beluis solet, raucam et implicatam, putavit sibi tertium decimum laborem venisse. Diligentius intuenti visus est quasi homo. Accessit itaque et quod facillimum fuit Graeculo, ait:

τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν, πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες;

These Are The Insults I know

Phrynichus 74 Athen. 2. 44d (i 103 Kaibel)

“Lampros the musician was a water-drinker. Phrynichus says of him: sea-weed lamented for Lampros, a water-drinker who died in it, whiny uber-sophist, a Muse mortician, the Nightingale’s nightmare, and a hymn to Hades”

ὑδροπότης δ᾿ ἦν καὶ Λάμπρος ὁ μουσικός, περὶ οὗ Φρύνιχός φησι (fr. 74 K.-A.)·
λάρους θρηνεῖν, ἐν οἷσι Λάμπρος ἐναπέθνῃσκεν ἄνθρωπος <ὢν> ὑδατοπότης, μινυρὸς ὑπερσοφιστής, Μουσῶν σκελετός, ἀηδόνων ἠπίαλος, ὕμνος Ἅιδου.

File:Terracotta hydria (water jar) MET 180966.jpg
A  water jar from the MET, C. 560 BCE

Brillionaire’s Club

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

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

Diodorus Siculus 1.49

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

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

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

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

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

Jacoby 2

this is just beautiful.

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

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

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

Petrarch, Epistles 3.18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Money is the cause of many of mortals’ evils

πολλῶν τὰ χρήματ᾿ αἴτι ᾿ ἀνθρώποις κακῶν #Euripides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nosse bonos libros non minima pars est bonae eruditionis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

We can create our own publishing paradigms

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