Staging Epic and Tragedy: A Workshop

In March of 2020, as pandemic lockdowns started in the US and the UK, Paul O’Mahony and I met with Keith DeStone and Lanah Koelle of the Center for Hellenic Studies to try to figure out some way to stay sane and to keep ‘working’ at something. A few days later we tried our very first recording of Reading Greek Tragedy Online, sketched out around the basic idea of bringing professional actors and academics into conversation about the performance of ancient tragedy. Early on, we were supported by the production team at the Center for Hellenic Studies and Kosmos Society with the creative direction of Out of Chaos Theatre. We also eventually received a grant from the Society for Classical Studies “Classics Everywhere” Initiative.

What happened next basically stayed true to our original idea, but also showed how limited our understanding of it was. We recorded over 40 videos between March and December, including segments from every full Greek tragedy, selections of fragments, three comedies, parts of the Iliad , a 24 hour performance of the Odyssey across six continents, and a competition for high school and college students with cash prizes (guided with help from Amy Pistone). We learned a lot from each other about Greek theater, interpreting Greek myth, and performing in the confines of the small screen. But I think we also learned a lot about why performing and interpreting these ancient texts together matters, especially during times of uncertainty and crisis.

Beyond all else, I learned how much a larger community can enrich this process. Part of our working practice from the beginning was to bring in as many people as possible and listen to their directions, reactions, and ideas. This week at the annual meeting of the AIA/SCS, Paul and I are holding a workshop to try to see where we can go next. We will be talking about the experience of performing these plays online with actors and other guests, but we will also be seeking advice for what we do next.

The workshop will be split into two halves, one reflective and instructive followed by an opportunity to engage in performance and staging itself. We are also eager to hear feedback about our work and have conversations about what happens next.

Prior registration is not required (although AIA/SCS Registration is!); no experience is required. Come and share a few hours reading and performing Greek tragedy.

 How it started

how it’s going

SCS-15: Staging Epic and Tragedy 9am-12pm CST [official description]

The format of this workshop will be practical, based on performing ancient texts and stories. It will focus in particular on staging ideas for tragedy and epic in theatre today and it will explore the positive impact of performance in academic settings. There will be practical exercises for those who would like to get involved and there will be discussion between the two panellists (the two organizers). This will be an opportunity to explore collaboration between academic and artistic practitioners, and to discover how such work can enrich their respective fields. There will be particular attention paid to the Aeneid, exploring the challenges posed by staging epic, and the opportunities created by ancient stories illuminating ongoing political and social upheaval within Europe (and beyond).

Here’s a podcast covering the creation of this series.

BADA is launching a program in part inspired by this series: Greek Theatre: From the Ancient World to the Modern, Through Theory and Performance 

 

The Annual Top 10 Post

These are the posts published for the first time in 2020 that received the most views.Certain posts about Aristotle keep getting hits, but we’ll leave that nonsense out of the mix.

  1. On Classics, Madness, and Losing EverythingStefani Echeverria-Fenn telling the story of her painful experience with Classics
  2. Skip Sleep & Blast Through HomerErik’s surprise hit with an excerpt from E.V. Blomfeld, Biographical Memoir of Joseph Justus Scaliger:
  3. A Vote Against Pericles is a Vote Against Plague — Flint Dibble’s fabulous essay paring down the truth from the propaganda about Pericles and the plague
  4. On Not Reading Homer — a response to an ongoing debate about requiring Homer for Classics majors in the UK
  5. Founding Frauds of the Role-Playing Republic — Erik’s barnstorming unmasking of the shallowness of early American classicism
  6. On Reading Homer –a response to the response to my response encouraging people not to read Homer, outlining a more holistic approach to reading Epic
  7. Blogging My Way to a Booka record of how I used blogging over a five year period to help write a book
  8. Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma imagine the folly of starting to think about collective trauma only a month into the US COVID19 shutdown
  9.  Reading Poems at the End of the World — further navel gazing at the beginning of the end of the beginning of the end of the world

Perseus and Andromeda in “The House of Mirth”

Looking at the Reception of a Greek Myth in Edith Wharton’s Novel

Edith Wharton’s second novel, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905 and portrays New York high society in America’s Gilded Age. It focuses on the beautiful Lily Bart, a woman of birth but no money, who has been brought up by her mother to value luxury and to believe that her looks will make her fortune.

The novel takes place in her 29th year, and it becomes clear early on that she has balked at the chances of great marriages that have come her way in the past and now needs to take the plunge or face sliding into a ‘dingy’ spinsterhood. She is thwarted – or perhaps saved – in this by a chance meeting with Lawrence Selden at Grand Central Station.

As the novel progresses, her slender grasp on high society fails and she ends up destitute and lonely, dying from an overdose of chloral, but with her personal integrity in tact. Through Lily Bart’s story, Wharton explores, amongst other things, themes of love and marriage, gender, the individual and society and class. It is a powerful and heartbreakingly tragic read.

Well – what had brought him there but the quest of her? It was her element, not his. But he would lift her out of it, take her beyond. That Beyond! on her letter was like a cry for rescue. He knew that Perseus’s task is not done when he has loosed Andromeda’s chains, for her limbs are numb with bondage, and she cannot rise and walk, but clings to him with dragging arms as he beats back to land with his burden. Well, he had the strength for both – it has her weakness which had put the strength in him. It was not, alas, a clean rush of waves they had to win through, but a clogging morass of old associations and habits, and for the moment its vapours were in his throat. But he would see clearer, breathe freer in her presence: she was at once the dead weight at his breast and the spar which should float them to safety.

As Lawrence Selden resolves to marry Lily Bart, he pictures himself as the classical hero, Perseus, on a ‘quest’ and Lily as Andromeda, chained to a rock in the sea. As he perceives Lily, she is chained, by her upbringing, to the fate of marrying the highest bidder and living high in the shallow and corrupt world of New York’s one hundred families. This undoubtedly speaks to his masculine ideas of heroism and female vulnerability, but it is revealing to consider why Wharton reached for Perseus and Andromeda at this point, rather than any other classical couple. In this, my primary source is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Andromeda plays of Sophocles and Euripides being lost.[1]

Still from “The House of Mirth” starring Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz

Wharton establishes the trope of Lily as damsel in distress and Selden as her heroic rescuer from the very start of The House of Mirth, albeit in a gently ironic way. As Lily hails Selden at the station she says, ‘How nice of you to come to my rescue’, although he was unsure ‘what form the rescue was to take’. At this stage, the gallant hero merely has to provide cooler air, tea and a distraction for a while as Lily waits for her next train, but as Selden looks at Lily’s bracelets during that first encounter, it seems that the idea of Andromeda is already in his mind. Just as Ovid’s Perseus (and Euripides’s before him, as the fragments suggest) first perceives Andromeda as a statue until he notices the breeze in her hair, so Selden watches Lily’s hand, ‘polished as a bit of old ivory’.

Alongside this, he sees ‘the links of her bracelet’ as ‘manacles chaining her to her fate’, so much ‘a victim of the civilization which had produced her’ is she. Here the novel bears out her similarity with Andromeda: Andromeda is chained to the rock as a sacrifice, necessary because of ‘her mother’s tongue’ (Illic inmeritam maternae penderae linguae…) in boasting that Andromeda’s beauty outshone the Nereids’. Lily too is the victim of her mother’s belief in her beauty. After Mr. Bart’s bankruptcy and death, Mrs. Bart fetishizes Lily’s beauty, studying it ‘with a passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance.’ She sees it as the means by which their fortunes would be rebuilt and inculcates Lily not only with her own horror of ‘dinginess’, but also with the belief that ‘only stupidity’ could induce anyone to marry for love, where there is no financial advantage. So, we might see Lily as ‘chained’ to this ambitious matrimonial path by her mother’s pride in her beauty.

As Lily and Selden’s relationship develops, Lily notices her chains to some degree. Though, when Selden arrives at Bellomont, Lily still means to marry Percy Gryce, Selden’s presence causes her to reevaluate the people around her and she becomes aware that this society represents a ‘great gilt cage… as she heard its door clang on her!’ Her stolen walk with Selden, on Sunday, is littered with the words ‘freedom’ and ‘emancipation’, as she rebels against the social expectations of ‘a jeune fille à marier’, and in Selden’s explanation of ‘the republic of the spirit’, she catches the glimpse of an alternate life which will change her view of the world forever.

It is when on this walk too that Lily starts to analyze her relationship with Selden and in this, her chains begin to be reconfigured. She says, ‘The peculiar charm of her feeling for Selden was that she understood it; she could put her finger on every link of the chain that was drawing them together.’ This comparison of the chains fettering the maiden, to the chains joining lovers, is one that again harks back to Ovid’s Perseus who exclaims on seeing Andromeda, ‘O fairest! whom these chains become not so, / But worthy are for links that lovers bind’ (Ut stetit, “o” dixit “non istis digna catenis / sed quibus inter se cupidi iunguntur amantes…”).

The power relationship implied by such chains is not one explored explicitly by either Ovid or Wharton although it is explored implicitly by both.[2] Though we hear that Perseus’s wings almost ‘forgot to wave’ (paene suas quatere est oblitus in aere pennas), so enamored was he of Andromeda’s beauty, we do not hear how Andromeda responded to him at all. Indeed, all she can do at this point is cry, and her marriage to Perseus is all fixed up with her parents before he goes on to fight the monster.[3] After the rescue, she is referred to, unnamed, as his pretium, meaning reward, with all of its financial connotations, a gesture which dehumanizes her.

Though Wharton’s treatment of the power relationship between Lily and Selden is more detailed and complex, Lily, as a single woman in late nineteenth-century high society, is also entirely vulnerable. Her beauty gives her a certain power over men, and over Selden specifically, but she quickly realizes its limits as her integrity begins to be questioned. Indeed, Selden himself cannot forgive her for what he is quick to perceive as her immoral relationship with Gus Trenor. As Mrs. Peniston’s free indirect narrative suggests, ‘however unfounded the charges’ against a young girl being ‘talked about’ by society, ‘she must be to blame for their having been made.’ This exemplifies women’s powerlessness and the need always for their behavior to be beyond reproach, particularly where there is no man, or no parent to defend their honor. Though Lily knows herself to have been compromised by her transaction with Trenor, and she is though innocent of the grosser charges, Wharton underlines the impossibly high and, simultaneously, morally corrupt standards governing women’s behavior in the scathing irony of such statements as Mrs. Peniston’s above, but also in the barefaced hypocrisy of married women like Bertha Dorset, whom society will not condemn for her ruinous affairs as long as her husband looks the other way. In this sense, Lily has almost as little power in her relationship with Selden, as Andromeda in hers with Perseus.

And so to Selden’s heroism. Both Ovid and Wharton portray their heroes with ambivalence. Although in the action of the rescue, Ovid’s description of Perseus slaying of the dragon is described in more conventionally heroic terms, there are suggestions elsewhere that he is less than heroic. When he first sees Andromeda and is captivated by her beauty, as she stands chained to the rock, he does not dive down immediately to rescue her, but first announces himself to her parents in boastful terms.

In the translation, Perseus repeats the word ‘I’, followed by the facts of his greatness, while in the Latin, he repeats his name: ‘I, who am the son of Regal Jove / And her whom he embraced in showers of gold … I, Perseus, who destroyed the Gorgon … I, who dared on waving wings / To cleave ethereal air’ (Hanc ego si peterem Perseus Iove natus … Gorgonis anguicomae Perseus superator et alis / aerias ausus iactatis ire per auras). This repetition together with the recital of his achievements, particularly at this time, augurs of something egotistical, even if it is done with the purpose of winning Andromeda’s hand in marriage. One might question, as Sarah Annes Brown does, why, when ‘Time waits / for tears, but flies the moment of our need’ (Lacrimarum longa manere / tempora vos poterunt), Perseus wastes it in ‘boasting of his manly prowess instead of getting on with the rescue’![4]

The Rock of Doom (The Perseus Cycle 6) (c. 1885-1888) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (from Wikipedia)

Similarly, in telling of his conquest of Medusa, Perseus seems oblivious to the tragedy of her story – details of which are thought to have been introduced by Ovid himself – her beauty which induced Poseidon to rape her in Athena’s temple, and Athena’s subsequent anger, not with Poseidon but with Medusa, which resulted in her metamorphosis to a gorgon. The ambiguity around Perseus’ heroism is something which has been portrayed in other depictions too, which might have influenced Wharton’s exploration of heroism. Burne-Jones’s The Rock of Doom, part of his Perseus series, was begun in 1875 and never finished, and while it is unknown whether Wharton saw the painting, it undoubtedly bears a resemblance to her representation of Lily and Selden.

In it, Perseus is an effeminate figure; though he is not as vulnerable and submissive as Andromeda, who is naked, his armor seems molded to his body, revealing every muscle of his androgynous body. Just as Andromeda’s head tilts bashfully in towards the rock, as she peers up at him, so Perseus peeks shyly around the side of the rock, looking at her out of the corners of his eyes. Though his hero’s sword is draped visibly at his front, his stance is scarcely one of strength: he is leaning on the rock with one hand while balanced on one leg, made buoyant by his winged feet, but in a position that denotes hesitancy or timidity. Similarly, when depicted fighting the monster in The Doom Fulfilled, he seems entangled in the monster’s serpentine tail. As I suggested in the last paragraph, about the power dynamic between the pair, it is complex, but Lily’s vulnerability, explored above, is mirrored in Andromeda’s nakedness. Chained and naked, her only power is in her beauty.

Selden, like Burne-Jones’s Perseus, is not domineeringly masculine or conventionally heroic. Early in the novel, the two of them teeter on the edge of commitment, one taking a step forward only for the other to draw back and vice versa, both afraid of the changes such a commitment would mean for the course of their lives, and each too proud to let the other see the depth of their feelings. At Bellomont, they accuse each other of cowardice in not wanting to go further and at the end of their walk, Selden judges Lily negatively when she reacts self-consciously to a passing car, knowing that she is worried her deception of Percy might be discovered, even though he has freely admitted that he has ‘nothing to give [her] instead.’ This is the pattern which continues throughout the novel: Selden pulls back from proposing to Lily after seeing her leaving the Trenors’, jumping to conclusions about her life without giving her the chance to explain; similarly, when he speaks with her after the crisis with the Dorsets, he knows that he has not supported her and that his ‘miserable silence’ speaks only of judgement but he feels the full weight of suspicion and cannot bring himself to speak.

Lily’s pride also holds her back, for example, when Selden visits her at the Emporium to try to persuade her to leave Mrs Hatch, she admits to herself that ‘she would rather persist in darkness than owe her enlightenment to Selden’ even though she knows that he is right. However, Selden is too forgiving of himself and perhaps Wharton is too forgiving of him too. At the very ending, in what is perhaps Selden’s free indirect narrative, or perhaps the narrative voice of the novel, Wharton writes that

It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction; which, in her, had reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her surroundings, and in him, had kept alive the faith that now drew him penitent and reconciled to her side.

According to this romantic vision of this victory of their love, Lily’s attempts to be worthy of his love are one with his dormant and now awakened belief in her. And yet, that ‘dormant belief’ caused him to condemn her and shun her, along with the rest of society, while she lost everything and died a miserable, lonely death, in poverty! When I read that he is ‘too honest to disown his cowardice now’, I cannot help feeling that this is too little too late.

Finally, it remains to deal with the matter of rescue – rescue from what? and in what sense we might speak of ‘rescue’ at all. While in all the previous depictions of Perseus and Andromeda, Perseus has had to fight a sea monster, in the quotation at the start of this post, Selden merely imagines battling the sea, and not a ‘clean rush of waves’ but a ‘morass’, or swamp, of social ties and expectations. Lily is united with him in seeing the sea as her enemy, with images of turbulent water and rising tides used at every moment of distress. Early on, dinginess is the foe and she pictures herself ‘dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success’, while after meeting Trenor, the enemy becomes her own guilty conscience as ‘Over and over her the sea of humiliation broke – wave crashing on wave so close that the mortal shame was one with the physical dread’.

On her last evening too, Lily reflects on the feeling of ‘being rootless and ephemeral … without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them’, while after death, the tumult is pacified and Selden feels himself ‘drawn down into the strange mysterious depths of her tranquility.’ However, though Selden imagines himself as the active rescuer as he prepares to propose to Lily, removing her from the social ‘morass’ which is dragging her down, Lily looks to Selden for a more spiritual and less practical rescue. Even at the moment, when still reeling from the shame of her meeting with Trenor, she questions ‘Was there not a promise of rescue in his love?’ and brings herself to the brink of accepting his expected proposal, she also knows, ‘even in the full storm of her misery, that Selden’s love could not be her ultimate refuge’, and that she needs to find the means within herself to escape.

Like in The Age of Innocence, where Wharton makes it clear that the love between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer is a product of the romantic need in each of them and could never work in reality, so, in The House of Mirth, even though the tragedy rests on Lily and Selden’s failure to realize in time the extent of their love for each other, we are made to question whether such a union was ever a real possibility. What is clear, is that Selden’s love, even in the past tense, represents a way for Lily to retain her integrity until the last. In her final meeting she says to him that the things he said to her at Bellomont ‘kept [her] from really becoming what many people have thought [her].’ And though he replies that this ‘difference’ came from her and not from him, she insists that ‘[she] needed the help of [his] belief in [her]’. So it is that though Selden does not provide much tangible help in his rescue of Lily – he does not stab and plunge his sword into the monster’s back and entrails like Ovid’s Perseus – it is the idea of him, the idea of his love and of the way in which he once saw her, that gives Lily the freedom to stay true to herself in the face of society’s temptations, even when confronted by the prospect of a fortune as vast as Rosedale’s. In another version of the Andromeda myth, she sees herself ‘chained’ to another, ‘abhorrent’, version of herself, instead of a rock, and Selden’s love gives her the strength to stop this other self from dragging her under. As she walks away from his flat for the last time, she feels herself ‘buoyant’ again, the same word used as when she is drawn towards him (and away from Gryce and church) at Bellomont, at the start of the novel.

Wharton’s reception of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda and its various literary and pictorial depictions – only very few of which I have explored here – open doors to thinking about women’s agency and late nineteenth-century masculinity as represented in The House of Mirth. This particular myth seems to resonate more, perhaps, than others because of the equivocal portrayal of Perseus in other classical and Victorian versions, and because Andromeda’s chains allow Wharton to reflect on the variety of ways in which women were constrained in high society at that time. Finally, the fact that Selden casts himself as the classical hero and Lily as the submissive damsel in need of his rescue speaks volumes.

Primarily, The House of Mirth is centred around Lily, the narrative closely focused around her consciousness, but it begins and ends with Selden’s perceptions of her, perceptions which surface at various points in between. Such narrative construction reminds us that though Wharton is presenting us with a novel about a single woman in late nineteenth-century America, such a woman could not exist independently, without being ‘read’ and construed by the male gaze. And as we read Selden, reading Lily, betraying his own limitations, prejudices and vanities, so we might consider what our own construction of her may reveal.

As you can see from the above conclusion, this mode of using classical reception in literary analysis is revealing of much more than an author’s, or character’s, interest in mythology; indeed, Selden’s slightly self-congratulatory bookishness in the face of society’s resolute ignorance is something I have not even addressed here! In a longer piece, I would have liked also to have explored Ovid’s Perseus, as a hero, in the context of the epic tradition, alongside Aeneas or Achilles, and to think about Selden and Lily too in the context of nineteenth-century novelistic heroes and heroines. Even as it stands though, the study of Perseus and Andromeda, for me, opens up the themes of masculinity and femininity in the novel, and offers a means to understand the characters and their tangled relationship, in a way that I had not before. This piece actually stands as a companion piece to one on Lily’s relationship with the Furies, and the reception of the Oresteia in the novel (published in the English and Media Centre magazine, emag, in December 2020), which, similarly, opens up themes of fate and free will and a more nuanced and multi-dimensional understanding of these.

This kind of reading is important to my high school English teaching, in which the exam criteria for students requires them to use the contexts of their texts in order to add depth to their interpretations. Frequently, socio-historical detail, while important, can lead to socio-historical, rather than literary, essays but using literary context requires students to focus further into the details of the text, rather than around it. Reception was also central to my own PhD thesis on memory and ancient Greek literature, in which literary memory – which might otherwise be understood as intertextuality – formed an important strand, in terms of casting new light on old debates.

Sophie Raudnitz teaches English at Oundle School in the UK. She has a degree in English and a PhD in Classics. Her thesis used modern memory theory to explore ancient Greek epic, tragedy and philosophy. Twitter @seraudnitz


[1] I am using the Brookes More translation on The Perseus Project website.

[2] As an aside, it is explored in Connie Rosen’s poem, ‘Andromeda’, in which she invites the reader to ‘consider the problem of chains’, and imagines the chains binding the woman to the rock disintegrating as a new chain between Andromeda and Perseus is forged.

[3] This is an interesting contrast to Euripides’ play in which Andromeda’s father, Cepheus, is against her marriage to Perseus. There, her duty as a daughter is pitted against her will to marry the hero.

[4] Sarah Annes Brown, Ovid: Myth and Metamorphosis (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2005), p.34.

What’s Your Writing Like Without Quotations?

Diogenes Laertius, Chrysippos  7.7.180

“Apollodorus the Athenian in his Summary of Beliefs, because he wants to demonstrate that the works of Epicurus were written with personal force and were prepared with far fewer quotations than the books of Chrysippos, says in this very wording: “if the books of [Chrysippos] were scrubbed of all the superfluous quotations, only empty paper would be left to him.”

So much for Apollodorus.  The old women who used to sit next to [Chrysippos], according to Diocles, used to claim that he wrote 500 lines each day. Hekatôn reports that he turned to philosophy because the property left to him by his father was confiscated to the royal treasury.”

Καὶ Ἀπολλόδωρος δ᾿ ὁ Ἀθηναῖος ἐν τῇ Συναγωγῇ τῶν δογμάτων, βουλόμενος παριστάνειν ὅτι τὰ Ἐπικούρου οἰκείᾳ δυνάμει γεγραμμένα καὶ ἀπαράθετα ὄντα μυρίῳ πλείω ἐστὶ τῶν Χρυσίππου βιβλίων, φησὶν οὕτως αὐτῇ τῇ λέξει· “εἰ γάρ τις ἀφέλοι τῶν Χρυσίππου βιβλίων ὅσ᾿ ἀλλότρια παρατέθειται, κενὸς αὐτῷ ὁ χάρτης καταλελείψεται.” καὶ ταῦτα μὲν Ἀπολλόδωρος. ἡ δὲ παρεδρεύουσα πρεσβῦτις αὐτῷ, ὥς φησι Διοκλῆς, ἔλεγεν ὡς πεντακοσίους γράφοι στίχους ἡμερησίους. Ἑκάτων δέ φησιν ἐλθεῖν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ φιλοσοφίαν, τῆς οὐσίας αὐτοῦ τῆς πατρῴας εἰς τὸ βασιλικὸν ἀναληφθείσης.

25909_2[1]
Hedgehog number 2,  British Library, MS Egerton 1121, f. 44v.

Ancient Greek Abstract Art

The title of this post will most likely strike the reader as nonsensical. The canon of Graeco-Roman art, populated with statues of athletes, friezes of battles, a Pompeian fresco or two of dancing fauns, seems to leave no space for abstraction. Most of us think of classical art as uniformly figurative, and we perceive this mimetic tradition as unbroken until the nineteenth century, when experimental figures like J. M. W. Turner begin to display an ever-lesser interest in the minute reproduction of the visually perceptible world.

The likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, it is commonly thought, deal the final blow to the formerly unchallenged tradition of representational art as they start to paint pure abstractions, art bearing no trace of reference to anything recognizable. This straightforward narrative of linear development is challenged in a striking story told by Pliny in his Natural History. In a fascinating anecdote, surprisingly little-known given the extraordinary evidence it presents, Pliny introduces us to the world’s first abstract painting, composed by the celebrated painters Apelles and Protogenes in the fourth century BC.

The story goes as follows. Apelles, the most accomplished painter of all time according to Pliny, once visited the studio of the likewise respected Protogenes, curious to see the works he had so far only heard rumors of. He found nobody there except an old slave and an empty canvas ready for painting. Instead of telling the slave to inform Protogenes of his arrival, Apelles simply drew an exquisitely fine line on the empty canvas and left. When Protogenes returned and examined the line, he instantly knew that Apelles had been there, as only he could have drawn something that perfect.

In reply, Protogenes drew an even finer line in different color upon the previous one and went out again. Soon, Apelles returned and found himself surpassed in Protogenes’ reply. He took up another color and drew an even finer, barely discernible line upon the previous two, leaving no space for anything more delicate to be executed, and left. At this point, Protogenes conceded defeat and went out in search of Apelles to finally make his acquaintance. Left behind in the studio was a piece of abstract art.

Sharing the fate of the vast majority of classical art, not a single painting by either Apelles or Protogenes has survived until the present day. Some believe that we can catch a glimpse of Apelles’ work in the Pompeian Venus Rising from the Sea, speculating that it is a copy of the artist’s renowned version of the motif.

So far, there is nothing exceptional in this story. The Natural History is full of such more or less believable anecdotes of artistic dexterity. Pliny, marvelling at the extraordinary verisimilitude in the finest examples of realist painting, relates how horses would neigh when confronted with Apelles’ painting of a horse, and how birds would peck at Zeuxis’ likeness of grapes. Apelles’ Pollock-like technique of throwing a wet sponge at his canvas to create the effect of foam sounds more unorthodox, yet ultimately results in a meticulously realistic reproduction of the recognizable world as well.

Apelles’ and Protogenes’ painting makes no such attempt at mimesis. This would still be nothing surprising in a mere display of artistic skill, and so far the story has not suggested that the painters perceived their competition as anything more. But in a tantalizing twist at the end, Pliny recounts how Apelles and Protogenes thought it appropriate to treat this exercise as a finished work of art, and how it was displayed to an admiring and appreciative public, even only recently at the Imperial palace on the Palatine:

Among the most elaborate works it had all the appearance of a blank space; and yet by that very fact it attracted the notice of everyone, and was held in higher estimation than any other painting there.

audio … [tabulam] spatiose nihil aliud continentem quam lineas visum effugientes, inter egregia multorum opera inani similem et eo ipso allicientem omnique opere nobiliorem.
Naturalis Historia 35.36.83

(Full Latin text available on the Scaife Viewer)

Although the fame of the artists and the virtuosity manifest in the minuteness of the lines must have contributed to the painting’s charm, these features were not of most interest to the ancient audience according to Pliny. It was rather the very emptiness of the painting that was admired, and it was its very blankness that earned it the estimation as the finest piece of art in the exquisite Imperial collection. The abstract composition was clearly perceived as art. The three solitary lines were weighed with reference to the surrounding figurative pieces and chosen as the finest among them. The spectators perceived the abstract, non-representational piece as capable of giving the same kind of aesthetic pleasure as the figurative art they were used to, and they even found the pleasure derived from contemplating this absence of presence in some way superior. For a modern reader, this anecdote conjures up the extraordinary image of ancient Romans crowding around and admiring a minimalist abstract painting, oblivious of the surrounding portraits of gods and goddesses.

The simplicity of The Magic of Color (Joan Miró, 1930), showing three circles of different size and color on a vast empty surface, is a modern parallel to the almost bare canvas once exhibited on the Palatine.

Unsurprisingly, the story of Apelles and Protogenes’ experiment did not gain particular traction with early modern artists. Its oddity and simplicity provided little opportunity for opulent classicising compositions and were for a long time overshadowed by tales such as Apelles’ painting and falling in love with Alexander’s mistress Campaspe, subject of numerous renaissance and baroque nudes. One may expect a sudden surge of interest in the anecdote to appear with the emergence of abstract art, yet it does not seem to have resonated with early avantgardists except Guillaume Apollinaire.

In a short 1912 article, Apollinaire writes on the elusiveness of the subject in cubist art and calls this absence of representation ‘pure painting’, providing admirers with ‘artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades and independent of the subject depicted in the picture’. He finds a precedent of such practice in the piece by Apelles and Protogenes, yet nevertheless calls cubism ‘an entirely new plastic art’, apparently uninterested in tracing continuities and eager to portray the avantgarde as a revolutionary breakthrough.

Apollinaire was right in not ascribing too much weight to Pliny’s story and treating it as nothing more than a fascinating curiosity. The painting by Apelles and Protogenes was an isolated case rather than an example of a flourishing abstract tradition in ancient Greek art. The fame of the artists and the ancient admiration of finesse must have been pivotal in enabling this extraordinary, one-off abstract exhibition.

Yet this does not mean that we should not take the story seriously. Rather, it can serve as a reminder that simplistic, traditionalist narratives often overlook the most fascinating details, in the case of art history negating the variety and diversity of artistic expression. Western artbooks skimp over the striking impressionism of Song Dynasty splashed-ink paintings, preceding Turner’s first works by over half a millennium. Women like Georgiana Houghton and Hilma af Klint painted pure abstractions before Kandinsky and Malevich but still gain little recognition for their work. Just so, visitors to the Imperial palace were capable of enjoying ‘artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades’ long before the first cubist exhibition.

Hilma af Klint’s The Ten Biggest No 7 (1907) predates abstract attempts by Kandinsky, Picabia and others.

Alex Tadel is a recent graduate from an MSt in Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. Stationed in Ljubljana, Slovenia, she is taking a short break from academia and working as a freelance writer, researcher and tutor.

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

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

What is this Fresh Garbage?

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Early Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the SA Vault

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

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

What’s This Nonsense for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik Changes it All!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longer Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of Something Bigger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making like Montaigne?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contributors

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

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

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

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

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

Why’s Your Blog So Political?

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

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

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

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

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

But we’re not quite there yet.

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

The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P. S. Please Vote.

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

Gnomologium Vaticanum

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

Γλύκων ὁ φιλόσοφος τὴν παιδείαν ἔλεγεν ἱερὸν ἄσυλον εἶναι.

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

Solon, fr. 18

“I grow old, always learning many things.”

γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·

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

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

Pindar, Olympian 8.59-60

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

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

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

Heraclitus, fr. 40

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

πολυμαθίη νόον ἔχειν οὐ διδάσκει

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

So week 1 looks something like this:

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

Alcman, fr. 125

“Trying is the first step of learning”

πῆρά τοι μαθήσιος ἀρχά 

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

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

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

Sophocles, Fr. 843

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

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

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

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

Libanius, Autobiography F90 17

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

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

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

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

Quintilian, 2.19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zenobius 1.89

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

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

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. 

Gazing from Within a Cyclops’ Cave

The Disturbing ‘Veil’ and “Double-Vision” of the Naïve White Liberal Anti-Racist Gaze

In the Odyssey, ancient Odysseus and his men accomplished yet another great feat of survival, blinding the one-eyed Cyclops to escape from his cave. One wonders today about the blinded single-eye of the good-natured, white liberal democrat: a view that sees itself as rabidly pro-justice, freedom, democracy, and the rest of the ideals that descend from the Western Enlightenment (made by and for white European men in the 18th century).

And, yet, this strange creature has a split double vision from its one eye.  It ‘feels’ the dual threat of both Trumpian, right-wing, anti-democratic authoritarianism and the diverse social movements and protests against anti-Black racism leading to the tearing down of statues and what the right and left alike calls ‘cancel culture’ or the right asserts as the ‘indoctrination of the left.’

A first century CE head of a Cyclops, part of the sculptures adorning the Roman Colosseum

 

Is it fated for someone in a position of power to feel threatened at all times? If we turn to W. E. B. Du Bois’s ingenious insights on the ‘veil’ and ‘double-consciousness’ of being Black in America, one can think of another, inverted ‘veil’ and ‘double-consciousness’ of this blinded white liberal view today. The blinding strike of our historical present has led to a split within a single vision that lies beneath a kind of veil.

One can say the white liberal, democratic, maybe even progressive socialist and leftist view sees the world from within a veil that is not lifted.  On the one hand, they see themselves through the eyes of two other groups: they claim how horrifying and vile white nationalism, supremacy, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and mostly anti-Black and other anti-Indigenous and POC, for example hatred of Latinx and Asians, are. They say in a silent voice of rage and hatred, a mixture of shame, guilt, and revulsion, that ‘we cannot be one of them,’ and that ‘the legacy of slavery and colonialism is not ours,’ as the philosopher Shannon Sullivan noted in her trenchant critique of white liberalism. The good-natured ones call those evil barbarians who espouse biological racism today the abhorrent ‘other,’ while reserving for themselves some sense of decency in claiming ‘we are different.’

But then, on the other hand, they see the other group of BIPOC facing multi-generational and daily humiliation, violence, and death: torrents of waves where past, present, and future co-mingle, at once stemming from both systematic and systemic racism that derive from and transcend white nationalists, the KKK, and Neo-Nazis.  For this oppression permeates every institution and aspect of American society.  Why not?  Does it not come down to a fascination with ‘whiteness’ for those who live it and critique it?  To them, the white liberal says, ‘I cannot possibly understand what it’s like to endure that racial oppression of non-whites,’ and ‘I want to speak out from within my silence but words escape me, and I relapse back into the silence I inhabit within the veil.’  Therefore,  ‘I am in this world but not of it’ to quote the Gospel.

What can we learn from this split vision of positing and negating when it comes to two other groups that the white liberal tries to see and understand apart from itself?  White supremacy is decried but also distanced so far to the point of paralyzing inaction while BIPOC suffer and die everywhere. They suffer at the hands of everyday white civilians, the militarized police, the heartless state, and the avarice corporations and their environmentally damaging atrocities, the terror continues.  BIPOC, as the ‘other’, witness their suffering pornographically fetishized in white liberal discourse, but only to have this suffering doubled when  the old discourse of the ‘free exchange of ideas,’ ‘tolerance of differing perspectives in a civil manner’ kicks in again. That old stalwart thinking quickly returns to diagnose the evil disease of ‘cancellation culture’ and ‘indoctrination of dogmatic intolerance’ in the ‘new religion’ of anti-racism, for example BLM.

What are we to make of this twenty-first century wounded Cyclops?  The creature retains privilege as in the original myth since everything was provided for them, and they don’t have to work for what they have inherited. And that is called the utter, unfathomable, historical accident of either being born ‘white’ or ‘white enough to pass’ as such.  If Marx analyzed the commodity, no one to this day has comparably or sufficiently analyzed ‘whiteness’ or ‘white passing.’

The self-denying person who says they are not reduced to biological ‘whiteness’ is the ultimate white liberal, democrat anti-racist.  And this occurs across generations in our historical present, across the different generations who think they inhabit one single time-line.  Here we find white supremacy and white privilege in a blind coexistence as it relates to the problem of time and therefore historical time. No whiteness exists apart from white supremacy. Color-blindness is privilege. So the blinded, fractured Cyclops does not see that problem.

They must consume everything that crosses their path in this split, double-vision, not even a double consciousness that is forever ‘irreconcilable’ for Black people as Du Bois said nearly 120 years ago and one can attribute to other POC today, albeit in intersectional terms.  But this ruptured one-eyed giant called ‘white anti-racist liberalism’ doesn’t live in a cave, because there is no inside or outside distinction in the world of an eternal racism.

In some respect the veil – -as an illusion of real self-consciousness because one is always seeing oneself in relation to and different from the other — is itself the ultimate blind spot: the veil doesn’t exist at all.  Rather, white supremacy becomes the mirror’s taint called ‘white liberalism’ and the objects that appear in the mirror are dialectically exchanged in the stasis of a perpetual motion: the white liberal must say I am not a ‘white supremacist’ while also failing to see the impossibility of pure connection with BIPOC because white liberals have the privilege of whiteness, and hence an-other type of ‘supremacy’ we are trying to name here.

This schizophrenic four-fold vision of identity and difference in the self-consciousness of the white liberal needs a new name: to be the same and different from white supremacy and same and different from BIPOC oppressed groups means one is never fully synthesized in two different ways.  One can say that the ultimate giant, whose ideas shaped the white modern  world to an extent like no other of his time, namely the imperialist Hegel, knew this well and suffered from it in the phantasm of truth called his ‘system and philosophy of world history.’

The dead bodies and skeletons  slayed by systemic racism over colonialist centuries doom us to atrophy and entropy.  At some point, this wounded creature will also perish on the lands they neither built nor own, and hopefully leaving a new world created not by the privileged gods but by a diverse, more humble humanity.  We can call it the world after ‘Floyd.’

Rajesh Sampath is currently Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Justice, Rights, and Social Change at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He completed his PhD at the University of California, Irvine in the humanities with a concentration in modern continental European philosophies of history and critical theory at the Critical Theory Institute. He studied under the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction. His areas of specialization center on the philosophy of history, historical time, and epochal shifts.   

#NANAIHB Day 6: Thersites vs. Oilean Ajax

This is the 6th day of the Non-Atreid, Non-Achilles Iliadic Hero Bracket tournament to once and for all establish the second best of the Achaeans. 

What turned out to be the closest contest of this tournament of favorites drew some strong interest from the crowd. Odysseus gave the Aitolian Thoas some advice as he prepared to face Antilokhos who could not seem to get away from his father Nestor. Indeed, the match itself was almost called off as that old Gerenian horseman could be heard extolling the importance of deep breaths and visualizing success to his youngest son.

AvTh poll

Once he broke away from his father, he rushed straight at Thoas, dodging the first spear only to the second spear break straight through his shield and graze his thigh. The wound was minor, but Antilokhos slipped and fell on the ground, breaking his shield. For a moment, it looked like Antilokhos’ speed was nullified and in the stunned silence you could hear Achilles grumbling about how he should change his name to Antilakhos* since luck wasn’t on his side.

But as Thoas turned, dropped his shield and drew his sword, Antilokhos rolled quickly to his left where Thoas’ first spear had been deflected, and pulled it up just as Andraimon’s son tried to bring his sword down on him. Result? Aitolian with dislocated shoulder, and shredded muscles around the joint.

*lokhos means “ambush”, lakhos means “lot”.

NANAIHB Day 6a

This just might be the juiciest match-up of the first round. Indeed, there’s no way we’ll find another meeting of two potential wrestling heels: Thersites, a man so hated he unites Achilles, Agamemnon and Odysseus, and Ajax, son of Oileus, the Lokrian Homer sees fit to cover in cow-shit.

NANAIHB Day 6a (3)

Thersites, from Aitolia is the son of Agrios who was the brother of Oineus, the king of Aitolia. If you’re keeping track, that makes him a kinsman of sorts with both Thoas and Diomedes. He does not show up in the catalogue of ships and we never actually see him fight. But we do hear a bit about him. Homer doesn’t describe many of the heroes physically, but Thersites gets six lines (2.216-221):

And he was the most shameful man who came to Troy.
He was cross-eyed and crippled in one foot. His shoulders
Were curved, dragged in toward his chest. And on top
His head was misshaped, and the hair on his head was sparse.
He was most hateful to both Achilles and Odysseus
For he was always reproaching them.

….αἴσχιστος δὲ ἀνὴρ ὑπὸ ῎Ιλιον ἦλθε·
φολκὸς ἔην, χωλὸς δ’ ἕτερον πόδα· τὼ δέ οἱ ὤμω
κυρτὼ ἐπὶ στῆθος συνοχωκότε· αὐτὰρ ὕπερθε
φοξὸς ἔην κεφαλήν, ψεδνὴ δ’ ἐπενήνοθε λάχνη.
ἔχθιστος δ’ ᾿Αχιλῆϊ μάλιστ’ ἦν ἠδ’ ᾿Οδυσῆϊ·
τὼ γὰρ νεικείεσκε·

Modern scholars have written a lot about him too! Just because he’s most shameful does not mean he can’t be the second best too, does it? (The T scholion for this line helpfully notes: “most shameful: this is also said of an ape.” αἴσχιστος: τοῦτο καὶ ἐπὶ πιθήκου). The scholia report that Thersites fell off a cliff running from a boar and so his name—meaning “bold, audacious” might just be a joke. But in the criticisms he makes, another scholion also claims they say that [Thersites] is the poet’s agent, that he appropriates his essence ”Θερσίτης δ’ ἔτι: ἐπίτροπον τοῦ ποιητοῦ φασιν αὐτόν, σφετερισάμενον τὴν οὐσίαν. Because, Thersites may look scarier, but it is more frightening when you speak the Truth.
Ajax, the lesser: The son of Oileus. Also called Lokrian Ajax. Another hero Homer spends time describing physically:

“The fast son of Oileus was leading the Lokrians
Smaller, not in any way as big as Telamonian Ajax
But much smaler. He was small and wore linen armor.
But he surpassed All the Greeks and the Achaeans in spear-play.”

Λοκρῶν δ’ ἡγεμόνευεν ᾿Οϊλῆος ταχὺς Αἴας
μείων, οὔ τι τόσος γε ὅσος Τελαμώνιος Αἴας
ἀλλὰ πολὺ μείων· ὀλίγος μὲν ἔην λινοθώρηξ,
ἐγχείῃ δ’ ἐκέκαστο Πανέλληνας καὶ ᾿Αχαιούς·

So, the narrative takes pains to emphasize his smallness and his swiftness, but his character emerges elsewhere. He participates in the battles well and kills the “most” men at the end of book 13 thanks to his swiftness. But he argues nastily with Idomeneus during the chariot games, receiving in turn the address “Ajax, best at the quarrel, shit-for-brains…” (Αἶαν νεῖκος ἄριστε κακοφραδὲς…23.483.” And when he competes in the footrace, he slips in cow manure and falls in a pile of it (thanks to Athena). Of course, the assembled Greeks look on and laugh as he spits the shit from his mouth (23.780-784). Ajax is, of course, most famous for raping Kassandra on the altar of Athena and helping to derail the homecoming of the Achaeans. So, not a good guy.

So what’s the choice here? A bold-talker with no fighting history or a fast-running, linen-covered, creep-fest? And, to be honest, how much does it matter? The prize for this context is to get crushed by Diomedes.

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