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.

On Kindness and Need: Please Support the SCS-WCC COVID-19 Relief Fund

Cicero, De Legibus 1.18

“What about generosity? Is it for free or with a view towards some benefit? If someone is kind without payment, then it is freely done. If it is for payment, it is contractual. There is no doubt that a person who is called generous or kind responds to duty not to benefit. Therefore, equity seeks no reward or purchase price but it is pursued for its own worth. This is the same cause and claim for every virtue.”

quid? liberalitas gratuitane est an mercennaria? si sine praemio benignus est, gratuita, si cum mercede, conducta; nec est dubium, quin is, qui liberalis benignusve dicitur, officium, non fructum sequatur; ergo item iustitia nihil expetit praemii, nihil pretii; per se igitur expetitur. eademque omnium virtutum causa atque sententia est.

The Women’s Classical Caucus and the Society for Classical Studies have been working together since April on the COVID-19 Relief Fund. During that time, they have given out over $70,000 to classicists, mainly graduate students and contingent faculty, who are facing precarity because of our pandemic.  (See the SCS Announcement here.)

Like the Sportula (an organization you can support in the US and Europe), this initiative brings microgrants to people who really need it at a time when it can make the greatest difference. As two leading organizations in our field, the WCC and SCS are setting a new standard for stewardship and care.

Dicta Catonis 15

“Remember to tell the tale of another’s kindness many times
But whatever kind deed you do for others, keep quiet.”

Officium alterius multis narrare memento;
at quaecumque aliis benefeceris ipse, sileto.

Today, is the first day of an auction to support this important fund. There are signed books, professional support, masks, arts, crafts, and more. You can also enter a raffle for memberships to either organization. There are also many pledges to match bids and money raised, so we can do something pretty special here.

Even if you can’t spare anything to bid on these offers, please take a minute to check them out and to let your friends on social media know about it.

Demosthenes, On the Crown 268-9

“This was my behavior in my actions for the city. In private matters, if any of you do not know that I have been generous and kind and solicitous of those in need, I am silent and I say nothing and present no witness of these things, not the war prisoners I have ransomed, nor the money I have provided for daughters, nor anything like that at all.

This is a rule I live by. I believe that the person who receives a favor should remember it for the rest of time but that the person who does it should forget it immediately for the former to act rightly and the latter not to play the part of a cheap-minded person. To remind someone of a favor you have provided in private and to speak so cheaply is just like reproaching them. I will not do anything like this but however I am considered about these things will be enough for me.”

Ἐν μὲν τοίνυν τοῖς πρὸς τὴν πόλιν τοιοῦτος· ἐν δὲ τοῖς ἰδίοις εἰ μὴ πάντες ἴσθ᾿ ὅτι κοινὸς καὶ φιλάνθρωπος καὶ τοῖς δεομένοις ἐπαρκῶν, σιωπῶ καὶ οὐδὲν ἂν εἴποιμ᾿ οὐδὲ παρασχοίμην περὶ τούτων οὐδεμίαν μαρτυρίαν, οὔτ᾿ εἴ τινας ἐκ τῶν πολεμίων ἐλυσάμην, οὔτ᾿ εἴ τισιν θυγατέρας συνεξέδωκα, οὔτε τῶν τοιούτων οὐδέν. καὶ γὰρ οὕτω πως ὑπείληφα ἐγὼ νομίζω τὸν μὲν εὖ παθόντα δεῖν μεμνῆσθαι πάντα τὸν χρόνον, τὸν δὲ ποιήσαντ᾿ εὐθὺς ἐπιλελῆσθαι, εἰ δεῖ τὸν μὲν χρηστοῦ, τὸν δὲ μὴ μικροψύχου ποιεῖν ἔργον ἀνθρώπου. τὸ δὲ τὰς ἰδίας εὐεργεσίας ὑπομιμνῄσκειν καὶ λέγειν μικροῦ δεῖν ὅμοιόν ἐστιν τῷ ὀνειδίζειν. οὐ δὴ ποιήσω τοιοῦτον οὐδέν, οὐδὲ προαχθήσομαι, ἀλλ᾿ ὅπως ποθ᾿ ὑπείλημμαι περὶ τούτων, ἀρκεῖ μοι.

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.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

homini est nihil beati
humankind has no share of happiness

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

uidi populum
facile errare
et labi ad bellum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lupus bipes Christum in flumina sequitur
minima cum cura

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

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

uiam inueniam
aut bona faciam absentia
nulla fide

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

mortem malo
sed corpus magnum uirile ago
per uitam
annum perpetuum

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

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

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

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

Reading Greek Tragedies Online: Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis

Iphigenia at Aulis, 494

“What does your daughter have to do with Helen?”

…τί δ’ ῾Ελένης παρθένωι τῆι σῆι μέτα;

Over the past few weeks we have presented readings of Euripides’ Helen and Sophocles’ Philoktetes, Euripides’ Herakles, and Bacchae (in partnership with the Center for Hellenic Studies and the Kosmos Society and Out of Chaos Theatre). Our basic approach is to have actors in isolation read parts with each other online, interspersed with commentary and discussion from ‘experts’ and the actors.

Image may contain: text

This week we turn to Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, a story of the sacrifice of a daughter so armies can go to war to fight for the return of Helen. Euripides asks us to consider what is like to be Agamemnon. What pressures eventuate in the sacrifice of his daughter? This play questions of who is in charge in a crisis and ends with a dim view of the Achaean army, which is compared to a mob screaming for the sacrifice of Iphigenia and threatening to stone Achilles if he gets in the way. Irrational mobs? Agitation to sacrifice one to preserve freedom of action for the many? There’s nothing here to resonate with current events at all.

559-567

“People have different natures;
They have different ways. But acting rightly
Always stands out.
The preparation of education
points the way to virtue.
For it is a mark of wisdom to feel shame
and it brings the transformative grace
of seeing through its judgment
what is right; it is reputation that grants
an ageless glory to your life.”

διάφοροι δὲ φύσεις βροτῶν,
διάφοροι δὲ τρόποι· τὸ δ’ ὀρ-
θῶς ἐσθλὸν σαφὲς αἰεί·
τροφαί θ’ αἱ παιδευόμεναι
μέγα φέρουσ’ ἐς τὰν ἀρετάν·
τό τε γὰρ αἰδεῖσθαι σοφία,
†τάν τ’ ἐξαλλάσσουσαν ἔχει
χάριν ὑπὸ γνώμας ἐσορᾶν†
τὸ δέον, ἔνθα δόξα φέρει

Abduction of Iphigenia by Artemis

Participants
We will be discussing the play with special guests Adam Barnard and Mat Carbon and our actors:

 

Iphigenia – Evvy Miller
Clytemnestra – Eunice Roberts
Agamemnon – Michael Lumsden
Menelaus – Paul O’Mahony
Achilles – Tim Delap
Chorus – Tamieka Chavis
Messenger – Richard Neale

317-334 – Agamemnon and Menelaus

413-542 – Agamemnon, Menelaus, messenger, chorus

598-750 – chorus, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Agamemnon

801-855 – Clytemnestra, Achilles

1211-1275 – Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Iphigenia, chorus

1338-1510 – Iphigenia, Clytemnestra, Chorus, Achilles

1613-1627 – Chorus, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon

Eur. Iph. Aul. 1250-1252

“It is light that is sweetest for humans to see
And the world below is nothing. Whoever prays for death
Is mad. Living badly is better than dying well.”

τὸ φῶς τόδ᾽ ἀνθρώποισιν ἥδιστον βλέπειν,
τὰ νέρθε δ᾽ οὐδέν: μαίνεται δ᾽ ὃς εὔχεται
θανεῖν. κακῶς ζῆν κρεῖσσον ἢ καλῶς θανεῖν.

Videos of Earlier Sessions
Euripides’ Helen, March 25th
Sophocles Philoktetes, April 1st
Euripides’ Herakles, April 8th 
Euripides’ Bacchae, April 15th
Upcoming Readings

 

Sophocles, Women of Trachis, April 29th

Euripides, Orestes, May 6th

Aeschylus, The Persians May 13th

Euripides, Trojan Women, May 20th

Sophocles, Ajax, May 29th

Euripides, Andromache, June 3rd

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos, June 10th

Euripides, Ion, June 17th

Euripides, Hecuba, June 24th

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, July 1st

 

 

Building a Lyre and Playing Sappho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading (and Performing) Tragedy Online

Editor’s note: This is a short post from Paul O’Mahony of Out of Chaos Theatre (and many other projects) explaining the background and inspiration for Greek Tragedy Readings in partnership with the Center for Hellenic Studies and the Kosmos SocietyPlease join us Wednesdays at 3PM EST for additional readings.)

Life is pretty strange at the moment. To be honest, we wouldn’t have been going out that much anyway, owing to our second daughter being born just 2 months ago and our lack of sleep not being conducive to extensive exploration of the outside world.

But I like to think (and maybe I’m just kidding myself) that we would at least have ventured out for more than just our weekly supermarket trip. We were all set for celebrating new life, but now it feels even more precious and, indeed, precarious. We’re aware how fortunate we are to be able to stay inside and limit our contact while friends all over the world face significant peril.

Unable to explore the outside world, we have no option but to explore further the inner one. Life can often be solitary for an actor. Of course there are bouts of unemployment but even when acting in a play we’ll spend a significant amount of time working things out by ourselves: we learn and interpret lines, discover actions, develop a character’s playlist (and whatever exercises may form our particular technique), all (at least in part) on our own.

But we always get to share the result of that work with our fellow creative teammates. We are accustomed to working extremely closely (physically and emotionally) with others – our fellow cast members, directors, choreographers, stage managers, technical team, accent coaches, etc. For now, this traditional network of people meeting to create has been placed on hold. So how can we respond?

I suggested to Lanah at the Center for Hellenic Studies that we could start running readings of tragedy once a week to create opportunities for actors and academics to meet online and discover something together. I’ve been passionate about tragedy and its enduring impact since my time as a student, and I’ve devoted a significant portion of my career to exploring the connections between the ancient and modern worlds.

I was really delighted to hear from the CHS that Joel Christensen had been in touch with a similar proposal – and so our first international collaboration has been created. Last week we read scenes from Helen. This week it’s Sophocles’ Philoctetes (a man who knows a lot about isolation). I’ll be providing actors and directors to offer readings and their creative responses – I hope we’ll start to find new ways to use the medium to our advantage as I bring more artists into this project. Check out the CHS homepage for the livestream.

I’m especially intrigued to discover how we’ll use a computer screen as our ’empty space’. I also hope it can provide a fascinating resource for students and even a supportive testing ground for new translations of tragedy. We’ll be meeting at 3pm ET (which works well for my 2 month old), every Wednesday until we tell you otherwise. I hope you’re all staying safe and well.

Paul

Editor’s Note: The Second Reading went pretty well, check it out here:

 

Actors included: Tim Delap, Evelyn Miller,  and Jack Whitam with commentary by Norman Sandridge from Howard University.

Reading Tragedy Together When Sheltering Alone

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

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

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

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

Questions and comments by Joel Christensen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragedy readings

Podcasting Sophocles’ Antigone at UT Austin

This is a follow-up post to Deborah Beck’s earlier reflections on plans for Podcasting in the Greek Classroom. (I covered her class’s Iliad podcasts last year) I have read Antigone and taught it many times, but I learned much about the play’s language and meaning from listening to these podcasts and found the experience stimulating in the way some of the best class discussions can be.

The podcasts 10-15 minutes in length and start with an episode hosted by Professor Beck to introduce listeners to the series (for students and the audience). The episodes are based around specific passages from the play which are taught by the students during the course meetings themselves. After the introductory message, Beck moves to summary of the myths around the family of Oedipus followed by a brief overview of the play’s initial plot and the other Sophoclean plays based on these myths, with special emphasis on Antigone’s importance in this play in contrast with what we know from other traditions.

In discussing the prologue, Professor Beck touches upon some of the oddness of the language from our perspective and the crucial themes of the play (the struggle between obedience to the laws of the state as opposed to those of the gods). Beck’s comments work as commentary themselves, moving between individual lexical items and larger thematic movements. It is an engaging way to approach a Greek text, especially refreshing when Beck admits that some of the lexical knots are confusing and difficult to disentangle.

This first episode provides a great introduction to the characterization of the sisters Antigone and Ismene through close attention to the language and syntax of the first 100 lines of the play, emphasizing especially how Antigone is inflexible and Ismene is able to hold contradictory ideas at once. Beck summarizes Ismene’s closing lines (τοῦτο δ’ ἴσθ’ ὅτι  / ἄνους μὲν ἔρχῃ, τοῖς φίλοις δ’ ὀρθῶς φίλη, 98-99) as  “I both think you’re bananas / and I love you dearly”.

The individual episodes follow this pattern to various levels of success. Episode 2 brings Dylan McKibban talking about lines 191-214 where Kreon makes a proclamation and the chorus’s response. McKibban looks at the relationship between this passage and the play as a whole before focusing on the Chorus’ “unusual” response. McKibban follows Professor Beck in providing close readings of the Greek, but also does a nice job of discussing the relationship between the depiction of Creon in this passage and his appearance later in the play. Especially valuable is the observation that the Chorus implies  that, while Creon has the power to make his decision, it does not mean it is right (211–214):

“It is pleasing to you, child of Menoikeus, that
the man hostile to the city and the one loyal to it come to these ends.
The power is yours to use every law, we suppose,
For the dead and however many of us remain alive.”

Σοὶ ταῦτ’ ἀρέσκει, παῖ Μενοικέως, <παθεῖν>,
τὸν τῇδε δύσνουν καὶ τὸν εὐμενῆ πόλει·
νόμῳ δὲ χρῆσθαι παντί πού γ’ ἔνεστί σοι
καὶ τῶν θανόντων χὠπόσοι ζῶμεν πέρι.

McKibban ends with a reflection on the experience of teaching the class, noting that it is not is not necessarily the case that “if one can translate the lines, they must already understand them.”

In Episode 3, Cassandra Winkley and Rachel Prichett talk about the trope of messengers in tragedy, focusing in particular on lines 215-242. I really enjoy the way the two speakers highlight the humor in the characterization of the Phulaks, as an impatient child who wants to talk about himself (e.g.  Φράσαι θέλω σοι πρῶτα τἀμαυτοῦ, 238). The subsequent conversation about the tension between messengers in general in tragedy and this specific instantiation of the trope is really useful: the speakers compare him to the absurd messenger from Euripides’ Orestes and emphasize how annoying he is to Creon.

Episode 4 has Laura talking about Creon’s discovery of the burial of Polyneices (Antigone 280-303), paying special attention to the change in his language. This speaker’s tour through the Greek is especially good as she draws both on the text and Mark Griffin’s commentary.

Laura picks out well the authoritarian certainty in Creon’s declaration “I know well that these men did these things because they were motivated by money” ᾿Εκ τῶνδε τούτους ἐξεπίσταμαι καλῶς  / παρηγμένους μισθοῖσιν εἰργάσθαι τάδε. Laura notes helpfully that while there are many different interpretations of the play, Creon is almost always depicted too simply as an “unhinged autocrat”. Laura’s challenging reconsideration of Creon as a person and not a stock character is a great start for the overall challenge of the play: seeing Creon, not Antigone, as the central protagonist.

Lyle takes the listeners through a discussion of Creon’s leadership (Antigone 304‑331) in Episode 5. He invites someone from the business school to talk about Creon’s actions. This exercise may have been a little more effective if the interlocutor knew a little more about the plot of the play. Nevertheless, the conversation’s move to the behavior in the real world was useful when they turn to speak about hierarchy and insecurity. Especially interesting is the sudden turn to a discussion of Anne Carson’s Antigonick.

Brendan and Joseph take us through the famous Ode to Man in Episodes 6 and Episode 7.

Sophocles, Antigone 332–341

There are many wonders and none
is more surprising than humanity.
This thing that crosses the sea
as it whorls under a stormy wind
finding a path on enveloping waves.
It wears down imperishable Earth, too,
the oldest of the gods, a tireless deity,
as the plows trace lives from year to year
drawn by the race of horses….

Πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀν-
θρώπου δεινότερον πέλει·
τοῦτο καὶ πολιοῦ πέραν
πόντου χειμερίῳ νότῳ
χωρεῖ, περιβρυχίοισιν
περῶν ὑπ’ οἴδμασιν, θεῶν
τε τὰν ὑπερτάταν, Γᾶν
ἄφθιτον, ἀκαμάταν, ἀποτρύεται,
ἰλλομένων ἀρότρων ἔτος εἰς ἔτος,
ἱππείῳ γένει πολεύων.

In the first, Brendan starts with a performance of Robert Fagles’ translation of the first part of the Ode. Before going into the Ode, he discusses the semantic range of deinos. His delivery and range of examples are really effective (and funny in the speaker’s wry way). Brendan explains that the meaning of this passage hinges on how we understand deinos and then moves line by line through the section to argue that man is deinos because he has raised himself beyond everything in nature in an oppositional fashion. Humankind is simultaneously wonderful and terrible.

Where Brendan draws on his experience in philosophy to talk about the relative meaning of deinos, Joseph turns back to the Greek and argues that the meter of the Ode’s second half (354-383) emphasizes the duality of its themes, a feature likely connected to the separations of strophe and antistrophe. Joseph cleverly mines the metrically equivalent passages for parallels and tensions, as in the repetitions in lines 360 and 370 (παντοπόρος· ἄπορος ἐπ’ οὐδὲν ἔρχεται :: ὑψίπολις· ἄπολις ὅτῳ τὸ μὴ καλὸν). Before turning to speak about the class, Brendan turns to a discussion of how this formal duality reflects the plot of the play and resolves in Creon’s character development.

Albion brings a new energy in Episode 8 in a discussion of the Guard’s return in lines 384–414. Albion’s recitation of the Greek and explanation of the composition is both well-paced and infectious—rarely do I hear “zeugmatic” uttered allowed and know that the speaker is smiling! In the end, the analysis of the guard’s motivations helps us understand both the realpolitik at play in Thebes and the subtle characterization available in even so minor a character.

In episode 9, Payton and Nikhil discuss the theme of isolation, starting from lines 415–447. Following a summary of the preceding events and an overview of how both Antigone and Creon are defined by physical and emotional isolation shaped by family history and political roles, they move to an illuminating discussion of how neither character really perceives their isolation in this scene. Especially good in this section is the discussion of the possible echoes in the guard’s description of the “unburial” as a (θείαν νόσον, 421) and ambiguous language reflecting potential judgments of Creon.

Episode 10 takes us to topics of gender and family as Mary speaks about the language of lament in lines 497–530. (Mary wins my heart by starting with a khairete!) As with earlier episodes, she starts by giving a brief overview of the plot running up to the passage before pulling out kinship names and descriptions of relationships offered by Antigone and Creon: the former emphasizes blood relations whereas the latter focuses on political relationships. These differences in diction reflect the major conflict of the play. Mary provides a really deep overview of scholarship near the end of the episode on emotions, tragedy, and politics which surpasses anything one might expect from a student podcast.

The theme of family is central to Episode 11 too, where Katherine asks us to look at the development of the dynamic between Ismene and Antigone (531–558). Katherine situates her listeners in the plot, bringing Ismene out on the stage to try to join Antigone in a “belated solidarity” and focusing on how much they have changed since their appearance in the prologue. Her question about whether or not the portrayal “cements” our prior impression of the characters is a nice way to invite us to think about the experience of witnessing the play as a whole in a short amount of time. To Katherine, Ismene comes of as “rather brave” but perhaps still fickle. In whatever case, this depiction makes her more “sympathetic” and more “real”. I think I will carry Mary’s question about Antigone’s characterization with me for a long time: “If family is so important to Antigone, how can she so easily and so completely reject her sister”?

The other child of this play—Haemon—is the focus of Lexie’s Episode 12, a discussion of the conflict between father and son over Antigone. Lexie takes us through a careful reading of Haemon’s speech to his father, emphasizing that this exchange is qualitatively different from earlier depictions of Creon because of their relationship. Especially good in this discussion is her note about the semantic difference of μανθάνειν as a more humble approach to knowledge (710) and her comments on the anticipatory metaphor of the destruction of the tree, “root and all” (αὐτόπρεμν᾿ ἀπόλλυται, 714).

Payton and Nikhil return in Episode 13 (“Let’s Talk Greek”) to continue the conversation between Haemon and Creon at 738–781. In this episode, we encounter the definition of the agon as a competitive verbal exchange and the use of politeness theory to help us understand the conversation in modern terms. The close reading of the speech exchange–what they refer to once as “verbal judo”–opens up both the intellectual and emotional components of the agon.

There are really two big pedagogical components to this class. The first is the process of preparing the podcast, which is a type of research presentation. The second is a teaching exercise which happened in class. The really clever part of the course design is that the podcast project brings these two strands together. It is really worthwhile to listen to the students go through the metacognitive process of reflecting on what they learned from teaching the class. A tertiary aspect that I think is really important is that this exercise encouraged students to think about the relationship between the parts of the play to its whole. This is, regrettably, something that is often lost in the close-reading exercises of advanced Greek courses.

The production value of these podcasts is somewhat higher than one might expect—some of the producers introduce new music and clips from other media; others bring in different speakers and other subjects. As a group, there is the kind of subject variety and stylistic variation you might want from a series.

If you have the time to add this to your listening queue, it is a great reminder of how deep and challenging Antigone is as a play and how rewarding it can be to work through the Greek with others. Even more interesting for me is the potential for a podcast to function in the place of a traditional commentary. While listening, I imagined an audio track accompanying me as I read the text anew—I am not sure that these individual podcasts can do this exclusively, but if I were teaching this play any time soon, I would assign students to listen to these episodes.

Podcast picture

A Digital Apolococyntosis

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

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

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

Here’s a link to the Sketchfab version

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

What’s the SCAPP bot? Stay tuned…

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