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.
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.
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:
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:
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.”
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.
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….
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.
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.
The Junior Classical League purports to foster interest in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome and is one of the largest academic clubs in the world with 50,000 members and 1,200 chapters. For the last six decades, JCL has also supported mock slave auctions as a source of entertainment. Humor derived from dehumanization and degradation have no place in our society, especially given our country’s shameful history of enslavement and other forms of systemic racism.
My essay should end here. Ideally, the notion of mock slave auctions in an organization sponsored by the American Classical League should prompt outrage, activism, and sustained action. Too often, though, this kind of racism is tolerated and normalized by those both inside and outside of secondary classics. Latin teachers and other stakeholders, even those who purport to care about social justice, often protect the field over individuals marginalized and harmed by patterns of racism and hostility in secondary Latin.
We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the state of secondary Classics. We are in dire need of reform.
The Junior Classical League is a space so insulated from the realities of racism that slave auctions have been a common source of entertainment and fun for decades. In 2016, a story about a mock slave auction went viral after black audience members were subjected to this racist spectacle at an Illinois Junior Classical League convention. In a demonstrably deceitful response, the National Junior Classical League and the American Classical League claimed they “regret to hear of the incident” and that “this incident in no way reflects the values we have as an organization.”
The Junior Classical League did not “hear of the incident,” they have organized, promoted and sponsored similar events for the better part of a century. In the 1950s, a teacher wrote in Classical Outlook, “One boy bought a pretty girl just to have her following him around… The club has been asked to repeat the auction in assembly before the whole school.”
Slave auctions continue in the Junior Classical League, often sanitized with the branding “Rent-a-Roman.” The 2011-2012 National Junior Classical League scrapbook contains a picture of a “slave” posing with her “master at the annual Rent-a-Roman.” In 2012, an event affiliated with the California Junior Classical League included this description: “You can offer yourself up for sale or bid on the merchandise to purchase a companion/ money-servant for the rest of the lunch hour.” In 2014, a write up in the newsletter of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South include a teacher touting activities that included a “master/slave program.” The 2017 California Junior Classical League constitution included a reference to slave auctions as a fundraising opportunity: “Should a slave auction be held at the state convention, the money acquired shall go to the state scholarship fund.” In 2018, the Pennsylvania Junior Classical League newsletter contained a report on a Saturnalia event where club leaders are “auctioned off to serve as ‘slaves’ for the night… these individuals will be ordered around by their new masters to fetch food, sing, dance, and entertain.”
Mock slave auctions are just one example of a much larger, pervasive problem in secondary Classics that includes trivializing slavery and turning oppression, and the oppressed, into a source of humor. In 2017, Erik Robinson documented problematic portrayals of slavery in secondary text books. The National Latin Exam, which over 140,000 students take, is notorious for their regressive treatment of slavery and other forms of oppression (e.g. sexual assault). There are too many examples to list here, but one recent question echoed the racist myth of the loyal slave. Loyalty is predicated on autonomy and feelings of allegiance, which mitigates the culpability of enslavers and misrepresents the realities of slavery.
It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why slave auctions are racist and how this kind of humor, even in the context of ancient Rome, supports the messaging and strategies of white supremacy groups. Suffice it to say, these kinds of events are unethical and harmful. Recently, the New York attorney general’s office investigated a school for holding a slave auction, finding “that the teacher’s re-enactments in the two classes had a profoundly negative effect on all of the students present — especially the African American students — and the school community at large.” A student who witnessed the Illinois JCL slave auction told the Washington Post, “Since JCL is primarily white, they are so into their, like, white privilege, I guess, that they don’t know how they can affect minorities.”
The Junior Classical League has abused its monopoly and imposed a twisted value system on its members. JCL membership appeals to students looking to build their college resumes. And, many teachers are contractually required to sponsor a chapter. Our dues should not support this kind of culture. We should not cultivate students’ interest in this distortion of Classics.
The American Classical League has hired a diversity consultant, and in most of my correspondence with them, I am reminded of this fact. It is a positive step for the ACL to obtain the services of an outside expert, but a diversity consultant should be a small part of a larger strategy to eradicate racism from secondary Classics, not a standalone solution. As long as stakeholders in secondary Classics and our post-secondary colleagues protect the status quo through both action and inaction, this culture will persist and become even more toxic.
Concern for people affected by these systemic failures must trump the defense of the organization. ACL, JCL, NLE, and other affiliates exist to promote Classics. Nothing in the promotion of Classics should also include the promotion of racism and white supremacy, especially when hundreds of thousands of children are affected by the way the ACL has shaped the field.
It is time for decisive action and commitment to change.
The co-chair of the National Latin Exam accused me in a late-night Twitter direct message of wanting a spectacle. I do not want a spectacle. (Perhaps that accusation was wishful thinking.) I want the culture of secondary Latin to stop supporting racism and narratives of white dominance.
This goal will take work, not just words. If you are interested in advocating against racism in Classics and want to know how to help, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, here are a few ways the American Classical League and its affiliates can begin to change the culture in secondary Classics. This list is far from exhaustive:
1) Apologize for your role in perpetuating white supremacy and racism. Stop treating each instance of problematic content and practices as some sort of aberration.
2) Remove leaders and volunteers who have aggressively defended and perpetuated the status quo and who prioritize the interests and image of the organization over the well-being and safety of students.
3) Provide information to teachers about how to talk about white supremacy and dangerous appropriations of Classics. Our field has supported racist ideas and is used to legitimize hate and violence. We have a responsibility to equip students to recognize and counter these appropriations, even when they come from within our own field.
4) Remove all content immediately that is incompatible with the goal of “Classics for All” and release an accompanying statement that explains why the material was harmful. Do not legitimize offensive content and practices by engaging in a ‘both sides discussion’ and hiding behind procedure and tradition. Swift action and adherence to procedures are not mutually exclusive.
Colleagues in post-secondary Classics. Here are a few calls to action and points to consider:
1) Find out if JCL held a mock slave auction on your campus. If so, apologize. Do not allow them on your campus. Fraternities have been suspended for holding slave auctions. It is even worse when they are held as entertainment in the context of an academic program for children.
2) Formally condemn the practice of slave auctions and call on the Junior Classical League and, more broadly, the American Classical League, to own its uncomfortable past and repair the damage it has done through events like these and the culture they reflect.
3) If you publish a newsletter or promote activities in secondary Latin, vet them before you provide a platform for abhorrent practices. There is no excuse for a “master/slave” activity to have been featured in a CAMWS publication (or any publication).
4) Stay informed about what is going on in secondary Classics and hold organizations accountable for failures that affect both current students and the future of the field.
For the second year, my advanced Greek class at the University of Texas at Austin is creating a podcast series about our experiences reading and teaching ancient Greek. Last fall (2018), I piloted this idea in a course on Homer’s Iliad that satisfies university distributional requirements in writing and independent inquiry. I thought that a podcast would be a great way to work on both of these skills, while also giving all of us an opportunity to reach out to people beyond our own classroom who are interested in Greek literature.
Our series, “Musings from Greek 365,” was a great first effort – we all had a good time; the relatively small number of listeners who found our work enjoyed it (including Sententiae Antiquae); and I learned a lot, both about the Iliad and about how to create an effective podcast. So did the students. But it was clearly a first effort, and I ended the semester with a long list of what I wanted do differently next time. This fall, with the benefit of the experience and mistakes of last year, we’re off to a great start with our series Sophocles Antigone in 2019.
A podcast series uses a consistent structure for the series as a whole, within which every episode has a lot of leeway for individual creativity. Traditional storytelling in ancient Greece works the same way. In classical mythology, the broad parameters of a given myth are stable, but individual poets, artists, and writers can adjust the details as they see fit. So, each podcast episode in our series consists largely of close reading and interpretation of a particular section of the play that a given student has already taught to their colleagues during a regular class period, along with some reflection on their experience of teaching. But podcasting, like mythology, allows for and indeed thrives on individual choices.
I simply talked for all of my introductory episode, and some students have done that. Other students use music to enliven their episodes, while still others chose to discuss their material with fellow students. In Episode 5, Lyle discussed modern versions of ancient tragedy with a friend in the College of Business, with whom he had read the Antigone in high school. The various media, rhetorical styles, and modes of speaking that students use in their podcasts call to mind the range of meters, stylistic levels, and musical styles in Greek tragedy itself. But at the same time, our shared norms and interests as a class tie together the individual episodes, just as particular characters and themes crop up repeatedly in both the Antigone and students’ podcast episodes about the play.
Podcasting, in other words, reminds us that tragedy is a performance genre, something that can easily fall by the wayside as students struggle through the highly abstract and allusive Greek of a choral ode, or the compressed style of back-and-forth dialogue. Podcasting also makes a fruitful pairing with teaching, itself a kind of performance. In both teaching and podcasting, and for that matter in good writing, we have to decide what we really want to say about our material and how best to say that. If we try to say too many things, or we introduce details that we think are interesting but no one else cares about, we lose our audience.
Furthermore, the manner in which we perform our material can play a huge role in how effectively it connects with an audience. In fact, I decided to go to graduate school to become a professor in part because I had been active in high school theater, and I thought (correctly) that I would enjoy the performance aspects of teaching. And the students enjoy it too. Although each of them has commented – either informally or in their podcasts, or both – that teaching is much more time consuming than they had expected, if you listen to our podcast, you will hear in their own words that they relish the experience and they learned a lot.
Different students, unsurprisingly, came away with different take-aways. In Episode 3, Cassie tells us that she enjoyed her experience as a taste of what having her own class might be like. Laura came to see Creon’s attitude in her passage not as humorous, as she had initially thought when she served as “Teacher of the Day,” but as a complex and even sympathetic character. Laura finished Episode 4 with this summing-up: “If I’ve learned anything from this assignment, it’s that the close reading and the thinking I had to do to teach this passage showed me both the complexity of the text, and the complexity of Creon’s character.”
What has the professor learned? Unfortunately, I failed to come up with a good name for our podcast. I am bad at catchy titles, and this podcast is no exception. I chose “Sophocles Antigone in 2019” to point to the enduring relevance of the Antigone for conversations about justice, law, and good government. This becomes a more cogent aspect of the play with every passing day, but it’s still a boring name.
I did, however, improve the assignment guidelines for how to create a podcast, which I am happy to share with anyone who would like to see them. These guidelines break down the process of producing a podcast episode into a series of concrete steps with specific due dates attached to each. As a result, students complete their podcasts in a timely fashion – a consistent problem last year – and our series releases new episodes on a regular basis throughout the fall semester. I wanted to make sure we had a regular release schedule in part to make the podcast more appealing to listeners.
Better publicity was, and is, at the top of my list of needed improvements. Last year, we had no publicity at all, except what was generated by traffic on Podomatic, our free podcasting platform. This did a real disservice to the terrific work of the students, and one of my main priorities for this year was to learn more about publicizing a podcast. So, we have a regular release schedule, we have some public domain artwork, and I am in the process of listing our podcast with iTunes and Google Play. So far, so good. When this course ends, I’ll doubtless have a fresh list of ways to do various things better next time.
Podcasting is a lot of work. It’s also really fun and everyone involved will learn a lot, often in unexpected ways. At the end of Episode 2, Dylan says, “I’m not just trying to translate the lines, but trying to understand their place in the text and how they serve the play as a whole. This came as a bit of a shock, because I think it’s easy for us to think at first that if one can translate the lines, they must already understand them. After this experience, I can certainly say that’s not true.”
If you listen to our series, drop us a note and tell us what you learned.
“For, that which is instilled into young minds will set deep roots, and will not easily be removed by any force afterward.”
Nam quod teneris mentibus insitum est, alte radices mittit, nec facile postea divelli ulla vi potest
Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, XLIX
A few years ago, Amy Pistone emailed me during the aftermath of yet another mass shooting to ask if I knew of anything in ancient Greek literature to respond to this all-too-frequent terror. I threw together a collection of passages which didn’t really get to the heart of the issue: the absolute horror of people suddenly killing scores of others, compounded by the practically criminal failure of our public officials to respond with anything more than stock phrases and empty gestures.
I have spent a lot of my life jousting with depression, death anxiety, and the ups and downs of facing up to (and sometimes failing to meet) the challenges of everyday life. For most of my adult life—and a good portion of my formative years—I found refuge and comfort in books, poetry, music and other forms of narrative art. For the past few decades, Homeric poetry and Greek literature in general have helped me guide my life, if not save it. But no matter how much I comb through the remnants of the past looking for that perfect quotation which will unlock the secrets of the universe, nothing seems to match up to the stupidity, the craven profiteering, and the visceral wrongness of children being gunned down in their schools, families executed in their place of worship, or communities torn apart by sudden and public demonstrations of raw, unforgiving violence.
And then, a few weeks ago, Aislinn Melchior sent me a message asking if I could remember a story of “the last hero…the wrestler who pulls down the building on top of his hometown’s school children.” To be honest, I didn’t know the tale, so I did what one does and I asked #ClassicsTwitter. Within a few hours, someone sent me the first passage I posted yesterday from Pausanias. After some simple searches, I found the others. Here’s the main translation again:
“In the Olympiad before that one they say that Kleomêdês the Astupalaian killed the Epidaurian Hippos while boxing him. When he was charged by the referees with cheating and was deprived of the victory, he went out of his mind with grief and returned to Astupalaia.
There, he attacked a school there which held as many as sixty children and knocked down the pillar which supported the roof. After the roof fell on the children, the citizens threw stones at Kleomêdês and he fled into the Temple of Athena. Inside, he climbed into a chest and closed the lid over him.
The Astupalaians wore themselves out trying to open or break the chest. When they finally broke open the chest and did not find Kleomêdês there dead or alive, they send representatives to Delphi to ask what kind of thing had happened with Kleomêdês. The Pythia is said to have given the oracle that:
Kleomêdês the Astupalaian was the last of the heroes—
Honor him with sacrifices since he is no longer mortal.”
For this reason the Astupalaians have honored Kleomêdês as a hero since that time.
The story is short, simple, and strange. Yet in this brevity and strangeness it engages not just with the central problems of Greek heroism, but it also forces us to think about how narrative functions and to revisit our assumptions about this word hero. The more I have thought about these connections, the more I have come to believe that the story of Kleomêdês has something to say about what forces make a mind capable and compelled to slaughter children. To be honest, I have also been thinking about parts of this for years, in particular about the damage perpetuated by our simplistic idea of the heroic narrative. So, this might take me a few words to get through. But I’m going to try.
The Problem with Heroes: To Suffer and Cause Suffering
“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly: / For many who have been my enemy hate me.”
A starting point is that the story of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is not an exceptional heroic narrative. He flies into a fit of rage when he does not receive the portion of honor he believes his community owes him and then separates himself from that community. Subsequently, he commits an act of violence against an exposed portion of his community in order to gain vengeance for his perceived suffering. Although the community mobilizes against him, he is ultimately recompensed for his lost position through fame. Kleomêdês receives eternal rites as a hero. But—and this is important—the people of Astupalaia record that he is the final one.
While Kleomêdês appears exceptional for that last assertion, the rest of his tale resonates clearly with that of other better known heroes. Both Achilles and Odysseus separate from their communities and commit (or have committed) acts of violence in order to return and gain greater renown than before. Achilles prays for his people to die in the first book of the Iliad; Odysseus slaughters 108 of the suitors upon his return home. Both of them ultimately receive immortal kleos, despite (or perhaps because of) their complex and harmful nature.
It is the simplistic way we talk about heroism rather than anything true about ancient myth and literature that might make us surprised to realize that these two most famous of Homeric heroes could be seen as monsters who murder their own people. But the capacity to suffer or causesuffering is central to the identity of Greek heroes, as Erwin Cook argues well, and central perhaps even to the ambiguity of their names: “Achilles” has been analyzed as “woe for the people” and Odysseus’ named has been folk-etymologized since antiquity as the “hateful one” (who delivers or receives hate). The most heroic hero, Herakles, is also essentially anti-social: he murders his own wife and children and, among his labors, commits many horrors absent any kind of virtue.
When Kleomêdês is called a hero, then, it is not ironic nor is it transgressive. His murdering of children is a regular entry in the heroic CV. The overwhelming force of heroic power is matched by an overweening sense of entitlement and rage at the denial of an expected reward.
The Problem with Stories 1: The Heroic pattern and Metonymic Algorithms
“The first point is that it is not only poets who used myths, but cities and lawmakers did too for the sake of their usefulness, once they noted the native disposition of the story-oriented animal. For humans love to learn; loving stories is a prelude to this. This is why children start by listening and making a common ground in stories.”
Part of what people miss by just reading collections of myth or skimming the Iliad is that early Greek poetry is not just ambivalent about ‘heroes’, it is highly engaged with criticizing conventional heroic qualities. We labor in part with the misunderstanding of what the word hero means. And there is dangerous beneath that cornerstone of every college myth class, “the heroic pattern”, perhaps most well-known popularly in the form of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the heroic journey. The “heroic pattern” is a crass oversimplification of narrative myth and a naive perpetuation of its limitations
Now, this is probably not the right place—or time—to unpack the problems of the heroic pattern completely, but understanding the impact of two of its features influences the way I think about the modern function of myth and storytelling. First, though, the basic definition: the “heroic pattern” is a narrative plot sequence shared by many stories, from Gilgamesh and Herakles, through the Gospel’s Jesus and to more recent characters like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Authors like Joseph Campbell argue that, in a sense, the monomyth is the one true story at the base of all others while more sensitive readers like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (who certainly influenced Campbell) saw the repeated narrative pattern as evidence of human psychology from experience (Freud’s “family drama”) reflected in turn in social patterns and expectations (Jung’s “archetypes”).
A general issue worth noting is that there is slippage here between descriptive and prescriptive treatments of the pattern. What I mean by this is that folklorists who work with similar concepts record the pattern as an observable phenomenon in the world and use the observation as part of a framework of thinking about how the stories work in the world. While psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung may start from the descriptive perspective, their treatment of human beings and communities becomes reductive and prescriptive when the pattern is used to interpret complex situations too narrowly.
The mythic pattern is already implicitly prescriptive as part of the shared narrative material that shapes our lives (or, from a post-modern perspective, discourse); but it is then made doubly prescriptive when culture salesmen like Campbell (and more recent televangelists like J. Peterson) offer it as a panacea. It becomes supercharged as a commodity: there are businesses that specialize in making sure that your movie script follows the monomyth. There is also no shortage of books to help you write the next film version of the Hero’s Journey.
Two fundamental problems that emerge from this are the monomyth’s content and form. Because the heroic pattern is reflective of latent and immanent social relationships and structures, it enforces damaging stereotypes. Women, for example, have little space to act as independent agents in its plot and heteronormative male sexuality is almost always a dominant structuring force even if it is not explicit (of course, there are multiple angles to a feminist critique of the hero’s journey.) So, the heroic pattern is simply harmful to audiences who are incapable of conforming to the external identity of the ‘hero’—it constrains who they think they can be and implicitly communicates that the best option is to work in service of someone else’s narrative.
But even for audiences who can see themselves as subjects of the hero’s journey, nearly all modern versions of it are deficient because the pattern generally says little about what happens after the hero’s return to his community. When I teach ancient myth, I emphasize that post-heroic narratives like those after the Odyssey or the stories of heroes who fail (e.g. Oedipus and Bellerophon) are critical moments in the continuation of the heroic pattern: they illustrate to their audiences that the heroic life ends and transforms. This, rather than the entertainment of an adventure tale, should be the true therapeutic goal of an exploration of the hero’s journey because it shows that there is value in putting up your sword, in joining a community, in having a family, and figuring out how to live a life of meaning once your youthful strength has gone.
Narratives that fail to explore this greater percentage of human life do us a terrible disservice. Ancient Greek myth, by focusing on what Gregory Nagy has called “the unseasonal nature of the hero,” reconciles the exceptional figure to the life cycle and the community through death and its attendant rituals. This is one reason kleos (“fame, glory”) can function as recompense for actual life lost, but the promise of fame itself distorts again the relationship between individuals and the process of life.
So far, these criticisms are about the content of the conventional heroic pattern. One might profitably suggest that by adjusting aspects of the content (say the gender or race of the participants, the emphasis on what happens after heroic deeds), one can preserve the value of the form. But I worry too that the way we talk about the form is damaging. When we talk about the heroic pattern we use, I think, a linguistic metaphor that seems to imply something discrete, concrete, and predictable. Now, while there is a difference between metaphor and reality, when we use metaphors to talk about something as ineffable and mysterious as the functioning of human minds, the metaphor can shape the development of our concepts about the things they are meant to describe.
As a metaphor, a “pattern” connotes something preset and knowable. The discrete steps and stages of the Campbellian popular version simplifies and “dilutes” the complexity of heroic narrative. But the manner of speaking and the way we treat the “pattern” has the added impact of curtailing how we think narrative and myth work. As a metaphor, the “pattern” or staged journey almost too easily slips into the language of programming. But this simplistic metaphor leads to many people thinking that storytelling and human actions are simply an issue of inputting a code and pressing “execute”.
If coding is the right metaphor for narrative—a thing which I highly doubt—it is much better to conceive of a generative and learning algorithm, one with potential codes which emerge depending on the environment and context. Here, I actually find it better to think about narrative in terms of viral DNA. Stories and narrative function much more like a living organism, with vestigial characteristics, combining and recombining and showing different traits under different epigenetic traditions. Similar narrative responses are triggered by similar contexts and environments.
But even this metaphor occludes the most important part of the way narrative and discourse work: these descriptions miss out on the fact that the audience shapes the tale and that the elements of the patterns in the complex engagement between story and audience necessarily contain their opposite. Each story and element of the story is a compact metonym which can be expanded or reduced and which will shift and evolve in response to audiences.
So, while approaches to heroic patterns from folklore through psychoanalysis to the pop-cultural hit-making of the hero’s journey understand that the pattern is attractive to audiences, they fail to acknowledge that the pattern is shaped in response to an audience whose expectations and beliefs have been shaped by the pattern. There is a perilous circuity to this process as the repetition of the pattern accentuates its extremities even while attenuating the possibility that there are other narrative moves to make.
The Problem with Stories 2: The Heroic Pattern and Toxic Masculinity
“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory / than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”
What does this have to do with the tale of Kleomêdês and the end of heroism? When I read his story now, I see both Pausanias’ and Plutarch’s accounts as showing an individual trapped into a series of actions by the stories he has heard and a community struggling to deal with the consequences of its narrative traditions. If we imagine Kleomêdês as a real person, he imitates and performs the roles he has absorbed; if we see him as fictional or a ritualized narrative, he helps the people who tell his stories to explore the the limits of the story he embodies.
Among these options is the very real possibility that ancient Greek communities understood the power of their myths to shape their lives, While this process is not as simple as a choose-your-own-adventure story, it does constrain us to certain modes of action in certain contexts. We all play social roles; our lives and senses of self are shaped by patterned assumptions about what these roles can and should do; when there is a mismatch between our expectations and our experiences, we feel a deep kind of grief, a crisis of belonging, even existential angst.
When the cultural messages we have received have not taught us humility, compromise, or to accept complexity—indeed, when they have formed us instead to expect reward, a clear place in society, and an expression of value through access to sex, adulation, and freedom to do as we wish—we are ill-fit to respond to different contexts and new information. Some people adapt and thrive; the vast majority struggle emotionally. Many fantasize about different possibilities, about breaking the system that disappointed them. A small few turn brutally, unforgivably, and irrevocably nihilistic. And this turn is embedded in heroic narrative itself: if you cannot be the avenging hero or the savior, you can still be the suffering rogue or the tragic king. One city’s savior is another’s slaughtering demon. And when there is no city to save, what remains?
I don’t mean to say anything as simple as mass murder is caused by the stories we tell, whether they appear in movies, books, video games, music etc. But there is a formative and cyclical relationship between the immanent narrative forces in our culture and the extreme actions some members of our culture take. When we flatten out narratives and don’t explore them in their entirety, we refuse to acknowledge the complexity and range of messages conveyed in even the simplest tale. Heroes are about excess: ancient Greek heroes eat excessively, reproduce excessively, suffer excessively, and, when left without recourse, kill to excess.
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell explored the influence of popular narrative on school shootings in the New Yorker (“Thresholds of Violence,” Oct. 19, 2015). In it, he uses the social economist Mark Granovetter’s work on “behavior thresholds” to explore the basic proposal that school shootings over time are akin to behavior in mob violence, that one’s limit or “threshold” for behaving extremely is lowered when surrounded by examples of extreme behavior.
I have found this idea attractive for some time insofar as it avoids pathologizing individuals and instead examines how aggregate individual choices over time can in part be understood as a function of collective identity and the common repository of possible avenues for behavior. In essence, the argument is a statistical one about marginal behavior: marginalized individuals may be more likely to engage in socially destructive behavior; if they can regain some of their lost ‘rightful’ honor or glory through it and they have observed others glorified for it, then their threshold for engaging in such behavior can drop low enough to initiate action. This, in part, helps to explain the tendency in the US for mass killers to be white and male in a certain age group. This violence is an expression of assumed privilege denied.
But I hesitate when thinking through this explanation because it seems just a little too reductive, a modern form of Plato’s insistence that poetry is dangerous because most people are just too dumb to understand that it is allegory and they extract the wrong lesson from it. This is not to say that there is no truth to the proposal that the stories we experience in the world have a paradigmatic effect on what we think is possible—indeed, if we did not grant fame to mass murderers, there would likely be fewer mass murders.
(And Gladwell’s interpretation of Granovetter’s work seems to be something of a leap from the context and intention of the original work. I have read the latter’s articles and find some of the former’s inferences a bit maddening. This is not to say the conclusions are not powerful, but that they might be better supported with discourse analysis from Durkheim on up through post-modern theory.)
The threshold explanation, however, by focusing on some of the problem ignores the complex causes that put people in a situation in which they feel compelled to choose what the commentariat can only explain as the action of the “mentally ill”. There is, I think, an essential connection between the severe individualism that desires fame so desperately and the essential ‘maleness’ of heroes and ‘the heroic pattern’. The term toxic masculinity has emerged over the past few years to describe part of this. But like the term white fragility, its ability to indicate a basically true set of phenomena is countered by the nearly violent emotive response it elicits from the very people who best exhibit its traits.
Both of these terms describe the range of irritations to paroxysms of fear and violence that ensue when the assumed place of honor granted to an individual or group is ‘threatened’ by new social realities. Now, this might seem like a bit of a digression from where I started, but I think that part of this sense of dislocation and an additional piece to the puzzle of the problem of mass killings comes from our cultural discourse about who we are combined with the stories we tell.
We have a general cultural belief in intrinsic, individual identities which remain largely unchanged through life. Even if this belief falls apart when tested, we can see how it is reflected—and projected—in our political/economic focus on individual responsibility and our political/judicial focus on punishment and incarceration over rehabilitation. The late therapist Michael White, following the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, argues that such a view of a person limits our sense of agency in the world: he calls it “internal state psychology” because it assumes that we have a specific and mostly unchanging set of characteristics which lock us into certain courses of action.
Even if this is in some sense ‘true’—or, perhaps, more true than not—the belief in such a model of personhood has deleterious effects because it makes us believe that we—and others—cannot change. This framework is a type of psychological determinism, and it limits our sense of agency in the world and insists that some paths are closed off to us. The assumption of the internal state traps us in a deterministic world view. A hero must have honor and must gain it through extreme behavior; when the promised reward is not provided, a different narrative step slides into place. A paradigmatic act of violence both performs this determinism and gives the actor the illusion of breaking with the system.
While I have written elsewhere about Michael White’s emphasis on developing an “intentional state” psychology through therapy to facilitate positive change and break destructive patterns, the concept of “internal state” psychology also demonstrates how a concrete concept of identity, dependent on external markers of esteem and ‘patterns’ of behavior, is ‘strong’ up until the moment it crumbles completely. It is a house of concrete cards: when it falls, its pieces crush everything around them.
The Last of the Heroes and the end of Toxic Myth
“It is hard for a man to be truly good, built evenly with hands, feet and mind without blame.”
Is it too much to see in the collapsing school at Astyupalaia a metaphor for the elaborate interdependence and ultimately fragility of a community built together through narrative? Perhaps, but the tale of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is one of many set at the join between history and myth to emphasize not just the end of the heroic age but to reiterate its justification. The “hero” is opposed to the community structurally (he fights them) and symbolically (he kills the future). The nameless citizens band together only after realizing the damage he has done—they are not free of blame themselves because he was part of their community. The oracle’s instruction to honor Kleomêdês with sacrifices is a type of expiation and the preservation of the memory of what happened. Where later Christian authors like Origin and Eusebius criticize the account for showing how “pagans” would make anyone into a god, I think that the rites afforded to Kleomêdês are really about preserving the social memory of the damage that heroes can do while also marking out that he was the last one.
So the narrative of Kleomêdês in part functions to put the heroic narrative to bed, to consign it to the past, and to offer its final interpretation. In the two variants we have for the oracular line “the last of the heroes”, we find both the temporal and the spatial aspects of this finality marked out. Pausanias’ temporal hustatos (ὕστατος ἡρώων) plots this experience as coming most recently; Plutarch’s spatial eskhatos (Ἔσχατος ἡρώων) puts the hero at the end of a sequence but far away. And I don’t think there is any accident in the fact that eskhatos can also describe extreme actions and the world of the dead. The oracle marks the heroic age as definitively over and leaves this last of heroes as an unambiguous cautionary tale.
Such a narrative, I suspect, is evidence of the complexity of critical thought endemic to the living performance and reception of myth in the ancient Greek world. As I stated earlier, this implicit critical treatment of what a hero is or may be is part of the point of the Iliad and the Odyssey and no less central to the tragic stage in Athens. Indeed, I think that one would be hard-pressed to find an uncritical examination of heroic figures in most of what we have received from antiquity. (Or even in the better heroic tales we consume today.)
Simplistic lessons, constrained senses of self, lost opportunities for belonging—these are all important aspects of why the heroic pattern is insufficient for the complex lives we live and why someone like Kleomêdês turns to violence against his own people. Even to this day, members of our population are raised with expectations based on incomplete or childish narrative patterns which are sharpened and weaponized by a cultural message that our value is intrinsic, individualistic, and based on what we do alone. When the paradigms we are offered let us be saviors or destroyers, how can we be anything else?
Kleomêdês’ individual response represents the internalization of cultural narratives and beliefs; cultural narratives are the structural and institutional forces that act upon individuals and emerge from them in the aggregate. When the experience of the individual clashes with the structural, it creates crisis. We can engage with narrative patterns and alter them over time. But sequestering the tools of mass violence is the most effective way to preserve lives.
And I want to emphasize here again that this is not about pathologizing individuals. This is not about anyone’s personal mental health. This is a cultural problem of dysfunction and social organization that has neither simple explanation nor simple solution. We need to change the stories we tell about ourselves and each other; we need to educate our community from birth about how our minds work and how narratives can condition us; we need to break the restriction of narrative identities and lives lived imposed by biological gender, sex identity, and physical ability; we need to think about whether or not our social organization allows people to live with meaning and a sense of belonging. But, in the meantime, let’s not build schools on single pillars; let’s not give hopeful heroes weapons of mass murder.
As I explore when I teach myth and have over time come to understand as central to the importance of epic, the ancient Greek narrative and performative context was deeply sensitive to a need for storytelling complexity and richness of thought. The long-term engagement with sophisticated ideas provided by myth and poetry invited audiences into a dialogue of generations and ideas at the center of which was their own creation of narratives about themselves and their world, that blend between the stories they heard and the ones they experienced. I deeply believe that this process was in part therapeutic and that one of the reasons Greek epic is so shifty and challenging is that it comes at the end point of generations wrangling over difficult ideas like how a person is valued in their community, how communities govern themselves, and what makes a life worth living.
Literature in its context—and even outside of it—resists simplistic patterning and reduction and provides deep and ambiguous opportunities for engagement with audiences. It does not offer a simple map of directions or a simplistic path to completion because life itself is not a linear game. While we do have milestone moments which socially mark our moves from one “level” or “stage” of life to another, these are social constructions that give us context as we move through the most dangerous stages of adolescence and transition from one family group into another.
Any narrative that does not help us conceive of what happens next, however, is potentially disastrous. The heroic pattern leaves us no paradigm for how to live life when there are no great challenges, how to navigate the world when we are not the strongest or fastest, how to age, bear children, face weakness, and live with imperfect others without killing them.
The story of Kleomêdês takes the heroic tale to what is actually a logical end: it unmasks its toxic core and may even hint at the damaging nature of kleos (epic “fame”) itself. Kleomêdês’ murder of the children is the destruction of his community and a symbolic attempt to outlive it. The fame he gains through heroic rites are forbidden to others by the Oracle at Delphi, but this doesn’t stop people from trying.
Early on in my first year at my current University, a graduate student was mulling over possible thesis topics and expressed an interest in one of my favorite distractions, fragmentary mythography. This student was specifically interested in the intersection between history and myth and the link between genealogy and epic formed most clearly in anecdotal evidence and early Greek records. This was a time for the fragments of the Greek Historians. (Sound the Jacoby Klaxon!)
Even though it was not that long ago (ok, closer to two decades than one) when I started, the informational landscape has utterly transformed since I entered my PhD program. When I was shopping for graduate school, I was told to ask about the library and to make sure they carried certain journals. It used to be that when I made a request for an Interlibrary Loan article or book, I would fill out a form (by hand) and then go to a dark window in the corner of the library weeks later to retrieve my request in an impersonal manila envelope, as if I were retrieving something forbidden, illicit.
(And, as I think of it, it was a whole lot easier to make many drug transactions than it was to get certain journals when I started graduate school.)
Today, ILL is slick, fast, and rarely demands that I leave the safe, enervating confines of my own office. Where twenty years ago a student would have had to sit down with a tightly printed, nearly inscrutable volume of Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians, two years ago my student and I emailed the librarian, found out the there was a digital version available through Brill, and made a request for the library to negotiate access.
It took an excruciating week. But when it came in? Well, it was glorious. Jacoby online presents all the fragments, translated, with notes! The online world of Classical Studies can turn a desk jockey anywhere into a world-class scholar by delivering bibliographies through the arcane but indispensable L’Annee Philologique and all the starting details you need with Brill’s New Pauly (now in English, fools. No German for you! And don’t give me that look, no less a leading light than Richard Porson allegedly quipped that “Life is too short to learn German.”)
this is just beautiful.
You can be transformed by this access, if you have the right library. But I knew from just a few months earlier, that this conditional makes a world of difference. Brandeis is not a wealthy University, but it is wealthy enough to drop a few grand extra so 3-5 people can benefit from a database 99.5% of the population has never heard of.
“There are those who accumulate books not from eagerness to use them, but from the desire to have them, and they possess them not as a bulwark to their minds, but as an ornament for their bedrooms.
Sunt enim qui libros, ut cetera, non utendi studio cumulent, sed habendi libidine, neque tam ut ingenii presidium, quam ut thalami ornamentum.
Petrarch, Epistles 3.18
Sometimes it is really easy to forget how much the information age has changed our access to the ancient world. The only scholarly text I saw before I picked up a copy of Cicero’s Pro Caelio at the Brandeis campus bookstore in 1998 was a dog-eared copy of Fordyce’s Catullus (that in-depth, but tragically incomplete commentary). I remember handling my first Loeb in the Classics section at the now defunct Borders (Books and Music); the first Latin text I actually owned was a bilingual edition of Catullus special-ordered from that same Borders by my high school girlfriend.
If you lived in certain regions, Greek and Latin texts were hard to find even if you could afford them. When I was in college and bar-tending in a seaside town in Maine, I noticed a patron reading Horace at the bar. I casually asked him where he was a professor, and he was like “Heavens, no, I am a stockbroker! The University is the death of the Arts.” (Really.) After a conversation filled with “o fons bandusiae” and the like, he asked me how often I frequentedSchoenhof’s foreign language bookstore in Cambridge. When I said never, he had a heart attack. Ok, he only feigned a heart attack. But he did give me a 20 dollar tip and bid me to get there post haste.
For thousands of years, access to the texts bequeathed to us by antiquity was dictated by geography and class. You could be born into a family with a private library (rare) or endowed with the resources to send you to an institution which had one (less rare, but still, you know, 1% stuff) or you could happen to be near an institution that just happened to possess a Homer or a Vergil. (Assuming, of course, you’d get to look at it.) Or, of course, you could be lucky enough like Richard Bentley to get a tutoring gig for a family so well-endowed that the notes you made from their library helped launch and sustain your career.
Very few public libraries that aren’t also University libraries house Greek and Latin texts to this day. I read whatever was at the library when I was a kid. Every Stephen King book was there, so that’s what I read. When I wanted to read Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune was the book they stocked, so that’s the one I started with (and my favorite to this day). On the rare occasions we trekked to the largest library I had ever seen (the Portland Public Library), it was to browse and admire. It was, let’s say, simply too far to go to get a book just to return it.
Part of the radical legacy of the late Renaissance, the rise of the printing Press, and the Enlightenment is the democritization of material once so carefully cloistered. The spirit of access is clear in the creation of the FrenchBudé editions of Greek and Latin texts and theLoeb Classical Library in the United States. These bilingual editions were (and remain) far more affordable than most scholarly editions and more readily available.
(Full disclosure: I have a book coming out with CHS this year with Elton Barker. We selected CHS as a venue for the book in part because of their open access policy.)
Social media can break down boundaries between the Oxford Don and the Brazilian high school student in ways I think would have shocked William Gibson in 1985. But there are other stories behind this obvious social gain: the quality of the texts are curbed (we still have trouble sharing critical texts with functioning critical apparatus), the quality of some sources is unclear, and these sites often lack the funds and expertise to ensure they are accessible for the visually impaired. And, the newest and latest material is almost always pay-walled: the neoliberal publishing market has found ways to cloister some of our most useful contributions.
“For I seriously need both the Greek books—which I have an idea about—and the Latin ones”
nam et Graecis iis libris quos suspicor et Latinis quos scio illum reliquisse mihi vehementer opus est. Cicero, Letters to Atticus 1.20
Spending time in libraries ain’t what it used to be. Don’t get me wrong, free public libraries remain one of the most essential democratic institutions in our country and we should celebrate them and their librarians. But modern libraries reflect their use and function like any other place, with real estate. More and more space is given over to computers through de-accession and that terrible three word phrase, off site storage.
Again, don’t get me wrong. This is not to be a luddite’s rant against the computer or a bibliomaniacal fetish piece. The reason I lament the absence of books is that the computer terminals are only as good as what they have access to. In a way, computers are like books: you can’t judge the contents of either by the cover. And when the contents work, it can be transformative. I have never been a Classicist without the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. For some years, I used a purchased CD-ROM of the TLG-E; for a few, we negotiated through our library at UTSA a single computer subscription. (For others, well, let’s just say some people know how to put the ILL back in illicit. This is an essential tool for modern philology and everyone should have access to it, for free.)
If we were to re-imagine the current world of Classical Studies as one particular site, it would be a platform with different identity levels controlling access. If you have high speed internet access, you can get free public domain Latin and Greek texts with translations, the Suda Online, and random uncurated website, articles, all mediated by google and requiring time intensive labor to sift through. There are some e-books and pdfs, but many of them are teases and there’s always a threat of piggybacking malware. If you have entry-level professional organization or second tier public school access, you might get the Loeb Classical Library, and more articles through JSTOR.
But if you are at the top of the access food chain, if you’re a Brillionaire, you have L’Annee Philologique, Brill’s New Pauly, Brill’s Jacoby, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Latin and Linguistics, and more. So much more that you don’t know about it all and you just don’t care. This is what one might call eff you level access.
At my last institution, the University of Texas at San Antonio, I could get most articles I needed, but had access to very few databases. To use L’Annee Philologique, I had to go to UT Austin and ask for computer access. But they gave it to me because of my status (Professor) and my geography (TXShare, with some hurdles, allowed for people from public libraries to use the University library).
So, while we have democritized a lot of the past in some ways, we have created new boundaries in others. Who you are, where you live, and what you do still dictates the level of access you receive to the embarrassment of research riches at our fingertips. If you have no affiliation, you get the surface level, search engine mediated access. If you are lucky enough to be at a top tier institution, you have everything, but likely don’t know about it and, until you lose that status, won’t know that your work may be dependent on one bundling plan or some administrator’s choice. If you live too far or don’t have whatever relationship it is you need to get some special status, you are left on the outside looking in
And let’s not prevaricate here. Open access is about equity and inclusion. As long as we live in a world where historical and structural racism, gender bias, ableism, and classism influence where a person is born and the lives they lead, then any system which limits access to information based on geography or class will be at its foundation racist,sexist, ableist, and classist.
“I am not ignorant in the meantime (notwithstanding this which I have said) how barbarously and basely, for the most part, our ruder gentry esteem of libraries and books, how they neglect and contemn so great a treasure, so inestimable a benefit” Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy 2.2.4
The information access problem is tied in part to the labyrinthine economy of the neo-liberal university system. At its base is a heinous labor scam most of us in the academy are complicit in and which most of us are too busy to notice, too tired to fight, or too weak to resist. Almost all of the databases I mentioned above were produced through free (or nearly free) labor by scholars working to get or keep their jobs. (And this overlooks the unmentioned and often unpaid labor of students, administrators and family members along the way.).
I myself have written entries for at least one of the publications mentioned above: I received a 30% off promise for 2000 words. My university does not have access to an article I have never seen in its native form. And this is all a greater part of what is the bait-and-switch of academic publishing. What a perversion that we labor for years to produce books we cannot actually afford and which almost none of our friends or colleagues could afford to purchase!
(Another part of the story that needs to be told is how this economic system makes it possible for predatory publishers to take advantaged of those already marginalized by charging them fees to get work published…)
As the university has engaged in increasingly high-stakes brinksmanship, raising its perceived rankings value by pumping up the publication stats of its professors, non-profit and for-profit presses have joined the game by furnishing both a venue and a market for these intellectual markets. Young academics are trained not to write ‘trade’ books (that is, books that make money); instead, to secure the too often elusive promise of a job we write books for which we receive no compensation and for which we are often expected to pay for our own indexing (and in some cases, copy editing).
Articles are little different: peer review requires free labor from editors, referees, and the authors themselves. Some editors do get paid (more on this soon), but rarely is there more than an annual drink or meal for an editorial board and referees can at times receive a few hundred dollars for reading a book and a digital wink-and-a-smile for reading an article. The authors themselves, after scores, if not hundreds of hours of work, are compensated with 5% less existential angst and the chance that 1 of the 5 people who read their article might cite them. And the exclusivity can keep some people out of disciplines altogether: think of some of the nearly criminal tales dogging papyrology lately or how few people actually can get decent training in paleography. Where you are and where you started still guides most of our academic journey.
The scandal behind the publication heist is that most of this labor is subsidized by Universities themselves. Full-time faculty are expected to do research and service (and all the work I mentioned above falls into this category.) But many schools also provide funds to student and graduate student workers to assist in the publication cycle; others task administrative assistants or actual journal employees to the job. Untold millions of dollars are provided by public and private universities to support the publication of academic research. Then this subsidized research is repackaged and sold back to their over-extended libraries in an over-priced bundle. This is a cartel-level scam.
(This is why employees of universities in some countries (e.g. the UK) are required to publish open access material. Such a requirement might work for public institutions in the US and is already operable for work funding by certain federal initiatives, but it would be difficult to enforce universally.)
“Give up the books and pay attention to only your own affairs”
ἄφες δὲ τὰ βιβλία καὶ μόνα ἐργάζου τὰ σαυτοῦ. Lucian, On the Ignorant Book-Collector 27
I know that there is another side to the story. I got to hear first-hand from the acquisitions editor for Brill Classics why their subscription costs so much. There are multiple people working full time to support the online databases for the New Pauly and the Jacoby. Editing, formatting, and tech support takes time and costs money. I would not want to take any stance that they should not be paid fair, livable wages. The costs of articles in other disciplines are even higher: in the sciences where editors need to worry about positive result bias, misused data, an undisclosed conflicts of interest, publishing can be labor intensive.
(To be clear, I am using Brill as a metonym here: there are far worse offenders.)
And I think that it is hard for us to think about the full economic cost of online resources. Databases need servers. Servers need bandwidth, energy, and, and maintenance. The more use they get, the more they cost. And, something we probably all live in daily denial about, this use has environmental and social costs: google searches have carbon footprints. Computers don’t run on love and hope; they run on electricity and much of this is still driven by coal.
Other economic pressures shape this system too. Some publications are supported by professional organizations. Companies like JSTOR buy rights to these publications from the organizations—these deals look really good to the editorial boards. Imagine this: you and your friends write something for free every year and you don’t have the expertise or the infrastructure to digitize it. You also depend on subscription fees and individual library purchases to break even in the printing of the work. Suddenly, a friendly digital giant comes along and offers you, I don’t know, $20,000 dollars a year for the rights to digitize and distribute your journal. You take this and use it to pay the editor, lower membership fees, fund journal production costs, and even create scholarships for students. This is a win-win-win!
Except, the FDG turns around, bundles the journal, and extorts Universities and libraries all over the world. Your organization’s 20K can easily turn into 200K for them while many of your friends and colleagues without institutional access can’t get to your work. (And some estimates put the gross receipts of one article in the sciences to be $5000.00 for the publisher.) This hypothetical is not uncommon. But I am not trying to impugn any single person or organization by telling the story. Like many trends, this is the aggregate result of individuals and small groups making rational decisions in isolation. Objection to the systematic exploitation of academic labor should not lead us to condemn or dismiss colleagues who are also being exploited by this system.
University presses do similar things with books and subscriptions. And, again, we can’t blame them because they are also part of an economic system that is suffering from public divestment and new informational paradigms. Things will probably get worse: education is facing aneighth year of lower enrollments, even more severe public funding cuts—many politically manufactured crises like that at theUniversity of Alaska, or cynical attacks on functional schools like that at theUniversity of Tulsa—and the late capitalist land-grab of corporate takeovers:Starbucks and Amazon are talking college partnerships and credentialing now, but how long until they just open their own schools or acquire financially troubled institutions in WSJ approved experiments in innovation and public-private synergy?!
If knowledge is a public good and publication makes knowledge available, is it too much of a twisted syllogism to insist that publication be treated as a public good?
Nosse bonos libros non minima pars est bonae eruditionis.
“To know good books is not the least part of sound erudition”
motto over Bishop Cosin’s library at Durham, Henry L. Thompson, Henry George Liddell: A Memoir
When I was finishing my PhD I lucked into one of those tutoring jobs that form the stuff of legends. A high school student wanted to learn Greek from scratch. The student’s home had its own elevator to the penthouse where it overlooked central park. For two years I happily went there once or twice a week and worked through all of Hanson and Quinn, Plato’s Ion and much of Herodotus Book 1. During the second year, the student’s mother asked me if I had seen the old books she had been giving her husband for birthdays and holidays. They were late Renaissance era texts of Homer, Pindar, and more. I trembled as I asked if I needed gloves to handle them—of course, not, why would I? These were just gifts to be presented and seen on the shelves.
If schools continue to lose funding and presses pursue what meager profit is left—or worse, cease supporting the tools and databases we have already created—we run the risk of returning to the plutocratic exclusivity of the finest resources for the rarest few. Don’t consider just the students at less well endowed and funded schools who cannot test-drive the Brill-iant cadillacs like the New Pauly. What about unaffiliated scholars or students and readers from outside countries with ‘world-class’ universities? Our scholarly production is already an exclusive country club with gilded chains on the windows and doors.
Ultimately, we need a public funding system to support research and publishing that makes it available for everyone. Since this is highly unlikely in our current political reality, what can we do? Some of us break the rules individually, you know, engage in a little ‘innovation’ and ‘creative disruption’. We can handout articles as if they are candy; we can give people advice on how to find those pirated TLGs. I know that academia.edu is another profiteering algorithm machine, but it and sites like it allow us to share our work with anyone with an email address.
Those of us who have secure positions can choose which venues we send our work in; we can support open access publication for our junior colleagues. We can ask our schools to host our work; we can choose to publish only in open access journals and venues, but this also means that when we judge people for employment and tenure, we need to re-evaluate the value of journal prestige.
Perhaps there is more we can do institutionally. Why can’t universities share their access more widely? At the very least they can use their informational footprint to sponsor our work and help shift the perspective on access. In our professional organizations we can make open access a clearly articulated mandate and we can raise money to support databases and journals that are subscription fee (and I am happy to hear that the TLG has a plan to do so. It is too bad it has not happened faster).
Again, there are projects that need to be done—like the digitization of the Lexicon Iconcographicum Mythologicae Classicae—which we should make sure are done for everyone and we should not only seek to support the scholars who do this work financially, but we should support their work ethically by counting open access and publicly facing work as equal to if not greater than traditional journal articles when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion.It is and will be personally and professionally difficult to disentangle this elegant cage we have helped make for ourselves. But the first step is acknowledging that it is there, that we have contributed to it, and that some of us have benefited from keeping many others in the dark. When you’re in it, the Club is a fine and rare place to be. But with the disappearance of full-time jobs, the increase casualization of labor in the Academy, and the fetishization of the gig-economy, more of us will be on the outside looking in.
“I confess indeed that I am obsessed with studying literature. Let this fact shame others who do not know how to make use of their books so that they can’t provide anything from their reading to common profit or to make their benefit clear in sight.”
Ego vero fateor me his studiis esse deditum: ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt, ut nihil possint ex his neque ad communem adferre fructum neque in aspectum lucemque proferre: Cicero, Pro Archa 13
I have a persistent fantasy of a decentralized publishing paradigm for fields like archaeology. Scholar-led presses would take on publishing some of the more specialized literature and some of the risk. It would be open access and smaller scale. (e.g. https://t.co/fJTxVKPbsc)
Public libraries may be able to provide structure and scaffolding for more equitable access
In Massachusetts, at least, all residents can get access to JSTOR through the Boston Public Library’s ecard program. That’s about the only access we have here to back logs of humanities journals given our budget.
The people I just listed and the many others who work alongside them face conflict on multiple sides. There is the fight of the field against this racist appropriation; but there is also a fight for the field that I think we are still trying to make sense of. We are constrained both by the disciplines we trained in and the way the history of these disciplines is entwined with structural and institutional racism.
Oh, boy. Do we need another post on this topic? And—this is certainly a fair question—do we need another post on this topic from me? I don’t work specifically on race in the modern world or antiquity. I don’t have any specialized academic training apart from a handful of undergraduate courses and professional training over the years. The fact is, it is really easy for me not to write this.
But, like many of us, I do teach students who see the world differently than I do; and I do train students in disciplines that are steeped in historical problems. Furthermore, I am in the position of trying to lead people who do this with me. I also somehow have helped create a space where some things might be heard. For each of these reasons, I think it is irresponsible not to engage with these issues and not to examine how deeply they go.
“Are you actually saying that describing certain odors as foul is misogynistic? and You are a tenured professor? hahahahhahahhaha!
btw, How is your quickly collapsing civilization at the hands of a swelling muslim horde going? At least when it’s all razed to smouldering embers and muslim men are raping, impregnating or beheading your wives and daughters you can have the satisfaction of saying you weren’t racist or a misogynist.”
Now, this is a typical troll-technique in an attempt to elicit an aggressive response: first, belittle and mock the credentials of the addressee; second, cut to the chase and try to inspire fear by painting a picture of the cultural apocalypse to come. I am pretty good at not taking the bait of the first move, because, hey, sometimes it is surprising that I am a professor and tenured—not only because I will never shake off the old imposter syndrome, but also because I have known plenty of smarter and better people who for some reason did not make it at every level. For the second, well, all I said was the truth: a good part of my family is Muslim. It is pretty hard to fear a murderous, rapacious horde, when you’ve shared their tables, prayed alongside them, and love them.
“He commits a second crime, who is not ashamed of his first”
geminat peccatum, quem delicti non pudet Publilius Syrus, Sent. G11
“Your introduction sounds like you are in favour of the ongoing white genocide – bizarre from someone who would appear to admire white culture and civlization. Or perhaps you are a Jewish Supremacist? Personally I’m with Apion, Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, Manetho, Cicero, Juvenal, Horace etc – letting Jews control the discourse is never a good thing.”
(I am going to sidestep the anti-Semitism here except to say that the comment is clearly made by someone deeply indoctrinated in hate. This is repulsive but unsurprising. Indeed, I have been the target of anti-Semitic comments online on several occasions. I suspect this is because of where I teach. I block Nazis as soon as they announce themselves.)
This was not the last time I was accused of being in favor of white genocide (I have also been called a race traitor). The thing is, well, complicated. First, we can say that white genocide is an insane piece of nonsense sourced locally in South Africa and embraced by certifiable nutballs in Europe, Australia and the United States, as charted out in Harper’s.
“We call those studies ‘liberal’ which are worthy of a free person”
Liberalia igitur studia vocamus, quae sunt homine libero digna, Vergerio de ing. Mor. 23
So, if one were to insist to me that there is a white race—and not a bunch of people with various degrees of comparatively paler skin who come from a variety of different linguistic and religious groups but largely speak dialects of English in the US, UK, and Australia—I would probably be in favor of ending the concept because it exists as a weapon of exclusion. This, in such deranged logic, makes me a race traitor. (Among other things, of course: my family is multiracial).
Now, it may seem like there is only a twisted path from the destructive and demeaning construction of whiteness and our problems with Classics, but let me get back to the point. It has become de rigeur for ‘intellectuals’ with certain affinities who rave about the rise of ‘identity politics’ and post-modernism to lament the collapse of Classical Education and the loss of some kind of shared culture. This concept of a ‘shared culture’ is as chimerical as whiteness. But it is no less damaging.
Indeed, when I wrote a thread in response to Roger Kimball’s paint-by-numbers indictment of the modern academy, our account was unfollowed by someone who felt we were insufficiently championing “our” culture.
Unfollow. Boring ravings.
Yes, it's "our" civilisation. We invented it.
— Carmen Carter QC (Quentin Crisp fan) (@CarmenC30263217) June 2, 2019
My friend, this cultured response is not innocent; it may be ignorant, but it remains an expression of an ethnonationalism that is merely a reflex of white supremacy. (It is also absurd: no one invents a culture. (1) I cannot see how it is ever logical to claim any credit for actions performed by others before you were born. (2) And if you claim the credits, you also owe the debts.) When one person frets over threats to “our” culture, another chants “you will not replace us” with a burning tiki torch.
“For it is not easy to take a false belief from them, not even if someone should refute it completely”
οὐ γάρ ἐστι ῥᾴδιον τούτων ἀφελέσθαι τὴν δόξαν, οὐδ’ ἂν πάνυ τις ἐξελέγχῃ, Dio Chrysostom Orat. 11
There are many kinds of exclusionary approaches. Some are clearly racist (ethnonationalists so proudly wave their black, white and red banners). Others are intellectually decorous, but amount to the same. When Erik exposed the counterfeit claims of modern conservative intellectualism, one respondent chortled (if one can describe a tweet that way) and offered up the example of T.S. Eliot.
When my colleague emailed me, rather than brag about all the smart and insightful people I know who are leading the fight against this racist nonsense, I sputtered, and meandered, talking about how much more there is to do in recognizing that exclusion and, yes, racism, have been central to the disciplines we call Classics not just for a few generations, but for most of the history of the discipline.
Here’s the thing. This is not just about misappropriation. This is about the nature and history of the field itself. Yes, we need to stand against the use of antiquity for hateful and destructive ends; but we also need to work to examine how our discipline has been shaped by these forces. As the kids say, racism is a feature not a bug of Classics as a field. And this gets straight to a conversation I have been having with myself and others since I posted about my myth class earlier in the year: How do you decolonize something that is has developed hand-in-glove with essential exclusionary, colonialist, and racist discourse?
(I am avoiding here the claim that that the material treated by Classical studies is necessarily racist. Much of it is ideological driven and used for racist ends, but I do think we need to be careful to separate material from use.)
“Humanity thinks only about temporary seeds, / Its pledge is nothing more than the shadow of smoke”
Already, I know heads are spinning, but let me just sketch out without supporting evidence the areas of inquiry available to explore how exclusionism has shaped our field and how and when this went from ideology to bigotry and violence. For ease, I will break it into stages:
Pre-Archaic Greece to Hellenistic Period: The material preserved by most forces communicates Aristocratic values with a strong structural misogyny. Ableism is assumed. Much of the early material is, indeed, plurivocal, but the process of selection by later, elitist editors, exacerbates the nature of our evidence. Post-Persian wars the dichotomy of Greek and Barbarian develops. Almost no representation of women and lower classes. Mass enslavement.
Hellenistic period: Less stuff about barbarians! But even more of a skew toward elite culture and the literary remains of a few traditions from Greece proper. Poetry and oral culture did not perish, but it was not preserved to the same extent our already canonized tragedy, lyric, and epic were. Voices of women, lower classes, and non-Greek groups were largely excluded from the record keeping at this time. Flirtation with trans-linguistic cosmopolitanism. Mass Enslavement.
Roman Period: Willful occlusion of pre-Roman and non-Roman cultural groups; adoption of a Hellenistic veneer; Primarily recorded voices are those of male aristocrats. Some use Latin; some use Greek. People can become Roman by speaking Latin and Greek. Growth of empire means even greater occlusion of local and diverse perspectives. Mass enslavement.
Early Christian Period: Burgeoning of anti-Semitism. Perpetuation of much of the Hellenistic canon. Erasure of pagan cultures. Breaking of the Empire into Greek and Roman sides. Roman side preserved Latin Culture; Greek Side preserved Greek culture. Continued ableism. Misogyny. Enslavement.
Medieval Period: Even before crusaders sacked Byzantium, the largely Roman Catholic histories and focus from Rome (and wherever the Papacy moved) discredited, dehumanized, and dislocated the contributions of “easterners” (this, despite the fact that most people who have studied the time period would likely prefer to live in Byzantium to Rome). Christian readings and tending of the canon altered our tradition even more; most intellectual training in Western Europe during this period was theological in focus. As Stephanie Frampton has taught me, the term Classici emerges in the Medieval period to mark off scholars of a certain Class or Rank. This is, in part, about aesthetic judgment; but it is also a continuation of the process of selection and exclusion that began in the Hellenistic Period. Our field’s title, Classical Studies, is therefore implicitly—if not explicitly—exclusionary.
This period also saw the steady narrowing of whose perspective and contribution on Classical Studies is valued: non-Christians (e.g. Muslims, Jews, and even those farther afield) have had their scholarly histories expunged. This continued into the modern era in Europe where Protestants in the North (and England) undervalued and marginalized Catholics.
Rebirth of Philology: From Luther’s theses to the translation of the King James Bible and the religious conflicts prior to the Enlightenment, the seeds of Philology were sewn. Biblical and Classical philology—which first influenced each other in Hellenistic libraries like the one at Alexandria—were odd step-siblings united by basic assumptions about the search for authority and truth and the perfectability of the word of God by man. Anti-Semitism, explicit and not, excluded many voices from these conversations; a majority of the scholars who worked on texts and traditions were upper class; almost all were men; almost all were ‘white’ in the modern, unreflective sense. Mass enslavement in the US and British Empire. Classical ideas and philosophy are used to defend and advocate for colonialism, slavery, and genocide.
German Philhellenism: The rise of European nationalism saw many different types of identities emerge, but one of the more consequential was the German one. Among the intellectual class, there is a deep and confounding correspondence between German national pride and scholarly Philhellenism. Most Classicists acknowledge that our very concept of our field today owes much to 18th Century German Altertumswissenschaft, but few of us as readily acknowledge that one of the central concepts—the uniqueness of the Greeks and their language—was the method by which that very uniqueness could be claimed as a heritage for Germans. The impact of this is clear in German philosophy and in Nazi-adjacent authors like Martin Heidegger.
“Indeed, ignorance is a kind of weakness, but the detestation of knowledge is the sign of a depraved will.”
nescire siquidem infirmitatis est, scientiam vero detestari, pravae voluntatis Hugo St. Victor, Didascalion, Preface 1
There is more to be said about the rise of Classicism in the US and UK following German norms, but I will leave that for others. It is fairly safe to say that the majority of the voices within Classics complaining about the opening up of the field hew to ‘regimens’ and ‘standards’ developed prior to WWII.
The way we train our students, the languages we think are important, the books we think we should read, and the arguments we think are worth making are all shaped in some way by the intellectual and disciplinary prejudices we have acquired over a thousand years. Now, we can take a certain pride in claiming a heritage that is so old, but here again, the credit must be accounted with the debt.
There will be many objections to this periodization, but that is part of the point, it is an invitation to a discussion. But we still live with many of the consequences in our scholarship. For instance, in N. G Wilson’s From Byzantium to Italy—which represents what most Classicists seem to think happened during the Renaissance—the author spends a precious few pages talking about the work of Byzantine scholars. (Although, as has been pointed out to me, Wilson dedicates considerable space to Byzantine scholars in another book. The separation, which was likely not his choice, represents the way most people in Classics think about the transmission of ancient culture.)
The story that is typically told about the Renaissance is usually of how Italian scholars “rediscovered Greece”. This is a patent falsehood. Byzantine scholars from before the 6th century advanced the work of the Hellenistic period to a point not rivalled until after the Enlightenment (even if then). But northern European scholars denigrate and marginalize their contributions to this day (much as in the English speaking world we pretty much ignore the scholarship of modern Greeks.) Such designed ‘oversight’ emerges in every history of Classical Scholarship (Pfeiffer and Sandys are the worst for this). By continuing to tell this story, we reinforce an erroneous notion that centers Rome and Northern Europe as the inheritors of some virtuous past.
“For one who is falling cannot lift others; one who is ignorant cannot teach”
But, really, the entire notion of the “Greek Genius” or the “Greek Miracle” is built on a willful racist denial of the influence of Ancient Near Eastern peoples on Greece (and others) and rooted in an ignorance of the deep cultural and trading networks that connected the Ancient Mediterranean. Diogenes Laertius can claim that Greek philosophy came from Egypt; we ignore him as a naïve mythologos, while we reserve our most forceful mobilization for the Western de-centering work ofBlack Athena. Few people have the expertise to move from Hittites and Hurrians to Gilgamesh and Egyptians. Even when we can get them together, we still have evidence largely of upper classes. There is new work being done on the Bronze Age all over the Mediterranean, but our disciplinary and institutional boundaries have trouble funding and housing the scholars who do it.
And where we draw disciplinary boundaries is only part of the problem. Our field is still demonstrably hostile to women and people of color. Our professorships and placements in top PhD programs still go predominantly to people of the highest classes. Our journals still publish mostly work from white men.
Now, please do not misunderstand me, historians and archaeologists over the past century have used a range of tools to recuperate the voices and experiences of non-elites in Ancient Greece and Rome, but the impact of the evidence they generate is constrained by the conventions and assumptions of the fields they try to change.
The voices of fear and protest that worry over the loss of “our culture” are mostly unaware of what a fantastic confabulation “our culture” is. Instead of worrying about what we risk, we should celebrate what is to be gained from the admission of different voices. In brief, our understanding of the past has been transformed over the past few generations by women’s voices and by those less mutilated by heteronormative culture. Historians from different classes and backgrounds have looked for evidence of past peoples whose lives were never even imagined. Scholars of varied abilities and perspectives on gender and sexuality have helped us understand that the stories we received about the Ancient World were wrong. But there is more work to be done: consider how much of digital classics material is actual accessible? How many of our conferences and conference panels are hostile to women, non-binary scholars, and those of different abilities?
“So, I did not want to write what the unlearned could not understand or what the learned would not care to.”
itaque ea nolui scribere quae nec indocti intellegere possent nec docti legere curaren, Cicero Academica 1.4
A few years back another internet troll told me I was not a real Classicist because a real classicist™ wants to emulate the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Others have called me out for dedicated my life to something I clearly hate. This is, as with most internet trollery, unrefined horseshit. What an impoverished definition of love one must have to think that you can only appreciate something you think is perfect? I have spent the past 20 years of my life reading, learning, and teaching Homer and Ancient Greek out of love and enchantment, but not with blind eye to the cruelty and the pain these things can represent and still effect in the world.
To study the past—to study the humanities—is to engage in inquiry about what it means to be human. To love the human race does not mean we need to deny its imperfections—to me it means that we learn the contours of our weakness as much as our strength so we may help with one and support the other. If I am not a Classicist because I do not emulate the Classical world, perhaps I can be a humanist because I aemulate it in the strictest Latin sense—I strive with it, I struggle to understand it, and I wear myself out trying to improve it.
This is what we need to do in our field. We need to root out and understand what has shaped us and improve upon it for the generations to come.
A Few Updates:
In response to Dr. Ben Cartlidge’s very reasonable response on twitter, I softened the language about N. G. Wilson’s work on Byzantine scholarship. I unfairly used him as a straw man and may have misrepresented his work.
I received a great email from Dr. Lara Fabian who noted that much of what I have written is conditioned by Anglo-American chauvinism and isolationism and, as she rightly points out, is evidence of a type of privilege of English-language scholarship. She has some fascinating and enlightening things to say about the development of Classical Scholarship in Russia and I think I have persuaded her to write some blog posts.
If anyone has responses or work that can help correct/adjust/improve this conversation, please do let me know.
More evidence of my cultural blindspots and fascinating avenues for investigation:
I'm personally working on Turkey & scholarship on Classics (& Near East, Hittites part of national mythology) after 1930s since Turkey is an imperialist other. Classics was meant to connect Turks to "European past" but not to modern Greeks who had just been massacred. @sentantiq
For too long, the discipline of Classics has been like Uncle Roger at Thanksgiving dinner, that relative who shows up wrapped in a confederate flag, complaining about “those people” ruining his neighborhood and destroying everything good about our country. The difference is that tolerating Uncle Roger is not just a once-a-year event for Classics. Uncle Roger has been at the American Classical League’s dinner table every day for over a century. In more recent years, the main response to him has been “That’s just the way he is” or “Don’t mind him. He’s from a different era.” Active encouragement and passive acceptance of Uncle Roger has made our Classics classrooms resemble ca. 1987 Augusta National.
The lack of diversity in Classics is not an accident. It is by design. A good example of this is the secondary Latin recruitment material that was available online until Tuesday that presents a version of Classics that portrays a select few as rightful heirs of ancient Roman culture. The problematic content is not limited to a regressive use of the term “Western Civilization.” In this material, Classics is presented as a signifier of cultural superiority. I won’t mince words: This is the language of White Supremacy.
One of the most troubling examples is an excerpt from More Than Just a Language, a pamphlet that has been distributed to over 50,000 people: “Rome: a heritage shared by North and South Americans, Europeans and citizens of many third world nations helps bring students into the mainstream of western culture.” This messaging is not an anomaly. It seems to be a formal talking point. Latin in the Schools, a resource from 2015 also promotes this abhorrent appropriation of Classics: “Students of diverse ethnic backgrounds find that Latin helps bring students into the mainstream of American culture and western civilization.”
Other resources promote the idea that Latin is primarily for people of European descent. Why Study Latin, presupposes that “foreign peoples” aren’t even in the Latin classroom and presents Latin as White Area Studies: “Familiar with diversity, change and longevity of his own culture, a person is more inclined to respect the views, ideologies, religions, and economic systems of foreign peoples.” What is “his own culture”? Who are the “foreign peoples” that the dominant-culture student cannot respect without taking Latin?
In 2019, Classics should never be described as a path to civilization or acceptance into American society. In the 1830s, pro-slavery senator John Calhoun reportedly said that if he “could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, (he) would then believe the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.’” In Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi described the Enlightenment-era assimilationists who believed in the “racist idea of unenlightened Africa” and sought out “‘barbarians to civilize into the ‘superior’ ways of Europeans.’” Recruitment material for Classics should not provide a platform for these abhorrent, dehumanizing ideas.
It is not OK when this rhetoric comes from individuals or fringe groups. It is even worse when it comes from the professional organizations. We cannot pretend these messages do not represent the field when they were disseminated so recently by the National Committee on Latin and Greek, a standing committee of the American Classical League tasked with promoting Classics through lobbying efforts, developing recruitment material, and representing Classics on the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL), whose role is to “shape national policy for World Languages, ASL, and international education and to raise the profile of the language enterprise.” NCLG is supported by the Classical Association for the Atlantic States (CAAS), the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS), and many other Classical organizations. In other words, member dues helped produce, support, and disseminate this content. This is particularly troubling since many secondary teachers are required to sponsor a chapter of Junior Classical League, a requirement of which is sponsor membership in ACL. I am not alone in objecting to these representations of the field, my profession, and my students.
When confronted about their material, ACL removed it immediately and initiated a productive dialogue about creating new, appropriate materials. On Twitter, however, ACL downplayed the seriousness of the complaint, writing, “This is referring to old materials that we do not distribute any longer. NCLG is working on a revision of the brochure, and our Diversity and Inclusivity Committee will be giving input.” One Latin teacher, who is also a member of this task force, wrote on Twitter, “Personally, I think Paterno’s* name on it is a duh, this is obviously old… what some would not consider offensive 5, 10 years ago is now.” This comment belies a common fallacy: “Because it doesn’t offend me, it is not offensive.” Make no mistake, this content was as offensive and dangerous ten years ago as it was on Tuesday, the last day it was available to the public on Promote Latin, the NCLG website.
Removing the material does not solve the underlying problem. The troubling reality is these are receptions of Classics that some still actively endorse and that many others tolerate or justify. The ACL exists to “initiate, improve, and extend the study of Classical languages and civilizations in north America.” The Society for Classical Studies (SCS) and regional Classical organizations share this goal along with their members. If “Classics is for everyone” is more than an empty slogan, that message must be conveyed in action and words. Too many aspects of Classics have sent the exact opposite message and have gone unchallenged. The ACL needs to be better a better steward and ambassador of the field.
There has already been some progress. Earlier this Spring, ACL released a statement affirming its core values and emphasizing that Latin is for everyone. Recently, the National Latin Exam also released a statement on Diversity and Inclusion along with plans to remove problematic questions from their online app and compose their exam “with greater awareness moving forward.” Responding to problems is better than silence, inaction, and defensiveness, but the absence of a concrete, action-oriented strategy will leave the field playing whack-a-mole with shifting manifestations of a systemic problem.
The ACL is in a unique position to transform Classics for the better. Here are some concrete steps the organization should take to make “Latin for everyone” a reality:
1) Formally condemn systems, practices, policies, and rhetoric that limit access to Classics. Appropriations of Classics as a marker of cultural superiority are hurtful and dangerous. For starters, ACL should release a clear statement disavowing the harmful ideas in recruitment materials that were available to the public until this week.
2) Establish and disseminate anti-racist expectations for secondary Classics. Set the explicit expectation that all children should be afforded the opportunity to study Classics in schools where programs exist. Be explicit that there is no reason programs should not mirror the demographics of their schools. If only one kind of student is signing up for Latin, that is a red flag.
3) Investigate the problem. We all know that disproportionality is a problem in secondary Classics classrooms. The College Board should not be the only source of demographic information about the composition of our field. The National Latin Exam already collects demographic data from the more than 150,000 participants. Adding a question about race and ethnicity for this coming year will provide important data for NLE and ACL as they implement changes to make the field more accessible.**
4) Invest in diversity training for ACL leaders. The existence of the problematic recruitment material reveals a gap in knowledge and tools. If ACL is serious about making our classrooms more welcoming (and I believe it is), it makes sense to leverage the expertise of professionals who have been doing this type of work for decades. Ignorance is not an excuse. Equally important, members of the Diversity and Inclusion task force must recognize and understand the dangerous ways classics can be appropriated, even from within the field itself.
5) Develop clear and consistent messaging. This point is difficult since organizations like ACL are so decentralized and depend on volunteers. Still, it is important that members in positions of leadership uphold the values of ACL in their communications and always prioritize the field over organizational interests. For example, nobody with a role in ACL should have excused or justified any of the problematic materials earlier this week. The focus should have been condemnation of the material. Concern for people affected by the problem should always trump the defense of the organization.
6) Create appropriate materials for recruitment and teacher support. If “Classics is for everyone” could be achieved simply by announcing it, Classics would already be for everyone. How can teachers let school counselors know to tell everyone about Latin? What messages do we want students to hear about Classics? How do we make sure all students feel comfortable and successful in our classrooms? These are questions ACL can help answer by providing practical, concrete information. There has already been positive movement on this front.
Problems within the field are impossible to solve without leadership and action that will make Classics welcoming and accessible to all students. For too long, we have normalized exclusion and failed to eradicate racist ideas about Classics from the field. We cannot afford to let another year pass without confronting these problems. Primary and secondary Latin programs represent the biggest opportunity for reforming Classics, which I discussed in greater detail in The Future of Classics From Below. As our professional organization, the American Classical League has the power to make “Classics for everyone.”
*Yes, this brochure also included Joe Paterno and listed football as a potential career for Classicists.