Announcing New Season of Movies We Dig: A Podcast about Film, Antiquity and Everything In-Between

About a year ago, I asked my friend and colleague, Elijah Fleming, what she thought about hosting a movie review podcast. I had just defended my dissertation, the pandemic was in full swing and the year ahead promised mostly solitary work punctuated by the occasional zoom meeting. I needed something new, something engaging, something fun. So, I asked Eli, a fellow grad student at UT Austin, if she’d be interested in talking about movies, a frequent hobby of ours, but into a microphone and (hopefully) for an audience. Thus, Movies We Dig was born. You can listen to our first season on our website or on multiple streaming platforms.

Now, as the school year enters full swing, we’re excited to announce we’re returning for another season. We recently released a short episode laying out some teasers and plans, but I wanted to reflect a little more about our past and future plans, for both current and potential listeners.

From its first conception, we wanted MWD to go beyond nitpicking what movies get right or wrong, though shedding our pedantic tendencies remains a struggle (2004’s Troy has llamas!). Instead, we wanted to review movies as both works of art and of reception; how perceptions of the past intersect with contemporary media and culture. Moreover, we wanted to approach our material without the formal trappings of academic presentations or lectures, to get earnest and humorous reactions from experts but also movie-lovers. If it wasn’t fun, then what’s the point?

Looking ahead, our initial goal of a lighthearted but (somewhat) informed show remains largely unchanged. If anything, we’re expanding. In addition to tackling some big titles we’ve kept in reserve (looking at you, Gladiator), we’re also branching out into other media. The ancient world has been a popular setting for many television programs, from the foundational I, Claudius to several current historical dramas like Barbarians and Britannia. Additionally, the last few years have seen a small blossoming of Classical myth and history in video games just begging for attention from our field, including two Assassin’s Creed titles and the indie smash hit Hades. It’s all on our radar.

Concerning expansion, our other goal for S2 is to bring in more voices to our hot-take-centric approach to ancient film criticism. Our first season was graced by a wonderful array of guests from public-facing classicists and archaeologists, including SA’s own Joel Christensen, and we’ve already got several exciting guests booked already. Still, we’re constantly seeking new guests, especially non-professors. Last year, we were joined by a fantastic group of first-year students from Adam Rabinowtiz’s class on the Trojan War to discuss Troy: Fall of a City.

This brings us to our final vocatio. Classicists near and far, if you, your colleagues or your students know a film, show or game that needs discussion, reach us at or on Twitter at @dig_movies. Please listen, like, review, subscribe and get ready to dig some more movies, not-movies and all the hot takes.

You can learn more about us the hosts on our website, where you can also find links on where to listen.

From American Cato to American Carnage

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an interesting book in possession of a good topic, must be in want of a title. The title of Thomas Ricks’ new book, ‘First Principles,’ is less than ideally informative, and it is perhaps some indication of the author’s consciousness of this fact that he appends such a lengthy subtitle to it. Ricks got the title from his returning to “first principles” following the most terrifying moment in modern American history, the improbable and to this day still literally incredible election of Donald Trump. While many of us idly fumbled about in rage or reached for the distilled consolations of the bottle, Ricks went to the library and cracked open a copy of Aristotle’s Politics. Perusing Aristotle impressed him with the Classical influences upon this country’s founding generation, and he wrote this book as a meditation upon American political history in an era which has delegitimized both politics and history. This is a much more general treatment of the history of the period than Carl J. Richards’ The Founders and the Classics, which dealt more comprehensively with the subject of classical education and influence, but was perhaps far less suitable for the general reader with a broad interest in both the founders and the classics. Ricks’ new book is a fun, engaging, and accessible, and though a few regrettable errors (particularly on the classical end of things) seem to suggest that the book was rushed to meet a publication date coinciding with post-election fervor, some of those may be easily glossed over in light of the satisfaction afforded by reading these reflections on the American experiment so shortly after Donald Trump received the old boot from the ballot box.

First Principles presents a portrait of America’s first four presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison) with special emphasis on the way in which they drew upon Classical Greek/Roman history in their political lives, and how this shaped the nascent republic. Ricks’ reason for not proceeding beyond the apparently arbitrary limit of Madison becomes clear somewhat later in the book, when he suggests that Classical learning simply did not have the same currency in politics by the 1820s as it did in the latter half of the 18th century. While James Monroe and John Quincy Adams of course had their Classical educations, there was a growing impatience with the use of all the old Caesars and Catos and Catilines in public debate, and the ascendancy of a cruel and illiterate barbarian (Jackson) followed by the cynical party-machining technocrat (Martin Van Buren) effectively ended the golden age of Classical politics in a country which had long shown marked anti-intellectual tendencies anyway.

Because he is a military historian, Ricks steers a large portion of the book onto terrain with which he is intimately familiar. The large early section on Washington focuses on his military experience. Ricks writes about Washington’s early setbacks in the French and Indian War as a counterpoint to the traditional education enjoyed by Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Later in the book, Ricks will emphasize Washington’s various Classical roles enacted in the theater of life: Cato, Fabius, and Cincinnatus. But the portrait of Washington as educated in the camp and not the college makes him the American Marius. As Sallust presents it, Marius was proud of having attended the school of hard knocks on the battlefield and avoided the enervating effects of book learning:

My words are not artfully chosen. I don’t give a shit about that. Virtue shows herself without any help. Only those who want to hide their shameful conduct with rhetoric have need of artifice. I also didn’t learn Greek literature: I had no desire to learn that, since it apparently never did anything to enhance the virtue of its teachers. Instead, I learned all about the things which do the best for the Republic: to assault the enemy, to move the defenses, to fear nothing except a bad reputation, to suffer summer blazes and winter frosts equally, to sleep on the ground, and to tolerate neediness and labor at the same time. I will exhort my soldiers with these precepts, but I will not coddle them with art, and I will make myself, not my glory, their work. This is useful, this is civic power. For, when you conduct the army safely through idle softness and drive it on with punishment, that is to be a master, not a general.

Yet, at the same time, this entire exercise may itself suggest the absurdity of insisting too firmly upon Classical parallels for contemporary figures. In so doing, we are far more apt to mold the historical figure to fit the contemporary point of comparison than we are to seize upon genuinely significant parallels, and so it is likely that we will in this way simply distort our understanding of history, rather than illuminating either present or past by the comparison. Perhaps Plutarch is to blame for this enthusiasm for comparison.

Apart from the pitfalls of comparison, though, sometimes we simply learn the wrong lesson from classical figures. Ricks cites Cato’s possession of wealth and his rejection of luxury as an admirable example of public virtus, but surely it is a form of villainy to possess substantial wealth which you have no real intention of using? I am always struck by the adulation given to Warren Buffett for living such a simple and frugal lifestyle despite his possession of billions of dollars. One is reminded of the story of Herodes Atticus, who professed to Trajan that he had no idea how to use a fantastic financial windfall, and was urged to abuse it then instead. If Warren Buffett neither needs to use that wealth nor wants to abuse it, is it not a more villainous and miserly form of avarice than the hyper wealthy who at least seem bent on blowing through a good chunk of their fortunes?

George Washington is supposed to be the American Cato (because of his stern patrician virtue), but Ricks notes that he had an early enthusiasm for Cato’s worst enemy, a certain Julius Caesar. This view was shared by Alexander Hamilton, who once claimed that Julius Caesar was the greatest man ever to have lived. If we were to insist too much on the adequacy of classical parallels, we might feel some discomfort at trying to square Washington the Caesarian with Washington the Catonian (especially given that Caesar is a purely villainous force in Washington’s favorite play, Addison’s Cato), but luckily we have progressed to that enlightened point in the progress of this review where we have learned to abandon strict classical parallelism.

Washington gets several classical roles, but for Adams is reserved the role of the American Cicero. This comparison is actually fairly apt, given the tendency of both men to feel a kind of petty sense of offended dignity and petty grievance which could easily sprout rhetorical wings and take a flight of fancy. Unlike the patrician Virginians Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, John Adams was indeed a “new man” like Cicero, and had to work his way from the agrarian middle class into the upper echelons of power. But, just as Cicero did, he was eager to identify himself with the ruling elite once he was there, and hardened into a kind of anti-democratic and anti-populist conservative once he had his first real experience with the heady vapors of power.

Ricks gives us the familiar portrait of Adams: the upward striver who originally hated his studies, but found a corrective in the hard ditch labor which his dad once forced upon him. As with many of the founders, Adams seems to have gotten much of his early classical knowledge from secondary sources like Rollin’s Ancient History and Dodsley’s Preceptor. If it ever seems that there is a universal frame of classical reference among the founding generation, it is for just this reason: many of them internalized a framework of classical knowledge from these pre-digested sources before they applied themselves much to reading authors in the original. Edward Gibbon confesses to doing this in his youth, and compared the speed with which he could internalize whole quires of translated history to the plodding pace of parsing Greek verbs all day to work through one speech. Indeed, as I have written here before, it seems that many of the men of the late 18th century kept up just enough of their classical languages to quote some approved tags, but preferred for the most part to read for reference either in translation or digest form. On the other side of the Atlantic from John Adams, James Boswell was filling his diaries with constant exhortations to get back to his Greek studies, but found the temptations of conversation and prostitutes too alluring. Ricks quotes Adams’ diary from January 1759 to the same effect:

Let no trifling Diversion or amuzement or Company decoy you from your Books, i.e. let no Girl, no Gun, no Cards, no flutes, no Violins, no Dress, no Tobacco, no Laziness, decoy you from your Books.

There was a deep anxiety in the souls of late 18th century men of letters for drawing up plans of reading, and one gets the sense that study was something that they really had to force themselves to.

The most novel and interesting part of First Principles is Ricks’ focus on the Scottish Enlightenment as a driving force in the development of the American intellectual character. In particular, the connections between enterprising Scottish bankers (who experimented with establishing branch offices in the colonies) and the tobacco trade led to an influx of Scotsmen to the southern states. At the time, Edinburgh offered a more robust education than could be obtained at Oxford, and it seems that Jefferson and Madison owed their comparative ease and fluency with Greek culture and history to the fact that they each had Scottish tutors early in life.

Jefferson doesn’t receive the strict classical parallel treatment, but we understand that he is steeped in classical learning thanks to this Scottish influence. We also get a portrait of Jefferson as the dedicated Epicurean. Ricks seems to suggest that Jefferson’s lax style of Epicureanism can help to account for his contradictions – a champion of liberty who owned slaves, who did nothing to fight for liberty but rather ignominiously retreated in the face of danger. That is to say, some of Jefferson’s perceived detachment and desire to be above the fray of real politics may be owing to the traditional Epicurean injunction against real political involvement. This has its parallel in the modern Stoic movement, which in its own way counsels a kind of passivity in the face of injustice, and serves as a useful shield for the willful amorality of powerful figures in the tech and finance sectors. It was all very well for a famous Stoic like Seneca to recommend poverty and powerlessness when he was himself rich and powerful. What was hypocrisy then is still hypocrisy now. Nothing good can come from the anachronistic adoption of ancient life philosophy. Indeed, there is something fundamentally childish about pretending to subscribe to the teachings of a long defunct philosophical school in a world which they could not have foreseen. While there is no deep absurdity in approving of individual doctrines of Epicureanism or Stoicism, any kind of wholesale acceptance of one of these philosophical programs amounts to intellectual indolence and moral cowardice. Jefferson was most corrupted by power when he pretended not to have any.

Ricks is on solid footing when he assails the tendency of Jefferson’s prose to grow Latinate and otiose when writing for any audience other than the general public. (Indeed, throughout the book, it becomes clear that Jefferson and Adams are the vain and irascible fops of the early presidency, while Washington and Madison serve as the steady bookends of virtue and intellectualism which counterbalance them.) Much the same could be said about Milton’s poetry, or Samuel Johnson’s fondness for ridiculous Anglo-Latin coinages. Ricks penetrates through the thick fog of Jeffersonian mythopoiesis when he writes, “Contrary to his image, Jefferson was not really a literary man.” One of Jefferson’s blunders in literary judgment was being taken in by the impostures of James MacPherson, whose publication of the works of the fake poet “Ossian” did indeed dupe many people at the time. For some reason, Ricks defends Jefferson by noting that Napoleon, too, was taken in, but it is not clear why he is cited as a paragon of literary judgment.

Throughout the book, Ricks makes much of the fact that Washington was the least classically educated and yet the most “Roman” of all the founding fathers, but the central conceit of this apparent paradox is the idea that the Roman heroes (from whom we distill the notion of “Romanness” that is applied to Washington) were themselves educated in any meaningful sense of the term. This could hardly be more misleading. What was Cincinnatus but an illiterate farmer? Marius boasted of his lack of education. Cato the elder flaunted his ignorance of Greek before condescending to learn it in old age, and the younger Cato was not exactly an egghead. Washington was the closest to the mythico-propagandistic projection of the idealized Roman yeoman who lives a simple life, does some glorious military service, and does not covet power. Education is antithetical to this stock character type. And yet, the highly polished Romans of the Late Republic – the ones with fancy “classical” educations in the Greek poets – seemed to have been entirely covetous of power. Cicero was positively drunk on it. If the Roman spirit were really so noble, patriotic, and averse to the seizure of individual power, the Republic would not have been destroyed by a series of bloody civil wars conducted by megalomaniacs and finally culminating in an autocratic imperial system. To buy the Roman propaganda and argue that the Sullas, Caesars, and Octavians weren’t exemplars of the true Roman spirit is just as silly as to believe Joe Biden when he looks into the camera and reminds America, “This isn’t who we are.” Sorry Joe – it looks like it is. To be sure, Washington is the closest of the founding fathers to the mythic Roman heroes, but they are so much less real than the Ciceros and Caesars who tore the state apart for their own petty grievances.

In that respect, the identification of Adams with Cicero seems particularly apt, given his petulant temper, his inflated sense of self-importance, and his strikingly reactionary impulses in the midst of revolution. The Adams of the Alien and Sedition Acts is paradoxically ranged against the very thing – free speech – which lifted him from poverty and obscurity, and made him a public figure. But could anyone really doubt that Cicero would have employed the strong arm of state suppression to silence his enemies if he could have done it?

Each of these men appears to be marred by their classical molding, with the exception of James Madison, who seems to have approached the classics with scholarly detachment and not imitative zeal. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson each took the classical exemplar theory too far, and turned themselves into theatrical productions of ancient figures, as though the American Revolution really were a continuation of or parallel to the ancient struggled which they read about in their favorite books. James Madison benefited from the educational influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, and a deep engagement with Greek history and literature, as opposed to the shallow and almost exclusively Roman preoccupations of the other founders. Yet, this fascination with Greek history posed its own dangers to the nascent republic, and Madison’s ancient reading lives to tyrannize over us today. Ricks notes that the outsized power of states like Wyoming (allotted the same number of senators as California) can be traced to the inspiration which Madison drew from the Amphictyonic League. This is enough to make one resent Madison’s library, and the entire study of Greek history.

Despite the fact that much of the American experiment succeeded, we should not lose sight of the fact that the founders had a remarkable knack for taking some of the worst lessons away from their ancient studies: a distrust of democracy, the valorization of ostentatious public virtue (what was Cato if not the inventor of virtue signaling?), and a tendency to favor deeply reactionary conservatism dressed in the language of revolutionary liberation. The Romans themselves expelled kings from their politics in 509 BCE, but this “revolution” did not usher in an unprecedented turn to democratic power. In fact, the story goes that some people grumbled that they had merely exchanged one king for two in the form of the consuls. The Tarquins were gone, but Rome’s wealthy patricians were still the ones running the show. When George III was given the old heave-ho from the colonies, the lion’s share of real governing power still lay with the wealthy patricians of the new Rome who were running things even when the king still held nominal sway on this side of the Atlantic.

When historians make the obligatory comparisons between the 18th century’s two main revolutions – the American and the French – they often express wonder at the comparative stability of the American. But when set against the French Revolution, the American hardly appears to be a Revolution at all. Really, it looks more like a change in administrative bookkeeping. France experienced genuine upheaval, and a total overturning (revolution) of the ruling order. Society itself was being restructured. Ricks notes that John Adams felt uneasy with the growing power of the common people in America at the beginning of the 19th century, and this gives the whole game away. Just as in Rome, the ruling class was jealous of its own freedom from an individual tyrant, but was content to leave the great mass of people largely disenfranchised. The revolutionary fervor of Brutus’ sic semper tyrannis was quickly morphed into a staid preservation of the mos maiorum for the good of the Republic.

We all do it, but asking questions like “What would George Washington think about Donald Trump?” is a frivolous rhetorical exercise of the sort mocked by Petronius and Seneca. One may as well ask what he would make of quantum computing, instant access to an infinite sea of pornography, or AI-guided nuclear weapons. We would like to think of Trump as just a do-nothing demagogue, a kind of stock type universal character recognizable in antiquity, but how do you make sense of him without the full and frightening context of the 21st century: the acceleration and provocation of global capitalism, the horror of infinite war elided with the society of spectacle, the reversal of Puritan decorum into a prizing of personal scandal as a new mode of American celebrity? Would the Washington who understood the war of posts be able to comprehend shock and awe, or the way that entire media empires were built upon showing the American public live feeds of bombs exploding over ancient cities? The founders simply did not possess the capacity for horror which we now do. We have seen death camps, carpet bombing, and nuclear holocaust. They could rail on about Catilines and Caesars subverting the republic, but Aaron Burr never had an atomic arsenal. The founders never had to worry that one man could provoke an international incident which, with “fire and fury” could end human civilization itself. No host of delatores can compare to the NSA.

In short, the founders had neither the experience nor the intellectual framework for understanding our American monster. Even today, we who have lived through the nightmare from which we struggle in vain to wake cannot make sense of this man or this moment. While we should certainly study the founding generation and their intellectual influences to understand how we got here, we must cease to ask ourselves what they would think of this moment, because it is no longer their country. In his discussion of Americans’ growing impatience with classical exempla, Ricks cites Benjamin Randall: “The quoting of ancient history was no more to the purpose than to tell how our forefathers dug clams at Plymouth.” Let the Pilgrims dig their clams, and let the founders lie in their tombs. This is a country for the living, and we must cease to ask what the dead might think if we are ever to wash away the miasma of this American carnage.

SA Reviews: How to Think Like Shakespeare

For all of the gaps in our records of ancient literature, one could hardly say that didactic advice is underrepresented among the old Greeks and Romans. The ancient fondness for disquisitions on Learning, Its Greatness & How Achieved could be likened to the English fondness for the school novel. Surely, the process of achieving the first rudiments of learning was not pleasant in any case (consider Juvenal’s et nos ergo manum ferulae subduximus), but that learning, once acquired, serves as a launching point both for fond recollection and for proselytizing about its value and the proper method of attaining it. Before everyone was a critic, everyone was an educator.

This fondness for educational theorizing was inherited, like so much of ancient culture, by the various humanists of the Renaissance, many of whom selectively excerpted all of the choicest tags about learning, reading, wisdom, et cetera from a range of ancient sources to expound their own curriculum. Most of this could make for inspiring reading if one were already sold on the idea of a classical canon and its attendant collection of proprieties and ideals, but to the uninitiated observer, it might all seem like little more than a preposterous reactionary stance from those who ought to have known better. Indeed, it is hard not to notice that most of the ‘civilizing’ study of the Renaissance was directed at intentionally maintaining a social order among classes, and giving the upper crust the advantage of access to what was “most human” and liberal. Fundamentally antidemocratic though it was, it at least had the advantage that it recommended reading a couple of interesting texts.

Educational theorizing has continued apace into our own time, yet it has paradoxically become even more insidiously antidemocratic than it was when courtiers were writing recommendations to their wealthy pupils. While education now ostensibly lies open to all, the structure of American public schooling guarantees that the rich still have access to far more learning opportunities than the poor. The lack of public investment in our schools has led to a rapid and largely unprotested corporatization of the entire educational project. Moreover, it is considered hopelessly reactionary to suggest that perhaps students should have access to more than narrowly technical training. As a consequence, the ability to intentionally pursue a course of study in the arts and humanities has been made once again the special privilege of a wealthy elite. Following what could be a collapse in a large sector of the American university system as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its absurd mismanagement, it is hard not to worry that a university program in art, literature, history, etc. will become even more inaccessible to those who live in economically or socially precarious positions.

It may be that the broader project of the humanities will have to continue underfunded (or wholly unfunded) and without firm institutional support. In a sense, this will simply return us to the status quo before the apparently golden age of educational democratization which both expanded and collapsed in the 20th century. If such becomes the case, we will be in need of even more advocacy for the importance of broad (and broadly accessible) education in the humanistic tradition.

Scott Newstock’s book How to Think Like Shakespeare is in some ways misleadingly named. It is not really a book about Shakespeare. Indeed, it is a bit of a genre-bender. Part humanist manifesto, part commonplace book, it combines erudition and accessibility in an inviting package that is a joy to read. The book does not tell us anything new – and that’s the point. Much of the technocratic theory which drives education today is geared toward making students into corporate citizens, rather than citizens in the more traditional sense of members of a community.

As an educator at a public high school, I return to campus every fall with an acute sense of dread about what new educational fiction our school district has invested in for the new year. Invariably, there is new corporate jargon and a new set of boardroom-approved acronyms (already mastered so thoroughly by the school administrators by the time that you first hear it that you wonder whether you have missed something), and some new program conveniently aligned with a tech company’s latest eduscheme. Yes, every year, the school board, technology companies, and private consulting firms all contrive to make teaching more miserable than it was the year before, and each time the district invests tens of thousands of dollars on a conference introducing faculty to some new proprietary method or approach, you can be sure that even less of your time than ever will be spent on actually teaching.

To return to the point: the book does not feature any new or startling theories. Rather, it traces a string of thought and education which is less like a zip-line than like Ariadne’s thread. Thinking Like Shakespeare is more freighted with quotations than a Renaissance educational manual (it may even rival Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy), but they are all calculated to inspire the reader with an eagerness both to deepen and widen their reading through the whole range of intellectual endeavor from antiquity to the present.

While the book is titled Thinking Like Shakespeare, the bard himself serves as something more like an exemplar or organizational principle than a subject of the book. Newstock has incorporated the ancient sources which we (and Shakespeare) draw on so heavily, but the tangled thread is followed from antiquity through Elizabethan and early Stuart England, doubles back on itself slightly to consider Erasmus and Montaigne, and then loops and coils to incorporate Antonio Gramsci, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, John Ruskin, etc etc.

The whole project is illuminated by the quotation of that famous Terentian tag which has always been far more powerful when taken wholly out of context: Homo sum, nihil humani alienum a me puto. That is to say, Thinking Like Shakespeare does not tell you to reach for your quill pen and start making your way through North’s Plutarch. Rather, it is an encouragement to nourish the mind on the wonderfully wide and diverse cultural world of books, art, and music which give our lives richness, while shunning the corporatized mediocrity which Google Classroom or the Gates Foundation would impose upon us. Professor Newstock’s book is, indeed, a call for us to become intellectual omnivores, and goes some way to stimulate this appetite.

[Note: If you have a book which you would like to see reviewed in these humble digital pages, please drop us a line.]

William Page, Shakespeare Reading

2019: A Year in Reading

Small talk follows predictable patterns and rarely veers off of script, and so people often ask me in casual conversation about my hobbies. These same people are generally either perplexed or disappointed when I tell them that a shortage of free time in general precludes the possibility of practicing a wide array of hobbies in earnest, but that I typically spend most of my spare time reading. Indeed, if I could find myself gainfully employed simply reading, analyzing, synthesizing, and commenting, I would achieve a pinnacle of happiness otherwise reserved only for the rich.

Perhaps I cannot account for what I accomplished in 2019 because all of it consisted simply of the perusal of books. And while it strikes me that this may appear insufferably vain as I type this, I have noticed that people tend to develop lists of their top recommendations for the year only at the end of the year (perhaps following the general thread of Solonian advice about not evaluating someone’s fortune in life until they are dead), and I have decided to follow suit by posting a set of recommendations from my bookshelf this year.


Released in 2019:

Anthony Grafton – Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship

Technically, this is a re-release, but the updated foreword and afterword constitute 2019 material. I would read anything by Anthony Grafton (and I’m dying to read his new book Inky Fingers in 2020), and anyone who is familiar with his work will know that he treats masses of erudition with a light and inviting style. Sure, it’s a serious and learned book, but it also lends itself to armchair reading with a coffee in hand. Perhaps the best insight to be gleaned from the book is the association between critical scholars and forgers – the tools necessary for each occupation being essentially the same.

Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror:

Ever since I read her article, The Repressive, Authoritarian Soul of “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends”, Jia Tolentino has been the only regular contributor to The New Yorker whose work I both look forward to and read through without fail. I recall reading somewhere that Zadie Smith thought that she was the perfect Millennial writer (or something to that effect), in that she managed to have a firm foothold in and understanding of the culture of my generation without it having ruined her. The essays which bookend the collection The I in Internet (about the elision of self and the commodification of identity in digital culture) and I Thee Dread (cynically romantic or romantically cynical reflections on marriage) were alone worth the price of the book.

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion: Tolentino, Jia

Daniel Mendelsohn, Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones

This was fortunately mercifully short on Game of Thrones material, because I find myself unable to come to terms with my former avid fondness for that show after its full-on commitment to wrapping up at the expense of making sense. Yet it was also less strictly Classical than I had anticipated, too. The book is a collection of Mendelsohn’s essays and criticism, and its range is wide and expansive. I took a particularly sick satisfaction in Mendelsohn’s brutal review of Stephen G. Kellman’s Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, for no other reason than the fact that Kellman once shot me a surly glare when I was an undergraduate and opened a door for him and his wife, poet and professor Wendy Barker.

Ecstasy and Terror

Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago:

I tried to pick this up at the bookstore several times without any success because it had never occurred to me to look in the sci-fi/fantasy section. If either of those genres sounds unappealing to you, don’t worry: it is not really either of them. Kay’s work occupies a distinct space adjacent to historical fiction, or what I once heard him describe as a quarter-turn toward fantasy. All of the characters and settings are entirely fictional, yet it is set in what is clearly a fictionalized Renaissance Italy. Much of the narrative follows the central character Gudanio Cerra as he tries to keep himself alive amidst an ongoing conflict between two powerful condottieri, Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio. In addition to the wonderfully sad lyrical asides, the plot is constantly engaging throughout, and I was so involved that I read the book in a marathon session one Saturday.

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Older Books:

Zadie Smith, Feel Free:

This was released in 2018, and so qualifies as an “older book,” but I cannot recommend it enough. Feel Free is another one of those books which I ploughed through in a marathon session because it was so engaging. I had not read Zadie Smith before this collection, but I was so impressed that I went on a binge and read all of her novels afterward.

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Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Don’t @ me on this one. Despite all of Gibbon’s flaws and shortcomings, I feel the need every few years to read through the Decline and Fall in its entirety, and I’m afraid that it might be my desert island book. The edition by J.B. Bury lets you feel the satisfaction of seeing Gibbon’s factual errors as you read. Some of the later volumes are more of a slog than the first few, but I will still probably read straight through this again in a year or two.

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Herman Melville, Moby Dick:

A lovely trip to Nantucket’s whaling museum with Joel and his family this summer kindled the urge to read this bad boy for a third time, which did indeed prove to be the charm. Although I had read it twice before, I found this run through it to be the most engaging, and no book in my library is so thoroughly dog-eared throughout. A work of unparalleled genius, and definitely the most quotable book I’ve ever read.

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Historia Augusta:

How did I read all of the complaints about the gossipy and tawdry nature of this book for so many years without dipping into it? It may not be the most reliable history, or even a forgery, but it’s one of the most engaging Latin prose works we have outside of the Satyricon.

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Kristine Haugen, Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment

I wrote up a full review of this book here.


The Book I Wanted to Hate But Couldn’t:

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

Ezra Pound may have been a villain, and even in the narrow field of criticism he often goes off the rails pretty hard, but I blasted through this in one sitting because it was so utterly engaging throughout. Pound’s reflections on reading, and especially his thoughts on ancient poetry, are not bad. But his unwavering insistence on Chaucer and Provençal poets reminded me of the anecdote in Menelsohn’s collection about Mary Renault trying to push everyone into reading Thomas Malory.

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The Book I Wanted to Like But Couldn’t:

Herman Melville, Pierre:

One need look no further than the comparison between Pierre and Moby Dick to dispel the cult of genius. An author may be able to produce a work of genius, but they may have just the one. Pierre was criticized as one of the world’s most unreadable books, and I took up the challenge only to toss it aside about halfway through. The plot is unbearably absurd, and I found that I could not get past the stilted and affected archaism of the dialogue. This work alone made me wonder whether it is not for the best that so much of ancient literature has perished, allowing us to shower the surviving poets’ works with accolades while being spared the disappointment of reading some of their abortive attempts at art.

Image result for melville pierre penguin



Get Bent! (ley)

Dynamic and divisive figures like Bentley are apt to leave in their wake a mass of biographical recollection neatly divided into hagiography and hate. Though the average person may be surprised to learn that some of the most bitterly partisan divisions outside of politics can be found within the realm of scholarship, there is a long tradition of scholarly work serving as the basis of personal animus, and there are few scholars whose work ignited as much passionate controversy in the broader literary world as did Richard Bentley. While famous among Classical scholars, Bentley is largely forgotten to the broader intellectual world, except to those who recall him as the butt of the joke in Pope’s Dunciad and Swift’s Battle of the Books. Our man Bentley, a graduate of St. John’s College, Oxford, spent much of the 1680s in the household of Edward Stillingfleet before rolling on to the scholarly scene in the 1690s with two works which display what Gibbon would call “a stock of erudition which would have puzzled a doctor.”

Bentley’s Letter to Mill and Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris represent apparently epochal moments in the history of English Classical scholarship, and they were certainly important. Yet there is a temptation to regard Bentley’s work as wholly sui generis, if for no other reason than because his towering genius and the fame accruing to him for his polemical savagery place him so high in the pantheon of English scholarship that his predecessors have been largely effaced from memory. (Indeed, so strong is this tendency, that C.O. Brink’s volume on English Classical scholarship was entitled Bentley, Porson, Housman – not because there were no other English Classical scholars, but rather because these three are so manifestly preeminent as to force the rest into the unenviable position of ambient historical noise.) One may compare Bentley’s reputation with that of his contemporary, Isaac Newton. While Newton, too, was working within a tradition of scientific work laid out before him, the singularity of his individual achievement led to the elision of his predecessors.

Image result for phalaris bronze bull

In her study Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment, Kristine Louise Haugen positions Bentley within a well-established set of scholarly work in 17th century England. A chapter on Restoration Cambridge lays the ground for understanding Bentley’s development by analyzing the work of Thomas Stanley, John Pearson, and Thomas Gale. Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy, a scholarly engagement with Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers, sought to augment and correct the biographies which Laertius wrote. Much of the value of this work is attributed to Stanley’s extensive compilation of chronological and biographical material supplemental to Diogenes. Stanley also produced the “first large-scale edition of a classical poet ever published” with his Aeschylus. Stanley was not endowed with the same keen power for textual criticism which characterized Bentley, and Haugen notes that it is his preoccupation with and commentary upon the more strictly literary qualities of the text which set him apart from Bentley, whose own process inclined toward commenting only upon textual problems in need of remedy.

While Thomas Stanley played the literary gentleman, John Pearson was the polemical scholar whose edition of the philosopher Hierocles dove into the weeds of commentary upon pseudo-Pythagorean verses with a hint of polemical fire. Haugen paints Pearson as something like a Mr. Casaubon (not the scholar, but the character from Middlemarch), who “evidently never hit on the reigning ideas that could have turned his masses of notes into a meaningful narrative or a decisive editorial procedure.” [p.30] Pearson was also the author of the Vindication of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, which set a precedent for Bentley in its striving to find a way to blend scholarship and polemic.

The methods of Thomas Gale approach more closely to the methodical rigor of Bentley. Gale composed a series of comments and notes upon the Library of Apollodorus. Haugen devotes some pages to explicating Gale’s methods by analyzing his approach to the corruptions at Apollodorus 1.9.26. Gale’s approach drew on comparative analysis between passages in Apollodorus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Hesychius, Strabo, and a scholiast in order to restore Apollodorus’ text. She notes the parallel between the method of comparative reading in Gale’s work and that in Bentley’s Horace of 1711, and demonstrates that Bentley’s approach, though it was both criticized and ridiculed, simply represented the employment of an established scholarly procedure. Bentley’s fault was in offending the sensibilities of 18th century literary gentlemen, for whom the received text was regarded as canon passed down to them from their school days, and reinforced through a series of endless and ostentatious quotations in periodical publication.

Bentley’s major works can be separated into roughly three periods: the polemical works on obscure books (Letter to Mill and Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris) in the 1690’s; the scholarly analysis of canonical literature (Horace, New Testament, Terence, and the discovery of digamma in the works of Homer); and his preoccupation with the figure of the meddling editor (in his edition of Manilius, and in the much maligned edition of Paradise Lost).

Bentley’s intellectual development was fostered by privileged patronage. For all that has been made about “Bentley’s idexes”, it is worth noting that one cannot embark profitably on the project of indexing unless one has access to books. In 1682, Bentley became the tutor to James Stillingfleet, the younger son of Edward Stillingfleet. This position involved more than simply educating young James. Bentley was a member of the household, and served as an all-purpose toady for Stillingfleet: amanuensis, ghost writer, and procurer of books. In this last function, it serves to note that Bentley was charged with purchasing volumes for Stillingfleet’s library, a task which on some occasions led to the acquisition of rare or useful classical books. Moreover, Bentley’s position also meant that he had access to the whole of Stillingfleet’s library, and it would be hard to overstate the effect which access to such a treasury would have had on Bentley’s later stock of erudition. Later, owing in part to the boost in life granted him by Stillingfleet’s patronage, Bentley was made Keeper of the Royal Library in 1693. We are perhaps liable now to underestimate the value of access to information in light of the relative cheapness of both books and information today. While Bentley was undoubtedly endowed with a remarkably acute intellect, one must concede that he would not have become the colossus of English classical scholarship were it not for the patronage of the rich and powerful.

Bentley rolled on to the public scholarly scene in 1691 with his Letter to Mill, which is ostensibly intended as commentary upon Mill’s edition of the Byzantine historian John Malalas. The story goes that Bentley wanted to see the edition before its publication, and Mill agreed to let him take a look in exchange for penning a commentary essay on it. The text of Malalas as it stood offered fertile ground for Bentley’s intellect, and what was supposed to be simply some “remarks” morphed into a full blown essay, focused in large part on Greek drama. Haugen judges that the “Letter to Mill was largely the work of an autodidact, with all of the freedoms and some of the deficiencies that this implies.” [p.82] Yet it is perhaps this very sense of freedom which makes Bentley’s scholarship so novel and invigorating.

The Battle of the Books (or The Quarrel Between Ancients and Moderns) has been forgotten by the public at large, perhaps because the debate has been so firmly settled on the side of modernity, but it was still capable of exciting tempers at the end of the 17th century, and served as the foundation for Bentley’s famous Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris. The epistles were literary forgeries (or playful literary exercises) written in the persona of Phalaris, the tyrant of Akragas, who cooked his enemies inside a brazen bull which he kept at his court. Many astute readers had long seen that the Epistles were not actually written by the tyrant himself, but that did not prevent Sir William Temple from blundering his way into citing them as proof for his claim that the achievements of antiquity far surpassed those of the modern world. Temple described the Epistles as having “more Race, more Spirit, more Force of Wit and Genius than any others I have ever seen, either antient or modern.” William Wotton, one of Bentley’s friends, penned a response to Temple arguing for the superiority of modern achievement, and published it along with the 78 page first edition of the Dissertation, composed by Bentley, which showed that the Epistles were neither original, nor as ancient as Temple had supposed. This led to a counterattack by Francis Atterbury, which in turn drove Bentley to publish a substantially enlarged, 540 page edition of the Dissertation. Unsurprisingly, the second edition of the Dissertation was far more diffuse and digressive than the first, and it does more than simply prove its point about the Epistles – it provides commentary upon and solutions to a wide range of textual and chronographic problems which are tangentially related to issues suggested by the Epistles themselves.

The expanded Dissertation makes for a tough read, but Haugen does an admirable job of summarizing the key arguments and conclusions, with helpful notes on Bentley’s method of scholarly exposition. It is unlikely that readers today would take sufficient interest in the controversy to read through Bentley’s work, and even a Classical scholar can be forgiven for feeling somewhat stupefied when confronted with the sheer mass of intimidating erudition which Bentley drew up for the book. Yet, the expanded edition was written and published with remarkable haste (released only one year after Atterbury’s attack), suggesting that this was all material which Bentley had ready in the chamber. Nevertheless, the literary world found the massive display of erudition distasteful, and served as the basis for the ridicule which Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope leveled against Bentley in The Battle of the Books and The Dunciad. Moreover, the 1699 publication of the Dissertation marks the end of Bentley’s publication in the realm of the rarefied and minutely obscure, as he ceased after this point to write on forgotten Greek works, and turned his attention to something a bit more canonical.

Bentley’s edition of Horace, published in 1712, exposed him to broader public notice than his earlier works on account of Horace’s widespread popularity as a gentleman’s reading material. The broad popularity and canonical status of that poet meant that many of Bentley’s contemporaries had learned Horace by heart in their school days. Thus, when Bentley produced a triple decker quarto edition of Horace consisting of over 700 pages (more than 400 of which were devoted to his notes and commentary), it is not surprising that Horace’s drawing room readers were disconcerted and even offended by Bentley’s apparent audacity. Much of the impetus for the publication came from Bentley’s position at the head of Cambridge University Press, which was busily engaged in the project of releasing ‘editions’ – that is, collected volumes of a single author’s work – in an effort to catch up with the rival Oxford University Press.

Haugen spends some time examining Bentley’s method in emending the text of Horace, which marked a departure from the scholarly practice of the Letter and the Dissertation. In each of those works, Bentley was offering broader scholarly commentary on particular issues, not trying to correct the problems of a single text. And so, where his previous publications relied heavily on the marshalling of masses of erudition, Bentley relied far more on his own innate critical and aesthetic genius to produce the conjectures in his edition of Horace. This could on occasion produce the right result, but Bentley’s enthusiasm for emendation (Haugen notes that nearly every page of Bentley’s text features some deviation from the received text) suggests that he got a bit carried away by his own critical spirit. As such, Bentley’s edition of Horace, while surely a work of critical genius in its own right, is nevertheless remembered today more for the interest of its methods and arguments than for its textual soundness.

Image result for bentley horace

Bentley’s later work is still suffused with his characteristic critical acuity and deep erudition, but there is something less immediately gratifying about the metrical arcana of his edition of Terence, or the marked emphasis on manuscript work (as contrasted to conjectural enthusiasm in his Horace) found in his New Testament work. Haugen’s chapter Vi Commodavi provides a clear and readable account of Bentley’s metrical expertise and its bearing on his edition of Terence, but it is hard to imagine a reader waking up early to peruse these pages unless they are already captivated by the subject of meter. While the documentation and explication of Bentley’s later work are all just as thoroughgoing as in earlier chapters, it is Bentley’s work itself which lacks the potent polemical interest of the early publications. Perhaps it is because we see here Bentley the scholar, while the Letter and the Dissertation presented us with Bentley the bumptious genius.

Of course, no study of Bentley would be complete without a treatment of his most embarrassing mistake: his edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The publication of critical editions of English poets was not wholly unexampled, as is clear from Pope’s own critical edition of Shakespeare, but Bentley’s mangling of Milton was ill-conceived, and may be more responsible for the posthumous ridicule which he received than were the attacks leveled against him by Pope and Swift. Bentley thought that he detected errors in Milton’s epic which had been introduced intentionally by a shadowy and malicious figure known as the Editor. Having postulated the existence of this literary villain, Bentley could then frame his conjectural emendation of Paradise Lost as a restoration of Milton’s true intent, and not an attempt to correct Milton’s diction by the standards of Bentleian genius.

In her discussion of this colossal wreck of abortive scholarship, Haugen draws the connection between Bentley’s anti-editorial crusade in his Milton to a similar impulse characterizing his edition of the Roman astronomical poet, Manilius. Although he had begun his edition of Manilius decades before its publication in 1739, it is characterized more by the preoccupation with evil interpolators found in his Milton (1732) than it is with the broad scholarship which had interested him in the 1680s-1690s. “At the same time, it is quite possible that the Paradise Lost edition stood behind the final form of Bentley’s Manilius, centrally devoted as both editions were to exposing the work of spectacularly active interpolators.” [p.212]

Haugen’s study of Bentley is engaging, and one could easily spend months reading it to mine a full history of 17th and 18th century English scholarship from its pages. Certainly, it does not have the same racy and gossipy quality which can be found in Jebb’s or Monk’s biographies. The latter two gentlemen were certainly concerned with Bentley’s scholarship, and addressed the intellectual side of his life, but they were also far more keen to include extensive details about Bentley’s disastrously pugnacious life as the head of Trinity College. In eschewing the more gossipy (though exceptionally entertaining) bits of Bentley’s life and focusing in such detail both on the development of Bentley’s intellect and the history of his intellectual milieu stemming from the work of scholars in Restoration era Cambridge, Haugen has provided an essential volume for anyone who has anything more than a passing interest in the history of scholarship.


Annual Atopia: the Not-Top 10

Yesterday I posted a list of the top 10 posts on the site based on page-views. Sometimes we can guess which posts are going to generate some traffic; other times, we are surprised both by those that are popular and those.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite posts that didn’t make the top 10 (for comparison, last year’s list).

1. Brillionaire’s Club

An essay about the labor practices of academic publishing and the economics of exploitation. Also, I paean to open access.

2. An Unlikely Hybrid: Medusa, Miley Cyrus, and the Politics of the Female Tongue

Amy Lather’s post on the modern and ancient iconographies of the tongue

3. The Vanity of Virtue: Contemporary Pseudo-Stoicism

We mocked modern Stoics in an Eidolon piece, but this essay by Erik is less amused.

4. Shitizens United

When Erik gets on a roll, we all just want to tag along. One of a few essays on the curmudgeonly creep masquerading as a Classicist named Victor Hanson

5. A Hero Shot A Man, Just to…

So, one day we asked the question whether Odysseus or Achilles was more likely to “shoot a man in Reno /  just to watch him die”. Feelings happened.

6. The Aeneid‘s Pot Brownie, Commentary on 6.420

I just don’t know why this title alone did not win the Internet. Another fabulous piece by Dani Bostick

7. “Our Culture” Anatolian Edition

Ari Akkermans’ balanced and thorough overview of appropriations of Classical culture in Turkey.

8. Ipse Dixit: Citation and Authority

Hannah Čulík-Baird’s essay on quotation and authority–kind of her specialty.

9. Give Your Money to the Sportula

Just read the title and do it.

10. Aeriportus Virumque Cano: Trump’s Revolutionary War Airports

11. Emolument’s Claws

Please read this essay. It is really fucking smart (Joel said this. Erik wrote it)

12. Counting Matters: The National Latin Exam and the Politics of Record Keeping

Some of Dani Bostick’s great public work for Classical Studies.

13. The Future of the Past

People didn’t get into this essay on how we should be thinking about preserving our work for the coming civilization collapse. I wonder why?

14. A New Musical Papyrus

Christopher Brunelle’s “discovery” is hilarious and deeply learned. This should have broken the Internet. You know, if more people knew about papyri and ancient music…


Valentine's Fart

Thanks to our friends Deborah Beck, Christopher Brunelle, Amy Coker, Brandon Conley, Hannah Čulík-Baird, Ari Akkermans, Dani Bostick, Amy Lather, Alexandra Ratzlaff for making this year fabulous.

Annual Top 10

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

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

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

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

1. A School Massacre and Toxic Heroism

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

2. Our Culture: Classics By Exclusion

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

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

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

4. The Future of Classics, From “Below”

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

5. Non-Elite Latin for the Classroom

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

6. From the Iliad to the Irishman

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

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

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

8. Against Pedantry

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

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

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

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

Pretty much exactly what it sounds like

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

Death Board

Podcasting Sophocles’ Antigone at UT Austin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophocles, Antigone 332–341

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mortal Republic, Moral Disaster

A review of Edward Watts’ Mortal Republic:

Edward Watts’ new book Mortal Republic is situated in a well-trodden path of Roman political decline narratives which gained some popularity in the Anglophone world in the 18th century with Gibbon, but reflect an appealing narrative mode documented far earlier in the speeches of Nestor. In order to keep the volume comparatively slim and accessible (while also conveniently covering a period of Roman political and social history beginning at a point where the ancient sources are more plentiful and reliable), Watts pulls us in medias res to the early 3rd century Republic on the eve of war with Pyrrhus. Over the course of 282 pages, he traces the rise of Rome’s Mediterranean empire along with its corresponding political fragmentation culminating in a series of civil wars and ultimately a form of mild but unpalatable autocracy under Augustus at the end of the 1st century. Watts’ narrative moves along at a fast pace, but by providing only the essential details, he artfully manages the books pace in such a way that it feels lively and engaging throughout (i.e. without being bogged down by minute scholarly discussions of Roman legal practice) while also avoiding that most dangerous pitfall for any Roman history book designed for the general reader, the introduction of too many apparently identical names. As such, it is an excellent entry point for anyone who knows little about the history of the period but would like a crash course presented as a cracking thriller.

Yet, for all of that, Watts appears to have relied so heavily on the ancient sources that he imbibed their prejudice wholesale. In the book’s second chapter, Watts recounts a speech delivered by Appius Claudius Caecus [the Blind], in which he shamed the Roman senate out of accepting a peace settlement with their antagonist Pyrrhus by telling them that he wished he had lost his hearing in addition to his sight. One may be tempted to suggest that Appius Claudius represented a type of hard-headed intransigence which could prove destructive to the state when espoused by a war hawk, but we are instead encouraged to read his speech as a demonstration of his patriotic zeal and heroic virtue. Paired with this noble exemplum is that of Gaius Fabricius Luscinus, who refused bribes from Pyrrhus on the basis that, though his exalted reputation in Rome did not make him rich, it granted him access to the power, prestige, and civic glory which were the real objects of any Roman’s ambition.

There would be nothing wrong per se in using the decline of Roman civic and personal virtue as an organizational principle by which the Romans’ own views of their history were shaped, but when presented in an apparently objective account for the non-specialist, it reflects either naivete or recklessness. The idea that there was something singularly distinct about the Roman character of the 3rd century has an ancient pedigree, and in this way, Watts’ history reads no different than would some of the moralizing historians of antiquity. Enough is made of these exempla throughout the book to make the patriotic Roman heart swell with nostalgia. Of course, we are not immune to this in the mythologizing of our own history. One need look no farther than TV pundits who lament the decline of discourse and civility from the standards of early America to see this in action. The newspaper wars of the early republic were just as tawdry as modern social media battles between politicians, but the sanctifying effect of time and the august impression which we associate with now archaic diction are enough to convince us that civic virtue was much greater then.

The entire political program of the book can be gleaned on page 86, where Watts writes that “Tiberius now pushed the Roman political system in a new and troubling direction. He was advocating for a sort of mediated direct democracy in which the old institutional balances between the Senate and the concilium plebis would be stripped away.” How much does that one adjective troubling reveal! Presumably, readers will draw the connection between the troubling direction of Roman politics under Tiberius Gracchus with the troubling direction of politics under Donald Trump. Indeed, I suspect that this is what led Yascha Mounk in a recent New York Times review of the book to make the comparison. But there is no meaningful parallel to be drawn here between the popular and democratizing attempts at reform under Tiberius Gracchus and the wildly-corrupt personal enrichment scheme undertaken by Trump. Gracchus had a political program, worked hard to implement it, and lost his life as a result. Trump enjoys watching TV, posing for photo ops, and reveling in the adulation of his rabid cult.

While it is true that Gracchus’ heavy-handed tactics helped to destabilize the political situation in Rome, it would be naïve to suppose that he himself set the state on a perilous path: the entire episode reflects an already unstable and untenable social situation which was simply brought to historical consciousness by the political fight which it occasioned. If Gracchus were subverting “the old institutional balances”, it is because these balances had become stagnant and wholly unresponsive to the popular will. Tiberius Gracchus occupied the office of tribune, which was (importantly) not among the original political positions at the founding of the Republic, but was rather created in response to earlier revolts by the plebeians against their lack of political power and representation. Those who decry actions in any republic on the sole basis that they are unprecedented seem to miss a central point in republican history: at some point, the republic’s very existence was unprecedented, and many of the apparent norms within it were at some point innovations which were meant to respond meaningfully to the popular will or some political crisis. Rome’s republic was born from the violent expulsion of its kings, while America’s was born in a bloody war to escape a monarch. In both cases, much of the legal framework was designed around a paranoid fear of the return of monarchy. The Roman aristocratic political elite used the fear that Tiberius could make himself king as a pretext for subverting the popular will; that is, they advertised the restriction on popular sovereignty as the only way to protect popular liberty.

Watts focuses heavily on this episode, and laments the “institutional damage” which Tiberious wrought. In so doing, he seems to blame Tiberius Gracchus for the eventual decline of the Republic into autocracy. Much of what Watts appears to favor instead is a kind of bland conservatism focused on consensus politics and the political mainstream. For example:

“The deliberative and consensus-based political culture of the Roman Republic was designed to prevent revolutions, not manage them.” [p.69]

“Marius decided to put his own personal ambition ahead of his fidelity to the Republic’s norms.” [p. 106]

“A deligitimized establishment helped Marius in the short run, but it seriously damaged the Republic. [p. 117]

“This showed that the politics of consensus was dying.” [p. 118]

All of this may sound perfectly innocuous and palatable to readers in a country which is beset by political chaos and would sincerely appreciate a return to bland business-as-usual. Yet, this belies the fact that in America, people have been unhappy with institutional consensus politics for years, and voter apathy is supported chief of all by the impression that we live in a one-party state managed by a political class which defines itself against the common people while pandering to them. “Consensus politics” in Rome was no different. This was not the consensus of various political ideologies striving to represent the popular will and public interest. Rather, it was the consensus of a small group of wealthy and powerful aristocrats who conceived of a political system which would allow each of them to attain what he thought was a due share of honor, glory, and (notwithstanding the claims of Gaius Fabricius) increased wealth. The only consensus from common people was largely extorted by alternately fostering political apathy or bribing them into comfortable temporary submission. Then as now, “consensus politics” is really just code for the consolidation of a one-party political elite which aims to manage and con the rest of the population. Watts draws dishonestly on what he portrays as the Trumpian traits in figures like Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Marius to suggest that their appeals to the common people were just as cynical and hollow as Trump’s. In so doing, he portrays their populist reforms as dangerous political innovations which upset a well-governed system.

To make the point clearer throughout the book, Watts frequently recurs to the theme of subverted norms: “Like Tiberius Gracchus a generation before, Marius decided to put his own personal ambition ahead of his fidelity to the Republic’s norms.” [p. 106] No other popular work of Roman Republican history employs this word so frequently or so pointedly – it is a clear importation from our contemporary political discourse. Donald Trump is not mentioned in this book, but it is clear enough that this recursion to the theme of norms is meant frame this book as a reflection upon our current political disaster in America. But here it serves to note that Donald Trump is not problematic simply because he has subverted norms. A cursory review of the campaign sloganeering of the past two decades will remind readers that practically every politician now campaigns upon the promise of fundamentally changing a political system which is broken and largely unresponsive to popular will. Indeed, much of the disappointment directed toward Barack Obama stemmed from what felt to many like an overly fastidious adherence to political norms and a concomitant retraction of the promise of “change”. No, people are disturbed by Trump’s subversion of norms because he is an imbecile who has in a singular way combined fatuity with malevolence. By way of contrast, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has challenged norms (if that word still has any meaning anymore) as an incoming member of congress by tweeting about the lobbyist-directed early corruption campaigns to which congressional neophytes are exposed. In this latter case, skirting a “norm” has fostered public understanding of a corrupt but traditionally impenetrable system and in so doing helped to re-democratize some small element of politics.

Once he has passed the period of the civil war between Marius and Sulla, much of the apparent parallel-drawing is dropped, and Watts presents a fairly straightforward narrative of the first century civil wars which culminate in Augustus’ control of the empire. This makes it all the more apparent that Watts has singled out Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Marius as the real authors of the decline of the Republic’s institutions: we get the sense that Sulla, Catiline, and both sets of triumvirs were natural products of this broken system. Yet Watts returns to moralizing form on the last page, where he writes:

“Each of these men’s sefish, individualized pursuits of glory ensured that Romans quickly returned to a form of elite political competition in which no limits were placed on the tools one would use to vanquish his opponents. […] Rome’s republic, then, died because it was allowed to. Its death was not inevitable. It could have been avoided.”

This sounds unconvincing, given that the models of antique republican virtue cited at the beginning of the book were examples of spectacularly irrational hard-headedness and the unflagging pursuit of personal glory among a closed system of political elites. Only the pure determinist holds that such crises are strictly inevitable, but any thorough study of Rome’s political and cultural history would suggest that the decline of republican institutions was inevitable in the sense that it was the logical conclusion to the Romans’ unslakable thirst for public glory. Any of those who cried foul about the death of the republic at the time were not concerned with a real loss of freedom for Romans more generally. A figure like Cato was concerned primarily with the way in which the autocracy of a Caesar would limit his own access to power and prestige. Any of the actors with sufficient power to stop or alter this decline only found himself in such a position because he was actively seeking to be number one himself. The decline was not strictly inevitable, but it was at any rate highly probable.

Beyond the frustratingly centrist/elitist political tone of the book, there are some rather prominent typographical whoppers, including Mare Anthony on page 220 and the use of the singular equite (instead of eques) on page 98, which is a wholly unpardonable lapse. If one can ignore the rather facile political lessons drawn by the book, it is a fun and easy read, and at least well worth recommending to those who would like a fast-paced and simple introduction to the Late Republic.

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Now is the time

ὡς ἐνταῦθ᾽ †ἐμέν
ἵν᾽ οὐκέτ᾽ ὀκνεῖν καιρός, ἀλλ᾽ ἔργων ἀκμή. (Sophocles, Electra 21-22)

We’re at the point
where it’s no longer the time to shrink back, but the moment for action.

Thus the Paidagogus, the nameless “Tutor” in Sophocles’s play, ends his introductory address to Orestes (and to us, the audience) in the prologue to Electra. It sets the tone for the play. Soon after we hear Orestes—the ever willing student out to impress—repeat back his tutor’s language, as he brings his own opening declaration to an end with the words: “The two of us will go; for it is the time, which is for men the greatest leader of every action” (νὼ δ᾽ ἔξιμεν· καιρὸς γάρ, ὅσπερ ἀνδράσιν / μέγιστος ἔργου παντός ἐστ᾽ ἐπιστάτης, 75-76).

And shortly after this, when Orestes is yet moved to shrink back as he hears the offstage cries of his sister, the Paidagogus urges him on, ventriloquizing Aeschylus’s Pylades in his injunction to obey Apollo’s commands: for Orestes there are libations to be poured to his father, victory and power to be won. (80-85). No communal libation here, as in Aeschylus’s Choephoroi; here Electra and the chorus enter, only after Orestes and his support team have already departed. These men are doers. The women follow in their wake.


I watched a performance of Sophocles’s tragedy this summer in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki (all photographs are taken from the production stills). It was the second time that I had seen the play, after the 2001 Cambridge Greek play (co-starring a pre-Loki Tom Hiddleston) which was memorable for creating a stage like a petri dish, as if the actors were under a microscope, their actions and arguments open for dissection. Aristotle famously relegates spectacle, or opsis (ὄψις), to the least important of the six component parts of a tragedy (after plot, character, diction, thought and song: Poetics 1450a9-10). “Spectacle”, he writes, “while highly seductive, is the least technical [of the parts] and the one that is least to do with poetry” (ἡ δὲ ὄψις ψυχαγωγικὸν μέν, ἀτεχνότατον δὲ καὶ ἥκιστα οἰκεῖον τῆς ποιητικῆς, 1450b18-20).

Aristotle’s terms of reference here (his emphasis on poetry) must play a role in the downgrading of spectacle, as too must his concern to recoup tragedy from Plato’s criticism of the art form as leading aside the soul (cf. ψυχαγωγικὸν). And spectacle, arguably, still continues to attract less comment, even though reception studies and the use of performance theory (as in Rush Rehm’s Play of Space) have gone some way to refocusing attention on to the play in (as) action.

It was the spectacle of the Greek national theatre company’s Electra (under the direction of Thanos Papakonstantinos) that took my breath away. On the surface it appeared quite a traditional adaptation: it wasn’t located in a contemporary setting; the costumes were simple, bordering on the stylised; it used music throughout; the chorus sung *and* danced; the text wasn’t excised or adapted in any way (other than it being a modern Greek translation). But it was like no other adaptation of Greek tragedy that I had seen. The director’s vision of the tragedy drew on elements that are only ever hinted at in the text, and showed to me, a textual scholar, the life and power of a play beyond the text. Let me give two examples that go back to that opening scene I discussed above.

Papakonstantinos’s play began before the first lines of Sophocles’s script were even delivered. Out came the musicians, the chorus, and two actors (Orestes and Pylades), who proceeded to parade sombrely around the stage to a funereal drumbeat, led by the Paidagogus, who all the time very slowly, and very deliberately, turned his head this way and that to glare at the audience seated in the theatre, challenging us to hold his gaze (or to look away). We immediately fell under the thrall of this imposing figure, as Orestes does in Sophocles’s play. As for Orestes: when the musicians and chorus had taken up their positions, Pylades (notably mute again after his brief, but momentous, pronouncement of Apollo’s command in Aeschylus’s Choephoroi) makes a performance of binding the hero and blindfolding him. All this before the play (as in Sophocles’s text of the play) had actually begun!


Even after this point, the director’s “extra-textual” imagination continued to frame our response to the events on stage: for, rather than disappearing from view as in Sophocles’s play (when the actor would have had to play another role) Orestes, still blindfolded and bound, is led back around the stage by Pylades to that same funereal beat, while the action unfolds around them. It was only when meeting his sister, some two thirds of the way through the play that his bonds and blindfold are removed, as if offering a very concrete instantiation of his psychology: he has been trained (blinded and bound) to kill his mother; these bonds fall from him as meeting his sister reveals repressed ties of affection for her.

But this is only a fleeting glimpse of his humanity, as the Paidagogus suddenly reappears to berate the two “stupid unthinking children” (ὦ πλεῖστα μῶροι καὶ φρενῶν τητώμενοι, 1326), for talking a lot (τῶν μακρῶν λόγων, 1335) when “it is the moment to be delivered from these matters” (ἀπηλλάχθαι δ᾽ ἀκμή, 1338). As Electra desperately tries to engage in dialogue also with him, the Paidagogus firmly slaps her down: “That’s enough, I think” (ἀρκεῖν δοκεῖ μοι, 1364). In our performance, his reappearance at the top of the stage encapsulated once again his dominance over, and orchestration of, the proceedings.

As you’ll see from the photographs, the stage was stark in its simplicity, an effect that was further amplified by the simple, almost abstract costuming of all the actors. Not only did this help focus attention on the gestures, movement and interactions of the actors; it also helped to defamiliarise the action and detach it from any particular setting, whether classical (as when actors wear chitons) or modern. This is something, I think, that Greek tragedy generally manages to do: that is, to speak to audiences not bound by a particular place or time. But one costume did possibly have a contemporary resonance: the clothing of the chorus seemed to me, at least, to be a pristine white version of the clothing worn by the handmaids in the renowned TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

The chorus were the other significant reason for the impact of this drama. Controlled and in control, this was a chorus of and for our time, gaining power through their collective action. Unlike every other chorus I’ve ever seen, this chorus sung and chanted in metre throughout in unison. They spoke, as it were, with one voice, though that voice sometimes seemed to be stretched to the absolute limit, to the point of almost fracturing, using the technique of close dissonant harmonies familiar from Balkan singing. They also moved as one, like polished mannequins, often with minimal gesture of forefinger touching the thumb, as if a Greek orthodox Christ were blessing his congregation. Then, as the play hurtles towards its terrifying climax (the matricide; the forever deferred murder of Aegisthus), they transform, as Electra’s hatred and bitterness finally comes to affect and infect them. A *spoiler alert* #metoo movement with bite.


I had always read the chorus in the final scenes of the play as providing the only lingering vestige of empathy in an increasingly desperate and hateful (hate-filled) world. As Orestes does his thing (murdering his mother) offstage, and Electra comments on, and incites, the violence onstage in shockingly impersonal terms (“someone shouts within… someone screams”, 1406, 1409: the someone in question being her mother), it’s the chorus who remind us of what’s at stake: “I heard a cry that shouldn’t have been heard, enough to make me shiver” (1407); “o city, o wretched family” (1414). They sum up this fractured replaying of Aeschylus’s trilogy (Sophocles’s Clytemnestra “quotes” Aeschylus’s Agamemnon as she is struck, and struck again: ὤμοι πέπληγμαι / ὤμοι μάλʼ αὖθις, 1415-1417; cf. Aesch. Ag. 1343-45), by recalling the curses of those previously murdered (1419-21):

τελοῦσʼ ἀραί· ζῶσιν οἱ γᾶς ὑπαὶ κείμενοι.
παλίρρυτον γὰρ αἷμʼ ὑπεξαιροῦσι τῶν
κτανόντων οἱ πάλαι θανόντες.
The curses are working out. They who lie under the earth live.
For those who died long ago are draining the blood
—blood that flows in recompense—from their killers.

In a manner that again strongly evokes Aeschylus, this time the sarcastic reply by the Choephoroi Orestes’s to his mother: “I think that the dead are killing the living” (Aesch. Cho. 886), the chorus’s mention of curses reworks the language of generational violence and familial revenge that dominates that trilogy. Those earlier plays culminate in the instantiation of the curses in the form of the Furies/Erinyes of the Eumenides. One of the insoluble problems of Sophocles’s Electra is, precisely, the absence of the Erinyes from the drama. Although they are mentioned on four occasions (112, 276, 491, 1080) and alluded to once (1388), the fact that they don’t seem to appear after Clytemnestra’s murder has led many critics to conclude that Sophocles sanctions the matricide (as if it’s ever ok to kill your mother).

The masterstroke of Thanos Papakonstantinos in his direction of the play was, again, to make real what is only ever hinted at in the text. Thus, as the chorus attempt to make sense of the matricide and Electra’s conducting of the events offstage, they transform into the very curses to which they refer. At this very moment in the performance, they discarded their pristine white cloaks and began to writhe on the ground before Electra, sullying their inner garments on a stage that was slowly filling up with a viscous oily liquid—a black blood slick. They became in appearance like Electra herself, dreadful and deranged. They became, in essence, the Erinyes.


This transformation of the chorus into Sophocles’s missing Furies—as if the Eumenides‘s chorus had been invoked and brought back on stage by the constant incantations of Aeschylus’s earlier plays—was both utterly mesmeric and breathtakingly terrifying. It reminded me more of a horror film than a conventional tragedy, and it struck me that horror, too, must have played a role in these plays’ impact. And it wasn’t only a gut reaction; the horror-inflected climax got me thinking a lot harder about what *was* in the text. And, reading the play again at home, I noticed how the chorus from this point on assume a far more active role, first warning the siblings of Aegisthus’s arrival (1429), and then offering advice how to get him to drop his guard (1439-41). Even in their customarily generic last words, the chorus evoke the urgency (τῇ νῦν ὁρμῇ τελεωθέν, 1510) on which the Paidagogus has constantly insisted.

But—and this is important—their cue came not from him but from Electra. It’s when the men go off stage to do their thing and leave the women shut out onstage that they—the women—take control. It’s Electra’s commentary on the matricide that is the focus, not the event itself. It’s the sister, so long left home alone and shut off from the plot as soon as the play begins, who, forced to testify about her experience, her suffering before a (hostile?) hearing of male judges (us, the audience), dominates the play. And she dominates its ending with a group of women whose furious shedding of their demure costumes presages their transformation into curses, as if she, and not the Paidagogus, were now the orchestrator of the action.

Beware all transgressors. #wetoo are coming for you.