Decolonizing a Myth Class

This post is an explanatory (and exploratory) framework for a website I have started for a course on Classical Mythology. This website is developing as the central ‘text’ of my Classical Mythology Course at Brandeis University. The website and the following discussion are intended as adaptive and evolving responses to teaching Greek myth. 


Since the events of the most recent SCS Annual Meeting and its subsequent coverage, I have been thinking a lot about the state of the discipline of Classical Studies and what I can do (as well as what I must do) based on the various roles I play within the field and the University. I have been listening carefully to what people like Joy Connolly, Yurie Hong, and Rebecca Futo Kennedy have to say about the measures we can institute now, in the medium term, and in the long term; I have also seriously contemplated what Classicists of color have to say about themselves and the field—learning a lot in particular from Dan-El Padilla Peralta, Nandini Pandey, Jackie Murray (through her deep and powerful interview with Scott Lepisto on Itinera), Mathura Umachandran, Yung In Chae, and my own student Helen Wong, whose critique of my department’s focus on “Western Civilization” has been eating away at me for months now.

Through conversations with some of these generous people as well as other friends and colleagues (including Suzanne Lye, Amy Pistone, Kelly Dugan, Tara Mulder, Caitlin Gillespie, Robyn LeBlanc, Hilary Lehmann, Curtis Dozier, Justin Arft), I have clarified for myself that my actions must be commensurate with the roles I play. But they also must be made with the help of and participation of others. (And this is why I am trying to name everyone I have spoken to and listened to about these issues: none of us will change our fields alone; none of us is in this alone.) Envisioning and creating a community is essential, especially when the odds can seem so long and the voices eager to dismiss the need for change so many.

For me, this means trying to align my values with my actions over several separate domains: my ‘scholarship’, my work as a midcareer reader and editor, my role as department chair and in university governance, my mentorship of students at the graduate and undergraduate level, and, finally, but not of least importance, my role as an instructor. While these roles naturally influence each other, the classroom is a place where I know I can take direct and immediate action.

I am going to be working with my department to alter our curriculum, and to change the language of our mission (to align with what we actually do), and to reconsider the way we train graduate students. And I will likely write some posts here and there to talk about these efforts. But, for now, let’s talk about Classical Mythology.


Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

I have had training at two institutions for what was called “Affirmative Action Advocacy” at one and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” at the other. For the most part, my training has not been about creating inclusive classroom spaces or diversifying our disciplines; instead it has been about the workplace and hiring practices. At Brandeis University, I have learned a lot from training in our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion over the past few years, and I think that the basic distinctions plotted by each category are useful both for understanding the manifold character of problems in our field and for adapting our classrooms.

Diversity is something most people can understand to an extent: it means creating and valuing a space that has people from different backgrounds, religions, language groups, genders, sexual orientations and identities, and abilities. But diversity alone can be no more sophisticated than collecting baseball cards if we do not recognize that because of structural and institutional prejudices (racism, sexism, ableism, and on…) the individuals who are representative of diversity do not start with the same knowledge, skills, or emotional stances towards education.

Equity means making the effort on institutional and individual bases to redress the unequal starting points (and this often gets some people riled up because equity is about achieving fair outcomes, but not about giving everyone the same thing). And Inclusion means modifying the space to accommodate the different abilities and perspectives of our community.

I have taken the trouble of spelling this out in part because there is much opportunity for confusion and in order to make my starting point clear. A good exercise before engaging in this activity is to take a self-test for implicit bias. I also think that Robin D’Angelo’s  “White Fragility” is an essential read. In addition, check out Amy Pistone’s round-up of a SCS workshop “Centering the Margins: Creating Inclusive Syllabi” (with Suzanne Lye, Yurie Hong, Robyn LeBlanc, and Rebecca Kennedy).


What is Decolonizing?

Decolonizing is a process with philosophical underpinnings in the middle 20th century which seeks to de-center the works of European colonial authorities, to recenter global voices which have been marginalized from our history and literature, and to re-frame the past by listening to the voices of those marginalized by their bodies and class. Decolonizing also means reading the work of scholars who have been traditionally marginalized from our fields and re-introducing non-canonical subjects as a historical corrective.

For literature courses and history courses, this process has been ongoing as curricula have change to be more inclusive and re-analyze the past from perspectives outside Europe and the United states. But this movement is not just about changing the content of our courses; it is also about the way we run our courses and treat the people who take them. Such a movement has, of course, been ongoing and has created its own series of backlashes from the staid and deceptive work of Harold Bloom to the more aggressive onslaught of Who Killed Homer.

The various disciplines of Classics have been slow to respond to this movement outside of various forms of reception studies because Classical Studies has been so thoroughly identified with Europe and, as Rebecca Kennedy has shown in a pretty convincing twitter thread, was intentionally weaponized as part of “Western Civilization” to justify and enforce colonialism, slavery and their associated horrors. As Cate Bonesho has recently argued, part of our disciplinary inheritance is denying connections with the Ancient Near East; and as the reactions to Martin Bernal’s Black Athena reveal, our field has mobilized to defend the centrality of European exceptionalism within the last generation.

So, the first question is: can you decolonize the classics? Can we decolonize a tool of colonialism? While the answer is complicated, I think we certainly can: courses that have focused on sexuality and gender, slavery, race and ethnicity, and non-canonical texts have sought to do this in their own way. But what about a myth course?


Decolonizing a Myth Class

There are, I think, two chief aspects of dealing with a Classical Mythology course. One has to do with the courses’ intention; the other has to do with its content. Some institutions and instructors may decide to go the way of Eva M. Thury’s and Margaret Devinney’s excellent Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths (Oxford, 4th Edition). This book focuses on kinds of narratives across cultures (tricksters, heroes, creation stories) and does an admirable job of integrating major scholarly approaches with clear tellings of the myths involved.

The problem with this text is that it is a little expensive, the publisher puts out new editions with some frequency (changing page numbers, undermining the used book market), and the authors can’t sidestep the fact that the process of canonization in Europe has preserved sophisticated versions of the Greek and Roman narratives and, further, that our aesthetic and academic expectations have been shaped by the canon. I taught using this book for many years and found that the aesthetic inheritance of Greek and Roman materials causes students to ‘marginalize’ material from other traditions in their reception. (That said, I would recommend trying out this book to anyone who is starting a myth course from scratch)

Additional considerations when choosing how to teach a myth class include: the competence of the instructor and the curricular/educational intention behind the class. Let’s take up the second thing first. When I teach myth I always start with a discussion of why it is important to teach a myth course. I introduce what I see as the different methods (Edith Hamilton-style anthology vs. literature based deep context) and an overview of why we might even teach myth.

In the process of introducing the course, I explain that one longstanding reason for teaching myth is “cultural literacy”, namely that since so much of “western culture” is shaped or informed by Classical Myth, one needs to be conversant in it to ‘decode’ it. I trouble this notion from the moment I introduce it, emphasizing that (1) there is no single Classical Mythology (anthologies like Hamilton’s select and present narratives from different periods and social contexts erratically) and (2) “western” reception of that non-singular mythology is uneven and spectacularly strange. Artists and authors revel in the odd and obscure: any course of study set up to provide someone with cultural literacy would be a banal trudge through disconnected detail rendered for erudite allusion.

Yes, I tell my students, a Mythology course can function to educate us about elements used in the creation of the “Western Canon” and can thus be indispensable in mounting a critique of it. But I position my myth course as being about storytelling and the way that cultural discourse functions to shape the way we view the world and what we think our roles in it can be. In approaching myth this way, I start with a healthy dose of cognitive science and psychology on how stories shape the brain and our perception of the world; I also include information on the definition of discourse and ideology from perspectives informed by sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and post-modern theory. As such, I argue, myth should be taught with cultural contexts in mind and with an emphasis on the way stories are altered for specific needs and how they function to enforce and explore dominant ideologies.

Understanding how myth is part of how we see the world and how we are initiated into the act of understanding it, I tell my students, is part of developing a personal “user’s manual” for the human brain. Any deep well of traditional storytelling presented within the right framework can help us achieve this knowledge—any body of narrative from Mesoamerican, South Asian, African, East Asian to modern science fiction can contribute to the same ends. Cultural distance, indeed, helps us appreciate how storytelling shapes us. And instructor competence is critical in unpacking and reshaping the reception of myth.


Basic Principles of the Class

Much of what follows reflects what I do in many of my courses. But I have benefited a lot from talking with Kelly P. Dugan who was kind enough to share her syllabus for a myth course with me.


One principle central to my ‘decolonizing’ of a myth course is transparency about what our goals are in the course and what my basic principles are in teaching it. While I do believe deeply that other storytelling traditions could do the same work, I cannot fully decolonize my myth course (that is, integrate other storytelling traditions into it) because of my own competences and because of the particular advantage myths from Greece and Rome present: anyone who speaks a European language or is engaged with the popular culture wielded as its own form of discourse by these language groups comes with a familiarity in the basic narrative patterns, assumptions, and aesthetics which are embedded in them. Introducing greater justice and equity in our culture means tackling these forces and assumptions head-on. From the foundational narrative of the triumph of patriarchy to the adoption of “the hero’s journey” as a dominant narrative paradigm, the traditions of Greek storytelling continue to have powerful (and often harmful) effects on our world.

On one test of decolonizing the curriculum, then, my approach is an abject failure: but this is, I think, a fate and a challenge all Classical Studies curricula must face head on: our subjects are products and producers of a racist paradigm. We can, I believe, start the hard work of transforming this paradigm on multiple fronts. Within the framework of a course on myth, I think this means we need to focus on the stories and how they functioned within their cultural contexts and also how they are ‘re-purposed’ as ideological tools in different contexts.

Rather than replicate some of the problems of an anthologized myth course which elides cultural differences, I teach an almost entirely ‘Archaic Greek’ myth course which traces the ‘teleologically’ minded cosmic history generalized through Panhellenism in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE. I pay particular attention to providing studies with multiforms or allomorphs (terms I privilege over ‘variant’, which reifies the idea that there is a ‘master’ narrative from which other traditions diverge) and also to contextualizing these multiforms within particular places, periods, and expectations. I also heavily emphasize that the process of Panhellenization is one of ideological force, defining ‘Greekness’ by exclusion primarily through the creation of a unified other. In addition, I take every opportunity to reiterate the pluralism of “Greekness” (different dialects, peoples, polities, values) and the multicultural origins of much of what we have received as Greek.

The primary content of my course, then, is not particularly remarkable—I use Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and the Homeric epics with supplementary material drawn from Apollodorus, Ovid, Greek poets, and fragments I have translated on my own. I have begun the secondary step of decolonizing by providing students not just with the multiform traditions from ancient Greece but also to modern critical responses from diverse scholars (where possible).


Affordability and Accessibility

The biggest step I have recently taken is the creation of a website which uses only free sources for the core readings in the course. Rather than expect students to purchase a large selection of books, I have found appropriate alternatives online and have supplemented with my own translations where necessary (most of them from this website). I have created this space as an evolving and open course for others to use if they see fit and for even those outside of the academy to use as a starting point for researching Greek myth. Each class day has a brief summary, a list of authors who are discussed in the course that day, links to the open source translations, links to blog posts with additional information, and links to articles. There is a page for resources for researching Greek myth; there is also room for adding material by and for students. I am still working on ways to include my powerpoint slides on the website; for now, all slides are available on the University LMS for students. Since the LMS is clunky and not available outside the Brandeis community it is important to me that course material be made fully public.



Developing new materials and responses to myth over time requires a level of knowledge I could not hope to attain on my own. Students have a large range of knowledge and experiences and bring a lot to the course. I encourage students to share links and material with me and I will integrate their work (when they do it and if they wish it) into the course over time. Sometimes this means I have to have difficult conversations in class about why Sparta is less than cool or why Jordan Peterson is a dangerous ideologue, but these are important moments in helping students develop a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle material from the ancient world. Even though I spend a the bulk of the course on Early Greek material, I use the last few weeks of the course to highlight how ‘Greek’ material is adapted to new contexts (and how different ‘Roman’ material is) and how storytelling functions as myth in modern genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction.


Course policies

An essential pedagogical understanding is that students bring different experiences, learning modalities, and skills to the course. Some will have a strong grasp of the concept of discourse; others will know myriad details of myth which escape me (as happens every semester). I believe that a course must be created in such a way as to allow all students to succeed in attaining its stated goals. Many students are new to college and need to work or have other reasons for not being able to attend all classes: all students can make up any class or missed quiz by completing extra credit.

Because students have different responses to exams and come with different preparation for studying, I have an adaptive grading process. This means that all exams can be made up to full credit (in addition students can earn ‘extra’ credit at any time in the course by writing responses to supplementary material posted on line). This also means providing students with plenty of extra time for exams and assignments and honoring all accommodation needs without creating obstacles. Finally, the course’s activities need to be aligned with its goals: the course starts out lecture heavy to help create a common ground, but I increasingly move toward discussion and workshops. The final assessments are student-designed projects that allow them to work and rework ancient narrative structures. (In earlier versions of the course I have had some success in bringing storytellers to class and having students retell myths in their own words.)


Some Future Plans

I teach this course every other year. In addition to updating course materials and continually adding in the work of underrepresented authors and linking to comparative myths in other traditions (a particular weakness of the current format), I need to improve the accessibility of the course. I will eventually create audio versions of each class; but I also need to work with my campus accessibility services to make sure that the powerpoints and website material can work for students of varied abilities. One of the reasons I chose to use wordpress instead of my campus LMS for the material beyond opening up the course to the world at large is that the wordpress site populates to mobile devices fairly well.

In general, however, I hope to benefit from students and researchers who care enough about myth to add to the material on the website. I look forward to any comments and additions and will integrate them as I can. Please email me ( if you would like to be able to add supplementary material directly or if you have any advice for uploaded the powerpoint slides to the website. I am also profoundly unvisual and have an (unjustifiable) antipathy towards video. I would be particularly grateful, then, for links to appropriate, useful, humorous or otherwise significant video clips. Finally, I would like to integrate more material about reception, but this is another one of my weaknesses.

Farnese Sarcophagus from Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

We Can’t Keep Up With History!

Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon 1559-1614

Jacques Auguste de Thou was the last, and most illustrious, example of those public men who were formed to affairs upon the study of greek and roman history. Instead of composing his memoirs, like his contemporaries, in French, he chose Latin, not because it was the language of diplomacy, but because it alone was capable of classical handling. Thrust into employment against his will, dragged perpetually from the retirement he loved to undertake difficult or dangerous negotiations, his heart was in his library, and his historical work. The history of ‘Thuanus’ was long the manual of statesmen all over Europe. It is now wholly neglected, even in the country of its author.

The cause of this neglect is not merely the language, a difficulty which might have been overcome by translation. It is because it is too minute. Even in 1733, and before the revolution of ’89 had opened a new and absorbing page of history, Lord Carteret pointed to the extent of the work as fatal to its popularity. Containing the history of only sixty-four years, it has been calculated that de Thou’s folios would require twelve months, at four hours a day, for their perusal. The world has now too long a history for us to afford time to know it! Thus the very merit of de Thou’s ‘Historia,’ its completeness, is the cause of its being left unread. De Thou was a catholic, but a ‘politique,’ and would gladly have secured Casaubon for France, without attempting to convert him.”

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No Debate Necessary

A.S.F. Gow, A.E. Housman: A Sketch

“In his lectures, Housman was naturally under the necessity of discussing all the problems raised by his author, and novelties of his own were but incidents in the whole. At the Philological Society, where the paper dealt with his own solutions of a difficulty, the qualities shown in his lectures had freer scope, and one commonly came away with the feeling that so would the recording angel on the Judgment Day would read his scroll, and so would faults be amended beyond appeal or dispute. All the relevant facts would be marshalled with such seeing ease that the erudition might almost escape notice (for Housman, though scrupulous in meeting any possible objection in advance, never piled up evidence beyond his immediate need), and the conclusion or emendation followed so surely upon them that the paper left nothing to debate.”

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Reading Like a Scholar (i.e. Like a Boss)

Celio Calcagnini, Letter to Tommaso Calcagnini:

“For my part, whatever I read, whatever I think, I store it in the storehouses of my mind as if I were about to bring it forth for the use of human activity. And since I think that it is too difficult to excerpt everything separately, I put many things into a commentary, or write it separately on a little sheet. But in the margin, I make compendious notes, separate from the text, of everything which seems worth of some notice. If any of these things really stand out as particularly capital or excellent, I place them in the peak (or one might say the crown) of the margin. From this practice springs some utility, allowing me to reconsider several volumes within the space of an hour and a half. I once tried to wrangle Pliny’s Natural History into an epitome, since I always burned with wondrous desire for that author. But undoubtedly I acted the fool, because I ended up copying out almost everything in Pliny.”


Ego profecto quicquid lego, quicquid meditor, ita omne in arcanis animi recondo, quasi mox ad usum humanarum actionum expositurus. Et quoniam arduum nimis reor omnia seorsum excerpere, multa sane in commentarium refero, aut seorsum in pagella exscribo. Sed in margine compendiose omnia, quae digna sunt aliqua animadversione, sepono: quod siqua praestant, quasi coryphaea et optimatia in summa marginis coronide. Hinc ea mihi utilitas nascitur, ut vel sesquihora multa possim volumina recognoscere. Tentavi aliquando Plinii Naturalem Historiam in epitomen revocare, quando eius autoris mira semper cupidine exarsi: sed rem sine controversia ridiculam feci, qui omnem ferme Plinium exscripserim.

Non-Elite Latin for the Classroom

The following is a thoroughly masterful and fascinating introduction to using non-elite Latin in teaching by Brandon Conley.


This is a brief introduction to non-elite Latin texts, intended for use in the classroom as a supplement to the more traditional Latin readings. For the majority of the following texts, knowledge of Latin equivalent to the first two to three semesters at the college level is advised, though several are suitable for first-year courses.

Firstly, what is non-elite Latin? Generally speaking, non-elite Latin comprises the texts produced outside of Rome’s powerful, exclusive literary circles, the arbiters of linguistic prestige—the ‘literati,’ so to speak. Other terms are often used to describe these texts, such as non-literary or non-standard. These definitions often, but not always, apply, and regularly more than one can be used to describe the same text. For example, we wouldn’t use ‘non-standard’ to describe an epitaph written for a freedwoman in Dacia that adheres to the linguistic standards of classical Latin (its adherence makes it, in fact, standard), but we could describe it as both non-elite and non-literary. The texts here can be standard or not (though most contain non-standard forms), as well as literary or not (though most aren’t). But they are all non-elite by virtue of the statuses, locations, and linguistic conventions of their authors.


Reading non-elite texts, with few exceptions, presents a set of challenges different from those of classical Latin. Linguistic features are more prone to diachronic and geographic change than the comparatively change-resistant classical standards. Spellings can be phonetic, colloquial, learned conventions, or intentionally archaic for effect. Morphology and syntax often differ widely as well, as in the increased usage of the indicative or the expanded role of the accusative (at the expense of the ablative, regularly). Vocabulary can be geographically specific, and differences in semantic value between non-elite and classical Latin are not uncommon.

Some of these features are discussed below to aid in reading. Efforts were made to add punctuation, etc., for ease of reading and approachability to students. Spellings are often left in their non-standard forms, though to aid in reading, many words are edited using brackets or parentheses; for particularly problematic spellings, a classical form of the word is added in parentheses. Texts (and translations, where available) are taken from the sources linked, with modifications (unless otherwise noted).

Exercises in non-elite Latin are often exercises in editing, critical reading, and emendation, as many of the texts are damaged or difficult to interpret. Reading these texts presents a practical opportunity to discuss textual editing as a scholarly process.

Lastly, accessibility is paramount. Students, instructors, and independent scholars often lack access to the databases and publications in which many non-elite texts are presented. All of the texts presented below are freely available online. At the end of this document, however, the recommended reading list contains mostly sources that are not open access.

Feel free to add, remove, edit, scream at, or pour coffee on the text—though should you choose to pour the coffee, print it first.


Motives for the spellings can be any number of things, from a widespread phonetic change to a local scribe’s misspelling. Often, unsurprisingly and necessarily, there is considerable debate on the causes of the spellings. Likewise, we must resist, often with great difficulty, tendencies to generalize non-standard spellings as broader linguistic features without the presence of more evidence.

These are some of the most common differences in spelling between non-elite and classical Latin.

Word-initial and Intervocalic Aspirate, h-, /h/ (habeo, hic, mihi, ): The initial and intervocalic aspirate /h/ had disappeared from most speech varieties by the imperial period, and from all eventually (with the exception of a select few prescriptive grammarians, perhaps). Hence, it is often omitted in non-elite texts, with resulting forms such as abes, mi, and ic.

Word-final -m, /m/ (dicam, amicum, etc.): -m was not pronounced (as /m/, at least) at the end of a word in spoken Latin, even before the time of Cicero; consider, for example, the impact this had in classical poetry in the process of elision. It is omitted from spelling with great frequency in non-elite texts, and can often cause confusion for first-time readers.

The v/b Shift, /w/ à /β/ (cf. the v in Spanish): this is a simplification of the process, but essentially the glide /w/ of classical pronunciation became increasingly pronounced as a bilabial fricative. This change is represented in non-standard spellings by the replacement of Latin v for b (e.g. dibi, classical divi, “gods”), as writers considered b to more closely represent the sound.

xs for x (dixsit,): there are potentially a few, if separate, factors that motivated this spelling. In short, an s was added after x due to the differing phonetic qualities of x as it was written (by itself, not representing /ks/). This is a common spelling feature, but generally not a problematic one for reading.

Assimilation and Weakening: a widespread trend in non-elite spellings is the simplification of consonant clusters, often through assimilation (i.e. one sound in the cluster ‘absorbs’ another sound) or weakening leading to loss. These can result in either a different letter being used to represent the altered sound (imveni, inveni) or the complete loss of a consonant (nuc, cf. nunc; meses, cf. menses). A notable loss, in cosul, is even reflected in standardized inscriptions in the abbr. cos. Loss is also quite common with consonants preceding the semivowel /j/, i (aiuto, cf. adiuto, “I help”).

Doubling of letters and reduction of doubled letters (faccio, facio; anis, cf. annis): multiple operations are at work, including the strengthening, weakening, and shortening of consonants, gemination and degemination, as well as the general tendency to eliminate letters that are not reflected in speech. Though not all spellings of these types can be ascribed to changes in pronunciation. For reading purposes, the doubling of letters (e.g. faccio) is usually not problematic. The absence of doubled letters can be problematic, though, as the non-standard forms frequently resemble other words with standard spellings (e.g. annis, dat/abl pl. ‘years,’ but anis, dat/abl pl. ‘rings’; or suum ‘own’, but sum ‘I am’).

Deletion: Vowels and consonants are regularly deleted in medial positions. Unstressed vowels are most commonly deleted (aspros, cf. asperos; copla, cf. copula), reducing the number of syllables in a word. This trend is not entirely unusual even in literary Latin.

Often duplicate vowels are reduced to one letter (serus, seruus; tus, cf. tuus).

Voiced and Devoiced Consonant Switching: switching in both directions is common, and the motives vary. The use of t for d and vice versa are perhaps the most common in the texts below (ed, set, at, ). Sometimes they are even used interchangeably in the same document. There is considerable doubt that these spellings reflected wider speech patterns.

Other Orthographic Consonant Substitutions: k is regularly used for c (karissimo), as is, to a lesser extent, q before u (mequm, quravit). These generally do not pose problems for readers.

e/i Representation: the writing of e for i and vice versa is one of the most commonly found spelling deviations from classical standards. Spellings of this type sometimes, though not always, reflect a widespread phonetic change in Latin speech well into the imperial period, whereby the vowels long e /e:/ and short i /i/ merged into a single vowel, /ẹ/. Both letters were used with little consistency to represent this phoneme. Another motive was the tendency for /e/ and /i/ to become a semivowel /j/ after a consonant (vinia as two syllables, rather than vinea). Occasionally, e was even used to represent ī /i:/. Some examples: sene, nese, dicet, ube, ibe, and signabet.

u/o Representation: another very common set of vowel substitutions, o is frequently used in place of u. The majority of instances occur in final syllables of the nominative and accusative singular; -us and -um become -os and -om, respectively. While another widespread vowel merger (similar to e/i) occurred very late in the imperial period, whereby ō /o:/ and u /u/ merged to a closed o /ọ/, the great majority of non-elite texts from the Roman Empire likely do not reflect this process. The use of o for u is far more likely to be an orthographic remnant (a ‘relic’, perhaps) of the old Latin spelling, which reflects the original o-stem. As mentioned above, there is also a strong stylistic tendency against writing the consecutive vowels uu, and o often replaces the second one. Examples: servos, mortuos, novom, salvom.

ei for i (tibei, ubei, etc.): the use of the vowels ei for classical i occurs regularly, and is an archaism of spelling, either for style or by learned inheritance, rather than an indication of pronunciation. It is a remnant of a popular spelling in old Latin which did reflect speech; the original diphthong /ei/ underwent a change to /i:/.

Monophthongization: ae /ae/ à e /ɛ/: other diphthongs disappear as well, but ae to e is present most frequently in the texts. Examples: que, quae; Cecilius, cf. Caecilius; and equum, cf. aequum. These can be problematic, as evidenced by the final example equum (potentially confused for the classical ‘horse’).

Morphology and Syntax

While there are numerous morphological and syntactic differences from classical Latin, they rarely impede reading to the extent of spelling differences. For example, a Latin student might recognize that the ‘incorrect’ verb tense is used in a conditional, but meaning can still be deduced. As such, only a few points will be mentioned here; see the recommended readings for further discussion.

Accusatives with Prepositions: there is plenty of evidence to support the convincing notion that the accusative became the default case for prepositional phrases. Most notably, cum, de, pro and in regularly take accusatives (even in instances in which the classical ‘ablative of place where’ would be expected). The situation is further complicated by the status of word-final -m, which made the ablative and accusative cases sound identical in speech in some instances, and the omission of which in writing can make a word appear ablative, though a writer originally had in mind an accusative. Advice for readers is to expect accusatives with prepositions which would otherwise be unexpected in classical Latin.

Analogy and Paradigm Leveling: analogy was a productive process in Latin, and in non-elite texts it occurs often in verbal and nominal morphology. Forth declension nouns in classical Latin sometimes use the more regular endings of the second declension in non-elite texts (an ongoing process that eventually saw the near-complete elimination of the fourth declension). Verbal constructions are leveled as well, for example in posso (“I can”) being given a common -o 1st singular ending in place of the standard possum.

Indicative or Infinitive: in instances where classical Latin would employ a subjunctive, such as in an indirect question, it is not uncommon in non-elite texts to see an indicative or an infinitival construction.

The conjunctions et and sed: a number of texts rely heavily on these conjunctions, including them where syntactically unnecessary or where other conjunctions would be more appropriate for clarity. One must not always take these literally or strictly when reading.


Reading any different author or genre of Latin usually requires familiarization with new vocabulary, and non-elite texts are no exception. Cicero’s surviving works, for example, do not contain inventories of materials or equipment, and in the texts that do contain these, some words will be new to readers. In some instances, however, things are more complicated. Loanwords or local words with limited attestation are common, and their meanings are uncertain; the ostraka found at Bu Njem, for example, contain several Punic words. The texts below were chosen with these considerations in mind, though it will perhaps be necessary to look up some military terms, for example.

Keep reading for some phenomenal texts….

Continue reading “Non-Elite Latin for the Classroom”

Why Does Apollo Kill the Mules and Dogs First?

Hint: Either because he likes people. Or, animals have a good sense of smell.

Schol. A ad Il. 1.50c ex.

“First he [attacked] the mules and the fast dogs”

“Because the god is well-disposed toward human beings, he kills mules, dogs, and the other irrational beasts first, so that, by inducing fear through these [deaths], he might nurture proper reverence in the Greeks.

Or, it is because the mules and dogs have a more powerful perception of smell. For, dogs are really good at tracking beasts because of their sense of smell, and mules, when they are left behind, often rediscover their paths thanks to their sense of smell.”

<οὐρῆας μὲν πρῶτον ἐπῴχετο καὶ κύνας ἀργούς:>

φιλάνθρωπος ὢν ὁ θεὸς πρῶτον τὰς ἡμιόνους καὶ τοὺς κύνας καὶ τὰ ἄλογα ζῷα ἀναιρεῖ, ἵνα διὰ τούτων εἰς δέος ἀγαγὼν τοὺς ῞Ελληνας ἐπὶ τὸ εὐσεβεῖν παρασκευάσῃ. ἢ ὅτι αἱ ἡμίονοι καὶ οἱ κύνες τὴν αἴσθησιν τῆς ὀσφρήσεως ἐνεργεστέραν ἔχουσιν· οἱ μὲν γὰρ κύνες ἀπὸ τῆς ὀσφρήσεως τῶν ἰχνῶν ἐν αἰσθήσει τῶν θηρίων γίνονται, αἱ δὲ ἡμίονοι πολλάκις ἀπολειφθεῖσαι τινων ἀπὸ τῆς ὀσφρήσεως καὶ τὰς ὁδοὺς ἀνευρίσκουσιν.

I was reading the beginning of the Iliad with some students the other day and I opened up the scholia to see what various nonsense there was to support or deny Zenodotus’ editorial dismissal of lines 1.46-47 (ἔκλαγξαν δ’ ἄρ’ ὀϊστοὶ ἐπ’ ὤμων χωομένοιο, / αὐτοῦ κινηθέντος· ὃ δ’ ἤϊε νυκτὶ ἐοικώς.). I started looking ahead and saw this! As other students might attest, this is what often happens in my advanced Greek classes–we discuss the strangeness of a thing, we check the apparatus, I hoot or holler over some editorial intervention, and then I open the scholia: look, this is absurd. and wonderful. and mad. and I love it.

Additional note: On 1.50, Aristonicus denies the claims by by some rogues that “mules” here is a word for “guards”; the bT scholia make the quasi-scientific claim that these animals are more susceptible to diseases than humans. I like the idea of Apollo trying to teach people a lesson before just murdering them all.


Against Pedantry

“..[D]on’t listen to the pedantic and specific precepts of grammarians; but heed your own ear…”

non finitiones illas praerancidas neque fetutinas grammaticas spectaveris, sed aurem tuam interroga

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.21

When I was applying to graduate school and asked what it was like, I remember my first Greek teacher telling me a story about his PhD qualifying exams. During the two-hour oral component, some eminent professor of distinguished achievement remained conspicuously silent. When he did speak up, he looked critically at the examinee (a Homerist) and asked a single question: “What is the name of Odysseus’ mother?” My teacher could not remember and it caused enough trauma that this was the story he used to characterize his experience in graduate school almost 30 years later.

When I was in a PhD program myself, this anecdote was the first thing that came to my mind as I looked over the returned draft of the first three chapters of my dissertation. Most dissertations leave behind them legacies of confusion, shame, and pain. Mine was not completely traumatizing, but that’s because, after struggling for six months to write over 100 pages of well-footnoted dreck, I had the audacity to throw everything away and start from scratch. During a feverish long-weekend in February 2006, I re-started from page 1 and ended up writing the first draft of a ‘chapter’ that, at over 100 pages, became the first three chapters of a messy, long, but ultimately ‘successful’ dissertation. (Spoiler: I passed).

When you submit chapters of your dissertation to advisors, the ensuing period of silence can be maddening. (And sometimes that long wait never ends.) When I did receive a marked-up version of my magnum opus, I scurried away from my advisor to start poring over his responses, hoping for some clue that I was on the right track, to divine some sign of my future. And inside: Corrected misspellings; Commas inserted and deleted; A Greek accent was repaired. The longest actual comment I could find was scrawled next to a footnote: the word “Phaeacia” was scratched out, next to it: “The Phaeacians live in Skheria.”

This was not the first warning I received in graduate school about the world into which I was seeking initiation. Any failure to translate adequately in seminars was met with sudden questions about obscure aorist stems. In casual conversation, I remember being corrected for calling someone “long-lifed”, when the right way of saying it is “long-lived”. But I am a blustery and confident sort. When I was asked in a seminar why I didn’t know the defective aorist of bainô, I responded, probably with a bit of acid, “because I am a student. I am here to learn.”

The first lesson I was taught in graduate school was either to shed the Socratic notion of owning up to my ignorance or be prepared for shame as a reward for my loyalty to Platonic dogma. The second lesson was really just the application of one I already knew: the best defense is a good offense. Know the nitty-gritty details; and, if you don’t, just put someone else on the spot first.

precise man

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