Editorial note: while you procrastinate for another few weeks on your syllabus, this guest post from Theodora Kopestonsky can serve up some essential inspiration.
When I listen to the radio in the car, I am struck by the way modern songs reflect the same concerns that we see in antiquity. Different poems come to my mind and sometimes, if my brain is really tuned in and I’ve been reading a lot of Latin poetry, I’ll start to translate the lyrics. U2’s One (1991) does this to me all the time… “Ūnus amor, Ūnus sanguis, Ūna vīta…”
This got me thinking about how to incorporate pop music into the classroom and led to a pedagogy article about Latin love poetry. Beyond romantic relationships, Latin (and Greek) poetry talk about many other relevant issues like violence, war, loss, and more. Catullus, one of my favorite poets, also addresses a more mundane issue: lending money to a friend. In Catullus 103, the poet complains about Silus’ delay in repaying a debt.
aut sōdēs mihi redde decem sestertia, Sīlō,
deinde estō quamvīs saevus et indomitus:
aut, sī tē nummī dēlectant, dēsine quaesō
lēnō esse atque īdem saevus et indomitus.
Either give me back the ten grand please, Silus,
And then you can be a prick or whatever:
Or, if the money makes you happy, I beg you, stop
Being a pimp and be a prick again.
That’s a lot of money to trust to another person which explains why Catullus got so riled up and starts calling Silus names. Whether or not he actually lent the money or is just imagining a situation (which is very possible) is not important here. The point is the irritation and lack of funds at his current moment. Anyone who has given money to a trusted friend and then been burned can relate to the frustrating rage. I found that Rihanna echoes this concern more explicitly and violently in her 2015 song, Bitch Better Have My Money.
Y’all should know me well enough.
Bitch, better have my money!
Please don’t call me on my bluff.
Pay me what you owe me.
Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots, shots, shots
Like brrap, brrap, brrap (0:11-0:19, 0:43-0:50).
In posturing lyrics like Catullus, Rihanna calls out her friend, threatening violence, if the money is not returned. The deliberate spoken words emphasize the frustration of the singer. If the sentiment is that same, why not try to echo it in Latin. So, of course, I did.
Nunc bene mē cognōvistī
Scelesta, mea tibi redōnanda est pecūnia
Mē nē iubē dēmonstrāre, sōdēs
Da mihi quod mihi debēs.
Nōlī assimilāre tē oblīvitam esse, indīcō
ictūs, -tūs, -tūs, -tūs.
The first line echoes Catullus’ language in poem 72.5 where he says he knows Lesbia (nunc te cognovi). Scelesta returns from Catullus 8.15 to act as the invective, though canicula or canis could also be used. This line and the title of the song also provides the necessary pejorative name-calling also present in Catullus’ poem. I used a passive periphrastic (redōnanda est) to show obligation for the return of the money. Stationing pecunia at the end of the sentence also then mirrors Rihanna’s original placement of money. Imperatives in the next two lines express Rihanna’s demands. The short words create a nice staccato effect similar to the manner in which Rihanna sings. Constructing the negative command with nolle allows for a recognizable construction which eases into an indirect statement. The use of an onomatopoeia for gunshots in English creates an ominous mood. In order to reflect the similar repetition and emotion, I translated shot as an ictus which implies an arrow or spear hit as seen in verse (e.g. Ov. Met. 12.74).
The repetition of the shot and the sound of a strike is expressed with –tus which acts as an echo to the full word, but it also imitates the staccato of multiple projectiles hitting the mark or the recoil of a weapon such as a ballista after firing. Rihanna herself utilized syllable echoing at the end of a lyric in repeating “-ella” in her hit, Umbrella (2008). Moreover, the term ictus is used to indicate a rhythmic stress in poetry (or music) so it plays with the concepts already discussed (Becker). The repetition of me and mihi highlights the singer’s agency or role as it is highlighted in the original. Grammatically, this translation is deliberately straightforward (I am not a poet) but I think it is accessible for students of Latin still learning. Obviously, I’ve lost the meter here but, the placement of words and word choices can be relevant as I have shown.
While I did this as an example, just thinking about these transformations and translations can be really rewarding in or out of the classroom. It is a mental (or even class) exercise which challenges you to think beyond the Classical corpus. Why not give it a try or even ask your students to try? You can ask for song-poem parallels, simple translations done as a group, or more analytical reflections on composition. Stephen Kershner has provided excellent detailed guidelines on how to formally incorporate this type of Latin composition to a class. (He also furnishes a translation of Taylor Swift’s 2014 hit, Bad Blood.) Really, most songs can be converted into Latin, if you are willing to be creative. The process makes students understand better translation and word choices.
So next time you are in the car listening to the radio or reading poetry, maybe you’ll see a new connection. In creating and explaining adaptions, we all (students, teachers, enthusiasts) can learn a little bit more about Latin, our own culture, and the fact that no one likes late payment!
 Rihanna’s song is responding to a topic in rap music about pimps, but she is flipping the paradigm
Theodora Kopestonsky is a senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she is a supervisor for the Beginning and Intermediate Latin program. Her research focuses primarily on Greek religion and practice, Corinthian studies, and nymphs, but she regularly teaches Latin, Classical archaeology, myth, and ancient civilization courses.
In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.
Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.
Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.
The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognotaseries or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.
“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”
A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.
For the sake of argument (and acceding to science), let’s say that we should be preparing for one of the worst-case scenarios. While it would be great if all of us consumed less, recycled more, and gave up internal combustion engines, the fact is that late-stage capitalism is an out of control freight train which no single government or group of governments appears to have the will or the resources to slow down. The vast majority of all world carbon pollution is perpetrated not by billions of human beings making bad decisions each day, but by the profit-driven interests of a hundred corporations. We are not going to stop this with anything short of massive collective and revolutionary action.
“What is worst from bygone days provides the best safeguard for the future.”
In the meantime, maybe some of us should be looking past that destructive horizon to what comes next. I don’t do this cynically—there is a part of me that thinks the neo-fascist maniacs who are creating concentration camps and clamoring for border control now are rehearsing for the inevitable migrations caused by climate change and attempting to habituate an American populace to the murder and carnage needed to survive in that apocalyptic contraction scenario. By pursuing an insane set of policies, the very actors who deny climate change is happening are actively bringing it about. Yes, I do suspect there are those who would rather dehumanize and slaughter other human beings rather than make difficult decisions and sacrifice a standard of living now.
(And, truth be told, a disturbing number of Americans seem ok with this).
“if you find good luck in the time that is left
Perhaps it will be solace for the things in the past”
My question is: what are we of learned societies doing to plan for the collapse of the social and political infrastructure that has produced the deepest learning for the broadest number of people in the history of humankind? For those who study the ancient world and the way that earlier societies have dealt with change, we must ask ourselves what is the future of the past and what ability do we still have to shape it.
Asking this question, of course, leads to a series of ancillary concerns which in themselves are likely useful to debate. With only a little scrutiny, it is clear that this coming challenge is unlike anything we have faced before (with the exception, perhaps, of the Late Bronze Age Collapse as some have imagined it). To the contrary of popular imagination, antiquity never fell: instead, it went through a period of transformations, stalled cultural developments, geographical shifts, and technological change under the influence of new religions, mass migrations, social senescence and, perhaps, even climate change.
Indeed, to think about the “future of the past” we need to consider the “past” of the past and its present status. We have spent nearly 700 years ‘reconstructing’ a past that never actually existed. Take, for instance, the textual wealth contained within the Loeb Classical Library: no figure or library ever possessed all of this collective knowledge in one place prior to the 20th century. In fact, I would be hard pressed to imagine that there were more than a handful of individuals in the ancient world who had access to 20% of it.
As Classicists we often can be found lamenting everything we don’t have, the imagined texts we have lost and whose titles alone give some indication of their promise. But we do not often enough stop to consider how remarkable it is that we have as much as we do and how much we have intervened and produced since the Renaissance to create what we now consider Classical knowledge. Contemplating and then gaming out how to preserve the past we have now can help us better understand the processes that occurred over the past 1000 years and the extent to which they have created a tremendously biased if not mostly fictionalized view of the past.
“It is undoubtedly foolish to be unhappy today simply because you may be unhappy in the future.”
est sine dubio stultum, quia quandoque sis futurus miser, esse iam miserum, Seneca EM 3.3
There are, then, important differences between earlier epochal shifts and this. First, the “loss” of antiquity that occurred from the building of the first Museion at Alexandria, through its multiple burnings, civil wars in Rome, sacks of the city, the ‘decline and fall’ of the empire, and the sack of Byzantium by Christian crusaders, was a slow attrition and loss by neglect. If there were more texts and art works available in 200 CE than there were in 1200 CE, it is because (1) of what we are counting as mattering and (2) a generally higher standard of living and access to resources to a non-religious leisure class in the earlier period.
An unvarnished examination of the recovery of Classical knowledge must acknowledge that the Renaissance was not a recuperation of all of antiquity, but a selective curation of its remains. What we face with the next possible civilizational collapse is the loss of the knowledge that has been reconstructed and the tremendous body of work we have produced since then. Where a 15th Century humanist had but a handful of manuscripts of Homer to worry about, we have dozens plus the papyri fragments, plus the commentaries, original and edited scholia introductions, monographs, articles, and edited texts with critical apparatus we have created over centuries.
And that’s just Homer. I am not saying that I am turning full doomsday prepper on you, but I am saying that we should take the threat of civilizational collapse seriously and that it is not just within our remit as academic classicists to make some plans for how the material of the past might survive to benefit future generations and to provide a record of what came before our era, but it is our responsibility to be having these conversations now.
“I think that it is clear to everyone that it is not in our nature to predict the future”
Οἶμαι γὰρ ἅπασιν εἶναι φανερὸν ὅτι τὰ μέλλοντα προγιγνώσκειν οὐ τῆς ἡμετέρας φύσεώς ἐστιν, Isocrates, Against the Sophists 13.2
If we don’t, none of the scenarios look great. In many cases, 12th century CE Byzantine manuscripts and papyri (still buried) have a far better chance of surviving than the rapidly degrading and poorly printed books of the past 50 years. If we are to imagine that someone else might make these plans, we must consider who will do it instead. Should we leave it up to silicon valley disrupters? What works would they choose to preserve? Should individual universities be responsible? Will governments and libraries do the work? Should we hope that religious organizations will do this again? What choices would modern Christian sects make?
(Sidebar: when I was in elementary school we viewed the full series of Tomes & Talismans during library time each week. The central characters were librarians with a bookmobile; the threat were an alien species in a post-apocalyptic earth who were trying to wipe out accumulated human knowledge. They were called “The Wipers”.)
I think that it is probably best for professional organizations across linguistic and geographical territory to start to have this conversation. Most of our current output is currently stored in digital form across myriad platforms, with little concern for data degradation or recuperability. Not only are our blogs, tweets, open access articles, and personal correspondence at risk, but the very texts we have worked so hard to preserve, establish, and edit, are mostly in cheap, glue-bound paper versions. And this does not even begin to touch the challenges presented by material culture in a changing climate. Should we continue to excavate when climate change and geo-political stability threaten anything not under the earth? How does the possibility of future collapse change museum studies?
We need to talk about what will be preserved, how we will preserve it, who makes these decisions, and what aid we can store up for the historians of the future. We need to talk about the overlapping responsibility of universities, professional organizations, and governments to work together to preserve what we have won. And we need to make sure that voices from different backgrounds and experiences are central to this conversation
“Prudently the god covers the outcome of the future in dark night”
prudens futuri temporis exitum
caliginosa nocte premit deus, Horace Ars Poetica 25
Years ago, I used to teach a course called “Classical Myth and Literature”, which I think was originally designed as a bridge between straight up myth courses and more focused literature in translation offerings. I used it as a means to trouble the definitions of both myth and literature. One of the final essay questions asked students to imagine a flight from planet earth under the threat of alien invasion and to explain the choice of preserving either the corpus of 1990s pop songs or early Greek poetry (usually, specifically the Homeric Hymns). It was a fascinating assignment because students had to justify their answers using examples from the corpora. And, let me tell you, the pop songs were preserved nearly as frequently as the Hymns.
We are at a unique albeit horrifying moment in history. Perhaps the younger among us or the less thoroughly institutionalized will find ways to fight or forestall coming events. Those of us who are committed for better or worse to the study of the past even as the present crumbles around us need to start having hard conversations now before it is too late.
“For, it is right, Athenians, to use prior events as a guide about what will happen in the future.”
χρὴ γάρ, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, τεκμηρίοις χρῆσθαι τοῖς πρότερον γενομένοις περὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἔσεσθαι, Andocides, On the Peace with Sparta 2
“I’d be happy if I could ask you what kinds of books you like to read the most? Is it the works of Plato or Antisthenes, Archilochus or Hipponax? Or do you look down on these books because you prefer the orators?
Tell me, have you read Aeschines’ speech Against Timarchus? Or, do you know all those things and comprehend each of them but instead dip into Aristophanes and Eupolis? Have you even read The Baptai, the whole play? Did nothing in it change you and were you not embarrassed once you recognized what it was about? Someone might, in fact, be especially amazed at what kind of a spirit you have when you touch your books or what your hands are like when you unroll them.
When do you read? During the daytime? No one has seen you doing that! Is it at night then? Do you do it after you have given out orders to these guys or before? But in the name of Kotuos, don’t dare to do this kind of thing any more. Give up the books and pay attention to only your own affairs”
“I admit that I now have a bit of a different opinion from what I believed before. Perhaps it would be safest for my reputation to change nothing which I not only believed but also approved for many years. But I cannot endure knowing that I misrepresent myself, especially in this work which I compose as some help for our good students. For even Hippocrates, famous still for his skill in medicine, seems to have conducted himself very honorably when he admitted his own errors so his followers would not make a mistake. Marcus Tullius did not hesitate to condemn some of his own books in subsequent publications, the Catulus and Lucullus, for example.
Prolonged effort in research would certainly be useless if we were not allowed to improve upon previous opinions. Nevertheless, nothing of what I taught then was useless. These things I offer now, in fact, return us to basic principles. Thus it will cause no one grief to have learned from me. I am trying only to collect and lay out the same ideas in a slightly more sensible fashion. I want it made known to all, moreover, that I am showing this to others no later than I have convinced myself.”
Ipse me paulum in alia quam prius habuerim opinione nunc esse confiteor. Et fortasse tutissimum erat famae modo studenti nihil ex eo mutare quod multis annis non sensissem modo verum etiam adprobassem. Sed non sustineo esse conscius mihi dissimulati, in eo praesertim opere quod ad bonorum iuvenum aliquam utilitatem componimus, in ulla parte iudicii mei. Nam et Hippocrates clarus arte medicinae videtur honestissime fecisse quod quosdam errores suos, ne posteri errarent, confessus est, et M. Tullius non dubitavit aliquos iam editos libros aliis postea scriptis ipse damnare, sicut Catulum atque Lucullum et… Etenim supervacuus foret in studiis longior labor si nihil liceret melius invenire praeteritis. Neque tamen quicquam ex iis quae tum praecepi supervacuum fuit; ad easdem enim particulas haec quoque quae nunc praecipiam revertentur. Ita neminem didicisse paeniteat: colligere tantum eadem ac disponere paulo significantius conor. Omnibus autem satis factum volo non me hoc serius demonstrare aliis quam mihi ipse persuaserim.
“‘Collections,’ in scholastic sense, meant the college examination at the end of every term, at which the Abbot had always the worse than bad taste to be present as our inquisitor, though he had never once presided at our table as our host. Of course the collective quantity of Greek possessed by all the undergraduate heads in hall, was to him, infinitesimal. Scornful at once, and vindictive, thunderous always, more sullen and threatening as the day went on, he stalked with baleful emanation of Gorgonian cold from dais to door, and door to dais, of the majestic torture chamber — vast as the great council hall of Venice, but degraded now by the mean terrors, swallow-like under its eaves, of doleful creatures who had no counsel in them, except how to hide their crib in time, at each fateful Abbot’s transit. Of course I never used a crib, but I believe the Dean would rather I had used fifty, than borne the puzzled and hopeless aspect which I presented towards the afternoon, over whatever I had to do. And as my Latin writing was, I suppose, the worst in the university, — as I never by any chance knew a first from a second future, or, even to the end of my Oxford career, could get into my head where the Pelasgi lived, or where the Heraclidas returned from, — it may be imagined with what sort of countenance the Dean gave me his first and second fingers to shake at our parting, or with what comfort I met the inquiries of my father and mother as to the extent to which I was, in college opinion, carrying all before me.”
The Chronicle has another article out on the death of the humanities-—this opinion piece is one variation on the genre that blames humanists (mostly tenured professors) for their (our) failure to react and adapt to save the profession (in this case history departments). I am reluctant to critique the piece too much, because the authors are early career scholars and because they are not wrong. The last generation of professors tenured has failed in any ways to rise to the occasion and rally in defense of the humanities.
And I totally agree that what the authors conclude for the AHA is applicable to the other major organizations as well: “The AHA must instead adopt a more active role that challenges the casualization of labor that has degraded academic work. The jobs crisis is not natural; it is a crisis of political economy caused by a series of decisions made by corporate, governmental, and, yes, academic elites over the past 50 years.”
Before I say anything else, let me be unequivocal about this: our professional organizations have either been incapable or unwilling to agitate for needed changes in employment and professional life over the last two generations. We have especially failed the last two decades of PhDs, a majority of whom work in less favorable and endurable conditions than the generation before them (if they are lucky enough to work in the field at all). And, we have failed to acknowledge and understand the economic and demographic challenges ahead of us.
At the same time, we have failed to help our students and future colleagues understand the way things are and might be. Let’s think about the last line quoted above: the corporations and governments. Academic elites? Sure, they—we—are all complicit in the system. But I would hazard a guess that no amount of concerted effort by this class over the last 50 years would make a difference at all.
Professional organizations are not equipped, funded, or designed to combat the base problem: an economic and political system that values utility and profit over humanity. All the professional organizations and all the professionals of the humanities could unite and the economic power we wield would still be less than a Bezos or Koch.
The scarcity of the academic job market and the ostentatious leap in ‘standards’ for employment, retention and tenure over the past generation has turned academic careers into zero sum exercises. The desperation and alienation that attends us at nearly every stage of our careers conditions us to turn on each other, to blame those who are closest and more familiar, instead of taking hard looks at the system itself. We use our considerable training to turn censorious voices against the younger generation or to attack the lazy complicity of the older one. It is as if we are the sown soldiers from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, bewitched to assail one another and to never acknowledge the authors of our pain.
Based on the pabulum the Chronicle typically publishes, it does not surprise me that it would embrace and foster the kind of essay which leads the reader away from the systemic problems and towards the symptoms. It profits from perpetuating strife. The Chronicle’s nearly chronic administrative friendly and supply side reporting—when it is not salaciously reveling in scandals that make humanists look like fools—is indicative that it is reflective not of some professorial ideal or professional standard, but rather of the messy patchwork quilt of corporate and political interests that make up modern academia, combined as well with a 21st century’s news outlet’s desperation to print the news that gets the clicks.
“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”
“Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant, Seneca, Moral Epistles 88.20
Here’s the truth, as I see it. Only two things can subvert the trends that are turning higher education into vocational factories for the lower classes and finishing schools for the 1%: huge amounts of money and collective action. Professional organizations lack the first tool by several orders of magnitude; when it comes to the second, as faculty we are so blinded, bruised, and psychologically mutilated by the system that has shaped us, that it is almost inconceivable that we would walk out collectively to protest something happening to colleagues in another discipline at another institution.
Almost every week—if not every day—there are indications of where the power and priorities of higher education now lie. From the recent heist of the humanities and the soul of the University of Tulsa, to Stanford University’s decision to enforce financial austerity on its own press, Harvard out-raising its goals by 50% to yield 9.6 Billion new dollars and then claiming austerity to freeze wages and health benefits for graduate students, evidence for a foundational shift of budgeting models in education is everywhere. Students and faculty are often overwhelmed by budgetary detail, but the essential framework that guides our institution is something that we should care about.
The classic model of a university budget is the “everything in one bucket” model which assumes that the institution will pay for all of its expenses from the same pot of money. This allows “profitable” segments of the university to offset the costs of other units and communicates either financial incompetence or a commitment to supporting the core values of an academic community without worrying about line-item costs. More and more universities, however, are following models that demand each school or academic unit have a balanced budget, or, even worse, meet externally imposed projections of growth. These ‘business models’ when applied incompetently or insidiously almost inevitably destroy the humanities, as is happening with the slow death of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati.
While many Universities apply ‘hybrid’ models that try to balance institutional values against market demands (There are, of course, many models for university finance), the cumulative effect of proposing and then assuming and demanding that an educational institution work like a business will inevitably reduce Universities to massive displays of Coca Cola and Pepsi Products. We all know they are bad for us and, in truth, little different from each other, but we eventually buy them anyway. (But oh, wait, there’s artisanal soda at three times the price!)
Essays like the Chronicle’s that blame the players—even if we may be complicit, blind fools—and not the game actually work in service of the rhetorical regime that supports an oppressive dehumanizing system. The elegant rhetoric and fine argumentation are smoke and mirrors obscuring the fact that we don’t really understand the rules of the game. By blaming the historians and the field, we are claiming agency where we have none and making real action impossible.
Of course, when I tweeted about this last week, there was protest: