On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything

Editor’s note: The following essay is by Stefani Echeverria-Fenn, one of the founders of the Sportula. We are hosting it one year after the overt racism of the SCS Annual Meeting in San Diego.

When I was teaching Intro to Greek Literature, it was sometimes easy to tell the students who had lived a life of privilege, of safety. They were the ones who kept suggesting ways Oedipus could have averted his fate, bootstrap his way out of catastrophe if only he read the signs carefully enough. Not the ones who hated or judged Oedipus, but the ones who were genuinely confused, who kept earnestly suggesting better possible responses to the prophecy and all the devastation that would follow.

I imagine that some of these students might have the same deep bewilderment to see me now. Exactly one year ago, I was at the height of my fledgling career in Classics: I had just passed my penultimate PhD exam, founded the Sportula, and was heading down to San Diego to accept not one but two major awards for this work at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting. More precious to me than both those awards was my hard won stability after a lifetime of mental illness. On the road trip down I sent a long euphoric email to a former undergraduate mentor: “Two of my grad friends from Berkeley invited me on a road trip there!” I wrote. “This is also so meaningful because….they’re the kinda ppl who i feel never would have invited the crazy/unpredictable me of three years ago to be in a car with them for many hours/days—so I feel like I’m finally gaining some trust from these years of good behavior.”

The very next day, my co-founder would be racially profiled and Sportula embroiled in “political scandal” and deluged by racist trolls. The very next day, I would write to that same undergraduate mentor: “Again, we’ll never be believed bc I didn’t catch the worst of it on video and god knows the word of two psychiatrically disabled POC isn’t enough for credibility…I’m killing myself on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall anyway.

I would spend the next six months destroying my relationships with my Sportula co-founder, that mentor, and everyone else around me. On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall that June, I would be publicly wrestled to the ground and thrown into psychiatric restraints in front of several fellow grad students, after the person I had road tripped to the SCS with called the cops on me and told them I was a danger to myself.

This sounds awfully sordid and dramatic, but really, the details are mundane. Mental illness runs on both sides of my family. I was going to Break the Cycle, go to therapy, get on meds. I pursued all that, but even as I say it to myself I’m struck with a memory of both my parents mouthing the same thing.

Isn’t that why I fell so hard for Classics to begin with? In a cultural moment of the new, the innovative, a hyper-individualistic notion of “choice” and “the self-made man” within neoliberalism, it was the old poems that spoke to me. The ones that acknowledged that we are who we are only in the context of community, lineage, the heavy weight of both personal and collective histories. How sometimes, we lose: profoundly and without recourse.

François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipe et le Sphinx.jpg
François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipe et le Sphinx

Continue reading “On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything”

Podcasting Sophocles’ Antigone at UT Austin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophocles, Antigone 332–341

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast picture

The Shame of Mock Slave Auctions in Secondary Classics

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in a Virginia public school. She has published several collections of Latin mottoes online and has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on Twitter.

The Junior Classical League purports to foster interest in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome and is one of the largest academic clubs in the world with 50,000 members and 1,200 chapters. For the last six decades, JCL has also supported mock slave auctions as a source of entertainment. Humor derived from dehumanization and degradation have no place in our society, especially given our country’s shameful history of enslavement and other forms of systemic racism.

My essay should end here. Ideally, the notion of mock slave auctions in an organization sponsored by the American Classical League should prompt outrage, activism, and sustained action. Too often, though, this kind of racism is tolerated and normalized by those both inside and outside of secondary classics. Latin teachers and other stakeholders, even those who purport to care about social justice, often protect the field over individuals marginalized and harmed by patterns of racism and hostility in secondary Latin. 

We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the state of secondary Classics. We are in dire need of reform.

The Junior Classical League is a space so insulated from the realities of racism that slave auctions have been a common source of entertainment and fun for decades. In 2016, a story about a mock slave auction went viral after black audience members were subjected to this racist spectacle at an Illinois Junior Classical League convention. In a demonstrably deceitful response, the National Junior Classical League and the American Classical League claimed they “regret to hear of the incident” and that “this incident in no way reflects the values we have as an organization.” 

The Junior Classical League did not “hear of the incident,” they have organized, promoted and sponsored similar events for the better part of a century. In the 1950s, a teacher wrote in Classical Outlook, “One boy bought a pretty girl just to have her following him around… The club has been asked to repeat the auction in assembly before the whole school.” 


Slave auctions continue in the Junior Classical League, often sanitized with the branding “Rent-a-Roman.” The 2011-2012 National Junior Classical League scrapbook contains a picture of a “slave” posing with her “master at the annual Rent-a-Roman.” In 2012, an event affiliated with the California Junior Classical League included this description: “You can offer yourself up for sale or bid on the merchandise to purchase a companion/ money-servant for the rest of the lunch hour.” In 2014, a write up in the newsletter of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South include a teacher touting activities that included a “master/slave program.” The 2017 California Junior Classical League constitution included a reference to slave auctions as a fundraising opportunity: “Should a slave auction be held at the state convention, the money acquired shall go to the state scholarship fund.” In 2018, the Pennsylvania Junior Classical League newsletter contained a report on a Saturnalia event where club leaders are “auctioned off to serve as ‘slaves’ for the night… these individuals will be ordered around by their new masters to fetch food, sing, dance, and entertain.”

Mock slave auctions are just one example of a much larger, pervasive problem in secondary Classics that includes trivializing slavery and turning oppression, and the oppressed, into a source of humor. In 2017, Erik Robinson documented problematic portrayals of slavery in secondary text books. The National Latin Exam, which over 140,000 students take, is notorious for their regressive treatment of slavery and other forms of oppression (e.g. sexual assault). There are too many examples to list here, but one recent question echoed the racist myth of the loyal slave. Loyalty is predicated on autonomy and feelings of allegiance, which mitigates the culpability of enslavers and misrepresents the realities of slavery. 

loyal slave

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why slave auctions are racist and how this kind of humor, even in the context of ancient Rome, supports the messaging and strategies of white supremacy groups. Suffice it to say, these kinds of events are unethical and harmful. Recently, the New York attorney general’s office investigated a school for holding a slave auction, finding “that the teacher’s re-enactments in the two classes had a profoundly negative effect on all of the students present — especially the African American students — and the school community at large.” A student who witnessed the Illinois JCL slave auction told the Washington Post, “Since JCL is primarily white, they are so into their, like, white privilege, I guess, that they don’t know how they can affect minorities.”

The Junior Classical League has abused its monopoly and imposed a twisted value system on its members. JCL membership appeals to students looking to build their college resumes. And, many teachers are contractually required to sponsor a chapter. Our dues should not support this kind of culture. We should not cultivate students’ interest in this distortion of Classics.

The American Classical League has hired a diversity consultant, and in most of my correspondence with them, I am reminded of this fact. It is a positive step for the ACL to obtain the services of an outside expert, but a diversity consultant should be a small part of a larger strategy to eradicate racism from secondary Classics, not a standalone solution. As long as stakeholders in secondary Classics and our post-secondary colleagues protect the status quo through both action and inaction, this culture will persist and become even more toxic.

Concern for people affected by these systemic failures must trump the defense of the organization. ACL, JCL, NLE, and other affiliates exist to promote Classics. Nothing in the promotion of Classics should also include the promotion of racism and white supremacy, especially when hundreds of thousands of children are affected by the way the ACL has shaped the field. 

It is time for decisive action and commitment to change.

The co-chair of the National Latin Exam accused me in a late-night Twitter direct message of wanting a spectacle. I do not want a spectacle. (Perhaps that accusation was wishful thinking.) I want the culture of secondary Latin to stop supporting racism and narratives of white dominance.

This goal will take work, not just words. If you are interested in advocating against racism in Classics and want to know how to help, feel free to email me at dani.bostick@gmail.com 

Meanwhile, here are a few ways the American Classical League and its affiliates can begin to change the culture in secondary Classics. This list is far from exhaustive:

1)  Apologize for your role in perpetuating white supremacy and racism. Stop treating each instance of problematic content and practices as some sort of aberration. 

2)  Remove leaders and volunteers who have aggressively defended and perpetuated the status quo and who prioritize the interests and image of the organization over the well-being and safety of students.

3) Provide information to teachers about how to talk about white supremacy and dangerous appropriations of Classics. Our field has supported racist ideas and is used to legitimize hate and violence. We have a responsibility to equip students to recognize and counter these appropriations, even when they come from within our own field.

4) Remove all content immediately that is incompatible with the goal of “Classics for All” and release an accompanying statement that explains why the material was harmful. Do not legitimize offensive content and practices by engaging in a ‘both sides discussion’ and hiding behind procedure and tradition. Swift action and adherence to procedures are not mutually exclusive.

Colleagues in post-secondary Classics. Here are a few calls to action and points to consider: 

1) Find out if JCL held a mock slave auction on your campus. If so, apologize. Do not allow them on your campus. Fraternities have been suspended for holding slave auctions. It is even worse when they are held as entertainment in the context of an academic program for children. 

2) Formally condemn the practice of slave auctions and call on the Junior Classical League and, more broadly, the American Classical League, to own its uncomfortable past and repair the damage it has done through events like these and the culture they reflect. 

3) If you publish a newsletter or promote activities in secondary Latin, vet them before you provide a platform for abhorrent practices. There is no excuse for a “master/slave” activity to have been featured in a CAMWS publication (or any publication). 

4) Stay informed about what is going on in secondary Classics and hold organizations accountable for failures that affect both current students and the future of the field. 


My colleague Dr. Alex Ratzlaff and the Brandeis Techne Group at Autodesk carved this pumpkin, then 3D laser-scanned and rendered it with training from Ian Roy and the Brandeis MakerLab.

Talk about tekhne and partnerships! This is awesome and super meta. Also, it reminded me of Apocolocyntosis, Seneca’s neologism for “becoming a gourd” (Pumpkinification, his description for the apotheosis of poor Divus Claudius)

What would you call the digital apotheosis of a gourd?


Alex does really cool work and is going to start blogging about it. So, this is a preview. But, hey, it is also a season for pumpkins. (Werewolf week starts tomorrow.)

Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 4-5

“And he spat up his soul and then he seemed to stop living. He died, moreover, while he listened to comedians, so you understand that I do not fear them without reason. His final voice was heard among people as follows. When he emitted the greater sound with that part with which he spoke more easily, he said “Oh my, I shat myself I think”. Whether or not he did this, I do not know: but he certainly fouled up the place.

The things that were done next on earth are useless to report—for you certainly know it clearly. There is no risk that the memory left by public celebration will disappear—no one forgets his own joy. What was done in heaven, you should hear—the proof will come from the author!

It was announced to Jupiter that a man of certain good size had come, really grey. I don’t know what he was threatening, since he was constantly moving his head and dragging his right foot. When they asked what country he was from he responded with a confused sound and troubled voice—they could not understand his language. He was not Greek or Roman or of any other race.

Then Jupiter sent Hercules who had wandered over the whole earth and seemed to know every nation. He ordered him to go and explore what people this man was from. Then Hercules was a bit undone by the first sight because he had not yet feared all the monsters. As he gazed upon this new kind of a thing with its uncommon step, a voice belonging to no earth-bound beast but more like something coming out of a marine monster, coarse and wordless, he thought that he had arrived at a thirteenth labor. As he looked more closely, it seemed to him to be a man. Se he went up to him and said what comes easiest to a Greek tongue. “Who are you among men and from where? Where is your city and parents?”

Et ille quidem animam ebulliit, et ex eo desiit vivere videri. Exspiravit autem dum comoedos audit, ut scias me non sine causa illos timere. Ultima vox eius haec inter homines audita est, cum maiorem sonitum emisisset illa parte, qua facilius loquebatur: “vae me, puto, concacavi me.” Quod an fecerit, nescio: omnia certe concacavit.

Quae in terris postea sint acta, supervacuum est referre. Scitis enim optime, nec periculum est ne excidant memoriae quae gaudium publicum impresserit: nemo felicitatis suae obliviscitur. In caelo quae acta sint, audite: fides penes auctorem erit. Nuntiatur Iovi venisse quendam bonae staturae, bene canum; nescio quid illum minari, assidue enim caput movere; pedem dextrum trahere. Quaesisse se, cuius nationis esset: respondisse nescio quid perturbato sono et voce confusa; non intellegere se linguam eius, nec Graecum esse nec Romanum nec ullius gentis notae. Tum Iuppiter Herculem, qui totum orbem terrarum pererraverat et nosse videbatur omnes nationes, iubet ire et explorare, quorum hominum esset. Tum Hercules primo aspectu sane perturbatus est, ut qui etiam non omnia monstra timuerit. Ut vidit novi generis faciem, insolitum incessum, vocem nullius terrestris animalis sed qualis esse marinis beluis solet, raucam et implicatam, putavit sibi tertium decimum laborem venisse. Diligentius intuenti visus est quasi homo. Accessit itaque et quod facillimum fuit Graeculo, ait:

τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν, πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες;

Obscenity Watch: Walk Like an Egyptian

We are happy to have new contributions from the Fabulous Dr. Amy Coker. She shares a certain scatalogical interest, but brings considerable expertise to the matter.

This latest word is not to do with sex, but rather with another bodily action which is often a source of taboo words, excretion. More specifically, this post is about words I have been affectionately characterising as denoting ‘solid waste’ (or ‘poo’, ‘faeces’, etc.). One of the words in ancient Greek for the noun ‘poo’ is κόπρος (ko-pross), the word which gives us English scientific words beginning with ‘copro-‘ such as ‘coprolite’ – fossilised faeces – coined in the early nineteenth century.

Despite the unpleasantness of the substance κόπρος indicates, the word itself is not really ‘taboo’ or offensive, and is found in a range of Classical works from Homer’s epics to medical works in the Hippocratic corpus: κόπρος is milder in tone than the English four-letter word, ‘sh*t’. What sparked this post is an example in our ancient texts of a word similar to κόπρος – κόπριον (ko-pree-on). In technical parlance, this word is the stem κοπρ- plus the diminutive suffix -ιον (-ee-on): this last part is a segment which makes a word meaning the same thing as the stem, or a smaller version of it, or indicates affection from the speaker to the object (a bit like English ‘toe’, diminutive ‘toe-sie’).

The example of κόπριον we are interested in comes from a papyrus letter written in Egypt in the late 2nd or 3rd century AD, known as P.Oxy. 1761. Greek was the dominant language of Egypt for around a thousand years from the conquest of Alexander the Greek to the Arab conquest in the mid 7th century AD, so that fact that this letter is written in Greek in Egypt is not unusual. This letter is in other respects too typical of those written in vast numbers by individuals about everyday matters; these people are otherwise lost to history, but their correspondence by chance survives. (See picture for an example of what a papyrus letter looks like).

P.Oxy. 1672 Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, AD 37-41. Image courtesy of The Garstang Museum, University of Liverpool.
The first two lines read: Δημήτριος καὶ Παυσανίας Παυσαν[ί]αι | τῶι πατρὶ πλεῖστα χαίρειν καὶ ὑγι(αίνειν)- ‘Demetrius and Pausanias to their father Pausanias very many greetings and wishes for good health.’
It is lines 6-7 of P.Oxy. 1761 where the surprise lies: as Grenfell and Hunt put it in their edition in the early twentieth century, here ‘A very singular symptom of regret for an absent friend is specified’. Here is a full translation of the letter, as given by Montserrat’s Sex & Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1996, 8); the bold words are the ones which concerns us:

Callirhoë to her dear Sarapis, greetings. I say a prayer for you every day in the presence of the lord Sarapis. Since you have been away I go on the trail of your shit in my desire to see you. Greet Thermouthis and Helias and Ploution and Aphrodite and Nemesianus. Carabus and Harpocration greet you, and everyone at home. I pray for your health.

The Greek text which lies behind this ‘singular symptom of regret’ is: ἐπιζῃητοῦμέν σου τὰ κόπρια, literally, ‘I/we look for (or miss?) your κόπριον-s’ (κόπρια is the plural of κόπριον). There is no wandering about here, despite the impression the translation might give. A slightly more recent translation by Bagnall & Cribiore in their collection of women’s letters (2006, 392) renders these words as the striking ‘we are searching for your turds’.

Is Callirhoë really looking through the dunghill because she misses her friend? Even when we accept that ancient peoples did things differently, this seems a stretch. We could be tempted to think that this is an idiom peculiar to Egypt, perhaps stemming from a native expression, but there seems to be no obvious parallel (suggestions are welcome). I think rather the best explanation comes back to what κόπρος/κόπριον means.

Both these words are also used more broadly of ‘rubbish’, or things which can be taken away to be used as fertiliser: remember that most ancient waste was organic. κόπριον is found in this kind of sense in the Magical Papyri, an ancient collection of spells, where it is something picked up from the ground where a corpse has lain (PGM 4.1395-8, 4.1441-2). Dieter Betz translates this as ‘polluted dirt’, but the pollution comes only from the context of the spell.

I think here and in our letter we should rather take κόπρια as indicating ‘useless remains’ or ‘traces’, akin to English ‘crap’: note how ‘crap’ has just this double meaning of ‘excrement’ and ‘rubbish’ in contemporary UK English (e.g. ‘there is so much crap in my house’). The result is that Callirhoë is not looking for any particular bodily waste produced by her dear Sarapis, but rather for indications that she has been around: a rather loose translation of this sentiment might therefore be ‘I go through your crap wanting to find you there’.

Thanks to the Gartang Museum for use of the image of P.Oxy. 1672: follow the Museum’s blog at: http://garstangmuseum.wordpress.com.

Copyright © 2014/2019 Amy Coker. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Amy Coker has over the last decade held positions in Classics and Ancient History at the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol in the UK. After undergraduate studies in Classics at Downing College, Cambridge, and an MA in Linguistics at the University of Manchester, she was awarded funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council to support her doctoral work on gender variation in Ancient Greek (2007-2009, PhD Manchester 2010). She later secured a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship (2013-2016) for a project on Greek sexual and scatological vocabulary, and ancient offensive language. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Classical Studies, University of London (2017-2018), and is now an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Bristol (2018-), and teacher of Classics at Cheltenham Ladies College (2018-).

She has published work in the fields of historical linguistics, pragmatics, and classics, and has pieces about to appear on the treatment of obscene language in the most well-known lexicon of Ancient Greek, Liddell and Scott, and on a filthy joke told by Cleopatra involving a ladle.

She is a keen supporter of outreach and public engagement, and has worked with the UK charity Classics for All running projects to bring Latin and Greek teaching to schools which have no tradition of teaching these subjects. She can be found on Twitter at @AECoker.


Leave Your Homework to Sunday Night? Philo has Some Words for You

Philo, The Preliminary studies 29.166–7

There are those who, when they encounter the frights and horrors of the wilderness with total endurance and strength, finish the contest of life. They preserve life unsullied and unconquered, holding fast against the compulsions of nature like poverty, so that they can subdue hunger, thirst, cold, and heat and all the things which enslaves other people through the great abundance of their strength.

The cause of this is not simple toil but toil with a certain sweetening. For he says “the water is sweetened” and the work that is sweet and attractive is also called “love of labor” (philoponia). For in work the desire and longing and and love of finer things is sweet. Let no one turn away from this kind of suffering, nor let anyone believe that when the table of the feast and happiness is called “bread of suffering” it is for its harm rather than profit. For the soul which is chastened is fed by the instructions of education.”

οἱ δὲ τὰ φοβερὰ καὶ δεινὰ τῆς ἐρήμης πάνυ τλητικῶς καὶ ἐρρωμένως ἀναδεχόμενοι τὸν ἀγῶνα τοῦ βίου διήθλησαν ἀδιάφθορον καὶ ἀήττητον φυλάξαντες καὶ τῶν τῆς φύσεως ἀναγκαίων κατεξαναστάντες, ὡς πεῖναν, δίψος, [ῥῖγος,] κρύος, θάλπος, ὅσα τοὺς ἄλλους εἴωθε δουλοῦσθαι, κατὰ πολλὴν ἰσχύος περιουσίαν ὑπάγεσθαι. αἴτιον δὲ ἐγένετο οὐ ψιλὸς ὁ πόνος, ἀλλὰ σὺν τῷ γλυκανθῆναι· λέγει γάρ· “ἐγλυκάνθη τὸ ὕδωρ,” γλυκὺς δὲ καὶ ἡδὺς πόνος ἑτέρῳ ὀνόματι φιλοπονία καλεῖται. τὸ γὰρ ἐν πόνῳ γλυκὺ ἔρως ἐστὶ καὶ πόθος καὶ ζῆλος καὶ φιλία τοῦ καλοῦ. μηδεὶς οὖν τὴν τοιαύτην κάκωσιν ἀποστρεφέσθω, μηδ᾿ “ ἄρτον κακώσεως” νομισάτω ποτὲ λέγεσθαι τὴν ἑορτῆς καὶ εὐφροσύνης τράπεζαν ἐπὶ βλάβῃ μᾶλλον ἢ ὠφελείᾳ· τρέφεται γὰρ τοῖς παιδείας δόγμασιν ἡ νουθετουμένη ψυχή.

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Typing in Ancient Greek

Note: This is a collection of sites/tools to help students and enthusiasts. I am positing it because I frequently get the question and there is no simple answer

Typing ancient Greek on computers and hand-held devices is increasingly necessary, but remains more difficult than it needs to. I won’t regale you with horror stories of the days of symbol based fonts when every journal used a different format that required separate entry or converters.

Unicode has made things much easier because almost every font can potentially be Greek. But text entry can remain an issue for new Greek users. The main challenge for those of us with Roman letter keyboards is that we need to be able to use Polytonic Greek (Polytonic means “with many accents and diacritical marks”; most Greek keyboards are for the simpler modern Greek).

Just to clarify, then, the challenge is getting your device to assign the symbols you want to the keyboard you have and to modigy these symbols with diacritical marks (breathings, accents, etc.). If you are just copying and pasting things already used in Greek, you don’t actually need to change anything. But if you want to be a Greek Boss you need to change your keyboard settings.

Most devices already have settings that allow you to do this. (There are assistance utilities for those of us who have less patience/ability). Apple/MAC products tend to have simpler instructions, but sometimes still present challenges. PC/Android products can be annoying. But don’t get too frustrated–just imagine what it was like before computers!

Please add comments and I will add to the list.


1. A handout for polytonic Greek in a windows environment. Here’s the equivalent for doing it in an Apple one.

2. For iOS andd Android, Ryan Baumann suggests the Hoplite Polytonic Greek Keyboard. See also his page on the ChromeOs extension

3. A somewhat outdated online guide from Mt. Holyoke. Also see the resources at Penn State’s Symbol Codes or University College of London’s “Greek Fonts and Typing Greek

4. I use the Antioch utility. Campus antivirus programs will not allow it to be downloaded and installed. You need to do it from a private residence. I have not tried Keyman, but it looks promising. A similar utility mentioned by Mt Holyoke and Baumann for Apple products is SophoKeys (yay wordplay!). See also, Bill Thayer’s cyborg Typinator

5. If all else fails, you can cheat using online input pages: lexilogos, Greek.typeit. or typeGreek. A commenter has also suggested this inputter.

greek keys
I have this beautiful dinosaur in my office.

Note: I am certainly not the first to collect some of these resources. Here’s a twitter picture guide: