Scarcity, Precarity, and Simile: Reading the Iliad

Homer, Iliad 12.421-426

“But, just as two men strive over boundary stones,
As they hold their yardsticks in hand in a shared field
and they struggle over a fair share of the limited earth,
So did the fortifications separate them.
But over them still they struck one another
On their oxhide circles and winged shields.”

ἀλλ’ ὥς τ’ ἀμφ’ οὔροισι δύ’ ἀνέρε δηριάασθον
μέτρ’ ἐν χερσὶν ἔχοντες ἐπιξύνῳ ἐν ἀρούρῃ,
ὥ τ’ ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ ἐρίζητον περὶ ἴσης,
ὣς ἄρα τοὺς διέεργον ἐπάλξιες· οἳ δ’ ὑπὲρ αὐτέων
δῄουν ἀλλήλων ἀμφὶ στήθεσσι βοείας
ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους λαισήϊά τε πτερόεντα.

Schol. T ad Il. 12.423b

“This is about the intensity. For those who possess more might look down on [fighting like this?”

ex. ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ: εἰς ἐπίτασιν· οἱ γὰρ πλείονα κεκτημένοι ἴσως καταφρονοῦσιν. T

As some already know, I am a Homerist by practice and training, which means I have spent the better part of the past 20 years, reading, thinking, and writing about the Homeric epics. After all this, I am still regularly surprised by how much I don’t understand and often shocked by the fact that I have spent so many years doing just this, re-reading, being surprised, and then trying to learn something new.

The truth is, there was a time when I had little regard for the Homeric epics. I started reading them because I wanted to understand the ‘literature’ that followed them. About the same time I started reading Homer in the original, which was transformative on its own, I read both epics again in translation. The oceanic gap between the experience of the Greek and the translations rattled my confidence in my own aesthetic judgments (and in the act of translation).

But the difference between Homeric phraseology and Vergil (the Latin author with whom I had the most familiarity at the time) was striking: nearly every line of Homer is a self-contained unit of sense. Rather than being hypotactic (subordinating and delaying meaning), Homeric poetry is paratactic, building by adding. It is useful to know the language and stories of the Iliad before you start reading; but it is not necessary for enjoyment: the epic constructs itself in front of you as it tells its tale.

The simile above is one of the first things that I carried around with me everyday once I started reading Homeric Greek (I eventually made investigating it into a senior thesis). It is such a small, nearly forgettable moment. But its simplicity belies a compact and complex representation of the way Homeric poetry works and why it still matters.

In the middle of the battle over the walls the Greek have constructed against the resurgent Trojan defenders, the warring sides are compared to two men fighting over measuring their share of a common field. Even to this day, this comparison seems so disarmingly true as it reduces the grand themes of the struggles between Trojans and Greek, Agamemnon and Achilles, to that of two men over shared resources. The Iliad, at one level, is all about scarcity: scarcity of goods, of women, of honor, of life-time, and, ultimately, the scarcity of fame.

This simile works through metonymy to represent not just the action on the field of battle at this moment, but the conditions that prompt the greater conflict and those that constrain human life. It leaps through time and space and indicates how this poem differs from simple myths. The normal mortals who love this poem aren’t kings or demigods; we live small, sometimes desperate lives, the conditions of which are improved or exacerbated by how well we work together to make fair shares of our public goods.

The scholiast’s comments above, then, are doubly laughable. If I am reading them right (and the verb καταφρονοῦσιν without an object can be annoying), the commentator is imagining that these men in the simile are struggling over this small bit of land because they are poor and that wealthier men would not bother. Not only is this a tragic misunderstanding of human nature (wait tables or tend bar for only a few weeks and you will discover that the good tippers are not the wealthiest ones), but it is a poor reading of the epic, where the wealthiest and most powerful men alive are more than happy to keep fighting and ensuring that their people die.

The point of the simile is that it provides a meeting point between the actors of the poem and the worlds of the audiences; the line that separates imaginative story in the audience’s minds from the lives they live becomes permeable and the hero meets the mortal in the shared experience. This is how the world becomes a part of the story and how it also  shapes the poem.

Right after this, there’s another simile.

Iliad 12.427-438

“Many were struck across their flesh by pitiless bronze
Whenever they turned and bared their backs
As they struggled, although many were also struck through their shields.
The towers and walls were decorated everywhere with the blood
Of men from both sides, from Trojans and Achaeans.

Yet, they still could not force the Achaians to flee—
No, it held as when an honest weaving woman holds
The balance and draws out the weight and the wool on both sides
to make them equal so she might earn some wretched wage for her children.
So the battle and the war was stretched even on each side
Until Zeus gave the glory over to Hektor
Priam’s son, who first broke through the wall of the Achaeans.”

πολλοὶ δ’ οὐτάζοντο κατὰ χρόα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ,
ἠμὲν ὅτεῳ στρεφθέντι μετάφρενα γυμνωθείη
μαρναμένων, πολλοὶ δὲ διαμπερὲς ἀσπίδος αὐτῆς.
πάντῃ δὴ πύργοι καὶ ἐπάλξιες αἵματι φωτῶν
ἐρράδατ’ ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἀπὸ Τρώων καὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν.
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἐδύναντο φόβον ποιῆσαι ᾿Αχαιῶν,
ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα γυνὴ χερνῆτις ἀληθής,
ἥ τε σταθμὸν ἔχουσα καὶ εἴριον ἀμφὶς ἀνέλκει
ἰσάζουσ’, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα μισθὸν ἄρηται·
ὣς μὲν τῶν ἐπὶ ἶσα μάχη τέτατο πτόλεμός τε,
πρίν γ’ ὅτε δὴ Ζεὺς κῦδος ὑπέρτερον ῞Εκτορι δῶκε
Πριαμίδῃ, ὃς πρῶτος ἐσήλατο τεῖχος ᾿Αχαιῶν.

Schol D + bT ad Il. 12.433-435 ex.

“The equal balance of those fighting, [Homer] compared to the beam of a loom, again. For nothing is so precisely similar to an even balance. And the one weighing this out is not the mistress of the household—for she does not often trouble this much for so small an equal bit—nor is it one of the household maids—for they would not seek to make so precise a measure since they are fed by the household’s master and do not risk their nourishment if they mess up on the loom weights—but it is a woman for hire who must provide what is needed for living by the effort of her hands.”

ex. | D ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα<—μισθὸν ἄρη-ται>: πάλιν τὸ ἰσοπαλὲς τῶν μαχομένων παρέβαλε ζυγῷ· οὐδὲν γὰρ οὕτως ἀκριβὲς πρὸς ἰσότητα. καὶ ἡ ταλαντεύουσα οὐκ ἔστι δέσποινα οἰκίας (ταύτην γὰρ οὐ λυπεῖ πολλάκις τὸ παρὰ βραχὺ ἴσον), ἀλλ’ οὐδὲ θεραπαινίς (οὐ γὰρ αὗται ζητοῦσι τὸ ἀκριβὲς εἰς τοσοῦτον, ἅτε δὴ ὑπὸ τοῦ δεσπότου τρεφόμεναι b [BCE3E4] T καὶ οὐκ ἐν τῷ διαμαρτεῖν περὶ τὸν σταθμὸν κινδυνεύουσαι περὶ τροφήν), T χερνῆτις (433) δέ, ἡ χειρὶ τὰ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν πορίζουσα, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα (435) φησίν.

This passage has long  moved me too because, as with the earlier simile, the great ‘epic’ themes and images of war were reduced to something simple, daily, and completely understandable. Even in the ancient world where many members of the audiences probably had considerably more experience of violence than we do and where most aristocratic audience members would certainly have nothing but contempt for working for a living, many probably heard a crucial echo of their own lives in this surprising comparison.

I also appreciate the way that the scholiasts here home in on how dire this woman’s position is, making the dubious but nonetheless striking claim that the household servants led less precarious lives than the woman of the simile who draws the weight so precisely because her pay—and the lives of her children—depend upon it. In a crucial way, this simile evokes the same sense of scarcity as that of the men on the field—but it adds that an all too familiar anxiety from the precarity that emerges when one lives constantly with the sense of how scarce those things we value are.

It may seem a stretch, but the image of the weaving woman evokes for me the creative power of women presented elsewhere in Homer–Helen weaves the story of her own kleos, Penelope weaves shroud whose images are never revealed. In a way, the tension prepared by the woman’s hands within the simile is a comparison for the balance of war and a metaphor for an act of creation. The epic’s plot and the audience’s experience are similarly drawn out in the narrator’s hands.

Indeed, the scarcity and precarity evoked by this simile and the one that precedes it extends the transitional moment begun with the image of the farmers to create anticipatory tension in the audience. At the epic’s middle, before we move from book 12 to 13 and to the slaughter of the Achaeans at the ships, the balance hangs ever briefly before it breaks. Hektor surges through the Achaean fortification: the balance of action fails just as the balance of the plot will too—the story of Achilles’ withdrawal will now translate into the slaughter he asked Zeus to precipitate leading to the death of Patroklos, Hektor and, ultimately, Achilles too.

These similes stand at the middle of the poem and convey the sense of tension at the passing of this moment and the spinning of the tale itself. The nameless men and the nameless woman stand in contrast to the named heroes who will suffer and die in the following books. But they are also vehicles moving between the lives of the audiences and the heroes’ deeds marking off the small stakes for which all are struggling and the limited life by which we are all constrained.

 

 

Venetus A Book 12
Iliad 12, from the Venetus A Manuscript (via the Homer Multitext Project)

A Student Debt Proposal: Collect The Balance In Hell

Recent reports say we are hitting a tipping point for student loans. It is telling (and damning) that certain sectors consider student loans a crises only when delinquent payments reach a certain point. It was totally fine when two generations of students had their entire lives shaped by the cost of education….

This charming detail from Valerius Maximus might be the perfect rider for an education bill right about now…

Valerius Maximus, Wondrous Deeds and Sayings 2.6.10

“This ancient custom of the Gauls returns to my mind as I leave their walls: The story goes that they used to loan money which was scheduled to be repaid in the underworld, because they considered human souls to be immortal. I would call them fools if they didn’t believe the same thing wearing pants as Pythagoras did wrapped in his cloak.”

Horum moenia egresso vetus ille mos Gallorum occurrit,quo[s] memoria proditum est pecunias mutuas, quae iis apud inferos redderentur, da<ri soli>tas,  quia persuasum habuerint animas hominum immortales esse. dicerem stultos, nisi idem bracati sensissent quod palliatus Pythagoras credidit.

Image result for Ancient Roman Loans

 

Judging on Aspiration not Failure

Aelius Aristedes, Reply to Plato 259-260

“Some of them certainly corrupted people while others blasphemed the gods; there were those who gave speeches which would have been better unsaid and others who produced more audacity than good sense. But it may not be the best to say that if some people use the excuse of philosophy and become scoundrels who are no better than most people or, by Zeus, even more clever at doing evil, then we should dishonor philosophy, provided that philosophy is not doing these sorts of things. Instead, we must use these things as evidence against them, that they have failed at philosophy.

In the same way, it does not make oratory worse if some people use blandishment or abuse, but we must recognize in this that they are bad at rhetoric just as the other people fail at philosophy, they all use the excuse of the noblest action to furnish themselves with the opportunity to do evil.

It would be odd if we were to judge actions of cobblers and carpenters not from their mistakes but instead from examples where they did as well as humanly possible, but we evaluate oratory not just from its greatest accomplishments, but instead according to those who do the opposite of what oratory intends.”

ὧν οἱ μὲν διέφθειραν δήπου τινάς, οἱ δ’ ἐβλασφήμησαν περὶ θεούς, οἱ δὲ λόγους ἄλλους τινὰς εἶπον, οὓς οὐκ ἄμεινον ἦν ὅλως, οἱ δὲ αὐθαδείας πλέον ἢ φρονήσεως εἰσηνέγκαντο. ἀλλὰ μὴ οὕτω βέλτιον ᾖ λέγειν, ὅτι οὐκ, εἴ τινες φιλοσοφίας προβλήματι χρώμενοι φαῦλοι καὶ μηδὲν βελτίους τῶν πολλῶν γεγόνασιν, ἢ νὴ Δία καὶ δεινότεροι κακουργεῖν, οὐ διὰ ταῦτα ἀτιμαστέον φιλοσοφίαν, ἕως ἂν φιλοσοφία μὴ τὸ τὰ τοιαῦτα ποιεῖν ᾖ, ἀλλ’ αὐτοῖς τούτοις τεκμηρίοις χρηστέον κατ’ ἐκείνων, ὅτι διημαρτήκασι φιλοσοφίας. οὐδὲ εἴ τινες, οἶμαι, κολακεύουσιν ἢ συκοφαντοῦσιν, χείρω τοῦτο ποιεῖ ῥητορικήν, ἀλλ’ ἡμαρτηκότας αὐτοὺς ῥητορικῆς ταύτῃ γε ταῦτα δεῖ δοκεῖν, ὥσπερ ἐκείνους φιλοσοφίας, ἐπὶ τῷ τοῦ καλλίστου προσχήματι τὴν τοῦ κακουργεῖν ἄδειαν ἑαυτοῖς ἐκπορίζοντας. ἄτοπον δ’ ἂν εἴη, εἰ τὰ μὲν τῶν σκυτοτόμων καὶ τῶν τεκτόνων ἔργα μὴ ἐξ ὧν ἂν διαμάρτωσι κρινοῦμεν, ἀλλ’ ἐξ ὧν ἂν ὡς δυνατὸν μάλιστα τύχωσιν, ῥητορικὴν δ’ οὐ μόνον οὐκ ἐκ τῶν κάλλιστα αὐτὴν ἀποτελεσάντων κρινοῦμεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐκ τῶν αὐτὰ τἀναντία πραττόντων οἷς ἡ ῥητορικὴ βούλεται.

 

Image result for medieval manuscript cobbler
Ott Norlinger (1476) from the Hausbuch of the Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung (Neurenberg, Germany). Folio 96 recto

An Awkward Letter about Not Getting Letters

In our day and age, this might instead be a text message or a tweet to someone in a position of authority. But this letter is from Libanius to Julian the Apostate, Roman Emperor and our personal (anti-?)hero:

Ep. 86

“Even if you don’t send me letters, I still dine on your words. For whenever someone else gets one, we hear about it and immediately read it, either by persuading or overpowering the unwilling recipient. So, my profit is no less than theirs even though it is only their right to be honored. I would also ask for honor, for some love-token from you. For, clearly, if you would honor me in any way, you wouldn’t do it without love.”

Ἀλλ᾿ εἰ καὶ μὴ πρὸς ἡμᾶς ἐπιστέλλεις, ἡμεῖς γε τοῖς σοῖς ἑστιώμεθα γράμμασιν. ὅταν γὰρ ὅτι τις ἔλαβε μάθωμεν, εὐθὺς ἡμεῖς πλησίον καὶ ἢ πείσαντες ἢ κρατήσαντες ἀκόντων ἀνέγνωμεν.τὸ μὲν οὖν κέρδος οὐχ ἧττον ἡμῶν ἢ ᾿κείνων, τὸ τετιμῆσθαι δὲ παρ᾿ ἐκείνοις μόνοις. ἐρῶμεν δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ τιμῆς, ἐπειδὴ καὶ φίλτρου τοῦ παρὰ σοί. δῆλον γὰρ ὡς, εἴ τι τιμήσεις, οὐκ ἄνευ γε τοῦ φιλεῖν τοῦτο ποιήσεις.

Image result for Julian the Apostate

Libanius Goes Straight-Up Nativist

Libanius, Oration 2.65-67

“Although I have especially considered the affairs of the whole world my own business, whether bad or good, and I have become the kind of person which fortune has made me, one who loves the world is not worthy of hatred.

So, if someone should restrain me just to taking care of the city which produced me, then this state would seem to be suffering misfortune because of the many immigrants who leave their own cities and homes to come here. Well, that’s if they really have homes they would be brave enough to see even in dreams, these foreigners who think it right to overpower citizens, despite fearing that the emperor might make a law to examine their unexpected wealth.

It is not enough for them to have what is ours, but if anyone dares to blame their good luck, they get enraged and anyone who complains is annoying. When you are the kind of people you are, how is it not terrifying to meet this limit to your freedom of speech?”

Μάλιστα μὲν οὖν τὰ τῆς οἰκουμένης ἁπάσης ἐμαυτοῦ νενόμικα βελτίω τε καὶ χείρω, καὶ γίγνομαι τοιοῦτος οἷον ἄν με ποιῶσιν αἱ ἐκείνης τύχαι, μισεῖσθαι δὲ ὁ φιλῶν τὴν οἰκουμένην οὐκ ἄξιος.

εἰ δ᾿ οὖν | καὶ κατακλείοι μέ τις εἰς τὴν ὑπὲρτῆς ἐνεγκούσης πρόνοιαν, ἀτυχεῖν μοι δοκεῖ ταῖς μετοικίαις αὕτη πολλῶν τινῶν οἳ τὰς αὑτῶν καταλιπόντες πόλεις καὶ οἴκους, εἰ δὴ καὶ οἴκους καὶ R οὐδ᾿ ἂν ὄναρ ἡδέως ἰδόντες οὗπερ ἔφυσαν, | ξένοι πολιτῶν κρατεῖν οἴονται δεῖν τρέμοντες1 μὴ νόμον θῇ βασιλεὺς εἶναι τῶν παραδόξων πλούτων εὐθύνας.

οἷς οὐκ ἐξαρκεῖ τὰ ἡμέτερα ἔχειν, ἀλλὰ κἂν αἰτιάσηταί τις τὴν Τύχην θυμοῦνται, καὶ βαρὺς ὁ μεμψάμενος· τὸ γὰρ εἰς τοῦθ᾿ ὑμᾶς ἥκειν παρρησίας ὄντας οἷοίπερ ἐστέ, πῶς οὐ πάνδεινον;

Ken Cuccinelli, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Manuscript in the public domain
Bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty with the text of the poem
This image was originally posted to Flickr by melanzane1013 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/25847577@N00/424831215. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

O Leonardo, Validate Me!!!

Giovanni Marrasio, Angelinetum (IX):

To that most eloquent and erudite man, Leonardo Bruni:

It was the habit among the ancients, when they wished to try their mental powers, to mingle often with the learned. No one was ashamed to listen to wise Marcus Cato, and plenty a crowd followed Aristotle – but I follow you. You are a prophet most celebrated throughout the world, the most distinguished orator, a speaker at the forefront of his art. Leonardo, look kindly upon me – I adore you like a god, for Apollo has yielded his lyre to you. Let it not be a source of regret to have read my book with a favorable eye, and do not be pained by the trifles you find therein. Oh, if only I could compose the sort of verses about you which Vergil and Callimachus brought forth! If the ancient poets wrote their songs to Maecenas, Maecenas was worthy of their song. If the words which I have written are pleasing to your mind, I will live everlasting as an old man through many generations, with you as my guard. So farewell – I will publish these idle scribblings once you have given them a final rounding-off. If not, the papyrus will be closed in a box. If the hateful bookworm doesn’t ruin it first, the pharmacist will wrap his pepper in its leaves.

https://www.firenze-online.com/img/artisti/foto-brunileonardo3.jpg

Ad eloquentissimum et eruditissimum virum Leonardum Arretinum.

Mos erat antiquis, sua quom trutinare volebant

Ingenia, ad doctos saepe coire viros.

Marcum non puduit sapientem audire Catonem

Multaque Aristotelem turba secuta fuit.

Te sequor: es toto vates celeberrimus orbe,

Orator summus, rhetor in arte prior.

Arretine, fave, te tamquam numen adoro:

Namque tibi placidam cessit Apollo liram.

Paeniteat nec te blando legisse libellum

Lumine, nec nugas inde dolare meas.

O utinam de te possem componere versus,

Quales Virgilius Callimachusque tulit!

Si ad Maecenatem veteres scripsere poetae

Carmina, Maecenas carmine dignus erat.

Si  < sunt >  grata animo quae scripsi verba, perennis

Auspice te vivam tempora multa senex.

Ergo vale, et nugas, postquam limaveris, edam;

Si minus, in cista clausa papirus erit,

Quae cito si tinea non obtundetur iniqua,

Vestiet ex chartis pharmacopola piper.

Be Smart, Don’t Fart: The Pythagorean Prohibition on Beans

Cicero, de Divinatione 1.30:

“Plato therefore encourages people to go to sleep with their bodies thus disposed that there be nothing which could introduce any wandering from or disturbance of sleep. From which it is thought that the Pythagoreans prohibited the consumption of beans, because that food causes a great flatulence which is contrary to the tranquility of a mind seeking the truth.”

Post image
Chen Wenling, What You see Might Not Be Real

Iubet igitur Plato sic ad somnum proficisci corporibus adfectis, ut nihil sit, quod errorem animis perturbationemque adferat. Ex quo etiam Pythagoreis interdictum putatur, ne faba vescerentur, quod habet infiationem magnam is cibus tranquillitati mentis quaerenti vera contrariam.