Plutarch has Erotic Stories: They’re Not What You’d Think

A terrible love story for Women’s History Month

Plutarch, Erotic Stories, Moralia 771

“In Haliartos in Boiotia, there was a certain girl of surpassing beauty whose name was Aristokleia. She was the Daughter of Theophanes. Stratôn the Orkhomenian and Kallisthenes the Haliartian were both wooing her.

Stratôn was wealthier and was somewhat more taken with the virgin. For he happened to see her once when she was bathing in the fountain Herkunêin Lebadeia. For she was making reading to carry a basket for Zeus the king. But Kallisthenes was closer to winning her, for he was related to her.

Theophanes was at a loss in the matter—for he was fearing Stratôn he stood apart from nearly all the Boiotians because of his family and wealth. He was planning on getting advice about the choice from Trophonios. Stratôn, however, was convinced by the girl’s servants that she was leaning towards him, so he considered it best to have the girl to be married make the choice. But when Theophanes asked his daughter in front of everyone, she chose Kallisthenes. It was clear that Stratôn took the dishonor badly.

After a period of two days, he approached Theophanes and Kallisthenes, saying he wanted to preserve their friendship, even if he had been denied the marriage by some envious god. They praised what he said and asked him to come to the feast for the wedding. But he, once he had gathered a mob of his friends and no small a retinue of servants which were distributed among the attendees unnoticed, waited until the girl wen to the Spring Kissoessa to make the customary sacrifice to the local nymphs. There, all the men who were in ambush rushed out and grabbed her. Stratos had gained a hold of the virgin. Kallisthenes, as one might expect, grabbed her in turn and those with him were helping. They all pulled on her until she died without them knowing, stretched to death in their hands.

Kallisthenes was out of sight immediately, either because he killed himself or left Boiotia as an exile. No one is able to say what happened to him. But Stratôn killed himself openty over the maiden.”

Ἐν Ἁλιάρτῳ τῆς Βοιωτίας κόρη τις γίνεται κάλλει διαπρέπουσα ὄνομα Ἀριστόκλεια· θυγάτηρ δ᾿ ἦν Θεοφάνους. ταύτην μνῶνται Στράτων Ὀρχομένιος καὶ Καλλισθένης Ἁλιάρτιος. πλουσιώτερος δ᾿ ἦν Στράτων καὶ μᾶλλόν τι τῆς παρθένου ἡττημένος· ἐτύγχανε γὰρ ἰδὼν αὐτὴν ἐν Λεβαδείᾳ λουομένην ἐπὶ τῇ κρήνῃ τῇ Ἑρκύνῃ· ἔμελλε γὰρ τῷ Διὶ τῷ βασιλεῖ κανηφορεῖν. ἀλλ᾿ ὁ Καλλισθένης γε πλέον ἐφέρετο· ἦν γὰρ καὶ γένει προσήκων τῇ κόρῃ. ἀπορῶν δὲ τῷ πράγματι ὁ Θεοφάνης, ἐδεδίει γὰρ τὸν Στράτων πλούτῳ τε καὶ γένει σχεδὸν ἁπάντων διαφέροντα τῶν Βοιωτῶν, τὴν αἵρεσιν ἐβούλετο τῷ Τροφωνίῳ ἐπιτρέψαι· καὶ ὁ Στράτων, ἀνεπέπειστο γὰρ ὑπὸ τῶν τῆς παρθένου οἰκετῶν, ὡς πρὸς αὐτὸν μᾶλλον ἐκείνη ῥέποι, ἠξίου ἐπ᾿ αὐτῇ ποιεῖσθαι τῇ γαμουμένῃ τὴν ἐκλογήν. ὡς δὲ τῆς παιδὸς ὁ Θεοφάνης ἐπυνθάνετο ἐν ὄψει πάντων, ἡ δὲ τὸν Καλλισθένην προύκρινεν, εὐθὺς μὲν ὁ Στράτων δῆλος ἦν βαρέως φέρων τὴν ἀτιμίαν· ἡμέρας δὲ διαλιπὼν δύο προσῆλθε τῷ Θεοφάνει καὶ τῷ Καλλισθένει, ἀξιῶν τὴν φιλίαν αὐτῷ πρὸς αὐτοὺς διαφυλάττεσθαι, εἰ καὶ τοῦ γάμου ἐφθονήθη ὑπὸ δαιμονίου τινός. οἱ δ᾿ ἐπῄνουν τὰ λεγόμενα, ὥστε καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν ἑστίασιν τῶν γάμων παρεκάλουν αὐτόν. ὁ δὲ παρεσκευασμένος ἑταίρων ὄχλον, καὶ πλῆθος οὐκ ὀλίγον θεραπόντων, διεσπαρμένους παρὰ τούτοις καὶ λανθάνοντας, ἕως ἡ κόρη κατὰ τὰ πάτρια ἐπὶ τὴν Κισσόεσσαν καλουμένην κρήνην κατῄει ταῖς Νύμφαις τὰ προτέλειαCθύσουσα, τότε δὴ συνδραμόντες πάντες οἱ λοχῶντες ἐκείνῳ συνελάμβανον αὐτήν. καὶ ὁ Στράτων γ᾿ εἴχετο τῆς παρθένου· ἀντελαμβάνετο δ᾿ ὡς εἰκὸς ὁ Καλλισθένης ἐν μέρει καὶ οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ, ἕως ἔλαθεν ἡ παῖς ἐν χερσὶ τῶν ἀνθελκόντων διαφθαρεῖσα. ὁ Καλλισθένης μὲν οὖν παραχρῆμα ἀφανὴς ἐγένετο, εἴτε διαχρησάμενος ἑαυτὸν εἴτε φυγὰς ἀπελθὼν ἐκ τῆς Βοιωτίας· οὐκ εἶχε δ᾿ οὖν τις εἰπεῖν ὅ τι καὶ πεπόνθοι. ὁ δὲ Στράτων φανερῶς ἐπικατέσφαξεν ἑαυτὸν τῇ παρθένῳ.

File:Pyxis01 pushkin.jpg
Wedding Preparation Vase, Wikimedia Commons

Some Things Were Published…: Works from 2018

Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.2

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness.)

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum

 

How does one say “self-promotion” in Latin and Greek? When not posting on this blog, I (Joel P. Christensen) do write other things. The last year was a busy one. Here’s a list. If you’re interested and have institutional access to the work, please use it! If you don’t have institutional access and want an off-print, send me an email (joel@brandeis.edu).

A Book:

With Erik Robinson, The Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice: Introduction, Translation and Commentary  Bloomsbury

BM

 

On-Line, off this blog

with Matthew Sears, “The Overlooked Messages of the Sokal-Squared Hoax.” Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 30, 2018.

with Erik Robinson, “A Regular Roman’s Guide to the Worldcup Semi-Final Match.” Society for Classical Studies, Blog. July 10, 2018.

 

Articles

“Eris and Epos: Composition, Competition and the ‘Domestication’ of Strife.” YAGE  2: 1–39.

Here’s the publisher’s link. Here’s an uncorrected proof.

“The Clinical Odyssey: Odysseus’ Apologoi and Narrative Therapy.” Arethusa 51: 1–31.

From Project Muse. Here’s much inferior version before proofs.

 

Chapters in Things:

“Human Cognition and Narrative Closure: The Odyssey’s Open-End.”  In The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Cognitive Theory, Peter Meineck, ed.  Routledge. est. 2018.

This whole collection looks great (it grew out of a conference at NYU).

Image result for The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Cognitive Theory

“Speech Training and the Mastery of Context: Thoas the Aitolian and the Practice of Múthoi” for Homer in Performance: Rhapsodes, Narrators and Characters, Christos Tsagalis and Jonathan Ready (eds.). University of Texas Press, 2018: 255–277.

Another good collection. And, less pricey than some academic books!

Image result for Homer in Performance: Rhapsodes, Narrators and Characters

“Learned Helplessness, the Structure of the Telemachy and Odysseus’ Return.” in conference proceedings, Psychology and the Classics, Jeroen Lauwers, Jan Opsomer and Hedwig Schwall (eds.): 129–141.

This is a great collection too.

Image result for Psychology and the Classics, Jeroen Lauwers, Jan Opsomer and Hedwig Schwall

 

 

Seneca’s Hiring Advice

Seneca, De Ira 8. 4-6

“There are many people who will do the same for different reasons. An arrogant man offends you with his scorn, a bitter man uses an insult, the petulant causes an injury; a spiteful man is malicious while a pugnacious man is contentious and the windbag liar is vain. You will not tolerate being feared by a suspicious man, beaten by a stubborn one, or looked own upon by a delicate man.

Choose honest, easy-going, even-tempered people who do not inspire rage and yet endure it if it comes. More advantageous than these are those who are submissive, kind, and even sweet-tempered—but not so bad that they fawn on you since too much toadying upsets temperamental men. There was a friend of mine, who was a good man, but easy to anger, whom it was no safer to praise than to mock”

Multi ex variis causis idem facturi: offendet te superbus contemptu, dicax contumelia, petulans iniuria. lividus malignitate, pugnax contentione, ventosus et mendax vanitate; non feres a suspicioso timeri, a pertinace vinci, a delicato fastidiri. Elige simplices, faciles, moderatos, qui iram tuam nec evocent et ferant. Magis adhuc proderunt summissi et humani et dulces, non tamen usque in adulationem, nam iracundos nimia assentatio offendit. Erat certe amicus noster vir bonus, sed irae paratioris, cui non magis tutum erat blandiri quam male dicere.

 

Image result for medieval manuscript anger
Book of Hours, MS M.1001 fol. 88r

Classics and Theory: A Monday Rant

This is a slightly adapted and expanded edition of my #classicsandtheoryrant from twitter

One of the things I love about social media is that it has allowed me to connect with people who love the Classics and know a lot about it all over the world. Some of these people have ‘credentials’ and experiences similar to mine, but many do not. Across the board, I try to ignore these conventional markers of intellectual authority on twitter etc. and just listen to what people say. And, really, I have learned a lot.

But one thing that has been increasingly frustrating  over the past year is a small but insistent chorus of voices who insist that Classics is being ruined by “post-modern theory”. Generally, these voices come from outside the traditional academy or from more conventional corners within them. But most often they represent ‘threatened constituents’ of the modern world–by which I mean people who also object to ‘diversity’, ‘political correctness’ and a whole bunch of buzzwords and phrases that are popular media shorthand for a world that is not dominated by traditional, male, Eurocentric perspectives. (And, you know, white supremacists. This does not mean that all anti-theory people are white supremacists, so, dude, chill.)

This is in part frustrating because I thought we were past this. I know this is naïve and I know that Classics is way behind other disciplines in the aggregate when it comes to using critical theory, but we have long had a small and influential group of people pushing our field to respond to the modern world and engage with new ideas.

But it is also infuriating because it attests to an essential fragility (also, read this if the term is upsetting). Is our confidence in the way we have received the past so shaky that it can brook no challenge? Often, the knee-jerk or even committed aversion to theory is really a desire to exclude others. I almost respect those supremacists more because they at least admit it. (But let me be clear, I really, really don’t like ethnonationalists and white supremacists.)

Engagement with theory is critical because it acknowledges that as interpreters we are subjects who are shaped by our experiences and the narratives and discourse through which culture shapes us based on our gender, sexual identity, race, (dis)abilities, age, etc. Our bodies are not instruments we drive through the world, they are part of us and mediate our experience of everything. The world treats us differently based on the bodies we inhabit. These two facts shape the way we respond to everything.

Acknowledging the primacy of subjectivity is only one part of modern theory which is dismissed. I won’t even bother listing all of the theoretical approaches that have helped us understand the ancient world better. It is a type of retrograde derangement not to use new tools to look at old things. Imagine if people were railing against the use of spectral imaging in archaeology or the application of new chemical testing or any one of a range of technologies that have developed over the past generation. We would all be incredulous.

Many of the same people, however, who champion what aDNA testing might tell us about ancient peoples, also deny the validity of applying new tests to ancient literature and culture which have been developed in respectable fields like anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, English, sociology, and others. The reason for this is clear: the process tells different stories about the past than many of us were raised with. This is uncomfortable.

If art does not make us uncomfortable or question the past at all, then it is merely entertainment. Scholarship that merely repeats or reinforces what we already know is essentially masturbatory.

The argument over who gets to interpret the past and how is political. “Post-modern” is a catch-all phrase for many different approaches which are dismissed by conservative traditionalists. This argument raged through the field in the 1980s as Eric Adler documents well.  There was another major flare up with the Who Killed Homer? nonsense. I think we might have missed a renewal of these complaints in the late 2000s because of the severe economic downturn.

But this debate is all about power: The power to interpret and possess meaning; The power to have meaning in the world; The power to be a full and equal subject in a flawed society. Such striving has been going on since some literary theorists had the gall to imagine that texts were more than pristine aesthetic objects with timeless secrets for the properly initiated to unlock.

I have a few simple points to make in closing. The first is that scholarship is not a zero-sum game. Applying new theoretical frames does not wipe out the old ones or render them useless. If we apply the analogy of biodiversity to ideas, then the more voices and ideas we can explore within a productive system, the more variety and understanding we can get out of it. This is destined to be chaotic and painful, but it is creative and exciting.

New ideas build upon older ones. Some gain purchase for more than a few years become part of the tradition. Some ideas are as Glaukos says like leaves on the tree which grow for a brief time and then wither and die. Others somehow become evergreen, in the moment we cannot know. We can argue for what we believe and push back against other ideas—but we need to acknowledge that sometimes our need to push back against other ideas is driven by a desire to exclude people not the ideas.

A second point which is by no means original is that you can love something and see that it might be bad for something or need to change. E.g. chocolate cake is delicious, but it can kill you. Cigarettes are delightful, but they will give you cancer. Anything made by humans is imperfect because we are not perfect. Saying the Homeric epics are misogynistic or using Marxist theory to show how they (re-)produce structural oppression does not erase their beauty or their impact. Instead, it shows that their beauty may also have a harmful impact. It helps us understand how they work and how we work as human communities.

And if you cannot love something flawed, you simply cannot love. Let go of the Platonic nonsense of perfection in the mind of a distant god. Real, human love embraces the ways in which we are flawed and celebrates that despite the horror, baseness, and temporariness which is our inheritance, we are still capable of beauty.

A third point is also not original: all methods of interpretation are ideological and have a theory. If the theory is not explicit, that does not mean it is not there. It means it is naïve and unquestioned. Philology is a means not an end. We classicists are trained in philology so we don’t make basic mistakes and we can distinguish good arguments from bad ones. But we are at a point in the production of knowledge that no one can learn everything which is required to understand the ancient world. We need to work together. We need polymathy and polyphony.

The practice of classics as developed in Europe around the enlightenment is ideologically connected to a particular time, a set of bodies and languages, and a cultural apparatus distinct from ancient Greece and Rome. The ‘Classics’ created by the Renaissance and Enlightenment is not coterminous with the beliefs, practices, and texts of actual Greece and Rome. In a way, to emulate a 19th century German classicist in everything is little different from strapping on some leather armor and LARPing at a Renaissance Faire. Both are fun and can require a lot of expertise. But both are still play-acting.

It is not ‘authentic’ or ‘correct’ to treat ancient texts in this way any more or less than it was authentic and correct for Plotinus and Porphyry to say the Odyssey is an elaborate allegory for the mind.

All reading is reception. All interpretation is ideological. Being explicit about our ideological receptions helps us communicate better with each other and through the generations.

When we allow new perspectives and viewpoints, we enrich our reception of the past. Some of this enrichment might turn out be misleading or start out as bewildering; indeed, it might be only temporarily insightful. But striving to make new sense of the old, to try to surpass those who have already labored, is better than sucking on the marrow of corpses and wallowing in mute ash.

Миниатюры.: philologist
f. 305v. The Fouquet Missal. Bourges, c.1470-1475

Seneca Moral Epistle 108

But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

Finale Verbum? Who Killed Famae Volent?

Piccolomini, de Educatione Liberorum XXXV

“What then should we say, considering that there is great utility in both silence and in speaking? We would have you hold to the middle course, and find yourself neither always speaking nor always quiet.”

Quid ergo dicemus, cum et silentii et orationis magna utilitas sit? Tenere te medium volumus, neque tacere semper neque loqui semper.

FV screenshot

Fatalis Vetustas? Unanticipated Consequences

When Aristotle was asked what the most burdensome thing in life is he said “staying silent.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθείς, τί δυσκολώτατόν ἐστιν ἐν βίῳ, εἶπε· „τὸ σιωπᾶν”. Gnom. Vat. 58

A few months back I posted a personal reflection on the blog and message board related to the Classics Job Market. The resulting piece on Famae Volent was too long, filled with ‘hand-wringing’, and probably more than a little self-indulgent. Apart from a few snide comments on the message board itself, however, I was surprised by the eagerness of people to talk about FV—it is almost as if many of us were just waiting to be given permission to talk about the blog and what it means to us.

But over the next few months, the situation changed. To cut to the chase for those of you who don’t already know, the website has careened to the brink of closure. The turnaround was sudden enough that a student of mine asked me if I was responsible for killing FV!

I really don’t think anything I have written is nearly that important: I was on the crest of a wave. For reasons that will become immediately clear, I have more to say about FV and its imminent demise. In Classics and Higher Ed, we are in the midst of many different clashing tides—I want to give a different perspective (or two) on Famae Volent and make the rather surprising suggestion that it should be saved.

Fusilis Vexatio: Some background

“Silence works as wisdom for a foolish person”

Taciturnitas stulto homini pro sapientia est, Publilius Syrus 692

 One of the many surprises that followed the FV blog post was that the current editors—the Servii—contacted me. I must confess to longstanding curiosity about the identity of the blog moderators—they refer to an ‘ur-Servius’ (the original) and other Servii before them, but it seems that this group has been in control for a few ‘seasons’.

In truth, I was happy both to be contacted and to hear their comments which were both kind and justly critical. From our exchanges, I got the sense of thoughtful people who were trying to do good.. I think we forget that beyond the deletions and clever comments are people who haven’t done this job for money or glory or anything other than their own vision of service to the field.

They started by (1) apologizing for deleting a post that seemed to have come from me or Erik and (2) offering to have a conversation because… “We agree with parts of it, want to push back on other parts, and are more generally interested in hearing your thoughts on whether you think it is possible to improve the climate within the framework of FV’s basic system” [all quotes excerpted from email exchanges].

(They also asked to preserve their anonymity. I have not confirmed their identities beyond observing coordination between the emails and the site. Early on, we discussed possible public methods of confirmation; but after our multiple conversations, I have no doubt that they are who they say they are. The paranoid and conspiracy-minded might think I am making this all up—well, that would be interesting too.)

I was interested both (1) in hearing the moderators’ responses to my post and (2) in just listening to their own reflections on what FV does and what it is for. I must confess that I lost almost all objectivity after reading the following.

“One thing that we thought might be helpful to you from your end is to keep in mind that there’s no one group of Servii — we’ve been running it the past two years, and it was many different groups before us (with whom we have had no contact). So when you see an increased level of moderation over the last few years, what you’re really seeing is that we’re more active in enforcing community standards than past generations have been, not that there’s been any change (necessarily) in content. We’ve been taking a more active role than our predecessors, and have actually had complaints and attempts to out us because of our “fascist” over-moderation — not kidding.”

Even as I re-read this I appreciate their honesty and imagine the difficulty of being in their place: they conceded that “a lot of FV commentary is by nature cowardly” but pushed back a little on my emphasis on morally repugnant material, explaining that while I had sensed “an increasing amount of negativity directed at PoC, women, traditionally underrepresented social classes and people from marginalized groups”, they had tracked more voices objecting to the “dark corners” of FV than a few years back. So, in their words, before they made the decision to close the site, there is “a certain amount of polarization– but it is not exactly because the ideas are somehow new: rather, it is that the actual conversation about them is.” In fact, they insisted that most of the material they deleted (prior to mid-March) was actually aimed toward senior white men. (A pattern not necessarily supported by subsequent events).

Fluxuosum Vallum: A Conversation

  Read More

Incremental Progress Leads to Sudden Transformation

Plutarch, How One Becomes Aware of Progress in Virtue 75c

“For neither in music nor in grammar could someone understand that he is gaining any ground in learning if he does not chip away at ignorance in these matters but instead senses the presence of an ever constant level of ignorance; nor for a sick man, should treatment fail to effect an easing or lightening  and provide no perception of the affliction yielding and harming until the opposite state unfolds when the body has regained its health in every way.

No, but just as in these categories people make no progress unless they progress by the lightening of their burden, as if on a scale they are raised in the opposite direction, they do not recognize the change.

So too in the pursuit of philosophy no change nor even the perception of change must be supposed unless the soul can cast aside and cleanse itself of stupidity—up to the acquisition of the unmixed and perfect good, it clutches to an equally unmixed evil. For in one part of time or a season, the wise person transforms from a previous abject baseness to a nearly unobtainable excess of virtue, and they suddenly depart completely from a share of wickedness which was unshakeable for so great a length of time.”

οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐν μουσικοῖς τις ἢ γραμματικοῖς ἐπιδιδοὺς ἂν γνοίη μηδὲν ἐν τῷ μανθάνειν ἀπαρύτων τῆς περὶ ταῦτα ἀμαθίας ἀλλ᾿ ἴσης ἀεὶ τῆς ἀτεχνίας αὐτῷ παρούσης, οὐδὲ κάμνοντι θεραπεία μὴ ποιοῦσα ῥᾳστώνην μηδὲ κουφισμὸν ἁμωσγέπως τοῦ νοσήματος ὑπείκοντος καὶ χαλῶντος αἴσθησιν ἂν παρέχοι διαφορᾶς, πρὶν εἰλικρινῆ τὴν ἐναντίαν ἕξιν ἐγγενέσθαι παντάπασιν ἀναρρωσθέντος τοῦ σώματος. ἀλλ᾿ ὥσπερ ἐν τούτοις οὐ προκόπτουσιν, ἂν προκόπτοντες ἀνέσει τοῦ βαρύνοντος οἷον ἐπὶ ζυγοῦ πρὸς τοὐναντίον ἀναφερόμενοι μὴ γιγνώσκωσι τὴν μεταβολήν, οὕτως ἐν τῷ φιλοσοφεῖν οὔτε προκοπὴν οὔτε τινὰ προκοπῆς αἴσθησιν ὑποληπτέον, εἰ μηδὲν ἡ ψυχὴ μεθίησι μηδ᾿ ἀποκαθαίρεται τῆς ἀβελτερίας, ἄχρι δὲ τοῦ λαβεῖν ἄκρατον τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ τέλειον ἀκράτῳ τῷ κακῷ χρῆται. καὶ γὰρ ἀκαρεὶ χρόνου καὶ ὥρας ἐκ τῆς ὡς ἔνι μάλιστα φαυλότητος εἰς οὐκ ἔχουσαν ὑπερβολὴν ἀρετῆς διάθεσιν μεταβαλὼν ὁ σοφός, ἧς οὐδ᾿ ἐν χρόνῳ πολλῷ μέρος ἀφεῖλε κακίας ἅμα πᾶσαν ἐξαίφνης ἐκπέφευγε.

Image result for medieval manuscript scale weighing
Book of Hours, ca. 1325-1330
MS M.700 fol. 2r

Scarcity, Simile, and 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.

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 everything that came after. 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 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 but also shapes the poem.

This simile isn’t what interested me in Classics in the beginning, but it put me on the path I could not turn from. Anyone else have a similar tale?

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