Heroic Grief: Celebrating a New Book on the Iliad

Lucian, True History 2.20

“I was asking him next why he made his poem start with the “rage of Achilles”. He said that it just leapt into his head that way without any prior thought.”

ἐπεὶ δὲ ταῦτα ἱκανῶς ἀπεκέκριτο, πάλιν αὐτὸν ἠρώτων τί δή ποτε ἀπὸ τῆς μήνιδος τὴν ἀρχὴν ἐποιήσατο· καὶ ὃς εἶπεν οὕτως ἐπελθεῖν αὐτῷ μηδὲν ἐπιτηδεύσαντι.

Here’s a bit of something different: I’d like to talk about new book my a good friend. Emily Austin’s Grief and the Hero: The Futility of Longing in the Iliad was released a few months ago. As anyone who has published something during the pandemic knows, there’s not much room for something as simple as a book in all the noise.

But this is a book I think people should read. Now, I read a lot of books about Homer. It is not just a job, it is something I have done as a hobby since I first read Gregory Nagy’s The Best of the Achaeans  and Richard Martin’s The Language of Heroes as an undergraduate. I often ignored homework assignments in graduate school in favor of reading books like Donna Wilson’s Ransom and Revenge or Hilary Mackie’s Talking Trojans. See, before I started working on the Odyssey, I was all Iliad all the time.

D Schol. ad ll 1.1

“Sing the rage..” [People] ask why the poem begins from rage, so ill-famed a word. It does for two reasons. First, so that it might [grab the attention] of that particular portion of the soul and make audiences more ready for the sublime and position us to handle sufferings nobly, since it is about to narrate wars.

A second reason is to make the praises of the Greeks more credible. Since it was about to reveal the Greeks prevailing, it is not seemly to make it more worthy of credibility by failing to make everything contribute positively to their praise.”

Μῆνιν ἄειδε: ζητοῦσι, διὰ τί ἀπὸ τῆς μήνιδος ἤρξατο, οὕτω δυσφήμου ὀνόματος. διὰ δύο ταῦτα, πρῶτον μέν, ἵν’ ἐκ τοῦ πάθους †ἀποκαταρρεύσῃ† τὸ τοιοῦτο μόριον τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ προσεκτικωτέρους τοὺς ἀκροατὰς ἐπὶ τοῦ μεγέθους ποιήσῃ καὶ προεθίσῃ φέρειν γενναίως ἡμᾶς τὰ πάθη, μέλλων πολέμους ἀπαγγέλλειν· δεύτερον δέ, ἵνα τὰ ἐγκώμια τῶν ῾Ελλήνων πιθανώτερα ποιήσῃ. ἐπεὶ δὲ ἔμελλε νικῶντας ἀποφαίνειν τοὺς ῞Ελληνας, εἰκότως †οὐ κατατρέχει ἀξιοπιστότερον† ἐκ τοῦ μὴ πάντα χαρίζεσθαι τῷ ἐκείνων ἐπαίνῳ.

Everyone knows the Iliad starts with the “rage of Achilles”. What that rage means and how it shapes the poem is not so universally understood. My first Greek teacher and now friend of two decades, Leonard Muellner, wrote one of the best books on this topic. In his The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic, Lenny shows how Achilles’ anger has cosmic implications and is rooted in a thematic pattern shared by gods like Demeter and Zeus. He also notes that there may have been versions of the poem that put Achilles’ rage alongside Apollo’s

The proem according to Aristoxenus

Tell me now Muses who have Olympian Homes
How rage and anger overtook Peleus’ son
And also the shining son of Leto. For the king was enraged…”

῎Εσπετε νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι ᾿Ολύμπια δώματ’ ἔχουσαι,
ὅππως δὴ μῆνίς τε χόλος θ’ ἕλε Πηλεΐωνα,
Λητοῦς τ’ ἀγλαὸν υἱόν· ὁ γὰρ βασιλῆι χολωθείς.

What I love about Emily Austin’s book is that she enters into a deep and ancient discussion and asks what seems like a simple question: what about the cause of rage? Starting from the premise that the absence of things, longing, what a Lacanian might call a “lack” (my words, not hers), Emily offers a reading of the epic that doesn’t countermand the importance of rage, but instead, decenters it, looking at how longing (pothê,) shapes the poem and its audiences expectations.

Here’s Emily talking about her book:

In Grief and the Hero, I set aside conversations about the Iliad’s composition and authorship, and instead consider the poem as narrative poetry. The heart of my book is Achilles’ experience of futility in grief. Rather than assuming that grief gives rise to anger, as most scholars have done, Grief and the Hero traces the origin of these emotions. Achilles’ grief for Patroklos is uniquely described with the word pothê, “longing.” By joining grief and longing, the Iliad depicts Achilles’ grief as the rupture of shared life—an insight that generates a new way of reading the epic. No action can undo the reality of his friend Patroklos’ death; but the experience of death drives Achilles to act as though he can achieve something restorative. Achilles’ cycles of weeping and vengeance-seeking bring home how those whom we have lost will never return to us, yet we are shaped by the life we shared with them. In Grief and the Hero, I uncover these affective dimensions of the narrative, which contribute to the epic’s lasting appeal. Loss, longing, and even revenge touch many human lives, and the insights of the Iliad have broad resonance.

I am not a disinterested party in this book. I read an early manuscript and recognized early on that this was an original contribution to an old debate. There is an urgency to longing and the absence of what we need to complete ourselves that motivates the actions of the poem and feeds the timeliness of this book. In a year of violence, disruption, and isolation, it is a perfect time to think about the causes of the things that set us apart.

Grief and the Hero provides a perfect complement to Muellner’s analysis of the thematic function of Achilles’ rage; it also functions as a corrective for many responses to Homer that shy away from the grand themes and the big stages of human life. There are a few dozen books about Homer I think a Homerist must read; there are only a handful I think everyone should try. Emily’s Grief and the Hero is now one of them.

Of course, I’m biased here. I’ve learned so much from talking to Emily about literature, loss and grief over the past few years that I am certainly not objective. But I asked a couple other friends for their thoughts too.

Alex Loney, Associate Professor, Wheaton College

Emily Austin has written a rare and welcome contribution to recent Homeric scholarship: a “robustly literary” meditation on grief and the Iliad. In her reading, the Iliad shows how anger born of grief is never satisfied. It cycles on, relentlessly forward. Peace that comes from vengeance is illusory, and the yawning chasm of loss can only be repaired by letting go.

Joe Goodkin, Singer, Songwriter, Homeric Bard

I have spent the better part of three years living inside the characters of the Iliad as I composed and now perform the Blues of Achilles, my first-person song cycle adaptation of the epic. I found Grief and the Hero exhaustingly resonant with what I’ve come to vividly understand as the core emotional arc of Achilles and those caught in his orbit. Grief and the Hero works for me on multiple levels: academic, creative, and, most importantly, human, so beautifully teasing out the most powerful and universal theme of the poem that I only began to fully discover and appreciate as I wrote my songs: the resolution of grief.

Justin Arft, Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee Knoxville

“In addition to providing a novel interpretation of the Iliad‘s narrative and applying close readings of phraseology and structures, Emily brings new depths to the character of Achilles that all subsequent interpretations will need to consider. Her approach is a perfect balance of careful scholarship and elegant interpretation.. She has challenged me to think about the human dimension of the stories.”

Those of us in academia have missed some minor things during the pandemic: book release parties, dinners to celebrate tenure, long talks away from loud conferences with friends. These are so insignificant compared to the losses of the past year that I feel bad even mentioning them. But loss is part of what makes us who we are.

Take a chance on a book; let’s make Emily’s year special.

and some epigrammatic humor to end the post

Palladas of Alexandria, Greek Anthology 9.169

“The Rage of Achilles has become the cause for me
a grammarian, of destructive poverty.
I wish the rage had killed me with the Greeks
before the hard hunger of scholarship killed me.”

Μῆνις ᾿Αχιλλῆος καὶ ἐμοὶ πρόφασις γεγένηται
οὐλομένης πενίης γραμματικευσαμένῳ.
εἴθε δὲ σὺν Δαναοῖς με κατέκτανε μῆνις ἐκείνη,
πρὶν χαλεπὸς λιμὸς γραμματικῆς ὀλέσει.


Psst…if you use this flyer you can get a discount

Some Other Things Were Published

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


Here’s a list of some things I published this year. Email if you want digital copies of anything. Here’s 2018’s list and 2019’s


The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic, Cornell University Press.

Hardcopy: E. T. E. Barker and Joel P. Christensen. Homer’s Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts Center for Hellenic Studies


“Reading Minds and Leading Men: Agamemnon’s Test and Emotional Intelligence” SAGE Business Cases

Shorter Entries

“Gods and Goddesses in Epic” (1000 words); “The Epic Cycle,” (750 words); “Formula,” (1000 words); “Ekphrasis,” (500 words); and “Batrakhomyomakhia” (500 words); and “PanHellenism” (1000 words) in Cambridge Homer. Corinne Pache (ed.).

If you buy one compendium to Homer, it should be this one. Not that I am biased….

Book Review

S. Pulleyn, Odyssey 1: Introduction, Translation, Commentary (Oxford, 2019), JHS  [warning, this is a little hard hitting]

Public Writing

Ancient Greek desire to resolve civil strife resonates today – but Athenian justice would be a ‘bitter pill’ in modern America.” The Conversation, December 15, 2020

with Sarah Pessin, “A Civic Call.” Inside Higher Ed, October 5, 2020

What the Greek Classics Tell Us about Grief and the Importance of Mourning the Dead,” The Conversation, September 21, 2020.

with E.T.E. Barker, “Greater the Profit…When Two Go Together”: Homeric Adventures in Collaboration and Open Access”, SCS Blog, March 12, 2020

Plagues Follow Bad Leadership in Ancient Greek Tales,” The Conversation, March 12, 2020

The Ancient Greeks Had Alternative Facts Too—They Were Just More Chill About It.The Conversation, Feb. 24 ,2020

Blogging My Way to a Book

In 2014 or so I was a tenured professor, less than happy in my job, but without any plan for making a change. It is not easy to get a job as a professor in classics; it is harder to get job after you have tenure; and it is nearly impossible to do so without that holiest of holies, the single authored monograph.

I was tenured without a book because the department I was in didn’t expect one and I had published a lot otherwise (including a co-authored general audience book on Homer). The fact is that I really did not want to write one. Most successful academics are expected to turn their dissertation into a book. I hadn’t done that on purpose (I was sick of my dissertation and I wanted to do something different).

Perhaps more importantly, I also didn’t know how to write a book. It is not that I didn’t want to write about things. I just wanted to write about them in shorter segments. It may have been a lack of imagination as much as anything else, but I found many more reasons not to write a book than to write one: the fact that no one reads them, that lives are disrupted to write them, that we have an entire economy of knowledge dedicated to big books about small things, etc. etc.

That last phrase is not fair, completely. But, to crib from an ancient proverb, there’s a difference between a book that needs to be written and needing to write a book. After 2012, however, I started talking, thinking, and writing about the Odyssey in a way that clearly pointed to a lengthy treatment of a topic, if not wholly original, at least markedly different from work I had read before.

Some graduate programs do better jobs than others in training you how to do independent research. Many do a great job in preparing students to turn their dissertations into books. But few anticipate what to do next. This is not a huge problem, since the paths people take are so different depending on their institution, interests, etc. But the irony is that although I was a book review editor for a journal, had reviewed a dozen books, and had helped to write one, I really didn’t know what I was doing.

So, once I gave in to the desire to write a book, I started lamenting that I didn’t have enough time to do it. Fortunately, I have a spouse who is constitutionally incapable of not calling me on my bullshit. Over drinks in 2015, while I complained again that I just needed the time to write a book, she said, “look, you ran a stupid marathon last year. You spent hours every day running, training, and keeping track of every thing you did. I don’t know why you can do that and not write a book. You’re not a runner; you’re a Homerist.”

Now, to be honest, the conversation hurt my feelings a little bit because (1) running marathons didn’t come easy to me (I run like a rhinoceros, except uglier) and (2) she was absolutely right. I started to keep track of hours a week spent on the book project, making lists and schedules, and trying to break down the project into little bits.

It worked: I have books out in 2018, 2019, and 2020 (changing institutions and getting some summer funding for childcare also made a huge difference; the blog was crucial to those books too). But part of the story is also this website. I have written about the importance of the discipline of posting daily on the blog, but what I haven’t explained clearly enough is how each of the books I just mentioned relied on this regular writing practice for drafting, brainstorming, and progress.

So, for curiosity, inspiration, mockery, and whatever else may come, here’s an overview of the more than 30 blogposts that are part of my book on the Odyssey, out this week (The Many Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic). I am posting one each day on twitter with the hashtag #BloggingABook for about a month, but here’s a more organized collection.

Let’s start at the beginning. This post was one of the first that directly translated into content in the book, showing up as a table on page 16. It helped me to organize my thoughts about the structure of the poem without making an entire labor out of the structure of the poem.

Less often, I used posts to explore combining theoretical modern work with ancient concepts as in this early post about the work of Mark Turner, Aristotle, and narrative character was written at a Starbucks in San Antonio and is well integrated into the theoretical framework of the first chapter on Homeric psychology. Similarly, this post on correspondence and coherence in Odysseus’ lies.which became the framing for Chapter 5.

A good deal of the theoretical research of this book took me through post-structural theories like those in disability studies, which made me think differently about ideal bodies in Homer. I used some posts, like this one about Telemachus and monstrosity, to think through this. This ended up in a chapter NOT about Telemachus.  Several posts arose from my reading of disability studies texts alongside Homer, like this one about Thersities and beautiful minds, which in turn became parts of chapters and a forthcoming article.

I won’t even list all the posts on ancient medicine and mental health—I spent some time trying to learn more about these topics and most of the research ended up on the website (at least a dozen or more). This scholion on drugs made me think about ancient beliefs about addiction. As I explored ancient ideas of madness in philosophy and medicine, it was helpful to see how mythical figures at times appeared to help explain things like isolation and mental anguish (as in this passage from Aristotle). This contributed to Chapter 3’s examination of heroic isolation

Just a sample of posts and chapters

IntroductionSex, Trees, and the Structure of the Odyssey
Addiction and Self-restraint
1 Homeric Psychology Mark Turner, Aristotle, and narrative character
2 Treating TelemachusStudy of Scholia What’s Troubling Telemachus?
3 Escaping OgygiaHeroic Madness and Isolation
Sex and Anhedonia
4 Narrative Therapy[!]
5 Correspondence and CoherenceCorrespondence and coherence in Odysseus’ lies.
Eumaios, Storyteller
The Meaning of Odysseus’ Pseudonyms
6 Marginalized AgenciesA Little bit But not Too Long
Telemachus is not a Monster
The Millwoman’s Sorrowful Sign
Thersites and Beautiful Minds
How Much is a Slave’s Life Worth
His heart Barks
The Origin of Thersites
7 Penelope’s Subordinated AgencyPenelope and fidelity Naming Odysseus
Penelope Lays into a Suitor
8 Politics of IthacaThe Heroic Tale of Laertes
The Suitors Debate Killing Telemachus
The Trial of Odysseus
9 The Therapy of OblivionWhere Does the Odyssey End and Why?
Penelope’s Web Agamemnon on Feminine Fame
Conclusion, Escaping the Story’s BoundsPorphyry’s On Styx, Pseudo-Plutarch allegories from Metrodorus Allegories attributed to Porphyry by Stobaeus, Death and the End of the Odyssey

Part of what I love about research—when I get to do it freely—is the wandering path I take through things. Blogging gives me a sense of accomplishment (and that important reward feedback loop!) because it provides an end of sorts to a journey that lasts a day or just a few hours. Many posts are just me trying to make sense of scholia, especially longer ones like the large segments attributed to Porphyry in the Odyssey scholia. These were fodder for notes and content in the book.

Sometimes posts came from work in the scholia, like this one, where I tried to figure out the details of Telemachus’ journey for chapter 2. Indeed, many of my mythographical footnotes started or ended as posts on the site, like this one about Penelope and fidelity which contributes to one part of chapter 7. Some of the mythographical posts and studies didn’t make it to the book, but that’s ok because doing the work, as in this one on Nausikaa’s name, sharpened what I would say by helping me figure out what I didn’t need to.

Mythography doesn’t explain what audiences knew, but it can help show what they might have known which is why several posts talk about Thersites’ story outside of Homer like this one. A mere footnote in the book, but a useful one. On many occasions, I would think something might be important or interesting and find out only the latter is true, making it good for a post as in this scholion on Alkinoos’ marriage wish. It didn’t make it into the book, but Alkinoos did.  And I can’t even begin to figure out how to map my dozens of posts on Odysseus’ family and multiple sons onto the chapters of the book. But they were definitely formative.

Of course, some of the details I mined were important: this post on the end of the Odyssey was essential for footnotes in more than one publication. Often work on philological and literary problems, like what Penelope was weaving, produced posts that also involved scholarship and ended up in multiple chapters. In this case, a significant part of chapter 9. Sometimes philological investigations started as posts and then later added to larger arguments, as in this exploration of a speech introduction for Telemachus. This speech of Agamemnon became critical for both chapters 7 and 9 and appears in an article on Kassandra too.

Other posts respond to epic and other readings, shaping the tone of a section or chapter without necessarily being part of them as in this post on the hanging of the enslaved women.

Part of writing is figuring out which path to take. Some times this means writing stuff that gets moved around a lot. I had a series of posts on allegory and Homer which eventually contributed to half of the conclusion (originally a transitional segment between the two halfs of the book). Posts include translations of Porphyry’s On Styx, allegories from Pseudo-Plutarch, allegories from Metrodorus, and others attributed to Porphyry by Stobaeus

And, of course, there are posts on expected topics in the Odyssey. Naming Odysseus is no minor affair, so I have several posts looking at Homeric epithetis and their ancient reception of a man of may ways who is also quite shifty. Researching this book forced me to rethink the political situation on Ithaca from ancient perspectives, showing that Laertes likely unified a somewhat odd island ‘state’. This is an important part of chapter 8, which looks at Ithaca as a traumatized community

Rethinking the representation of agency in Homer really made me look differently at the representation of women’s agency in Homer. Some posts arose out of shock at reading passages anew as I had never read them before. The emotion and scene made it to the book. Part of the journey of writing this book was thinking about the suitors as full human beings rather than simple villains, especially in their political wranglings as in this post looking at their debate about killing Telemachus. This scene is critical in the book’s chapter 8.

In rereading representations of agency in the Odyssey it was necessary to think about heroes, non-heroes, children, enslaved people, and women and how these categories intersect. Some of the more explicit comments on these topics informed chapter 6 but are clearer in posts, like this one on the cost of an enslaved person’s life. This post contributes to chapter 6.  In the same vein, I also used a post to lay out the passages where Odysseus thinks about or responds to enslaved women’s sexuality. Working through these passages helped me understand the infantilization of enslaved people in the Odyssey.

Many posts were part of my writing process, which is to translate passages I want to write about. Laborious, but it gives me opportunities to post Penelope laying into a suitor like this one. This passage became part of thinking about where Penelope claims agency (and doesn’t). I cover the end of the Odyssey in two chapters, so thinking carefully through the trial of Odysseus was really important, I started this process by translating and discussing the scene in a post. The translations are improved in the book, but have the same core.

A second part of my writing process after translating is looking at scholia and commentaries, a step  often preserve in posts like this one on Eumaios as a storyteller. Again, this becomes part of footnotes and discussions, not central arguments in the book. Other posts like this one on the meanings of Odysseus’ pseudonyms ended up as footnotes and detail.

On many occasions I wanted to think more broadly about ancient literature and narrative. Early drafts from chapter 9 look like this post on how liars communicate but ended up being edited quite differently. Similarly, I would at times start to right grandly and in generalizations not fit at the point of the book I was writing. This one on complementarity can be seen in some footnotes from the introduction, but not very clearly.

Many posts start with questions about what lines mean from the perspective of Homer—so doing the whole clarify Homer through Homer thing—like this one on Odysseus’ lack of pleasure from sex in with Calypso. The work here influenced some ideas in the introduction and chapter 3.

Some posts also emerged as summaries of the thoughts in the book, like this one written at the beginning of the pandemic. It reflects on a project finished rather than attesting to work in progress. Others draw on the frameworks developed during research, like the post on Toxic Heroism and a School Massacre. Sometimes ideas started in the book but had no space there. This is true of my work on Kassandra, which went into a post before it became an article elsewhere and my personal reflections on the scene of Argos, the dog.

I did not know what the conclusion of this book would add until one day I saw a line from Cavafy online and then wrote a post about death and the end of the Odyssey. This post formed a third of the conclusion once expanded.

Where there are fewer blog posts, it is because I wrote directly to publication for some topics as in the work that forms some of chapter 4 (“The Clinical Odyssey: Odysseus’ Apologoi and Narrative Therapy.” Arethusa 51: 1–3) and a chapter in a collection that contributed to parts of chapters 2 and 3 (“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). And many sections were also written for talks at professional conferences and invited lectures.

I don’t think there’s a clean and just-so way to end this post. There’s lots of advice out there about writing  a book in an hour or two a day and I am here to tell you it is possible. But it helps to have short term goals and ‘outputs’ to work towards. It also helps (probably more than anything) to have a stable job, good funding, and a partner who calls you on your bullshit.

Some sites say this is out tomorrow (in ebook and print); some say it is out November 22nd and December 25th.

Pythagoras’ CV

Diogenes Laertius, Pythagoras 8.1

“Three books were composed by Pythagoras: Education, Politics, and Nature. But the one which is circulated as by him is really by Lysis of Tarentum, a Pythagorean, who was an exile in Thebes and a tutor to Epaminondas. Herakleides, the son of Sarapiôn, reports in his Epitome of Sotion that Pythagoras also wrote On Everything in epic verse, and, in addition, The Sacred Word which begins: “Young men, hold all these things in reverence with silence.”

Heracleides adds to this list third On the Soul, fourth, On Poetry, fifth, Helothales the Father of Epicharmus of Cos, sixth, Croton, and other works too. He also says that the Mystical Word was written by Hippasos to slander Pythagoras and that many works written by Aston of Kroton were misascribed to Pythagoras. Aristoxenos says that Pythagoras received most of his ethical beliefs from Themistokleia at Delphi.”

γέγραπται δὲ τῷ Πυθαγόρᾳ συγγράμματα τρία, Παιδευτικόν, Πολιτικόν, Φυσικόν· τὸ δὲ φερόμενον ὡς Πυθαγόρου Λύσιδός ἐστι τοῦ Ταραντίνου Πυθαγορικοῦ, φυγόντος εἰς Θήβας καὶ Ἐπαμεινώνδα καθηγησαμένου. φησὶ δ᾿ Ἡρακλείδης ὁ τοῦ Σαραπίωνος ἐν τῇ Σωτίωνος ἐπιτομῇ γεγραφέναι αὐτὸν καὶ Περὶ τοῦ ὅλου ἐν ἔπεσιν, δεύτερον τὸν Ἱερὸν λόγον, οὗ ἡ ἀρχή·

ὦ νέοι, ἀλλὰ σέβεσθε μεθ᾿ ἡσυχίης τάδε πάντα·

τρίτον Περὶ ψυχῆς, τέταρτον Περὶ εὐσεβείας, πέμπτον Ἡλοθαλῆ τὸν Ἐπιχάρμου τοῦ Κῴου πατέρα, ἕκτον Κρότωνα καὶ ἄλλους. τὸν δὲ Μυστικὸν λόγον Ἱππάσου φησὶν εἶναι, γεγραμμένον ἐπὶ διαβολῇ Πυθαγόρου, πολλοὺς δὲ καὶ ὑπὸ Ἄστωνος τοῦ Κροτωνιάτου γραφέντας ἀνατεθῆναι Πυθαγόρᾳ. φησὶ δὲ καὶ Ἀριστόξενος τὰ πλεῖστα τῶν ἠθικῶν δογμάτων λαβεῖν τὸν Πυθαγόραν παρὰ Θεμιστοκλείας τῆς ἐν Δελφοῖς.

Detail of Pythagoras  from The School of Athens by Raphael.  Rome, 1509.

Some More Things Were Published

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“It would be annoying to list all the people who spent their lives pursuing board games, ball games, or sunbathing. Men whose pleasures are so busy are not at leisure. For example, no one will be surprised that those occupied by useless literary studies work strenuously—and there is great band of these in Rome now too.

This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oarsmen Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Persequi singulos longum est, quorum aut latrunculi aut pila aut excoquendi in sole corporis cura consumpsere vitam. Non sunt otiosi, quorum voluptates multum negotii habent. Nam de illis nemo dubitabit, quin operose nihil agant, qui litterarum inutilium studiis detinentur, quae iam apud Romanos quoque magna manus est. Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.

This year’s publications were not as numerous as last, but there was a book, some articles and some things. N.B. If you want a copy of anything, just email me.


E. T. E. Barker and Joel P. Christensen. Homer’s Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts Center for Hellenic Studies

Our “Frogs and Mice Book” came out in paperback, with corrections and a vastly improved price.

Joel P. Christensen and Erik Robinson. The Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice: Introduction, Translation and Commentary  Bloomsbury [Paperback, 2019]

HT Cover.jpg


J. P. Christensen. “Revising Athena’s Rage: Kassandra and the Homeric Appropriation of Nostos.” YAGE  3: 88–116.

Becoming Powerful Through Compromise: Hesiod’s Zeus as Chairman of the Gods,” SAGE Business Cases, Ancient  Leadership


Book Reviews

Loving Latin at the end of the World” a Review of N. Gardini, Long Live Latin!  (2019), Boston Review

Review of M. Alden, Para-Narratives in the Odyssey (Oxford, 2017), CR  69.1

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

Online Things

with Erik Robinson, “VII Philosophies for the Modern Bro.” Eidolon, Apr. 1, 2019.

with Evan McDuff, “Pour Some Pepper on Me: the King of Spices in Greece and Rome.” Eidolon, Feb. 19, 2018.

Beauty and Privilege: Latin, Paideia, and Papyri

“How many there are who degrade the Latin language!”
Quam multi sunt, qui verba Latina depravant! -Piccolomini
“The very act of speaking Latin is to be held in high esteem”
Nam ipsum latine loqui…est illud quidem in magna laude ponendum -Cicero
So, I say, Latin speech is common and known to all, but literary speech is not so.”
Latinus, inquam, sermo et vulgaris erat et omnibus cognitus, litteralis vero non ita prorsus -Francesco Filelfo

Today the Boston Review has published an essay of mine on a translation of Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin! My review is, admittedly, less positive than some others will be (with almost none of the cheerleading another review lavishes upon it) and, truly, more negative than a Classicist’s should be. As a general rule, I prefer not to write hack jobs or take-downs, especially when the author’s sincerity and belief in goodness is so palpable. And I certainly believe that there was a time in my life when I might even have exulted in this book, both because of the pleasures afforded by its own prose and also thanks to the familiar passages it brings together. But, given the world we live in and what we have learned over the past generation, I can’t accept that this book is the way to promote the study of the past. To put it more starkly: this approach is part of the problem.

Image result for long live latin by nicola gardini

I cover my qualms with the book in the review in some detail, but the thing I want to focus on here is that Gardini’s ultimate argument is that Latin is worth studying because of the aesthetic pleasure it affords. This aesthetic pleasure arises from an essential circularity: the literature we love provides us with pleasure because it presents the pleasure of the elements we love. Our sense of what is good is created by the canon we have selected to shape us.

Gardini’s picture of the past and of the kinds of Latin worth preserving and contemplating is that of the Western Canon and his argument centers around appreciating the worth of the Western tradition, a beyond problematic category which many have dismantled (see Kwame Anthony Appiah in general and Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s recent blog posts for the history and impact on Classical Studies). The construction of the Western Canon and associated claims of Western Civilization are a kind of aristocratic nostalgia. It is a value-proposition, an identity to be espoused which does not admit additions or revisions easily. Replicating the contents of the past as we have in conventional Classical Studies programs has amounted to the reading of the same authors over and over again with the insistence that we read these things because they are good. And they are good because we read them.

“Good people flock to the tables of the good on their own.”

αὐτόματοι δ’ ἀγαθοὶ ἀγαθῶν ἐπὶ δαῖτας ἵενται. -Hesiod

Loving latin

Classicists who accept this view are often part of the same groups who have ignored or expressed hostility to what they call postmodernism. Indeed, a generation ago the question you had to be able to ask in interviews for jobs as Classicists was “what do you think about theory?” This is not a struggle peculiar to Classics but it is one which is particularly fraught because one history of our intersecting disciplines is not changing, not innovating, and fiercely defending the past as we have built it. And, although the resulting venn diagram of those who complain about postmodernism and those who espouse conservative, retrograde, or nationalist rhetoric is not a perfect circle, it does intersect and overlap.

The fact is that we must now recognize that at least since the rise of European colonialism, race-based enslavement, and the genocidal conquest of the Americas, what we call Classics has been instrumental in providing historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and political frameworks for justifying various supremacies and ethnonationalisms. When we lament that the Classics are being appropriated by white supremacists and Nazis, we are a little late to the party. The use of the past to justify hate and exploitation is a historical feature of Classics and not a bug.

The reason I am going through this all again, is that my reaction to Gardini’s book needs to be contextualized within the perturbations of our field. A month ago I gave a talk at Rutgers University and two subjects kept coming up in conversations afterwards: the real time erosion of faith in the Paideia Institute (thanks in part to the Sportula’s statement preceded by a thoughtful statement by former/current Paideia associates) and the confusing revelations of the Museum of the Bible’s Papyri collection and Dr. Dirk Obbink’s involvement in it. There are many things going on in and around these two stories, but I struggled for a while to figure out where I think they both meet.

“It seems to me to have been remarked wittily enough that it is one thing to speak Latin, and another altogether to speak grammatically.”

Quare mihi non invenuste dici videtur aliud esse Latine, aliud grammatice loqui. Quintilian 

And where they meet is in that same place where Gardini searches for Latin. What all of these approaches to the past have in common is that they reach for a “timeless”, decontextualized, and ahistorical past, that includes largely only “nice” and “beautiful” things, where truth and beauty as they define it is the lasting bequest of Greece and Rome to our times, and where there is nothing of the mess that makes today so confusing: no gender, no race, no sexuality (except that which they like), no disability, no Class, and nothing which might distract from their contemplation of human perfection.

The Paideia Institute is run by disaffected, mostly male, Classicists of an elitist bent whose view of the world resonates with Gardini because, shit, everything would be better if we could just move to the woods and read Horace. If this seems harshly dismissive, consider that work of the PI is strongly centered around Western Civ perspectives, that they believe that the study of the past can be apolitical, that they neither publish their by-laws nor make their funding transparent, that their origin story has as its center the nearly cultic hagiography of a single Latin expert, and that, if they had been given the tenure-track jobs our more complicated world has denied them, their organization would probably not exist. 

(For the Medieval Mindset of treating scholarship as apolitical, see Amanda Power’s recent piece in THE).

“What good is it to be noble / For those who are charmless in words and counsel?”

τί πλέον, γένος εὐγενὲς εἶναι / οἷς οὔτ᾿ ἐν μύθοις ἕπεται χάρις οὔτ᾿ ἐνὶ βουλῇ; -Phocylides

The Paideia Institute is Trad-Classics with a religious fervor. Let me be clear, I think they have a right to exist and pursue their view of the world; but we should all acknowledge what their work represents—a retrenchment and doubling down, a recommitment to a world that never was in order to seek refuge from the world that is.

To claim that Dirk Obbink’s confusing and likely felonious actions are of a kind with Gardini’s Love Live Latin and the troubles of the Paideia Institute may seem so much of a stretch as to be slanderous. But here’s my pitch. I have spent months thinking about what may have motivated him. I have had dozens of conversations about it and have heard plausible theories: from the altruistic (he did it to save a financially collapsing EES) to the sly (he duped naïve evangelists to get his hands on the New Sappho). And what I keep returning to is: would I have done the same thing?

See, like many of the Paideia Institute (I suspect), there was some religion in my upbringing and one of my first thoughts in these cases is the passing “there but for the grace of god go I…” So, when I read about Paideia’s missteps (and subsequent denials) or contemplate how Obbink broke bad, I think of that game we Classicists sometimes play: what would you trade of extant Classical literature for what we lost. This game assumes that these poems and speeches and books are things, aesthetic objects we can trade like horses or barter without any concern for where they come from or how they got there.

(And this story may be far from over, EES has recently admitted that over 120 recorded fragments are currently missing.)

As several articles in Eidolon drive home, modern papyri are things, with histories, trails, and an impact on the world around them. But as aesthetic objects that move us (and to which we move) they have a materiality and power beyond modern geopolitical borders and law-courts. They are the aesthetic objects of desire which Gardini loves and which we hold up as objects of study which in turn lead us to objectify the past. Such endless simplicity of aesthetic reification conditions us to treat what we encounter in the world around us as objects, as aesthetic experiences to be evaluated according to (seeming) Platonic forms.

Obbink already had lots of papyri but he wanted to get his hands on papyri of a certain type because they would increase and confirm the value of what we already have. And don’t get me wrong: our view of Greek poetry has been changed in the past generation by the publication of Archilochus’ Cologne Epode, the historical elegies of the New Simonides, the Telephos myth of the New Archilochus, and the pleasant beauty of Sappho’s Brothers poem. But, both now and in the aggregate over the centuries, how much of the past has been lost or misunderstood because of our ironic longing for more ‘new’ of the old? 

Beyond a lust for fame, a desire to contribute to the history of literature, and need to transcend his mortal bounds, I believe Obbink stole papyri to get his hands on a New Sappho because this is, at its core, a metonym for what we do and have done as Classicists. We endow some things with value and neglect others. We ‘innocently’ perpetuate a system and worship a canon without critically examining what the effect of this process is and has been on the world. And when people use theories and techniques outside of Classics to show how Classics works (and doesn’t), we too often reject them out of hand.

Some of the common ground between the refusal of the Paideia Institute to accept criticism (and the tonedeaf cowardice of its anonymous defenders) and Obbink’s actions is class and race privilege, people who are accustomed to doing what they want because consequences are for other people. The ideological stance of Classics as an aristocratic discipline reinforces privilege and provides us with an intellectualized framework for objectifying people and festishizing culture and human experiences into ranked categories. Classici are, after all, people of a certain rank.

If we center our discipline around a system of untested values and universal aesthetics, we not only fail to live examined lives and fall into the trap of emphasizing seeming over being, but we also willfully and violently ignore the scope of human knowledge and experience which is excluded from this closed system. I am not denying the beauty of the past or claiming we should stop studying it, but instead insisting that we stop drop the pretense or accept that some of us need to do something new.

διὰ τοῦτο … δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

“For this reason, we have two ears, but one mouth: so that we can hear more and say less.” -Zeno

To end with a bit less bile: I don’t think most of us who see the world in the way I just outlined started out seeing it this way. Indeed, I was trained as a pretty basic classicist from high school on. What has made the difference is learning from outside the discipline, listening to people who have been marginalized by traditional approaches, and considering new things without dismissing them out of hand. 

Modern rhetoric and social media seem to harden us into stances we may not have taken otherwise or assumptions about others which only echo reality. The Trad-Classicists need to listen: I think it is a basic litmus test of a decent person that, if someone tells you they are hurting and that you are involved, you should just stop talking, listen, and really hear what they are saying. Those of us on the other side? Some, like myself, are too impatient, we want people to change too fast, and we don’t give them enough time. 



25 Nov 2019

There have been a few complaints about some of the more polemical comments regarding the Paideia Institute. I apologize for any offense to individuals: I had the organization and its reputation in mind. It is my responsibility to make amends to any individuals on a person by person basis. Please reach out if you would like to talk to me

26 Nov 2019

Lee T. Pearcy has written an essay on Classicizing Philadelphia discussing some of the ideas in the essay, but somewhat disagreeing with the move away from treating the past ideally. One of the things his response clarifies for me is that we need to distinguish between discussions of what classics is as opposed to what we could make it.

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



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.



“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