Creative Processes

In 2015, my colleague Dr Rachel Mairs and I organised an international workshop that we called ‘Materialising Poetry‘. I have very fond memories of the day, and the theme that we got to discuss with our colleagues and students has been on my mind for a long time.

One contribution that particularly resonated with me was that of my colleague Prof. Peter Robinson – a rare insight (rare to me, anyway) into the creative processes that make poetry materialise from the perspective of a creative poet.

I don’t consider myself a particularly creative (or even remotely inspired) person. I may have a certain talent to appreciate art and its aesthetics; but I don’t seem to have a natural gift to create art – be it verbal, musical, or otherwise creative.

Peter gave us the opportunity to re-live, and thus to comprehend, how he crafted a little poem called Sein und Zeit (it is discussed here). I was particularly struck by the reproduction of Peter’s original composition (the thing that scholars call autographon):


Peter Robinson: Sein und Zeit. – Image source:×1024.png.

Very much in the way in which one may witness a painter or a sculptor in the process of applying touch after touch to a complex piece of art, here – I thought – one gets an immediate sense of the creative processes that resulted in something that, in the end, looks perfectly polished and as though it was always meant to be in its final form.

When it comes to the Roman world and my professional interest in the poetry of the Romans, this is precisely what I am missing – I get to see the results (often in a copy of a copy of a copy), but I hardly ever get to appreciate the process.

Would it not be amazing to get an idea of how ancient poets worked?

Sometimes there are flippant remarks that give an idea of a poet’s ethos and attitude, but these are not a glimpse into their workshop.

Ovid, for example, famously claimed that, whatever he said, automatically came forth in verse form. Vergil, in turn, is reported to have drawn on the peculiar idea that existed in the ancient world that bears would give birth to shapeless lumps rather than fully-formed cubs – lumps which they subsequently licked into shape: just like that, an ancient biography of Vergil claims, the great poet wrote his poetry.

But is that really how it worked for them?

More recently, I was struck by two passages that describe creative processes almost in passing – passages that seem to be a lot closer to the reality of creative writing nowadays (and, quite possibly, to the way poetry came about in the ancient world as well, at least in times in which writing was the preferred modus operandi).

The first piece that caught my attention is from Tacitus’ treatise Dialogus de oratoribus. Here, one of the interlocutors, Curiatius Maternus, is introduced as a poet who writes tragedies on Greek and Roman subject matters, with a certain (dangerous) gift to produce dramatic pieces that are potentially relevant and even dangerous within the political framework of his own time.

When asked if he wanted to reconsider some more problematic bits parts of his recently produced piece Cato, Maternus says (Tac. dial. 3.3, transl. W. Peterson/M. Winterbottom):

Tum ille: “Leges tu quid Maternus sibi debuerit, et adgnosces quae audisti. Quod si qua omisit Cato, sequenti recitatione Thyestes dicet; hanc enim tragoediam disposui iam et intra me ipse formavi. Atque ideo maturare libri huius editionem festino, ut dimissa priore cura novae cogitationi toto pectore incumbam.”

To this he rejoined, “The reading of it will show you what Maternus considered his duty to himself: you will find it just as you heard it read. Yes, and if ‘Cato’ has left anything unsaid, at my next reading it shall be supplied in my ‘Thyestes’; for so I call the tragedy which I have already planned and of which I have the outline in my head. It is just because I want to get the first play off my hands and to throw myself whole-heartedly into my new theme that I am hurrying to get this work ready for publication.”

Here, Tacitus has his Maternus describe the creative planning process of a substantial piece of poetry – an entire drama, in fact – with the remarkable words disposui iam et intra me ipse formavi, I have it already arranged and given it its shape (forma!) inside of me. (The visual, tangible, material aspect of poetry should not ever be underestimated, I think – as well as its potential for transformation(s).)

The second passage that seemed remarkable comes from Suetonius’ Life of Nero, in which the author reports what he discovered with regard to the infamous emperor’s poetic production (ch. 52, transl. J. C. Rolfe):

Liberalis disciplinas omnis fere puer attigit. Sed a philosophia eum mater avertit monens imperaturo contrariam esse; a cognitione veterum oratorum Seneca praeceptor, quo diutius in admiratione sui detineret. Itaque ad poeticam pronus carmina libenter ac sine labore composuit nec, ut quidam putant, aliena pro suis edidit. Venere in manus meas pugillares libellique cum quibusdam notissimis versibus ipsius chirographo scriptis, ut facile appareret non tralatos aut dictante aliquo exceptos, sed plane quasi a cogitante atque generante exaratos; ita multa et deleta et inducta et superscripta inerant. Habuit et pingendi fingendique non mediocre studium.

When a boy he took up almost all the liberal arts; but his mother turned him from philosophy, warning him that it was a drawback to one who was going to rule, while Seneca kept him from reading the early orators, to make his admiration for his teacher endure the longer. Turning therefore to poetry, he wrote verses with eagerness and without labour, and did not, as some think, publish the work of others as his own. I have had in my possession note-books and papers with some well-known verses of his, written with his own hand and in such wise that it was perfectly evident that they were not copied or taken down from dictation, but worked out exactly as one writes when thinking and creating; so many instances were there of words erased or struck through and written above the lines. He likewise had no slight interest in painting and sculpture.

Little of Nero’s poetic production survived, and what did survive, does indeed reveal a certain talent.


Correction of a word in a poem from Pompeii. – Image source:$CIL_04_05092.jpg.

More importantly, however, the passage seems to show that in the Roman world creative processes in the medium of language – poetry and the production of poetry – were not necessarily altogether different from how they tend to be now.

The general absence of evidence – i. e. author’s original copies and notebooks that would allow us to appreciate the way in which they composed their works – is not evidence for absence.

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Roman poetry is when…

My favourite definition of poetry goes like this:

Poetry is when every line begins with a capital letter and does not reach the right margin of the page.

I like this definition so much, because, in its focus on two aspects of poems’ formal presentation, it is infuriatingly oblivious of what one might normally regard as essential to poetry: artifice, sound, and meaning beyond mere words and syntactical constraints. (I talk about this here in some detail.)

When it comes to ancient Roman (and Greek) poetry, an award of the honorific label ‘poetry’ is commonly made on a similarly infuriating basis: if a sequence of words is arranged, with absolute precision, according to a pre-defined pattern of long and short syllables (or, very rarely and much later, accentuated and unaccentuated syllables), then it qualifies as poetry.

If this doesn’t apply, Classicists have three recourses open to them:

  1. they may call the very same sequence of words ‘prose’ (assuming that rhythmisation was never intended in the first place), or ‘rhythmical prose’ (if feeling generous);
  2. they may call it ‘corrupt’ (assuming that a work of perfection has been spoiled by a manuscript tradition – giving the textual critic permission to interfere with the manuscript transmission without any consideration of the issue as to whether or not such interference may, in fact, destroy the original wording of a poem), or
  3. they insult the writer as ‘poetaster’ or some such (assuming that rhythmisation was mandatory and only an incompetent idiot would be unable to live up to such a standard – exceptions are only made for Homer and Vergil, respectively, who may be excused for the odd line that is too long, too short, or otherwise too freely crafted).

This is in keeping with what ancient grammarians teach, and any violation of these standard operating procedures is very much frowned upon.

An ancient classical poet writing anything any less than perfect? Unthinkable, not even for an effect – suggesting otherwise is pretty much the Classical scholar’s counterpart to committing an act of blasphemy.

Studying the Latin verse inscriptions, rhythmical imperfections are not the exception to me. They are a constant feature of this type of Latin poetry – the common people’s poetry as opposed to the verbal art of Rome’s urban elite and aristocracy.

Previous generations of scholars have carefully listed the metrical ‘violations’ of such poems, not rarely attaching their scholarly scoldings of the misellus poetaster who was clearly too stupid and too ill-educated to avoid them.

But are we actually right to think that flawless rhythmisation, and rhythmisation only, is what made ancient poetry? The more I study the Latin verse inscriptions, the more I doubt it – formal criteria may be useful, but on their own they smack of artificiality rather than profound appreciation of the vastness of human artistic desire.

The problem is, of course, as already suggested, that our own concept of what makes ancient poetry poetry is derived from the teachings of ancient grammarians and metricians – and who, if not those specialists, our professional predecessors, should know best?

Recently, however, (I think) I found some corroboration for my suspicion that we are on the wrong track with our approach to what ought to qualify as poetry in Cicero’s speech Pro Archia, a speech full of insights into the production of art in first century B. C. Rome.

In section 25 of this speech, Cicero reports that –

quem nos in contione vidimus, cum ei libellum malus poeta de populo subiecisset, quod epigramma in eum fecisset tantummodo alternis versibus longiusculis, statim ex iis rebus, quas tum vendebat, iubere ei praemium tribui sub ea condicione, ne quid postea scriberet. Qui sedulitatem mali poetae duxerit aliquo tamen praemio dignam, huius ingenium et virtutem in scribendo et copiam non expetisset?

We saw him (Lucius Sulla) in a public gathering – when some bad poet from the crowd handed him a script, as he had produced an epigram on the subject matter of him alone, with every other line rather long – commanding that the man at once be given a reward payable from the items that he flogged at the time on the condition that he should never write again. He thought that the industry of a bad poet was worthy of some reward nonetheless: the very same man should not have sought the genius, literary prowess, and abundance of my client?

There has been some debate over the alignment of tantummodo (‘only (just)’) – I take it to mean that the subject of the epigramma was Sulla alone (most scholars have taken it as a modifier of longiusculis, ‘rather long’, which does not make any sense). There has also been some discussion as to whether alterni uersus should specifically refer to the metrical form of the ‘elegiac distich‘, in a technical sense, which is possible (but not a given).

What I find a lot more interesting is the description itself: there is a nameless poet (albeit not a very good one, according to Cicero – one must doubt, of course, that he ever actually saw the epigram in question!), and this poet produces a little piece in honour of Sulla – offering it to him as a gift.

All that remains of the poem is a description of its shape: it was written in alterni uersus, pairs of lines (i. e. distichs, whether they were elegiacs or not), in a format in which every other line was longiusculus, ‘rather long’, without conforming to any format that was regarded as flawless.

Cicero calls the author a malus poeta, a bad poet, twice. But – and this is what is important to me – he still calls him a poet, and he calls his piece an epigramma, describing its shape. What is more, before making this episode relevant to the case at hand, Cicero emphasises that Sulla appreciated the sedulitas, the effort and industry, of the malus poeta – and even rewarded it (if from presumably rather ill-gotten gains).

Sulla offered his reward on condition of a poetic ceasefire: no more bad poetry in honour of Rome’s powerful aristocrat!

What we may take away from it is that, certainly in Rome during the first century B. C., poetry was something that was produced with artistic conviction, sedulitas, first,  recognised by its shape(s) second (alterni versus longiusculi), assessed by the impact on its audience third (epigramma in eum … tantummodo), and measured by its technical perfection last.

Cicero’s client is better than the malus poeta not in terms of meter and rhythm. He excels with regard to his ingenium et virtutem in scribendo et copiam, his genius, literary prowess, and abundance.

May we still call poets ‘bad poets’?

We certainly may.

But it shouldn’t be a judgement based on technical perfection alone, just as one would not base one’s judgement of the qualities of a chef on the formal presentation of the food alone.

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New Year’s Death

For at least thirty-nine people their desire to celebrate the new year ended fatally last night in Istanbul when a hitherto unidentified perpetrator marched into a nightclub and gunned down his victims. Another 69 or so have been injured.

In the face of such violence, such heinousness, such utter contempt for human life, words regularly fail me.

What is there to say?

What can make things better?

For the dead, for those who are left behind, for anyone else?

Considering the symbolic date of January 1st, the date that symbolises closure as well as new beginnings, I was reminded of a poem, inscribed on a marble tablet (undated) discovered in the city of Rome, from the cemetery of St. Agnes at the Via Nomentana (CIL VI 14578 (cf. p. 3515) = CIL VI 34083 = CLE 502).


Ianus: the Roman god of beginnings, endings, and passages. – Image source:

The inscription reads as follows:

Dis M(anibus)
L(uci) Catelli Flori.
Clodia Africana
[fil]io piissimo.
[hospes] ad hoc tumulum dum perlegis
[acta resi]iste, aspice quam indi-
[gne sit data] vita mihi. XII ego
[annoru]m vixi dulcissimae matri,
[cui liqui fletu]m fato cito raptus iniquo,
[cum Ianua]rias celebrarem forte Kal(endas),
[dum ducunt m]ater et germana soror
[veneratum in]ter festa sacri templa
[et comi]tantur amici.
[Manes infer]ni, si quid mea carmina
[possunt, parcite quaeso meis, or]o precorque rogo
[mater et ad s]uperos vivas mul-
[tosque per annos, s]is felix s[emper]
– – – – – –

To the Spirits of the Departed of Lucius Catellus Florus. Clodia Africana (had this made) for her most dutiful son.

Stranger, as by this tomb you read what has happened, pause and behold in how undignified a manner life was given to me. I lived twelve years for my sweetest mother, to whom I left weeping when I was snatched away, quickly, by a fate unjust, as I happened to celebrate the First of January, as my mother and my own sister led (me) to the festive temples of the cult, to worship, accompanied by friends.

Spirits of the Underworld, if my songs have any power, please show my family mercy, I beg, I pray, I ask, and mother, may you live in the world above for many years, may you always be fortunate, . . . . .

Lucius Catellus Florus was not the only unfortunate person for whom death on January 1st was recorded and commemorated in ancient Rome: I discussed a similar case before.

What strikes me about this piece, however, is the way in which death – and a very premature death at that – has forever been linked to, and contrasted with, the celebrations that the deceased’s family and friends were about to enjoy to mark the new year – celebrations that were supposed to be all about joy and hope, family and friends, not about bereavement and mourning.

What strikes me even more, though, is the remarkable resilience of this piece.

Instead of conveying a sense of despair and exasperation, the author of those lines, which are presented as though they were spoken by the deceased himself, makes a strong, unambiguously positive plea.

Using virtually every single Latin request formula available (quaeso, oro, precor, and rogo in the same sentence, addressing those who are left behind and the mother in particular), the authors urges its readers, through the power of song and magic (si quid mea carmina possunt, a famous Vergilian line – I briefly mention it here) must learn to remain positive, to embrace life ad superos, in the world above, for years to come – and always seek good fortune: sis felix semper.

Sis felix semper, may you always be fortunate – this expression extends the traditional Roman new year’s wish, annum novum felicem (‘an auspicious new year’), into eternity.

Hope dies last.

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End-of-Year Magic

India, according to the Natural History of the Elder Pliny, was home to some of the world’s most amazing animals (Plin. nat. 8.76, transl. H. Rackham):

He says that in India there are also oxen with solid hoofs and one horn, and a wild animal, named axis, with the hide of a fawn but with more spots and whiter ones, belonging to the ritual of Father Liber (the Orsaean Indians hunt monkeys that are a bright white all over the body); but that the fiercest animal is the unicorn, which in the rest of the body resembles a horse, but in the head a stag, in the feet an elephant, and in the tail a boar, and has a deep bellow, and a single black horn three feet long projecting from the middle of the forehead. They say that it is impossible to capture this animal alive.

The magic of the fabled, indomitable unicorn (monoceros in Greek, unicornis in Latin – often thought to be a reference to rhinos or antelopes, despite some apparent discrepancies in their appearance as it is described in Graeco-Roman sources) was not lost on the ancients, either.

Aelian reports (On Animals 3.41, transl. A. F. Schofield):

India produces horses with one horn, they say, and the same country fosters asses with a single horn. And from these horns they make drinking-vessels, and if anyone puts a deadly poison in them and a man drinks, the plot will do him no harm. For it seems that the horn both of the horse and of the ass is an antidote to the poison.

Perhaps the single-most remarkable account on unicorns that survives from the ancient world, however, is that of the so-called Physiologus (‘the Naturalist’), a Christian didactic text dating to the mid-to-late Empire. Originally written in Greek, the Physiologus survives in multiple languages through a most peculiar tradition, and it has been hugely influential beyond the ancient world with its description of (partly fabled, partly real) creatures as well as its provision of allegorical exegeses.


© Paris, Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve, ms. 2200, f. 072v. – Image source:

In its twenty-sixth chapter, the Physiologus reports on the unicorn (here in Latin, following versio B 31-32; my translation):

Physiologus dicit unicornem hanc habere naturam: pusillum animal est, simile haedo, acerrimum nimis, unam cornu habens in medio capite. Et nullus omnino uenator eum capere potest; sed hoc argumento eum capiunt: puellam uirginem ducunt in illum locum ubi moratur, et dimittunt eam in siluam solam; at ille uero, mox ut uiderit eam, salit in sinum uirginis, et complectitur eam, et sic comprehenditur, et exhibetur in palatio regis.

The naturalist says that the unicorn is like this in nature: it is a small animal, like a kid, yet very fierce, with one horn on the middle of its head. And no hunter can capture it; yet there is one way of capturing it: a maiden girl is led to the very place where it dwells, and they send her into the grove alone; and the unicorn, as soon as it sees her, jumps into the maiden’s lap and embraces her, and that how he is captured and can be introduced to the royal palace.

The Physiologus quickly volunteers a Christian interpretation this creature and its appearance (ibid.; transl. Verner/Carmody):

In this way our lord Jesus Christ, the spiritual unicorn, descended into the womb of the virgin, assumed human flesh, was captured by the Jews, and was sentenced to death on the cross; concerning this David said:  and as the beloved son of unicorns [Ps. 28.6]; and yet again in another psalm it is said of him: And my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn [Ps. 91.11]. And Zachariah said: he has raised up a horn of salvation to us, in the house of David, his servant [Luc. 1.69]. And in Deuteronomy Moses blesses the tribe of Joseph: his beauty as of the firstling of a bullock, his horn as the horn of the unicorn [Deut. 33.17].

That he has one horn on his head signifies what the savior said: I and the father are one [John 10.30]. He is said to be shrewd since neither principalities, powers, thrones, nor dominations can comprehend him, nor can hell hold him. He is small because of the humility of his incarnation. He said “Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart” [Matt. 11.29]. He is so shrewd that that most clever devil cannot comprehend him or find him out, but through the will of the Father alone he came down into the womb of the Virgin Mary for our salvation.”And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” [John 1.14]. The unicorn is like the kid, as is our Savior according to the Apostle: “He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin he condemned sin in the flesh” [Rom. 8.3] This was spoken well of the unicorn.

Even to the staunchest among present-day Christians this late-antique and medieval form of exegesis must appear somewhat … shall we say … inscrutable – but then, who knew that the unicorn was so closely linked to Christmas!

What appeals to me first and foremost, though, is the beautifully romantic idea that an otherwise indomitable, wild, elusive, and magical creature – a creature in many respects similar to a haedus, a baby goat, with its fierce energy and lascivious abandon, a creature that no man can capture –  is attracted to, and altogether submitting to, the purity of a girl.

This year has seen so much misery, so much pain, so much death, so much destruction, so much hatred, so much needless suffering all over the world.

Kid-like abandon, a spirit that cannot be captured, but is ready to yield to innocence, and protective powers against toxicity and dastardliness: those seem like excellent wishes for the festive season and for a better 2017.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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An innocent lamb used facts as a weapon against post-truth politics. You won’t believe what happened next…

In my previous post, I explored the dynamics and rhetoric behind what has been called ‘post-truth politics’.

The concept still is very much on my mind.

On the one hand, I am not deluded enough to believe that concepts such as truth or falsehood ever genuinely mattered much in politics and power-play.

On the other hand, it would seem as though before there was a certain degree of shame attached to a scenario in which someone was found guilty of telling lies.

There seems to have been a time, not long ago, in which intentional misrepresentation of facts typically were expected to result in personal consequences: confidently spreading falsehoods for one’s political advantage seemed to disqualify from holding a public office, not being its prerequisite.

More recently, however, there appears to be an increasing level of indifference to such matters. It is almost as though the electorate has come to terms with, and settled for, (i) the idea that politicians lie for a living (so why be upset!) and (ii) the observation that when politicians say that they take responsibility for something it is just a meaningless phrase.

In the conclusion of my earlier post I briefly reflected on the potentially rather limited effect of deploying truth against those who purposefully and strategically spread falsehood for their political aims.

But why does this strategy seem to be so infuriatingly inefficient?

The answer to this question may lie in a fable told by the Roman fabulist Phaedrus (Phaedr. 1.1):


Wolf and lamb in a post-truth universe. – Image source here.

Ad rivum eundem lupus et agnus venerant
siti compulsi; superior stabat lupus
longeque inferior agnus. tunc fauce improba
latro incitatus iurgii causam intulit.
‘cur’ inquit ‘turbulentam fecisti mihi
aquam bibenti?’ laniger contra timens:
‘qui possum, quaeso, facere, quod quereris, lupe?
a te decurrit ad meos haustus liquor’.
repulsus ille veritatis viribus:
‘ante hos sex menses male, ait, dixisti mihi’.
respondit agnus: ‘equidem natus non eram’.
‘pater hercle tuus, ille inquit, male dixit mihi’.
atque ita correptum lacerat iniusta nece.
haec propter illos scripta est homines fabula
qui fictis causis innocentes opprimunt.

In the delightful translation of Christopher Smith (from here)

By thirst incited; to the brook
The Wolf and Lamb themselves betook.
The Wolf high up the current drank,
The Lamb far lower down the bank.
Then, bent his ravenous maw to cram,
The Wolf took umbrage at the Lamb.
“How dare you trouble all the flood,
And mingle my good drink with mud?”
“Sir,” says the Lambkin, sore afraid,
“How should I act, as you upbraid?
The thing you mention cannot be,
The stream descends from you to me.”
Abash’d by facts, says he,” I know
‘Tis now exact six months ago
You strove my honest fame to blot”-
“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”
“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,
And so he tore him, till he died.
To those this fable I address
Who are determined to oppress,
And trump up any false pretence,
But they will injure innocence.

In Phaedrus’ famous fable, the lamb answers the wolf’s falsehoods and insists on facts and science. All it achieves is to make the wolf come up with even further absurdities. In the end it gets devoured.

What good was it to correct the wolf’s falsehoods?

What the lamb – the very symbol of innocence –  does not see is that the wolf does not actually care about the facts. It’s purpose is to kill the lamb for its own benefit.

The wolf is determined to oppress the innocent.

To that end it will ‘trump (!!) up any false pretence’ (fictis causis in the Latin; but can you believe the serendipity, to find this very phrase in a one-hundred years old translation?).

Post-truth politics isn’t about being stupid or just not getting it right.

Post-truth politics is about a strategy that distracts the lambs’ innocent little souls. It gives them something ultimately meaningless to play with, something in which they may feel superior and smart, blissfully oblivious of the true dangers that are going to kill and devour them.

The lamb’s only hope would have been to run away from this futile discussion and to hide or to gather meaningful support.

It took the wrong decision.

And it paid for it with its life.

Don’t be this lamb.

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Fake News and Post-Truth Politics

There is a widespread, distinct feeling that Western politics has entered a phase of what tends to be called ‘post-truth politics‘.

The term ‘post-truth politics’, often accompanied by references to fake news and disinformation campaigns, looks like a euphemism for ‘shameless lies’ at first; in actual fact, however, these concepts seem to capture a current development in which emotions and perceptions, created, driven, and catered for by carefully planned campaigns, override and invalidate what reason and fact-led analysis can confirm.

Unsurprisingly, demagoguery and populism thrive in this environment – and they do so even more in the powerful echo chambers of present-day social media.

The idea of living in a ‘post-truth’ age, suggesting that a new epoch has dawned, is appealing: successful campaigns such as Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election have instilled an almost post-apocalyptical feeling in many, and politically motivated defamatory attacks against experts (whose expertise somehow seems to be less valid than the alleged gut-feeling of the ‘real people’)  have become a lot more common recently.

But is ‘post-truth politics’ actually a thing – or is it just a convenient way of avoiding the admission of defeat in campaigns in which ‘the other side’ has resorted to a successful strategy to which no meaningful response could be found?

An argument could be made for the latter.

There is a (now) little-read treatise called Strategikos (Στρατηγικός; ‘The General’) by a first-century A. D. author called Onasander (sometimes also reported as Onosander). This work is a most remarkable handbook for anyone who would like to understand more about ancient Roman warfare and tactics (at least from a theoretical angle).

In the Strategikos, Onosander writes (ch. 23, on ‘Announcing favourable news in the midst of battle; even if false it is advantageous’):

Sometimes the general should ride along the lines and call out to his men, if he happens to be on the right wing, “Our left wing is defeating the right wing of the enemy,” or if he is on the left he should say that his right wing is conquering, whether this is true or not, for deceit is necessary when “a great strife has arisen.” For example, when the leader of the enemy is some distance away either on one wing or holding the centre, he should call out, “The general of the enemy has been killed,” or “the king.” or whoever it may be. And one should shout this in such a manner that the enemy also may hear; for his own soldiers, learning that their side is more successful, are encouraged and doubly eager to fight, while the enemy, learning of the misfortunes of their side, lose heart, so that sometimes they start into flight immediately on hearing such a report. In this way it is very often useful to deceive both one’s own army and that of the enemy by false news, good for the former, but bad for the latter.

This sounds very familiar indeed – and it highlights ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth politics’ as what they really are: strategems, designed and spread for a purpose.

The obvious question, therefore, is: how to respond to such a device? Is it even possible to get through to those who are inclined to follow their leader (general or otherwise)? Or is one’s only hope to protect one’s own side as much as possible from contagion – hoping that this might, if one gets lucky, perhaps have an effect on those who have been subjected to disinformation for strategic purposes?

Rumours and common talk are called “the verdict of society” and “the testimony of the public” by one party; to the other, they are “vague, unauthenticated talk, started by malice and developed by credulity, something that can happen to the most innocent of men through the fraud of enemies who spread false tales.”

––– Rome’s first professor of Latin, Quintilian, wrote (Inst. or. 5.3).

Once set in motion disinformation is hard to stop, of course. Vergil famously depicted Fama, ‘Rumour’ as follows (Aeneid 4.173 ff., transl. from here):

At once Rumour runs through Libya’s great cities—Rumour the swiftest of all evils. Speed lends her strength, and she wins vigour as she goes; small at first through fear, soon she mounts up to heaven, and walks the ground with head hidden in the clouds. Mother Earth, provoked to anger against the gods, brought her forth last, they say, as sister to Coeus and Enceladus, swift of foot and fleet of wing, a monster awful and huge, who for the many feathers in her body has as many watchful eyes beneath—wondrous to tell—as many tongues, as many sounding mouths, as many pricked-up ears. By night, midway between heaven and earth, she flies through the gloom, screeching, and droops not her eyes in sweet sleep; by day she sits on guard on high rooftop or lofty turrets, and affrights great cities, clinging to the false and wrong, yet heralding truth. Now exulting in manifold gossip, she filled the nations and sang alike of fact and falsehood, how Aeneas is come, one born of Trojan blood, to whom in marriage fair Dido deigns to join herself; now they while away the winter, all its length, in wanton ease together, heedless of their realms and enthralled by shameless passion. These tales the foul goddess spreads here and there upon the lips of men. Straightway to King Iarbas she bends her course, and with her words fires his spirit and heaps high his wrath.

Ovid, too, offered a powerful description (Metamorphoses 12.39–63, transl. from here):

There is a place at the centre of the World, between the zones of earth, sea, and sky, at the boundary of the three worlds. From here, whatever exists is seen, however far away, and every voice reaches listening ears. Rumour lives there, choosing a house for herself on a high mountain summit, adding innumerable entrances, a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard. There is no peace within: no silence anywhere. Yet there is no clamour, only the subdued murmur of voices, like the waves of the sea, if you hear them far off, or like the sound of distant thunder when Jupiter makes the dark clouds rumble.

Crowds fill the hallways: a fickle populace comes and goes, and, mingling truth randomly with fiction, a thousand rumours wander, and confused words circulate. Of these, some fill idle ears with chatter, others carry tales, and the author adds something new to what is heard. Here is Credulity: here is rash Error, empty Delight, and alarming Fear, sudden Sedition, and Murmurings of doubtful origin. Rumour herself sees everything that happens in the heavens, throughout the ocean, and on land, and inquires about everything on earth.

Or as A. Paul Weber imagined it:

Candid advice on how to manage rumours, ‘fake news’, and whatever one might be inclined to call ‘post-truth’ comes from an anonymous early first-century B. C. rhetorician  (Rhet. Her. 2.12, transl. from here):

We shall speak in favour of rumours by saying that a report is not wont to be created recklessly and without some foundation, and that there was no reason for anybody wholly to invent and fabricate one; and, moreover, if other rumours usually are lies, we shall prove by argument that this one is true. We shall speak against rumours if we first show that many rumours are false, and cite examples of false report; if we say that the rumours were the invention of our enemies or of other men malicious and slanderous by nature; and if we either present some story invented against our adversaries which we declare to be in every mouth, or produce a true report carrying some disgrace to them, and say we yet have no faith in it for the reason that any person at all can produce and spread any disgraceful rumour or fiction about any other person. If, nevertheless, a rumour seems highly plausible, we can destroy its authority by logical argument.

One may find it reassuring that ‘post-truthism’ is not exactly a modern invention, and one may find some relief in the observation that there are means to deal with it.

But what is the appropriate response?

It would seem to be of vital importance to remember two things.

First, ‘fake news’ in political discourse is a strategic device to a (relatively clearly defined) end, whose dangerous potential to create new realities one must not ever underestimate (and which must be addressed strategically rather than with utter bewilderment over others’ inclination to follow reassuring, reinvigorating messages).

Secondly, if one wishes to have any hope to win a battle against falsehoods, one must be both confident that truth can, in fact, be established and be in a situation in which the other side is even remotely ready to listen to what the Rhetor ad Herennium calls ‘logical argument’.

Failing that, all that can be achieved is reaching out to those, and reassuring those, who were disinclined to believe in ‘fake news’ in the first place.

Right now, even that would seem like no altogether insignificant achievement.

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A little help?

Please forgive me a short moment of self-promotion, but … do you enjoy The Petrified Muse?

If so, would you consider giving it your support for the Blog Awards UK 2017?

I’d be ever so grateful!

Voting remains open until 19 December 2017, 10 am.


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Winter is coming

In his poem De Bello Gothico (‘On the Gothic War’), the late antique poet Claudian describes the Roman general Stilicho‘s movements in wintery Germany (Claudian, De Bello Gothico 350–386; transl. from here):

Near to the Hercynian forest the uplands of Raetia stretch out towards the north, Raetia, proud parent of Danube and Rhine, twain rivers that she sets to guard the empire of Rome. Small are their streams at first, but soon they grow in depth and like kings compel the lesser waters to pass with tributary wave beneath their name. The Cimbric ocean receives Rhine’s flood outpoured through his two mouths; the Thracian wave swallows that of Ister flowing out through five channels. Both rivers are navigable though both bear at times the marks of chariot-wheels upon their frozen surface; stout allies both of the north wind and the god of war.

But on the side where Raetia marches with Italy precipitous mountains touch the sky, scarce even in summer offering an awful path. Many a man has there been frozen to death as though he had looked on the Gorgon’s head; many have been engulfed beneath vast masses of snow, and often are carts and the oxen that draw them plunged into the white depths of the crevasse. Sometimes the mountain plunges downwards in an avalanche of ice, loosening neath a warmer sky foundations that trust vainly in the precipitous slope.

Such was the country over which Stilicho passed in mid winter. No wine was there; Ceres’ gifts were sparing; ’twas enough to snatch a hurried meal, eaten sword in hand, while, burdened with rain-drenched cloak, he urged on his half-frozen steed. No soft bed received his weary limbs. If the darkness forced him to halt in his advance he would either enter some dreadful beast’s den or sleep in some shepherd’s hut, his head pillowed upon his shield.

The shepherd stands pale at the sight of his stately guest, and ignorant of his name the rustic mother points out to her squalid infant the glory of his face. It was those hard couches beneath the rough pines, those nights amid the snow, all that care and anxious toil, that won peace for this world, this tranquillity it had despaired of for the empire. From out those Alpine huts, Rome, came thy salvation.

Claudian’s Stilicho is a hero – immortalised by an admiring poet in some of the finest Latin poetry ever written.

Antiquity’s most famous homeless person: Diogenes of Sinope. – Image source here

St Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar – Image source here

As winter and sub-zero temperatures are upon us, let us not forget those unsung everyday heroes who, for whatever reason, have to endure on a daily basis what Stilicho endured for a short period of time, on his mission to save the Roman Empire: bitter frost, lack of warming clothes, hunger, and thirst, sleeping rough in horrendous conditions.

They don’t need an admiring poet.

They need help.



(Please feel free to add relevant links from your region/country in the comments section, below.)

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Sneering at Experts

Defamatory remarks and jokes about entire professions, regardless of the individuals pursing them or their actual performance, are a stock element of western comedic culture. Among the most ridiculed group of professionals, since ancient times, are teachers, professors, and other highly trained specialists and experts.

From Aristophanes’ Cloud Cuckoo Land to the scholastikos of the late-antique joke collection that is the Philogelos (‘Laughter Lover’): there is always someone ready to lash out at those who devote themselves to learning and the pursuit of truth – cackling at their reclusive absent-mindedness, at the alleged irrelevance of their studies to an imaginary ‘real world’ (as if certain parts of the world were more real than others!), at their conveniently dishevelled appearance, and, of course, at the (unsurprising) insight that experts, like everyone else in the world, are wrong from time to time.

Recent times have seen a certain high in such comments about experts in British political discourse – from Michael Gove’s egregious claim that the ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ –

to Glyn Davies’s snarky remark that –

to the ever entertaining Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comment in the bleak context of Britain’s most recent economic forecast:

There is a great line from Cicero that there’s nothing so absurd that it hasn’t been said by some philosopher.’

What Cicero actually said in his treatise De divinatione (‘On Divination’), in the context of a dismissal of some outlandish philosophical concepts, is (Cic. div. 2.119, transl. W. A. Falconer):

The Pythagoreans make a point of prohibiting the use of beans, as if thereby the soul and not the belly was filled with wind! Somehow or other no statement is too absurd for some philosophers to make.

In other words, Rees-Mogg’s comment draws on a passage that essentially constitutes an ancient fart joke (and a popular one at that), not exactly a passage that aims to discuss the value of philosophy and specialisms at large.

Be that as it may, both the subtlety of Cicero’s joke, making fun of philosophy in a work of philosophy (that discusses the matter of fortune-telling) and the obvious need to contextualise one’s quotes appear to have eluded Britain’s self-styled present-day Cicero.

But, since Rees-Mogg seems to enjoy his Cicero so much, may I use this opportunity to suggest to him another passage from Cicero – a passage from the treatise ‘On Duty’ (De officiis)?

Discussing expediency, Cicero writes (Cic. off. 2.72–3, transl. W. Miller):

From this we come to realize that since Nature is the source of right, it is not in accord with Nature that anyone should take advantage of his neighbour’s ignorance. And no greater curse in life can be found than knavery that wears the mask of wisdom. Thence come those countless cases in which the expedient seems to conflict with the right. For how few will be found who can refrain from wrong-doing, if assured of the power to keep it an absolute secret and to run no risk of punishment!

Let us put our principle to the test, if you please, and see if it holds good in those instances in which, perhaps, the world in general finds no wrong; for in this connection we do not need to discuss cut-throats, poisoners, forgers of wills, thieves, and embezzlers of public moneys, who should be repressed not by lectures and discussions of philosophers, but by chains and prison walls; but let us study here the conduct of those who have the reputation of being honest men.

Turns out experts, academics, and philosophers are not the only ones who regularly find themselves at the receiving end of snide remarks.

As the famous saying goes: people who live in glass houses should undress themselves in the dark.

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No safe (and therefore a special) place

American Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence went to the theatre to enjoy a performance of ‘Hamilton’, when this happened:

President-Elect Donald Trump apparently was not particularly happy with this and felt compelled to put his own trademark (a.k.a. low-fact, boastful) spin on the event, when he posted the following tweets:

Not exactly new complaints.

Some 2,050 years ago (give a few, take a few), the Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Cicero wrote in a letter to Atticus (Cic. Att. 2.19, transl. E. Shuckburgh):

Your populares have now taught even usually quiet men to hiss. Bibulus is praised to the skies: I don’t know why, but he has the same sort of applause as his

Who by delays restored alone our State.

Pompey – the man I loved – has, to my infinite sorrow, ruined his own reputation They hold no one by affection, and I fear they will be forced to use terror. I, however, refrain from hostility to their cause owing to my friendship for him, and yet I cannot approve, lest I should stultify my own past. The feeling of the people was shown as clearly as possible in the theatre and at the shows. For at the gladiators both master and supporters were overwhelmed with hisses. At the games of Apollo the actor Diphilus made a pert allusion to Pompey, in the words:

By our misfortunes thou art—Great.

He was encored countless times. When he delivered the line,

The time will come when thou wilt deeply mourn
That self-same valour,

the whole theatre broke out into applause, and so on with the rest. For the verses do seem exactly as though they were written by some enemy of Pompey’s to hit the time. “If neither laws nor customs can control,” etc., caused great sensation and loud shouts. Caesar having entered as the applause died away, he was followed by the younger Curio. The latter received an ovation such as used to be given to Pompey when the constitution was still intact. Caesar was much annoyed.

As far as American politics and theatres go, the Mike Pence incident was, of course, thankfully very harmless:

What really puzzled me, however, was how America’s soon-to-be commander-in-chief arrived at his view that the theatre ‘must always be a safe and special place’.

Clearly a theatre is a special place – and that was no different in the case at hand, either (otherwise Trump and the press would not have paid much attention to the incident).

But when was theatre ever a safe space?

Clearly it was not in Cicero’s times!

The whole discussion is not a new one, of course. In fact, it is a discussion as old as western theatre.

The Romans, for example, now known for the magnificent theatre buildings that they left behind across the Roman Empire, long resisted the temptation to have a permanent theatre structure within the city of Rome herself.

In fact, it was not until the mid-first century B. C. that Rome’s great general Pompey the Great finally gave Rome its first permanent stone theatre.

There were a number of reasons for the late arrival of permanent theatre structures at Rome herself, even though theatrical performances had been known for centuries.

The reasons that were cited first and foremost, are summarised by the Roman imperial historian Tacitus as follows (Tacitus, Annals 14.20, transl. M. Grant):

In the following year, when Nero (for the fourth time) and Cossus Cornelius Lentulus (II) were consuls, a five-yearly stage-competition was founded at Rome on the Greek model. Like most innovations, its reception was mixed. Some recalled with approval the criticism of Pompey, among his elders, for constructing a permanent theatre, whereas previously performances had been held with improvised stage and auditorium, or (to go back to the remoter past) spectators had stood – since seats, it was feared, would keep them idle for days on end. ‘As for the shows,’ said objectors, ‘let them continue in the old Roman way, whenever it falls to the praetors to celebrate them, and provided no citizen is obliged to compete. Traditional morals, already gradually deteriorating, have been utterly ruined by this imported laxity! It makes everything potentially corrupting and corruptible flow into the capital – foreign influences demoralize our young men into shirkers, gymnasts, and perverts.

People idling in a comfortable space, challenging existing views, traditions, and morals – this potentially spells disaster to a self-selected elite: unlike one might intuitively expect, in theatrical spaces not only the show itself is on display – the audience, too, especially when seated in preferential spaces, is very much in everyone’s focus.

A remarkable incident in that regard is reported by Plutarch in his Life of Cicero (ch. 13, transl. B. Perrin):

Marcus Otho was the first to separate in point of honour the knights from the rest of the citizens, which he did when he was praetor, and gave them a particular place of their own at the spectacles, which they still retain. The people took this as a mark of dishonour to themselves, and when Otho appeared in the theatre they hissed him insultingly, while the knights received him with loud applause. The people renewed and increased their hisses, and then the knights their applause. After this they turned upon one another with reviling words, and disorder reigned in the theatre.

Among the most interesting concepts, to my mind, is that of the so-called fourth wall – an imaginary division between the stage and its business on the one hand and the audience on the other.

Of course, there is no such wall (it would just block the view) – the only real question is to what extent theatrical troupes choose to draw attention to the (absence of such an) imagined, artificial divide. (But then, considering Donald Trump’s promises, we might soon see actual fourth walls being built, with the costs being charged to the respective theatre owners…!)

The very beginnings of Rome’s theatre business, as the Rome’s famous lyric poet Horace imagined them, did not a whole lot to enforce such an artificial division (Epistles 2.1.139 ff., transl. H. R. Fairclough):

The farmers of old, a sturdy folk with simple wealth, when, after harvesting the grain, they sought relief at holiday time for the body, as well as for the soul, which bore its toils in hope of the end, together with slaves and faithful wife, partners of their labours, used to propitiate Earth with swine, Silvanus with milk, and with flowers and wine the Genius who is ever mindful of the shortness of life. Through this custom came into use the Fescennine licence, which in alternate verse poured forth rustic taunts; and the freedom, welcomed each returning year, was innocently gay, till jest, now growing cruel, turned to open frenzy, and stalked amid the homes of honest folk, fearless in its threatening. Stung to the quick were they who were bitten by a tooth that drew blood; even those untouched felt concern for the common cause, and at last a law was carried with a penalty, forbidding the portrayal of any in abusive strain. Men changed their tune, and terror of the cudgel led them back to goodly and gracious forms of speech.

Horace’s perception draws a line between theatrical, satirical performances on the one hand and the high and mighty on the other, and he imagines some form of self-regulation of performances that eventually spiralled out of control, feeling empowered by the stage itself as well as the bond they had created with their audience over time.

Theatres are no safe spaces, and they are most definitely not safe spaces for any ruling class anywhere.

It is quite absurd to demand that they ought to be or to imply that they ever could be.

Theatres embody direct democracy – and direct democracy is never a safe option.

Once in a theatre, one is caught in the logic, the dynamic, and the power structures of this place, forced to see and to listen – or to flee in disgrace.

Trump and Pence styled themselves as true plebeians, as the people’s spokespersons, and as fearless fighters against the corrupt elites, with little own inhibitions to dish it out, ostentatiously politically incorrect.

To be forced, for once, to listen to the same vox populi that they themselves so conveniently played during their campaign, delivered by the cast of the play and endorsed by the audience’s response, without a face-saving exit strategy, may well have been a harrowing experience.

The power that comes with this special place, its focal points and its essentially egalitarian composition of the audience, however, as the example of ancient Rome teaches us, means great responsibility for those who operate in those places, lest they risk their accustomed freedom of speech being curtailed or taken away from them.

Use it wisely. Use it effectively. Don’t apologise for exercising your legal rights. But, most of all, in doing so, don’t expect your public actions, delivered from centre stage and in a room from which the addressee cannot withdraw without shame, to be without consequence or judgement.

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