Focusing on the wrong things, or: The fatal flaw of selfies

I wrote this piece in 2018. No idea why I never pressed “publish”. Well, dear world, here you are! I made a couple of additions, marked in the text by square brackets.

A particularly fashionable form of contemporary (amateur) photography, for some time now, has been the so-called selfie – a self-portrait [or, in fact, “a self-portrait that didn’t quite make the first cut”, as a friend of mine recently described it], typically captured on one’s mobile phone, taken at arm’s length (or at arms-and-selfie-stick’s length), at what is deemed a flattering angle, and usually with one’s face distorted into some grimace or other.

Selfie-taking in action (Photo: PK, 2018).

I love photography – I’ve written about it on here before. I have my own analogue photography instagram feed, and I run another webpage specifically dedicated to my hobby.

[As far as selfies are concerned, however, I am largely done with that genre (it does not really work like that with analogue cameras anyway), but (i) self-portraits have been part of photography from its inception, and (ii) to each their own, I guess: so … who am I to judge, even though I must admit that my own sentiment, when it comes to their aesthetics, is best captured by the following meme:]

There are not very many opportunities to combine my hobby, analogue photography, with my professional interest in the ancient world.

But every now and then, I encounter a passage that makes me reflect on it.

One such gem is a fable from a little-known collection of Aesopian fables composed by one Baebrius, a hellenised Roman or romanised Greek (to be honest, we know virtually nothing about the man):

Ἔλαφος <ποδώκης> εὔκερως ἀχαιΐνης
λίμνης ὕδωρ ἔπινεν ἡσυχαζούσης.
ἐκεῖ δ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ τὴν σκιὴν θεωρήσας
χηλῆς μὲν ἕνεκα καὶ ποδῶν ἐλυπήθη,
ἐπὶ τοῖς δὲ κέρασιν ὡς καλοῖς ἄγαν ηὔχει·
παρῆν δὲ νέμεσις ἣ τὰ γῆς ἐποπτεύει.
κυνηγέτας γὰρ ἄνδρας εἶδεν ἐξαίφνης
ὁμοῦ σαγήναις καὶ σκύλαξιν εὐρίνοις,
ἰδὼν δ᾿ ἔφευγε, δίψαν οὐδέπω παύσας
καὶ μακρὸν ἐπέρα πεδίον ἴχνεσιν κούφοις.
ἐπεὶ δὲ δὴ σύνδενδρον ἦλθεν εἰς ὕλην,
κέρατα θάμνοις ἐμπλακεὶς ἐθηρεύθη.
τί ταῦτ᾿;” ἔφη· “δύστηνος ὡς διεψεύσθην·
οἱ γὰρ πόδες μ᾿ ἔσῳζον, οἷς ἐπῃδούμην,
τὰ κέρατα δὲ προὔδωκεν, οἷς ἐγαυρούμην.”

Περὶ τῶν σεαυτοῦ πραγμάτων ὅταν κρίνῃς,
μηδὲν βέβαιον ὑπολάβῃς προγινώσκων,
μηδ᾿ αὖτ᾿ ἀπογνῷς, μηδ᾿ ἀπελπίσῃς· οὕτω
σφάλλουσιν ἡμᾶς ἐσθ᾿ ὅθ᾿ αἱ πεποιθήσεις.

In the translation of B. E. Perry –

A two-year stag, swift-footed and with handsome horns, was drinking from a quiet pool. Seeing therein his own image, he was grieved and ashamed at the sight of his hoofs and legs, but in his horns, so beautiful, he felt excessive pride. Behold, that retribution which keeps watch upon the things of earth was close at hand. Some hunters suddenly he spied, equipped with nets and keen-scented hounds; whereat he turned to flee, not yet having slaked his thirst. With nimble feet he dashed across a wide expanse of plain, but when he came into the woods with trees on every side his horns got tangled in the boughs and he was caught. “What’s this?” he cried. “Alas, how miserably was I deceived! My feet were bringing me to safety, and of them I was ashamed; the horns, of which I was so proud, betrayed me.”

In taking stock of your affairs do not suppose that anything can be relied upon as sure before the event. On the other hand do not give up or lose hope. So deceptive sometimes are our confident expectations.

Those who take a pessimistic approach to taking selfies tend to point out that this may be a form of narcissism, self-obsession, and general superficiality.

At the other end of the spectrum, it has been argued that the selfie is an important tool of freedom of (self-)expression.

The beauty of Baebrius’ fable, to my mind, lies in the way in which it captures some really important aspects about photography.

Pictures are what we, what the photographers and onlookers see in them.

They do not document truth, true value, true virtue, true strength.

They tell a story – a story of what someone wanted to focus on. A story of what someone wanted to see – and wanted others to see.

They deliberately distort perspective, make their interprets focus on specific aspects while drawing attention away from others.

But, as Baebrius’ stag was to discover: in real life, distortions won’t save us: we must be aware of our true, genuine, real assets and value(s). Otherwise, those who pray on us and our vanities will hunt and shoot us down, exclusively for their own benefit or pleasure.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

REBLOGGED: WYSIWYG Classics, Or: Making Roman diversity visible, audible, and accessible for 21st century audiences

This blog post was originally published on CUCD-EDI. I am grateful to Elena Giusti and Victoria Leonhard for both their invaluable support and permission to re-blog!

Image credit:  Fabien Dany –

What do we want to see (and do we have a choice)?

WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get – is an acronym with a long history. It was especially important during the infant days of the computing age: programmes that allowed you to view and edit content in a way that it already resembled the finished product (rather than some code that then required processing and rendering) were a big breakthrough.

“What you see is what you get” captures with precision the way in which the curriculum in schools and universities, as well as in popular science magazines and programmes, shapes our attitude and approach to the ancient world: we get what we see, oftentimes blissfully unaware of just how much more complex, rich, and diverse things really were.

Would you like an example?

How may Roman poets can you think of, from the top of your head? 12? 24? (C’mon – let’s add some late-antique/Christian ones: do I hear 30? And what about those Greek authors of the imperial age?)

However many you just managed to think of, let us be honest: the number isn’t exactly impressive, is it, considering that the Roman empire was a complex system-in-motion whose ‘life’ spanned some 1,500 years and stretched from Southern Scotland to the Persian Gulf and from Morocco to the Black Sea.

And it is even less impressive, considering that poetry is the cheapest art form of all: all you need are words, and they come for free, ready for use and re-use, with new ones to be added, for anyone.

And poetry was created everywhere in the Roman empire, all the time. The evidence is there – hidden in dusty volumes and mostly rather unspectacular museum displays. Because verbal art is not exactly as eye-catching as yet another polychrome pot or fancy sculpture.

But that is not the only problem.

Based on the canons of Roman times, teaching us what constitutes “good poetry”, the texts that survived through manuscript transmission were further regulated through the (partly state-mandated, partly privately created) curricula of all those various places of learning – and higher learning, with its trickle-down pedagogy from university to schools.

But poetry, just like music, was a shared practice of all the many ethnicities and peoples (and languages, cultures, social groups, etc) of the Roman world and those spaces (and times) that surrounded it.

We just never really get to see much, if any, of this.


What we don’t see, we don’t get.

So – question: would you like to see just three examples of how incredibly diverse Roman poetry can be?

Then read on! (If not: thank you for your time, but, I promise, you WILL be missing out…!)

Damostrateia: a confident single mother in Rome’s migrant community

Let us go straight to the city of Rome.

No, not to well-trodden Augustan Rome, but to that rather less well-explored Rome of the later third century A. D.

Let us hear what a woman Damostrateia has to say about her deceased husband Rufinus, who was also known as Asterios (IG XIV 1976 = IGUR III 1321 = EDR126766, where you can find the Greek text; transl. G. H. R. Horsley):

This is the tomb of Rufinus, whom once they used to call Asterios. He left the land of Rome and went to the city of the Nile; and shining out in the progress he made, he provided many things for many people, causing distress to no one, but considered what was just. Yet he did not escape the thread of the triple Fates, but died and gave his soul back to the sky, his body to the earth. But even among the dead he had the judgement of piety; and once more he saw the light of day, although he was a corpse, and sailed the sea and came back to his own land. And he lies with his children, whose mortal end he did not witness; for he predeceased them. And the mother of twin children, a fine woman who loved her husband, sailed across the ocean and brought his body over the deep, and endured difficulties and continued in her grieving and laid him down in this tomb and bequeathed him to eternity. This monument is (testimony to) the wifely devotion of Damostrateia.

The individuals mentioned here are otherwise unknown. From the text it would appear as though Rufinus (a. k. a. Asterios) was a lawyer who was sent from Rome to (presumably) Alexandria, to serve as a legal expert in some administrative capacity or other.

So far, so unspectacular, some might say.

But is it really that simple?

The memorial was taken care of by a woman, or so the text itself claims. Which might well mean that the text itself was also the composition of a female poet – Damostrateia.

Damostrateia’s name, as well as her choice of language (Greek!), suggests that this woman belonged to the big, ever evolving community of migrants that inhabited the city of Rome: it is unclear whether she was born in Rome or not, but it would seem as though Greek was the language of her community still. Interestingly enough, the same is true for her deceased husband, Rufinus, known by his – again: Greek! – nickname (?) Asterios.

And Damostrateia is not only presented as a family person, as a matron. She confidently takes care of the memorial, she takes decisive action when she learnt that her husband died overseas: in fact, she travelled to Egypt to ensure that the mortal remains of her husband would actually be retrieved and buried back home, in the city of Rome. Oh, and she also raised two children (who appear to have died comparatively young, but outlived their father) …

One might, as some have done, see this as a piece that records a promising lawyer’s career cut short.

Or one could take this as a fascinating document that preserves the words of a confident woman, who took care of her children first while her husband was deployed overseas, and then alone as a single mother after her husband’s premature death.

It depends on what (and whom) we would like to see – and to make visible.

Damostrateia travelled, she took business decisions, she organised the return of her husband’s mortal remains.  And she proudly presents all this in a text that speaks from – and to – the Greek-speaking community of the city of Rome: a role model that is very different from the roles that we typically consider when we speak about the Roman Empire.

Olympia: a young female migrant stuck between her lover and her brother

A (presumably) second century epitaph for a young woman called Olympia draws us even deeper into the migrant community of the city of Rome (IG XIV 1890 = IGUR III 1287 = EDR125198, where you can find the Greek text; an image of the stone can be found here and here):

To the Spirits of the Departed.
Here I lie, Olympia, aged 25. Of Greek heritage, my fatherland has been Apamea, and I hurt no-one, neither in their soul at a young age, nor in their heart when older.
This stele, which I erected on this ground under warm tears, I, Sotas, have made for Olympias, whom I took (possession of? care of? under my tutelage?) when she was a young girl.
For the great love of the two persisted just like when the sweet light persists shining forth in its gleaming, and just like the sweetness of sweet honey (still dangling?) from the mouth.
Sotas, who loved you, made this stele. Share fresh water with your thirsty soul.
Her brother inscribed this.

A document of love and care, if taken at face value, this piece reveals a remarkable fate: Olympia (whose voice is allowed to speak of her origins), who was Greek by origin, specifically from Apamea. There are a number of places of that name, all of them in the middle East, and there is a good chance that here the place name refers to Apameia in Syria.

The Greek of this piece is far from standard Greek – in fact, it contains several elements that are closer to Modern Greek than to the standard Attic and Ionian taught in schools and universities today. In fact, in some parts, the text’s grammar is rather obscure, though its meaning is not.

Apameia, Syria, is situated by the river Orontes.

The Orontes is mentioned by Juvenal, the satirist, in his third Satire (Iuv. 3.58–65, transl. S. M. Braund):

The race that’s now most popular with wealthy Romans—the people I want especially to get away from—I’ll name them right away, without any embarrassment. My fellow-citizens, I cannot stand a Greekified Rome. Yet how few of our dregs are Achaeans? The Syrian Orontes has for a long time now been polluting the Tiber, bringing with it its language and customs, its slanting strings along with pipers, its native tom-toms too, and the girls who are told to offer themselves for sale at the Circus.

Juvenal’s interlocutor is so unhappy about Rome’s migrant community (who don’t even speak the nice Greek that he might grudgingly be willing to accept), that – oh the irony! – he moves away (thus becoming a migrant, of course!).

With Olympia and her commemorators we get to meet someone who in the estimation of this man was even below the “dregs” that were the Achaeans (the Latin term, faex, is rather bolder still).

And we get a deep insight into the realities of these communities.

We do not know how or why Olympia, sweet Olympia, came to Rome. Her identity, however, and her attachment to her native lands and culture are apparent. What we get to see is one possessive Sotas, who ‘took’ her – and took care of the funerary monument. Unforgotten – like sunlight still radiating after sunset, like honey dragging on endlessly long after the spoon has been placed into one’s mouth.

But there’s also some obscure, nameless brother, taking care of the inscription, hinting at chain migration and family ties in ways that are not altogether dissimilar to communities of our own day and age.

With Damostrateia, mentioned in the previous inscription, we had met someone of apparent independence.

With Olympia we see someone whose life in Rome’s migrant community was deeply governed by other males. A reality, too, for many, in that melting pot that was the city of Rome.

The sweet sunlight’s shade turns spooky. The sweet honey leaves a bitter aftertaste. All the sugary sweetness leaves us afraid of diabetes.

And what the two gentlemen want to be an interminable celebration of Olympia may well be a document of ceaseless dependence, concealed in a language that speaks to a Greek-speaking community of the city of Rome that Olympia did not manage to escape (even if she were to have so desired).

Tineia Hygeia: born into slavery

Olympia may have come to Rome through a form of chain migration. But it would be misleading, of course, to think of Rome’s migrant communities as communities solely made up of first-generation foreigners. Individuals were born into migrant communities, and this is often concealed behind terms such as ‘home-born slave’ (verna, in Latin).

Being a home-born slave, i. e. being the offspring of enslaved parents in a household in the city of Rome, may have the fate of Tineia Hygeia, who died at the age of five, maybe in the second century A. D. (though the author of the relevant entry of the Epigraphic Database Rome thought that this piece ought to be datable to a later date).

Her inscription reads as follows  (IG XIV 2040 = IGUR III 1344 = EDR127714, where you can find the Greek text; transl.: A. Wypustek):

Immorally you abducted to the underworld, Lord Pluto,
a five-year-old girl who was praised by all;
as if a sweet smelling rose that in the springtime blooms
you had cut from the root before her time was due. But, Alexandra and Philtatos,
shed no more tears of grief over your lovely daughter,
for she was full of charm, and so was her attractive face,
and that is why she now resides in the timeless home of Ether.
Believe therefore the ancient tale: this noble child
has been abducted by Naiads for joy, not [sc. by] death.
To Tineia Hygeia, our most beloved ward, in memoriam.

The poem is certainly no less moving than that of Olympia. But, just like in Olympia’s case, the devil is in the detail.

In the prosaic ending of the text, Tineia Hygeia is described as a threptē.

Threptē is a Greek term that served a couple of purposes, most notably that of being the Greek equivalent of verna, ‘home-born slave’; but might also mean ‘ward’ (such as e. g. a foundling) as translated by Andrzej Wypustek, above. (Translations that, at least in the present case, see this term as a mere term to express ‘daughter’, however, would seem to miss the point.)

In the present inscription, however, the girl’s parents are clearly addressed directly. Their names were Alexandra and Philtatos. Names that suggest both servile status and an Eastern origin.

Did they address themselves in the third person? In an otherwise so very heartfelt composition?

Or was it, arguably rather more plausibly, someone who more rightfully than the parents would call Olympia a threptē? A slave-owner, into whose care Alexandra’s and Philtatos’ girl had fallen?

Was Olympia, the cut-flower rose, a precious, short-lived flower from a stem that was stuck, decoratively, in a garden where it originally did not belong, with a lot of unsavoury stuff piled onto its roots, to generate this short-lived delight, claimed by those who create artifice and call it nature?

Final thoughts

All three poems mentioned here give us a highly emotional, anecdotal glimpse into a reality that we, more often than not, choose not to see. They tell us of displaced individuals, speaking and communicating in a language that we do not even commonly associate much with the city of Rome herself. We are looking into what almost feels like a parallel universe of ancient Rome. And we find poetic beauty as well as narratives of real lives – lives that existed back then just as much as they exist now.

Much thought is currently going into the expansion and transformation of our curricula, to make them more inclusive, to decolonise them. All that is vitally important, not for reasons of political convenience, but because it is our duty, to ourselves, as human beings, and to our subject.

An important step towards achieving this has to be to acknowledge that our discipline itself covers substantial grounds beyond pre-defined literary canons, perpetuated bodies of evidence, and narratives of pure perfection and eternal glory.

Not all of these stories are pretty or easy. But neither is life, then as little as now. That does not mean, however, that one should turn a blind eye to these stories of diversity and hardship, then as little as now.

There is so much more to discover that would help us to make Classics a more diverse, more inclusive discipline.

If only we take a look beyond what we have always been forced to see by those who write our curricula.

Because, as I’ve said at the beginning, WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get.

Free online resources for further information

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Education, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on REBLOGGED: WYSIWYG Classics, Or: Making Roman diversity visible, audible, and accessible for 21st century audiences

Bringing the Roman world back to life, one lap-dog at a time!

Read an interview with María Limón, Xavier Espluga, and myself about this video here:

I wrote about this inscription (and inscriptions for dogs) before – find out more here:

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Education, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Freedom of Suppress

Having watched a few episodes of the daily POTUS press briefing screechorama recently, I was reminded of a particular gem among the fables of Phaedrus.

The piece is called Simius Tyrannus, King Ape. Its text, somewhat unusually surviving in prose form, reads as follows:

“Vtilius homini nil est quam recte loqui.”
probanda cunctis est quidem sententia;
sed ad perniciem solet agi sinceritas,
<ubi veritate plus valet mendacium. >
Duo homines, unus fallax et alter verax, iter simul agebant. Et cum ambularent, venerunt in provinciam simiarum. Quos ut vidit una ex multitudine simiarum, ipse qui prior esse videbatur, iussit eos teneri, ut interrogaret quid de illo homines dicerent. Iussitque omnes sibi similes adstare ante se ordine longo, dextra laevaque, et sibi sedile parari; sicut viderat imperatorem aliquando, taliter sibi adstare fecit. Iubentur homines adduci in medio. Ait maior “Quis sum ego?” Fallax dixit “Tu es imperator.” Iterum interrogat: “Et isti quos vides ante me stare?” Respondit: “Hi sunt comites tui, primicerii, campidoctores, militares officii.” Et quia mendacio laudatus est cum turba sua, iubet illum munerari, et quia adulatus est, omnes illos fefellit. Verax autem apud se cogitabat: “Si iste mendax, qui omnia mentitur, sic accepit, ego, si verum dixero, magis munerabor.” Tunc ait maior simia “Dic et tu, quis sum ego, et hi quos ante me vides?” At ille, qui semper veritatem amabat et loqui consueverat, respondit “Tu es vere simia, et omnes hi similes tui simiae semper sunt.” Iubetur continuo lacerari dentibus et unguibus, eo quod verum dixisset.
Malis hominibus, qui fallaciam et malitiam amant, honestatem et veritatem lacerant.

“Nothing is more profitable to a man than to speak the truth.” This is a maxim that should, of course, be approved by everyone; but sincerity is usually brought to its own destruction in places where the current value of falsehood is greater than that of truth. Two men, one in the habit of practising deception, the other habitually truthful, were making a journey together. In the course of their travel they came into a territory ruled by apes. When one of the crowd of apes, he who seemed to be chief among them, caught sight of the travellers, he ordered them to be detained, that he might question them concerning what men were saying about himself. He gave orders that all his fellow apes should stand before him in a long line on the right and on the left, and that a throne should be placed for himself. As he had once seen the Emperor do, so likewise he caused his followers to stand before him. Orders were given that the men should be brought in. Said the chief of the apes: “Who am I?” The deceptive man answered: “You are the Emperor.” Again he inquired: “And what about these whom you see standing before me?” “These,” he replied, “are your high-ranking courtiers, chancellors, field marshals, military officials.” Because he and his crowd had been praised by this man’s lie, he ordered him to be given a reward; and the man, because he had flattered them all, likewise deceived them all. But the truthful man thought to himself: “If this deceiver, whose words are all lies, has received such a recompense, then I, if I tell the truth, shall receive an even greater one.” Then said the chief of the apes: “You, too, speak up; who am I, and who are these whom you see before me?” But the man who loved the truth and always spoke it, replied: “You are in fact an ape, and all these present who are like you are apes, and always will be.” Immediately orders were given for this man to be torn to pieces by teeth and claws, because he had told the truth.
This is a tale for wicked men who love deceit and malice, and who murder honesty and truth.

–––– Phaedr. 4.13, transl. B. E. Perry

There is a lot of talk about ‘fake news’ out there, and I’ve reflected on that matter on here before on a couple of occasions (see here and here).

And, of course, as we are at this point essentially dealing with a cult that is led by a compulsive liar and narcissist, there is little point in reasoning: his cult following loves him for what would be a matter of blame and shame in anyone else.

But there may still be a point in thinking about the ways in which one may emerge from this crisis – a crisis that is going to haunt those who colluded in it for short term benefit.

And in that regard, Phaedrus’ fable, to my mind, has a few very interesting things to say.

My first observation is that our author does not challenge the rule (and its legitimacy) of the President of the United Simians: he is the simius tyrannus (which sounds more dubious to us than it sounded to Phaedrus’ Roman readers – tyrannus is just the Greek word for ‘king’). He is the prior, the maior, his ‘majesty’ is acknowledged, by the author who also defines what is the position of truth (verax) and what is falsehood and a lie (mendax).

So why is the mendax lying when he answers the monkey-in-charge?

The lie consists in not challenging the ape’s aping of a different society altogether: the simius is acting like an imperator, an emperor, a human emperor, whom he had witnessed sometime ago. It is an act, not a reality – and instead of challenging this absurdity, the mendax, the liar, plays along.

The verax, the truthful man, does not. And he gets shredded into pieces, even though – proud of his virtuous act – he expected an even greater recompense than his shameless travel companion.

And this brings me to a second observation. The fable opens with what the author introduces as a truism: everyone should agree, he says, that nothing is more useful than to speak truth. Except that truth will lead to death where mendacity prevails.

At first, or so it seems, Phaedrus does not offer a way out of this conundrum. What can one do under such circumstances. Is there a way out?

There may well be.

Three questions:

  • Why travel with liars?
  • Why visit the kingdom of the apes?
  • Is it especially smart to assume that an ape who enjoys being flattered by blatant falsehoods will appreciate being told that it ain’t so?

The opening words of Phaedrus leave no doubt: being verax (rather than mendax) is good. And it should prevail. But for that to happen, one needs to understand the rules of the game.

Don’t engage with those whose entire rule relies on falsehoods in the hope that they will eventually acknowledge that, if you are just smart enough in going about this.

Don’t get involved in monkey business.

Choose the terrain in which it is safe to be verax.

A third observation. The opening line. Vtilius homini nil est quam recte loqui, ‘nothing is more profitable to a man than to speak the truth’. This is commonly understood to mean (and our author promotes this understanding at first) that to speak truth is the best. But the Latin is ambiguous. The literal, word-for-word translation into unidiomatic English would be: ‘more useful to a human nothing is than rightly to speak.’

The verax learnt the hard way that it would have been more useful to say nothing at all than to speak truth, ubi veritate plus valet mendacium, ‘in places where the current value of falsehood is greater than that of truth.’

A final observation. The ape does not start his ridiculous act until he is certain to have an audience. He thrives on it, and so do his followers.

No audience, no platfom, no jury – no simius tyrannus.

Posted in Poetry, Prose | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment


On March 21st, 2020, the President of the United States revealed that his tremendous capacities also stretched to the field of medicine:

More recently, medical studies would appear to suggest that hydroxychloroquine is only marginally more effective than anthonyquine when it comes to battling COVID-19.

It also turned out that Mr Trump may have had a sliiiiiiight financial interest in promoting the drug (though, for once, in a Trump story the filthy-lucre aspect seems less spectacular).

But to see someone who famously failed at several other businesses, suddenly fake medical knowledge and pretend to have a miracle cure –––

Jan Steen: De kwakzalver (‘The Quack Doctor’) (1650/60)

––– that did remind me of a short fable: a fable preserved in the collection of the Roman fabulist Phaedrus:

Malus cum sutor inopia deperditus
medicinam ignoto facere coepisset loco
et venditaret falso antidotum nomine,
verbosis adquisivit sibi famam strophis.
hic cum iaceret morbo confectus gravi . . .
rex urbis, eius experiendi gratia
scyphum poposcit: fusa dein simulans aqua
illius se miscere antidoto toxicum,
combibere iussit ipsum, posito praemio.
timore mortis ille tum confessus est
non artis ulla medicum se prudentia,
verum stupore vulgi factum nobilem.
rex advocata contione haec edidit:
“Quantae putatis esse vos dementiae,
qui capita vestra non dubitatis credere
cui calceandos nemo commisit pedes?”
Hoc pertinere vere ad illos dixerim,
quorum stultitia quaestus impudentiae est.

A bungling cobbler, desperately in want, had resorted to practising medicine in a strange locality, and, peddling what he falsely called an “antidote,” built up a reputation for himself by verbal tricks of advertising. So it happened that when lay gravely ill and all but gone, the king of the city, to test his skill, called for a cup; then pouring water into it, but pretending to mix poison with the “antidote,” he ordered the man to drink it off himself, for a reward that he displayed. In mortal fear the cobbler then confessed that his high standing as a physician was not due to any knowledge of the art but to the gullibility of the crowd. The king then summoned an assembly and said to the people: How crazy you are, you may judge for yourselves. You have no hesitation about putting your lives at the mercy of a man to whose care no one in want of shoes ever trusted his feet.”

This, I dare say, strikes home at those whose gullibility provides an income for impostors.

Phaedrus, Fables 1.14 (transl. B. E. Perry)

Of course there are many things one might say about this fable, and there would be many delightful parallels to unpick.

What strikes me most, however, is that Phaedrus chose not to comment on the fraudulent doctor or the cunning king: instead, he chose to make this about those whose stultitia, whose gullibility, proudly uninformed by knowledge or relevant experience, promote impostors and their money-making schemes in the first place.

Making this about public responsibility for what (and whom) we, collectively, allow to succeed, shamelessly mixing self-interest in their selling miracle cures for everything, may not be a bad take on the matter.

But what do I know.

Stay healthy and keep safe, everyone. And don’t take any untested miracle drugs.

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Devastating Isolation

Splendid isolation is a phrase that was coined to describe British diplomatic policies of the nineteenth century.

Nothing ‘splendid’ about isolation, many will feel at present, no matter which of the six degrees of separation they have reached:

  • not at all (a.k.a. being selfish and anti-social, with no regard for the health and lives of others)
  • wearing a face mask only as a piece of fashion
  • physical distancing (I know it’s called social distancing, but that’s a stupid term that doesn’t describe what’s actually required of us)
  • self-isolation
  • quarantine
  • hiding out in a nuclear bunker until the alien invasion is over

All of the above stink, of course, and most of us would not want to do any this under normal circumstances. Except for getting rid of this odd hand-shaking thing, maybe: seriously, who needs that!

Until recently, I had never much thought about the term isolation. But now that I can’t escape it, the first thing that came to mind was: as it would appear to be derived from Italian isola, Latin insula, ‘island’, I began to wonder if the term was, in fact, ancient…? Insulatio maybe?

Somewhat unsuprisingly, there was no evidence for insulatio in ancient Latin, it turned out.

But that was not the end of the story.

The late antique author Apuleius, author of a book of the eternally giggle-worthy title The Golden Ass, produced a translation of a pseudo-Aristotelian treatise ‘On the Universe‘ (De mundo). In this work (Apul. mund. 34), the author uses a previously unattested participle insulatus, ‘turned into an island’.

The very same passage is quoted and contextualised by Saint Augustin in his work The City of God (4.2, transl. G. E. McCracken):

Quid si commemorare voluissem et exaggerare illa mala quae non sibi invicem homines faciunt, sicut sunt vastationes eversionesque bellantium, sed ex ipsius mundi elementis terrenis accidunt rebus (quae uno loco Apuleius breviter stringit in eo libello quem de mundo scripsit, terrena omnia dicens mutationes, conversiones et interitus habere; namque inmodicis tremoribus terrarum, ut verbis eius utar, dissiluisse humum et interceptas urbes cum populis dicit; abruptis etiam imbribus prolutas totas esse regiones; illas etiam, quae prius fuerant continentes, hospitibus atque advenis fluctibus insulatas aliasque desidia maris pedestri accessu pervias factas; ventis ac procellis eversas esse civitates; incendia de nubibus emicasse, quibus Orientis regiones conflagratae perierunt, et in Occidentis plagis scaturrigines quasdam ac proluviones easdem strages dedisse; sic ex Aetnae verticibus quondam effusis crateribus divino incendio per declivia torrentis vice flammarum flumina cucurrisse),—si haec atque huius modi quae habet historia, unde possem, colligere voluissem, quando finissem?

What a story it would be if I had wished to relate and emphasize, not those evils which men do to each other, such as the devastation and destruction wrought by men in their wars, but by those afflictions which befall the earth from the elements of the universe itself! Apuleius in one place briefly touches on these, in his treatise On the Universe, where he says that all things on earth have their changes, reversals and annihilations. For indeed, to use his own words, “in violent earthquakes the ground has burst open and swallowed cities with their inhabitants. Whole districts have been washed away by cloudbursts; some that had been parts of the mainland became islands by the occurrence of invading floods, while others by a recession of the sea have become accessible on foot. Cities have been overthrown by wind and storm. Fires have flashed from the clouds, by which regions of the East were consumed and perished; in the western lands there were springs and floods that wrought the same destruction. Once, for instance, craters erupted from the peaks of Aetna in a godsent conflagration, and rivers of flame ran down the slopes like a torrent.” If I had wanted to collect historical incidents of this sort from every possible source, when should I have finished the task?

It is impossible to say whether the term existed before Apuleius, or whether he coined it himself when facing the task to render the Greek text.

Of course, objectively, Apuleius’ text has little to do with our own situation. Yet it is remarkable to see the term insulatus, which in a way is the ancestor of our current term isolation, in the context of a passage that describe how natural disasters change the surface of the earth, destroying continuities that existed, making access impossible.

To Apuleius, isolation was just as catastrophic as an earthquake, torrential rainfalls that wash away entire landscapes (or strong winds that have the same effect), floods, and volcanism.

Isolation disrupts lives. Even in the times of social media. Even in the times of Skype, WhatsApp, and the likes.

We have to do this at the moment. All of us. For the greater good.

But we mustn’t forget those among us, vulnerable in many cases, whose lives are both saved as a result of isolation and distancing in one way and severely adversely affected in another.

The elderly.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

And many more.

To them, when they find themselves insulati and insulatae, the impact of this may be just as catastrophic as Apuleius and Saint Augustine describe.

PS. Curious about the etymology ‘quarantine’ now? It was introduced in the 14th century to denote a period of forty (Italian: quaranta) days of enforced isolation, imposed to cut the spread of dangerous diseases.

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Community spirit under siege

The coronavirus-induced lockdown has many effects on us, individually and collectively, wherever we are. And we all respond in different ways.

There are many aspects of this situation that worry me. The idea that I might catch the virus myself does not even rank very highly on that list. (Maybe I have already had it? How would I know, if an infection can be asymptomatic, and I can’t test myself?) But of course I do not want to become a spreader of the illness, either.

As virologists run the show, and as there is a remarkable debate as to what counts more – lives saved from death or quick economic recovery – I find that my own interests are very different.

I tend to worry about people.

Vulnerable people. And their very real concerns.

Like those ‘key workers’ for example. Not expendable, yet vastly underpaid (and always threatened with job cuts). How do we care for those who care for us? I don’t just mean the lack of equipment. I mean actual, genuine care. Is there psychological support for them, for those who deal with nothing but suffering and death? How do we support them when it comes to their fears and anxieties over their own families and relatives? Somehow clapping doesn’t quite seem to cut it (though I am sure it is appreciated).

And how can we address the situation of those who find themselves locked in, into small spaces, with their families?

Christmas and New Year can be bad enough. And at least there are presents. But over weeks and months on end? It’s a social steam cooker experiment, about to explode on many occasions. What relief, what support is there?

What about all those who got laid off? And now can’t find a job? (And what if that happens to those locked in with their families?)

It’s a time bomb, potentially, and one that needs addressing just as much as medical help and the survival of businesses.

We often resort to imagery when we try to conceptualise our problems. And when things are hard and difficult and threatening, war imagery gets deployed (ha! see what I did there?). This may be unhelpful. This may be intellectually undesirable. But it’s a given.

Adam van Noort, Final Battle of the Siege of Troy

And with that in mind, I’ve started to wonder what ancient authors have to say about those affected by a siege – those who are locked in, with an enemy at the gates. How does one survive? How can we ensure that a dangerous situation does not become one in which our communities fall apart altogether?

One of the ancient authors who writes about sieges, Aeneas Tacticus, an author of the fourth century B. C. who has written several books on warfare and related issues (check him out here, for example), has a chapter on this topic in his sole surviving work ‘How to survive under siege’ – and his advice is this (chapter 14):

τὸ δὲ πλῆθος τῶν πολιτῶν εἰς ὁμόνοιαν τέως μάλιστα χρὴ προάγειν, ἄλλοις τε ὑπαγόμενον αὐτοὺς καὶ τοὺς χρεωφειλέτας κουφίζοντα τόκων βραχύτητι ἢ ὅλως ἀφαιροῦντα, ἐν δὲ τοῖς λίαν ἐπικινδύνοις καὶ τῶν ὀφειλημάτων τι μέρος, καὶ πάντα ὅταν δέῃ, ὡς πολύ γε φοβερώτατοι ἔφεδροί εἰσιν οἱ τοιοίδε ἄνθρωποι, τούς τε ἐν ἀπορίᾳ ὄντας τῶν ἀναγκαίων εἰς εὐπορίαν καθιστάναι.

It is very important that unanimity (homonoia) among the citizens in general should be secured for the time being by various conciliatory measures, such as the relief of debtors by the reduction or abolition of interest: in a very dangerous crisis even the capital sum owed may be partly, or, of necessary, wholly cancelled, as insolvent debtors are very dangerous adversaries to have sitting by, watching for their opportunity. Those in want of the necessaries of life should be amply provided for.

The reduction, or deletion, of financial worries comes first for Aeneas Tacticus – immediately followed by his advice to ensure provision of quintessential goods.

I guess that includes toilet paper? Our academic commentaries make no mention of that specific commodity, but I am sure that is what Aeneas Tacticus is talking about…?

I wish more of Aeneas’ work had survived. For he added ––

καὶ ὅπως ἴσως καὶ ἀλύπως τοῖς πλουσίοις ταῦτ̓ ἂν γιγνόμενα πράττοιτο καὶ ἐξ οἵων πόρων πορίζοιτο, καὶ περὶ τούτων ἐν τῇ Ποριστικῇ βίβλῳ δηλωτικῶς γέγραπται.

How this may be done fairly and without laying an undue burden on the rich, and from what funds such provision should be made, I have described in detail in my Ways and Means.

I guess we have to trust our respective governments to find those Ways and Means themselves. In the interest of us, as a community. (Ideally one that doesn’t regress to an isolationist state, for the virus – to the best of my knowledge – doesn’t understand the concept of national borders, either.)

Without laying an undue burden on the rich.

But that doesn’t mean no burden at all.

(Yes, looking at all those companies who cynically fire their employees right now. Or those who refuse to pay the rent for their facilities. All those who enjoy to privatise their profits and to socialise their losses.)

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Social Distancing, Phoenix-style

Of all bizarre creatures in that imaginary space that is Greco-Roman myth, Phoenix, the fabled, long-lived, cyclically re-born bird that knows how to go out (and come back in) with a bang, has to be one of the most remarkable and mysterious ones.

F. J. Bertuch: Phoenix

The late antique poet Claudian gives a delightful version of the myth in one of his shorter poems (see here for the Latin text and an English translation).

Turns out, the majestic creature was a bit of a recluse, who practised social distancing long before it was cool, and thus managed to avoid the threats of contagious diseases (Claudian. carm. min. 27, transl. M. Platnauer):

haec fortunatus nimium Titanius ales
regna colit solusque plaga defensus iniqua
possidet intactas aegris animalibus oras
saeva nec humani patitur contagia mundi.

This is the kingdom of the blessèd bird of the sun where it dwells in solitude defended by the inhospitable nature of the land and immune from the ills that befall other living creatures; nor does it suffer infection from the world of men.

Good advice at the moment, it seems, for anyone who fancies longevity – and, apparently, a truly spectacular process of rebirth, fire, combustion, ashes, and all that (if we can trust our ancient authorities on that).

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I am bored, you are bored, all aboard…

The second most contagious thing in the world right now, after the new coronavirus, is the insight that ‘social distancing’, previously known as ‘staying at home’ and ‘stay the fxxx away from me, you creep’, may actually help to decelerate the spread of the virus by reducing the number of new cases and thus helping to prevent our health services from collapsing altogether.

We have the world at our fingertips, enabling us to communicate for (almost) free and in real time. We live in a world in which the convenience of food and goods delivery has begun to replace the hassle of actually going to a shop (not for me, though: I’m a dinosaur, thank you very much). The internet provides us with almost unlimited resources to receive and broadcast forms of entertainment and distraction, from the silly to the useful to the unbearably serious.

Yet, remarkably, we talk about ‘unparalleled’ disruption to our lives.

Of course, unparalleled perhaps for many of us.

I’m not so sure if those who had to endure the hardships of WWI or WWII would find any of our inconveniences, combined with our access to communication media, all that remarkable. In fact, I am pretty sure, they’ve had it much worse.

Or those who suffered years of the plague.

But whatever, it’s all about us, right? Individualism meets post-truth, and all that.

Anyway. Who cares about perspective when the heat is on. It. Is. All. About. Us.

For perfectly good reasons, the medical and economic impact of the virus on our societies is very much in the foreground of current debate. But already now there is an increasing awareness of the social implications that this virus has on our lives (I addressed some aspects of that in an opinion piece, published here (in German – but fear not, Google Translate is your friend)), and this seems very important to me: we cannot, and should not, be reduced to medically functioning organisms and economically viable and productive entities.

There is more to life.

One of the remarkable developments I see is the fact that, in spite of all the time that we now potentially have at our disposal, and in spite of all the technology in our hands, the unaccustomed lack of structure to our days results in a peculiar, potentially quite explosive mixture of complete and utter boredom, despair, and recalcitrance.
Gaston de la Touche, Boredom (1893)

The lack of structure, the lack of focus and meaning in our daily lives, as they are disrupted by the virus and government-imposed restrictions, is something that we ought to address.

In that context, looking for inspiration, I came across the following passage of Lucretius‘ poem De rerum natura (Lucr. 3.1046 ff., transl. W. H. D. Rouse – M. F. Smith):

You whose life is now all but dead though you live and see, you who waste the greater part of your time in sleep, who snore open-eyed and never cease to see dreams, who bear with you a mind plagued with vain terror, who often cannot discover what is amiss with you, when you are oppressed, poor drunken wretch, by a host of cares on all sides, while you wander drifting on the wayward tides of impulse!

Just as men evidently feel that there is a weight on their minds which wearies with its oppression, if so they could also recognize from what causes it comes, and what makes so great a mountain of misery to lie on their hearts, they would not so live their lives as now we generally see them do, each ignorant what he wants, each seeking always to change his place as if he could drop his burden.

The man who has been bored to death at home often goes forth from his great mansion, and then suddenly returns because he feels himself no better abroad. off he courses, driving his Gallic ponies to his country house in headlong haste, as if he were bringing urgent help to a house on fire. The moment he has reached the threshold of the house, he yawns, or falls into heavy sleep and seeks oblivion, or even makes haste to get back and see the city again.

Thus each man tries to flee from himself, but to that self, from which of course he can never escape, he clings against his will, and hates it, because he is a sick man that does not know the cause of his complaint; for could he see that well, at once each would throw his business aside and first study to learn the nature of things, since the matter in doubt is not his state for one hour, but for eternity, in what state mortals must expect all time to be passed which remains after death.

Lack of an ability to rest in ourselves, Lucretius suggests in these profound and witty lines, is what causes our unsteadiness and fuels our fidgety disquietude, combined with our fear of death, a fear of missing out in our lives before death.

He prescribes a thorough reading of philosophy to address this. That may, quite emphatically, not be everyone’s preferred course of action right now.

But I do wonder if there is not some opportunity in these challenging times as well: an opportunity to decelerate, an opportunity to question the purposes that have defined our busy lives, an opportunity to rediscover big and tiny joys, an opportunity to seek meaning in life beyond the daily grind.

Right now, the boredom and uneasiness, combined with a very real fear of death for ourselves and our loved ones, amplified by what we read in the news and – worse – on social media, can be toxic.

Thus each man tries to flee from himself, but to that self, from which of course he can never escape, he clings against his will, and hates it, because he is a sick man that does not know the cause of his complaint; for could he see that well, at once each would throw his business aside and first study to learn the nature of things, since the matter in doubt is not his state for one hour, but for eternity, in what state mortals must expect all time to be passed which remains after death.

So we need to end our impossible escape, our running away from ourselves. We need to learn how to detox.

And we need to support all those who help us to survive this extraordinary situation. Not just right now. But all the time. #StayAtHome #ReadMoreLucretius

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Herd immunity

As the UK’s ‘herd immunity’ approach to the coronavirus crisis has proven to be somewhat of a debacle, I would like to share how the farmer Sagaris protected his herd during an epidemic.

His story is recorded in a Greek verse inscription from Apollonia Mordiaion, datable to A. D. 162, i. e. around, or just before, the period of the so-called Antonine plague.

The text reads as follows (SGO 12/62/01):

ἔτους ζμσ’
γειαρότας δοιοὺς τούσδ’ ἐθέμην Σάγαρις
ἀντὶ βοῶν ζώντων τοὺς Δοκιμεῖς ἀρότας,
οὓς ἐσάωσε θεὸς ὅτε βούβρωστις κατὰ γαῖαν
σαρκοβόρος δεινή τε φόνον βρείθουσα ἄλυκτ[ον]
κόσμον ἐπέσχετο πάντα· ἐμοὶ φύγον έ(κ) καμάτ[οιο]
ἐργατιναί καλοὶ ξανθοί γαίης ἀροτήρες·
καὶ βόας ἐρρύσω ψυχὰς δὲ βροτῶν ἐσάωσ[ας]
καὶ Γαλατῶν γαίης ἤγαγες ες πατρίδα,
υὗά τ’ ἐμὸν κύδηνας ἐνὶ Τρόκμοις ζαθέοισι·
τούνεκεν οὐ μέγα δῶρον ἐγὼ τὸν βωμὸν ἔθηκα·
τίς γὰρ δῶρον ἄνακτι θεῶν ἀντάξιον εὕροι;

In translation:

In the year 247 (of the Sullan era, i. e. A. D. 162).
I, Sagaris, have placed these two soil-ploughers, ploughers made of Docimene marble, instead of the live oxen, that God (= Zeus) saved when a terrible, flesh-destroying adversity that brought inescapable, heavy murder with it, held the entire world in its grip. But my blonde workers, the soil-ploughers, escaped the suffering; you (sc. God) have saved the oxen, saved the souls of mortals, and have led them to their homes, the land of the Galatians. You gave honour to my son with the sacred Trocmi. That is why I erected this altar, a humble gift: for who could find a gift worthy enough of the ruler of gods?

Stay safe, people. Learn from Sagaris. Distancing and self-isolation help to tackle the crisis. #WWSD (What Would Sagaris Do!)

And if you would like to read more about epidemic diseases in the Roman verse inscriptions, have a look at my recent MAPPOLA project post.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , | 1 Comment