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.

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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.

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The human side of the pandemic

As the world is trying to come to terms with the new coronavirus, Team MAPPOLA is doing its utmost to keep safe, working from home as best we can. As…

The human side of the pandemic
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Io, Saturnalia? Merry Happy Whatever!

Few ancient exclamations inspire the internet as much as io Saturnalia, allegedly shouted by the Romans in the streets during their celebration of the Saturnalia (and as it is December 18th today as I write this, we are already bang in the middle of that particular holiday!).

But what do we actually know about this exclamation?

Very little, it turns out.

The idea that io Saturnalia was indeed shouted widely among the population of Rome is derived from a very small number of ancient sources. The usual point of departure for conclusions regarding this practice is a short passage in the first book of the late antique author MacrobiusSaturnalia:

Ex his ergo omnibus colligi potest et uno die Saturnalia fuisse et non nisi quarto decimo Kalendarum Ianuariarum celebrata: quo solo die apud aedem Saturni convivio dissoluto Saturnalia clamitabantur: qui dies nunc Opalibus inter Saturnalia deputatur, cum primum Saturno pariter et Opi fuerit ascriptus.

From all this, then, we can conclude both that the Saturnalia comprised a single day and that it was the fourteenth day before the Kalends of January: on that day alone the Saturnalia used to be proclaimed in the temple of Saturn in the course of a relaxed banquet. That day is now assigned to the Opalia, in the course of the Saturnalia, though it was originally assigned both to Ops and to Saturn.’

Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.10.18 (transl. R. A. Kaster)

Not much in terms of the cry io Saturnalia, in fact, but still: this is the passage that is most commonly relied on.

A second passage that must be thrown into the mix comes from the Greek historian Cassius Dio, who writes about this practice in passing in the context of a debate of the year A. D. 43 over a possible military campaign in Britain:

τότε γὰρ πολλῷ που μᾶλλον ἐπ᾿ αὐτῷ ἀχθεσθέντες οὔτε τι ἐκείνῳ εἰπεῖν ἐπέτρεψαν, συμβοήσαντες ἐξαίφνης τοῦτο δὴ τὸ θρυλούμενον “ἰὼ σατουρνάλια,” ἐπειδήπερ ἐν τοῖς Κρoνίοις οἱ δοῦλοι τὸ τῶν δεσποτῶν σχῆμα μεταλαμβάνοντες ἑορτάζουσι, καὶ τῷ Πλαυτίῳ εὐθὺς ἑκούσιοι συνέσποντο.

Then they became much angrier at this and would not allow Narcissus to say a word, but suddenly shouted with one accord the well-known cry, “Io Saturnalia” (for at the festival of Saturn the slaves don their masters’ dress and hold festival), and at once right willingly followed Plautius.

Cassius Dio 60.19.3 (transl. E. Cary – H. B. Foster)

Still not much in terms of what actually used to happen on Saturnalia – but at least the missing io has now been found.

With that there are a mere three more passages that can be adduced, none of them especially helpful.

The first one comes from Petronius:

Post hoc dictum Giton, qui ad pedes stabat, risum iam diu compressum etiam indecenter effudit. Quod cum animadvertisset adversarius Ascylti, flexit convicium in puerum et “Tu autem” inquit “etiam tu rides, caepa cirrata? Io Saturnalia, rogo, mensis december est? Quando vicesimam numerasti?

At this remark Giton, who was standing by my feet, burst out with an unseemly laugh, which he had now been holding in for a long while. Ascyltos’s enemy noticed him, and turned his abuse on to the boy. “What,” he said, “are you laughing too, you curly-headed onion? Merry Saturnalia indeed: what, have we December here? When did you pay five per cent on your freedom?

Petronius, Saturnalia 58 (transl. M. Heseltine – W. H. D. Rouse)

The second one is in Martial:

Triste supercilium durique severa Catonis
frons et aratoris filia Fabricia
et personati fastus et regula morum,
quidquid et in tenebris non sumus, ite foras.
clamant ecce mei ‘Io Saturnalia’ versus:
et licet et sub te praeside, Nerva, libet.
lectores tetrici salebrosum ediscite Santram:
nil mihi vobiscum est: iste liber meus est.

Gloomy brow and stern countenance of unbending Cato and Fabricia, the plowman’s daughter, and pride in its mask, and moral code, and everything that in the dark we are not: out you go. Look, my verses shout “Hurrah for the Saturnalia!” Under your rule, Nerva, it’s allowed, and it’s our pleasure. You austere readers learn jerky Santra by heart, I am not concerned with you. This book is mine.

Martial 11.2 (transl. D. R. Shackleton Bailey)

And, finally, there is an obscure graffito from Pompeii:

io Saturnalia

CIL IV 2005a

Aaaaaand that’s it (I think…: if you are aware of passages specifically mention this cry that I’ve missed, please do let me know, and I shall stand corrected)!

These few passages leave little doubt over the festive character of the cheer, io Saturnalia!

Was it in common use? Clearly (or so Cassius Dio makes us believe).

Was it proclaimed in the context of the celebrations in the Saturn temple on December 19th, and used widely in the street, as a cheer or greeting? Possibly, but we have no evidence of that.

But what Cassius Dio, Petronius, and Martial all have in common is that the cry was understood to celebrate the (albeit temporary) liberation of underlings and servants against the rule of the high and mighty.

And that is a pretty good message for the season.

So go and shout it from the roof-tops (without disregarding relevant health-and-safety notices, of course!):

Io Saturnalia!

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Gory, gruesome, and grotesque: two ancient vampire tales

It is Hallowe’en today, and as I have not blogged much recently, a post appearing on here on this very occasion must feel like someone has returned from the dead just in time for this ominous date . . . rest assured that I am not quite dead yet: life has been busy, but this blog will continue to haunt you . . . . . .

I have posted occasional Hallowe’en stories before. But today’s selection will take you one step further still into the gory, gruesome, and grotesque world of ancient story-telling – presenting you with two narratives, unrelated, that, once combined, contribute to the very foundations of vampire folklore.

First of all, we need someone coming back from the dead to haunt the living – and to fall apart when put in the spotlight. The model par excellence for that is the tale of Philinnion, reported in Phlegon of Tralles‘s Book of Marvels. Phlegon’s version of the story begins somewhat out of the blue, however, so let us start with the later, shorter account of Proclus:

“Persons who died and returned to life . . . The case par excellence is Philinnion, during the reign of Philip [of Makedon]. The daughter of the Amphipolitans Demostratos and Charito, she died as a newly-wed. Her husband had been Krateros. In the sixth month after her death she returned to life and for many nights in a row secretly consorted with a young man, Makhates, because of her love for him. He had come to Demostratos from his native city of Pella. She was detected and died again after proclaiming that what she had done was done in accord with the will of the Khthonion (Underworld) Gods. Her corpse was seen by everyone as it lay in state in her father’s house. In their disbelief at what had happened the members of her family went to the place that had earlier received her body, dug the place up and found it to be empty. The events are described in a number of letters, some written by Hipparchos and some written by Arrhidaios (who was in charge of Amphipolis) to Philip.”

Proclus, Platonis Rem Publicam Commentarii 2 (source here)

So now for Phlegon’s rather more disturbing, extensive report (Phlegon, Book of Marvels 2.1, transl. Hansen):

The nurse went to the door of the guest room, and in the light of the burning lamp she saw the girl [Philinnion who died and had been entombed many months before] sitting beside Makhates. Because of the extraordinary nature of the sight, she did not wait there any longer but ran to the girl’s mother screaming, ‘Kharito! Demostratos!’ She said they should get up and come with her to their daughter, who was alive and by some divine will was with the guest in the guest room.

When Kharito heard this astonishing report, the immensity of the message and the nurse’s excitement made her frightened and faint. But after a short time the memory of her daughter came to her, and she began to weep; in the end she accused the old woman of being mad and told her to leave her presence immediately. But the nurse replied boldly and reproachfully that she herself was rational and sound of mind, unlike her mistress, who was reluctant to see her own daughter. With some hesitation Kharito went to the door of the guest room, partly coerced by the nurse and partly wanting to know what really had happened. Since considerable time–about two hours–had now passed since the nurse’s original message, it was somewhat late when Kharito went to the door and the occupants were already asleep. She peered in and though she recognised her daughter’s clothes and features, but inasmuch as she could not determine the truth of the matter she decided to do nothing further that night. She planned to get up in the morning and confront the girl, or if she should be tool ate for that she intended to question Makhates thoroughly about everything. He would not, she thought, lie if asked about so important a matter. And so she said nothing and left.

At dawn, however, it turned out that by divine will or chance the girl had left unnoticed. When Kharito came to the room she was upset with the young man because of the girl’s departure. She asked him to relate everything to her from the beginning, telling the truth and concealing nothing.

The youth was anxious and confused at first, but hesitantly revealed the girl’s name was Philinnion. He told how her visits began, how great her desire for him was, and that she said she came to him without her parents’ knowledge. Wishing to make the matter credible he opened his coffer and took out the items the girl had left behind–the golden ring he had obtained from her and the breast-band she had left the night before.
When Kharito saw this evidence she uttered a cry, tore her clothes, cast her headdress from her head and fell to the ground, throwing herself upon the tokens and beginning her grief anew. As the guest observed what was happening, how all were grieving and wailing as if they were about to lay the girl into her grave, he became upset and called upon them to stop, promising to show them the girl if she came again. Kharito accepted this and bade him carefully keep his promise to her.

Night came on and now it was the hour when Philinnion was accustomed to come to him. The household kept watch wanting to know of her arrival. She entered at the usual time and sat down on the bed. Makhates pretended that nothing was wrong, since he wished to investigate the whole incredible matter to find out if the girl he was consorting with, who took care to come to him at the same hour, was actually dead. As she ate and drank with him, he simply could not believe what the others had told him, and he supposed that some grave-robbers had dug into the tomb and sold the clothes and gold to her father. But in his wish to learn exactly what the case was, he secretly sent his slaves to summon Demostratos and Kharito.

They came quickly. When they first saw her they were speechless and panic-stricken by the amazing sight, but after that they cried aloud and embraced their daughter. Then Philinnion said to them : ‘Mother and father, how unfairly you have grudged my being with the guest for three days in my father’s house, since I have caused no one any pain. For this reason, on account of your meddling, you shall grieve all over again, and I shall return to the place appointed for me. For it was not without divine will that I came here.’ Immediately upon speaking these words she was dead, and her body lay stretched visibly on the bed. Her father and mother threw themselves upon her, and there was much confusion and wailing in the house because of the calamity. The misfortune was unbearable and the sight incredible.

The event was quickly heard through the city and was reported to me. Accordingly, during the night I kept in check the crowds that gathered at the house, since, with news like this going from mouth to mouth, I wanted to make sure there would be no trouble.

By early dawn the town assembly was full. After the particulars had been explained, it was decided that we should first go to the tomb, open it, and see whether the body lay on its bier or whether we would find the place empty. A half-year had not yet passed since the death of the girl. When we opened the chamber into which all deceased members of the family were placed, we saw bodies lying on biers, or bones in the case of those who had died long ago, but on the bier onto which Philinnion had been placed we found only the iron ring that belonged to the guest and the gilded wine cup, objects that she had obtained from Makhates on the first day.

Astonished and frightened, we proceeded immediately to Demostratos’s house to see if the corpse was truly to be seen in the guest room. After we saw the dead girl lying there on the ground, we gathered at the place of assembly, since the evens were serious and incredible.

There was considerable confusion in the assembly and almost no one was able to form a judgment on the events. The first to stand up was Hyllos, who is considered to be not only the best seer among us but also a fine augur; in general, he has shown remarkable perception in his craft. He said we should burn the girl outside the boundaries of the city, since nothing would be gained by burying her in the ground within its boundaries, and perform an apotropaic sacrifice to Hermes Khthonios (of the Underworld) and the Eumenides [Erinyes]. Then he prescribed that everyone purify himself completely, cleanse the temples and perform all the customary rites to the Khthonion (Underworld) Gods. He spoke to me also in private about he king and the events, telling me to sacrifice to Hermes, Zeus Xenios and Ares, and to perform these rites with care. When he had maide this known to us, we undertook to do what he had prescribed. Makhates, the guest whom the ghost had visited, became despondent and killed himself.

If you decide to write about this to the king, send word to me also in order that I may dispatch to you one of the persons who examined the affair in detail. Farewell.”

Of course, grim as those stories may be, there is not enough blood-sucking yet! This is where Ovid’s report of the striges, otherworldly bird-like creatures (whose name, striges, is often translated as ‘screech-owls’), comes in.

In the sixth book of his Fasti, Ovid writes:

There are greedy birds, not those that cheated Phineus’ maw of its repast, though from those they are descended. Big is their head, goggle their eyes, their beaks are formed for rapine, their feathers blotched with grey, their claws fitted with hooks. They fly by night and attack nurseless children, and defile their bodies, snatched from their cradles. They are said to rend the flesh of sucklings with their beaks, and their throats are full of the blood which they have drunk. Screech-owl is their name, but the reason of the name is that they are wont to screech horribly by night. Whether, therefore, they are born birds, or are made such by enchantment and are nothing but beldames transformed into fowls by a Marsian spell, they came into the chambers of Proca. In the chambers Proca, a child five days old, was a fresh prey for the birds. They sucked his infant breast with greedy tongues, and the poor child squalled and craved help. Alarmed by the cry of her fosterling, the nurse ran to him and found his cheeks scored by their rigid claws. What was she to do? The colour of the child’s face was like the common hue of late leaves nipped by an early frost. She went to Cranaë and told what had befallen. Cranaë said, “Lay fear aside; thy nursling will be safe.” She went to the cradle; mother and father were weeping. “Restrain your tears,” she said, “I myself will heal the child.” Straightway she thrice touched the doorposts, one after the other, with arbutus leaves; thrice with arbutus leaves she marked the threshold. She sprinkled the entrance with water (and the water was drugged), and she held the raw inwards of a sow just two months old. And thus she spoke: “Ye birds of night, spare the child’s inwards: a small victim falls for a small child. Take, I pray ye, a heart for a heart, entrails for entrails. This life we give you for a better life.” When she had thus sacrificed, she set the severed inwards in the open air, and forbade those present at the sacrifice to look back at them. A rod of Janus, taken from the white-thorn, was placed where a small window gave light to the chambers. After that, it is said that the birds did not violate the cradle, and the boy recovered his former colour.

Ovid, Fasti 6.131-168 (transl. J. G. Frazer – G. P. Goold)

And on that cheerful note: happy Hallowe’en, everyone!

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