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

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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Strength, achievement, and token gestures

Phaedrus, a writer of fables in the style of Aesop in the first century A. D., tells the following tale (Phaedrus 4.17, transl. B. E. Perry):

De capris barbatis

Barbam capellae cum impetrassent ab Iove,
hirci maerentes indignari coeperunt
quod dignitatem feminae aequassent suam.
“Sinite,” inquit, “illas gloria vana frui
et usurpare vestri ornatum muneris,
pares dum non sint vestrae fortitudini.”
Hoc argumentum monet ut sustineas tibi
habitu esse similes qui sunt virtute impares

The Bearded She-Goats

When the she-goats had obtained, by application to Jupiter, the favour of a beard, the male goats were very unhappy about it and began to express their indignation that women had attained unto a dignity equal with their own. “Let them,” said Jupiter, “enjoy their empty glory and usurp your badge of service, so long as they are not your peers in stoutheartedness.”

This example teaches you to endure it with patience when those who are inferior to you in merit wear the same uniform as yourself.

Phaedrus’ fable teaches a powerful lesson: token gestures – in this case: the mere adornment of females with an item commonly associated with males – is already enough to upset some especially fragile male egos.

But real power – embodied by the father of the gods himself in this scenario – sees right through it: these token gestures are a mere distraction to satisfy the vanity of those who benefit from such ultimately meaningless adornment, boasting their gloria vana, their ’empty glory’, while parading their ornatum muneris, their ‘service badge’.

Pares dum non sint vestrae fortitudini, ‘so as long they are not your peers in stoutheartedness’, Jupiter explains to those who had complained: as long as they are not of your fortitudo, of your strength, your power, your bravado.

Phaedrus adds in his auctorial voice: sustineas tibi / habitu esse similes qui sunt virtute impares, ‘endure it with patience when those who are inferior to you in merit wear the same uniform as yourself’. Habitus, outfit, gear, and demeanour are one thing; what matters is the continued difference in virtus, in ostentatious achievement as associated with manliness.

Whether Jupiter would have granted the she-goats access to fortitudo and virtus, remains unclear. He certainly understood their relevance and their importance over mere token gestures such as permitting a certain habitus.

Alas, the she-goats, do not appear to have asked for what really mattered. Thus their inequality was perpetuated through the provision of a mere distraction.

There is a lesson in this fable – a lesson beyond the interpretation that Phaedrus provides.

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Shit poetry (no, seriously)

A sixth-century poem, preserved in the Anthologia Palatina and ascribed to Agathias Scholasticus, celebrates the renovation of Smyrna‘s suburban latrines by Agathias himself in his capacity as father of the city (AP 9.662, transl. W. R. Paton):


Latrines at Ephesus.

Χῶρος ἐγὼ τὸ πρὶν μὲν ἔην στυγερωπὸς ἰδέσθαι,
πηλοδόμοις τοιχοις ἀμφιμεριζόμενος.
ἐνθάδε δὲ ξείνων τε καὶ ἐνδαπίων καὶ ἀγροίκων
νηδὺς ἐπεγδούπει λύματα χευομένη.
ἀλλὰ πατήρ με πόληος ἐναλλάξας Ἀγαθίας
θῆκεν ἀρίζηλον τὸν πρὶν ἀτιμότατον.

I am a place formerly hideous, divided by brick walls, and here the bellies of strangers, natives, and countrymen thunderously relieved themselves. But Agathias, the father of the city, transformed me and made me distinguished instead of most ignoble.

Transformation was clearly on Agathias’ mind when he reflected on the purpose of the place in another poem – potentially giving generations of modern-day archaeologists ideas of what to look out for in their excavations of latrines and ancient sewage systems (AP 9.642):

Πᾶν τὸ βροτῶν σπατάλημα, καὶ ἡ πολύολβος ἐδωδὴ
ἐνθάδε κρινομένη τὴν πρὶν ὄλεσσε χάριν.
οἱ γὰρ φασιανοί τε καὶ ἰχθύες, αἵ θ᾿ ὑπὲρ ἴγδιν
τρίψιες, ἥ τε τόση βρωματομιξαπάτη
γίνεται ἐνθάδε κόπρος· ἀποσσεύει δ᾿ ἄρα γαστὴρ
ὁππόσα πειναλέη δέξατο λαυκανίη.
ὀψὲ δὲ γινώσκει τις, ὅτ᾿ ἄφρονα μῆτιν ἀείρων
χρυσοῦ τοσσατίου τὴν κόνιν ἐπρίατο.

All the extravagance of mortals and their expensive dishes excreted here have lost their previous charm. The pheasants and fishes, and the mixtures pounded in the mortar, and all that variety of kickshaws, become here dung. The belly rids itself of all that the ravenous gullet took in, and at length a man sees that in the pride of his foolish heart he spent so much gold on nothing but dust.

Similarly, if in a somewhat more, shall we say, constipated style (AP 9.643):

Τί στενάχεις κεφαλὴν κεκακωμένος; ἐς τί δὲ πικρὰ
οἰμώζεις, μελέων πάγχυ βαρυνομένων;
ἐς τί δὲ γαστέρα σεῖο ῥαπίσμασιν ἀμφιπατάσσεις,
ἐκθλίψαι δοκέων μάστακος ἐργασίην;
μόχθων τοσσατίων οὔ σοι χρέος, εἰ παρὰ δαιτὶ

μὴ τοῦ ἀναγκαίου πουλὺ παρεξετάθης.
ἀλλ᾿ ἐπὶ μὲν στιβάδος φρονέεις μέγα, καὶ στόμα τέρπεις
βρώμασιν, εὐτυχίην κεῖνα λογιζόμενος·
ἐνθάδε δ᾿ ἀσχάλλεις· μούνη δ᾿ ἀλιτήματα λαιμοῦ
ἡ γαστὴρ τίνει πολλάκι τυπτομένη.

Why do you moan with the headache and groan bitterly for the heaviness you feel all over, and keep on smacking your belly, thinking to force out the work of your jaws? You would never have had all this trouble and labour if you had not largely exceeded yourself at table. When you are lying there guzzling you have a high opinion of yourself, and delight your palate with the viands, deeming that happiness. But here you are in distress, and your belly only gets many smacks to pay for the sins of your gullet.

This theme reminds me of a set of inscriptions from Ostia.

But Agathias does not only have words for those who greedily overate. He has some words of relief (sorry, not sorry) for those unable to afford lavish meals as well, thereby implicitly acknowledging the democratic nature of communal latrines (AP 9.644):

Εὖγε μάκαρ τλήθυμε γεωπόνε· σοὶ βίος αἰεὶ
μίμνειν καὶ σκαπάνης ἄλγεα καὶ πενίης·
λιτὰ δέ σοι καὶ δεῖπνα, καὶ ἐν ξυλόχοισι καθεύδεις,
ὕδατος ἐμπλήσας λαιμὸν ἀμετροπότην.
ἔμπης ἀρτίπος ἐσσί, καὶ ἐνθάδε βαιὰ καθεσθεὶς

αὐτίκα γαστέρα σὴν θῆκας ἐλαφροτάτην·
οὐδὲ καταψήχεις ἱερὴν ῥάχιν, οὐδέ τι μηροὺς
τύπτεις, αὐτομάτως φόρτον ἀρωσάμενος.
τλήμονες οἱ πλουτοῦντες ἰδ᾿ οἱ κείνοισι συνόντες
οἷς πλέον ἀρτεμίης εὔαδεν εἰλαπίνη.

Blest are you, long-suffering labourer! You have only to put up, all your life, with the pains of hoeing and poverty. Simple are your meals, and you sleep in the woods, after satisfying your throat’s vast thirst for water. Yet you are perfectly sound, and sitting here for a few moments lighten your belly. You don’t rub down the lower part of your spine, or beat your thighs, but you get rid of the burden naturally. They are in evil case, the rich and those who associate with them, whom feasting pleases more than sound health.

Some might say that these epigrams are just crap.

I would argue that they’re not to be sniffed at.

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Happy New Year!

1,870 years ago, Marcus Cornelius Fronto wrote the following letter (Fronto 5.45) to Marcus Aurelius, then heir apparent to the throne of the Roman Empire:

Marcus Aurelius. – Image source here.

Domino meo.

Annum novum faustum tibi et ad omnia, quae recte cupis, prosperum cum tibi tum Domino nostro patri tuo et matri et uxori et filiae ceterisque omnibus, quos merito diligis, precor.

Metui ego invalido adhuc corpore turbae et impressioni me committere. Si dei iuvabunt, perendie vos vota nuncupantes videbo.

Vale mi Domine dulcissime. Dominam saluta.

In the translation of C. R. Haines:

To my Lord.

A happy New Year and a prosperous in all things that you rightly desire to you and our Lord your Father, and your mother and your wife and daughter, and to all others who deservedly share your affection—that is my prayer!

In my still feeble state of health I was afraid to trust myself to the crowd and crush. I shall see you, please God, the day after to-morrow offering up your vows.

Farewell, my most sweet Lord. Greet my Lady.

A happy New Year and a prosperous 2019 in all things that you rightly desire – to all of you!

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

Craving facts: the new graffito from Pompeii

Yesterday news broke about the discovery of a graffito from Pompeii that was, in the usual sensationalist way, hailed as a text that would require us to rewrite our history books:

The text, according to Massimo Osanna and Antonio Varone and on the basis of the published photo, ought to be read as follows:

XVI (ante) K(alendas) Nov(embres) in[d]ulsit 
pro masumis esurit(ioni).

In English:

On the 16th day before the Kalends of November [i. e. on October 17th] s/he gave free rein to her/his hunger to the max.

Pliny’s famous description of Pompeii’s last hours has the eruption happen on August 24th, A. D. 79.

This date was long disputed as a mistake, either by Pliny himself or as a result of a faulty manuscript tradition. The main reasons to challenge the date were discoveries of certain foodstuffs (pomegranates in particular) that would not yet have been ripe at a date in August. Moreover, some of the clothing that was detected in the remains seemed to point at a date in cooler autumn rather than August.

All of this is known, and it has been known for some time.

Nevertheless the discovery of the new graffito has generated a veritable media hype. Stories have already been fabricated about the piece as a builder’s graffito, left during an alleged renovation of the room. Stories about how the graffito could not possibly refer to any other October 17th than that of A. D. 79, as charcoal graffiti are not very durable and therefore would not have survived for years.

All of this is disingenuous, though to different degrees.

Charcoal was commonly used to write graffiti. Martial mentions it, famously. Pompeii has yielded a fair few charcoal graffiti, most of which have been lost now due to unsuitable forms of, or lack of proper, conservation. There is no actual study to confirm the time a charcoal graffiti was likely to last under ‘Pompeian’ conditions. Chances are that graffiti written on the inside of houses, such as this most recent addition to our body of evidence, would have lasted rather longer than those on the outside. Are we to assume that all reported charcoal graffiti from Pompeii were only a few months old, at best? The onus of proof would be on those who wish to make that claim. Could it have survived for about a year, or just under, if not wiped out?

And where does that idea of a builder’s graffito come from? Surely if the builder chose to overeat ‘to the max’, he had no business of recording this in a room of a house that wasn’t his? And why would he record this anyway? Is it not much more likely that the graffito was written by someone who had actually lived in this house, recording this questionable feat – just like many Pompeians chose to record low-key life events, from bodily functions to erotic conquests?

The only thing that we may add to our history books with any level of certainty at this point is that an unknown individual significantly overate on one October 17th, either in A. D. 79 or before.

We may add this to a growing body of evidence in favour of a destruction date in autumn 79 (rather than August). But it provides no certainty by any means.

As academics, it is important that we remain clear about this. The graffito is sensational in its own right, it doesn’t have to be the most important graffito ever found.


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