Friday, 21 September 2018

The citation problem

When non-classicists write about Homer, it seems they’re allergic to reading any actual research on Homer. This can be a problem.

Earlier this month there was a lot of press coverage for an article which analysed social networks depicted in the Odyssey. The piece was written by three physicists, and came out in PLoS ONE, a major open-access science journal. The idea had potential: it could have told us some interesting things about how late Iron Age people imagined social relations. Unfortunately, the idea they chose to put front and centre is a ridiculous claim, and it undermines the whole project. In their own words:
How we showed Homer’s Odyssey is not pure fiction, with a little help from Facebook.
-- The Conversation, 3 Sep. 2018
That’s nonsense, of course, but I want to look at a more fundamental problem. What research did they do? Here’s a diagram of how the citations in their article look.

The outer ring represents the 48 sources they used, the inner ring represents the citations of those sources. Click on the image for a closer look. The exact figures are:
  • 2 sources on ancient history, cited a total of four times (light red)
  • 37 sources on network analysis, cited eighty times (yellow)
  • 4 sources in other fields, cited seven times (green)
  • 3 sources aimed at general readers, cited nine times (light green)
  • 2 pieces of software documentation, cited once each (darker red)
So this is supposedly an article analysing the Odyssey, right? Yet at no point did it occur to them to see what research anyone else has ever done on the Odyssey. It didn’t occur to the PLoS ONE editor, either, a psychologist at Austin. And it didn’t occur to the referees who did the peer review.

For reference, the sources they cite that do relate directly to antiquity are:
  • ‘ancient lit/history’: actually more archaeology than history. One is a 2003 piece on the geology of the Troad; the other is from a generalist magazine, not a piece of research, but I’ve chosen to put it here because it’s by Korfmann.
  • ‘pop translations and textbooks’: two popular translations of the Odyssey (Rieu 1946, Palmeira and Correia 1944); and a pedagogical companion by Peter Jones.
The references generally are a mess. They misspell Korfmann’s name, they attribute Peter Jones’ book to a different author (it’d be very hard for a non-specialist to work out what book it is!), and several of the DOI links in the article’s references are broken (references 11, 12, 20, 21, 41, and 48 -- including both of the archaeology articles).

Let me re-state the problem. It didn’t occur to anyone, at any stage, that a research paper ought to look at research on the thing that the article is about. Why not?

It isn’t an isolated occurrence. Here are a few more, by various scientists: a 2008 piece by two astronomers, supposedly showing that the Odyssey refers to a solar eclipse that took place in 1178 BCE; a 2012 piece by another astronomer, about another eclipse; three chapters in a 2008 book, written by an engineer.

Now, the first two are much more variegated than the 2018 social networks study. The lion’s share of references still go to things in the authors’ own fields: in itself that’s fair enough. And, though I haven’t included it in the pie-charts, they both have a goodly number of references to the text of Homer (unlike Miranda et al., who have none).

But there are very few references to modern research on the subject of the articles -- namely, the Homeric epics. Where they do cite research pieces, they’re handled strangely. In the case of Baikouzis-Magnasco, they’re badly chosen; in Papamarinopoulos et al., they’re narrow and misleading. In the Baikouzis-Magnasco article, the only pieces cited are
  • Denys Page, The Homeric Odyssey (1955)
  • Gilbert Murray, The Rise of the Greek Epic (1924)
  • Robert Bittlestone, Odysseus Unbound (2005)
Page and Murray are old, Bittlestone is kinda fringe. They’re cited once each. At one point the authors actually mention consulting footnotes in translations of the Odyssey as if that’s what research looks like.

Never mind the authors, is that really what referees and journal editors think a literature review looks like?

Papamarinopoulos et al. actually cite Russo’s commentary on Odyssey books 17-20 at one point -- but without a page number, and Russo doesn’t say what they claim he says. (The claim is that Od. 19.306 λυκάβας means ‘the time period between old and new moon’: that’s not Russo, it’s a misreading of Od. 19.307.)

This isn’t just a scientist problem: it isn’t an arrogant I-know-a-lot-about-my-field-therefore-I-assume-I-understand-everything situation. Or if it is, it’s a symptom of something deeper. A related phenomenon also appears in the Wikipedia articles on the Odyssey and Iliad:

Now, the Wikipedia articles do in fact cite academic sources a lot more than the research articles above. And that’s good. However, we’ve also got loads of references to dodgy websites and news media. And that’s bad.

Also, though the ‘Odyssey’ article has lots of citations of modern research, there are only two sources. 85% of them (29 out of 34) are citations of Agathe Thornton’s book People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey (1970). Now, I love Thornton’s book ... but that’s just not a balanced treatment.

I have two hypotheses as to the root of this problem. The first is the one you’ll probably be expecting. Homeric research is difficult to get to grips with, there’s a hell of a lot of it, articles often don’t translate the Greek. Also, many of the highest-profile books spend ages harping on about the Homeric Question in one form or another, and no one wants to read that.

But any field is complex and difficult for an outsider. I have a tough time working out what’s going on in the more mathematical parts of articles on archaeoastronomy or stylometry, but I still read them. The authors above didn’t even look at any research. So I don’t think this can be the main reason.

My second hypothesis is that the existing research is actually invisible to them. This applies to people in the sciences in particular. It’s because there’s very little overlap between bibliographic databases that cover the natural sciences, and bibliographic databases that cover Homer or other topics to do with antiquity.

Let me illustrate. Open up a new browser tab and go to a nice general database: Google Scholar. Type in a search for ‘Odyssey’. What do you see?

Your results may be different from mine, so I’ll tell you what I found. The first page of results had only two results that were relevant to the Odyssey -- and they’re both references that appeared in the scientific articles above: Page’s The Homeric Odyssey, and the Oxford Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey. I suspect that isn’t a coincidence. There was one more result on page 2, one on page 3, four on page 4, two on page 5, and none at all on page 6.

Guess how far I had to go before I found any research articles.

I finally found the first journal article at the bottom of page 7. The 68th result. It was Helene Foley’s classic piece ‘Reverse similes and sex roles in the Odyssey’.

Published in 1978.

For reference, Homeric scholarship has 200 to 300 publications a year, as reported in the bibliographic database L’année philologique. Since 1978 there have been a bit over 9000 publications.

But every single one of them is invisible, because Google Scholar doesn’t know how to interpret the word ‘Odyssey’. It’s hopeless on ‘Homer’, too: I couldn’t see a single relevant reference in the first fifty pages of results. ‘Iliad’ is better, but still very book-heavy: there’s only one article in the first four pages of results (Willcock’s 1964 paper on ‘Mythological paradeigma’).

Obviously, a partial workaround would be to search more intelligently. Searching for ‘Homer Odyssey’ returns relevant results. But that’s not going to catch all situations: the authors above could have searched better, yes, but the blame isn’t solely on them.

Basically, unless Google Scholar decides to improve its algorithms, you can expect to see more scientific papers on Homer, written by people who’ve done no research on Homer.

In closing it’s only fair to look at what citation practices I’d recommend. Here are two more pieces written by scientists -- but what a difference!

This isn’t an endorsement of their arguments, by the way: they’re both deeply flawed articles. But they do handle their literature reviews responsibly. (Well, kind of: Altschuler et al. only have 14 references.)

And here are some illustrations from within the field: Foley’s 1978 article on ‘reverse similes’, and a 2012 piece I wrote in response to the Baikouzis-Magnasco article.

Also, take a look at what Wikipedia does with the ‘Homer’ article. This is a totally different kettle of fish from the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ articles. Behold, and admire. If you actually read it, it’s still obvious that it’s not professional -- but the research principles are not half bad.

Will Google Scholar and other similar search engines step up to the challenge? I don’t know. Right now, things aren’t looking promising.


The citation data was prepared with this spreadsheet (LibreOffice format). See the note at bottom of the first sheet on some differences in how citations are reported on different sheets.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Freedom of speech

Marcus Aurelius was a pretty cool guy, but no, he didn’t write the First Amendment. Here’s a line that often gets attributed to him, which is almost guaranteed to show up in any discussion of the history of liberalism, especially if American political philosophy is involved.
‘... I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed ...’
-- Marcus Aurelius, sort of (trans. George Long)
It isn’t a fake quotation. But it sure is a tendentious one. The phrases ‘equal rights’ and ‘freedom of speech’ here stand in place of the Greek words isotēs and isēgoria. They’re close enough to fool you if you just look in a dictionary, but they’re both really badly anachronistic.

So here’s a translation from a different perspective.
... φαντασίαν λαβεῖν πολιτείας ἰσονόμου, κατ’ ἰσότητα καὶ ἰσηγορίαν διοικουμένης, καὶ βασιλείας τιμώσης πάντων μάλιστα τὴν ἐλευθερίαν τῶν ἀρχομένων ...

... that I adopted the ideal of a constitution with equal laws, governed with equality, and equality of public engagement, and of a kingship which before all else respects the freedom of the ruled ...
-- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 1.14 (trans. by me)
Here are the key differences between my translation and the one at the top by George Long:

Long’s translation Marcus Aurelius’ Greek My translation
idea phantasia (φαντασία) ideal
equal rights isotēs (ἰσότης) equality
equal freedom of speech isēgoria (ἱσηγορία) equality of public engagement
kingly government basileia (βασιλεία) kingship
the governed archomenoi (ἀρχόμενοι) the ruled

(I’ll skip over some differences that I think are less important, like ‘polity’ vs. ‘constitution’, or ‘the same law for all’ vs. ‘equal laws’.)

George Long, the 19th century British translator, has gone out of his way to soften Marcus Aurelius’ sentiments to suit Victorian liberal tastes. (In fact I wonder if Long had links to the Liberal Party: Gladstone awarded him a Civil List pension in 1873.)

But Marcus Aurelius was no liberal. He stood for monarchy. Benevolent monarchy, sure, but still monarchy. George Long lived under what he presumably perceived to be a benevolent Victorian regime, and he may have regarded the two as the same thing. But there’s a big difference between a ‘kingly government’ with people who are ‘governed’, and a ‘kingship’ with people who are ‘ruled’.

Isēgoria, the word that Long translates as ‘freedom of speech’, really refers to equal (iso-) participation in public affairs (agor-). It wasn’t a right or a freedom: it was the central underpinning of classical Athenian democracy: the idea that everyone had to participate for democracy to function, that no one was an authority figure except where absolutely necessary, and that anyone could participate in politics.

(But let’s not overlook the downsides of Athenian democracy: people had isēgoria provided they were male, free, and a citizen -- which disenfranchised somewhere around 80-90% of the population. Also, sometimes they exercised their isēgoria by voting to commit genocide.)

TVNZ, 13 August 2018. When Massey University cancelled a talk by Don Brash this month because of his racism, that wasn’t a violation of freedom of speech in the modern legal sense: no one’s obligated to give any old bigot a platform. But it was arguably a violation of isēgoria, as a moral principle, that everyone has the right to be involved in the democratic process.

Now, having said all that, the Athenians did have something that is not a million miles away from ‘freedom of speech’. They called it parrhēsia (παρρησία), and on the whole they regarded it as A Good Thing.

Parrhēsia meant frankness and bluntness. It was also a political ideal. Citizens of classical Athens prided themselves on the right to that bluntness, even if they recognised that being blunt wasn’t always wise. Our sources often see it as something uniquely Athenian. Here’s the playwright Euripides --
Ion. I hope the woman who bore me is an Athenian,
so that by my mother I may have parrhēsia!
-- Euripides, Ion 671-672

Jocasta. What is it, to be deprived of one’s country? Is it a very bad thing?
Polyneices. The worst -- for real, and not just as an idea.
Jocasta. In what way? What is the hardship for exiles?
Polyneices. The very worst thing is this: not having parrhēsia.
Jocasta. Not saying what you think -- that’s slavery.
This is obviously jingoistic -- anyone who really thinks their country is unique in its respect for free speech either hasn’t travelled much, or is being very selective about what counts as ‘free’ -- but the idea isn’t confined to plays. Actual Athenians could think this way too.
For free people, nothing would be a worse misfortune than being deprived of parrhēsia.
-- Demosthenes, no named defendant fr. 21 Baiter-Sauppe

A masculine thing to say, and parrhēsia worthy of the Athenian name!
These two were lifelong enemies -- Deimades supported Philip II of Macedon and was notoriously open to being bribed, Demosthenes was bitterly opposed to Macedon -- but on this point they were in solid agreement: parrhēsia was essential to freedom, and it was a specifically Athenian value. And Deimades goes even further, linking it to gender.

So, parrhēsia was a right, in custom if not in law. At the same time, the Athenians knew it wasn’t always wise to exercise this right.
There is something bitter about truthful speech when someone uses pure parrhēsia and spoils hope of great things. Gentleness persuades listeners, even if it is false.

If the people had been happy to use parrhēsia in treating with Philip [II of Macedon] -- asking him to strip away the Thebans’ arrogance, and to establish walls in Boeotia -- the people would have decided that in a vote.
-- Aeschines, On the embassy 104
I’d better make sure to mention that the 20th century philosopher Michel Foucault made a big thing of Greek parrhēsia, especially in connection with Diogenes of Sinope, the 4th century BCE Cynic philosopher. We don’t have much trustworthy evidence about Diogenes. Anecdotes from centuries after his lifetime cast him as an ascetic and iconoclast, and that’s probably accurate as far as it goes. But the anecdotes that cast him as a paradigm of parrhēsia that shocks others -- commanding Alexander not to block the sun, masturbating in public, and the like -- are historically dodgy. That’s a Roman-era caricature of parrhēsia -- nearly half a millennium’s worth of myth-making.

CNBC, 28 August 2018. Who’s exercising parrhēsia by speaking truth? (I hope the answer is obvious)

Still, Foucault does reach the most important conclusion: parrhēsia wasn’t the freedom to say whatever you like. It was freedom from self-important authoritarians. It was the right to speak the truth to people who are threatening you and trying to control you -- as the snippet from Aeschines, above, makes clear.

If you look at classical-era Athenian sources, you see that parrhēsia wasn’t about being an iconoclast. It wasn’t the right to shock, or the right to be rude, and it certainly wasn’t the right to lie. Here’s Aeschines again.
Let each man understand clearly, that whenever he goes into a courtroom to sit as juror on an illegal suit, on that day he is about to cast a vote for or against his own parrhēsia. That is why the law-giver put this at the start of the jurors’ oath: ‘I shall vote according to the laws.’
-- Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon 6
That’s parrhēsia. Not the right to say anything, but the right to speak the truth. Speech designed to distort reality, or to sow factionalism, is the exact opposite of parrhēsia.

Above all, I find it hard to imagine the Athenians calling it parrhēsia to spread bigotry against minorities. The whole point of parrhēsia was to allow minorities to speak against authority. The Athenians were all kinds of horrible, but not that particular kind.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Thunderbirds in Atlantis

My young son has been on a Thunderbirds Are Go binge for the last several months -- he can articulate the differences between the 1960s and the 2010s models, he’s been on the Thunderbirds tour at Weta Workshop, and he often watches an episode over breakfast. Recently the episode of the day was ‘Lost kingdom’ (season 2 ep. 8), where the Thunderbirds visit Atlantis.

Adam Savage interviews Ben Milsom (Thunderbirds Are Go production designer) at the Thunderbird 2 launch strip, one of the highlights of the Weta Workshop tour.

Now, ‘Lost kingdom’ gave me pain at the time -- the kind of pain that a geneticist feels when watching Jurassic Park -- but my own love of Thunderbirds prevents me from doing a tear-down.

And of course a children’s cartoon (or animated show -- or miniature-and-CGI hybrid -- whatever) is allowed a lot of artistic licence. So what if Thunderbird 3 has to have its rockets firing to move around in space, or if Thunderbird 1’s canonical airspeed (Mach 19+) ought to make its nose as fiery as its rear ...

Besides, as mistreatments of archaeology go this episode isn’t very momentous. There are plenty of people out there pointing out bad archaeology where it really matters: like the way Indiana Jones habitually destroys archaeological context, or the barrage of lies in Ancient Aliens. The excellent David S. Anderson (@DSAArchaeology) is a bountiful source of sanity and good humour on the topic. High-profile stuff like that is where it’s really important to point out the nonsense.

How to ‘do’ Atlantis

I did a post on Atlantis nearly a year ago. That time, I was simply addressing the most popular misconceptions about the story, as told in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. Today I’d like to talk about the adaptation of the Atlantis story in fiction.

There’s a bunch of ways you can approach Atlantis. My favourite fictional treatment, in fact, comes from Indiana Jones: he may be a terrible archaeologist, but he does have some good stories. I refer to the computer game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992). There, the writers realised that it’s futile to try and make Atlantis plausible. If you try to do that, you have to make excuses for the source material, because the Atlantis story is intrinsically silly. Instead, they collaborate with the source material. They create a story that unwinds both from Plato and from other Indiana Jones stories. Many details from Plato’s dialogues show up, like the use of orichalcum, the layout of Atlantis, and the canals surrounding its citadel; at the same time, Indy gets to swing on his whip, sneak aboard a U-Boat, and have fist-fights with Nazis. There’s also more actual archaeology in the game than in any of the films -- Indy visits archaeological sites on four landmasses, and a lost third Platonic dialogue turns up in a library. All this makes for a story that rewards Indy fans while at the same time rewarding engagement with Plato. (Plato genuinely did foreshadow the third dialogue, by the way, but it seems he never actually wrote it. I won’t spoil the title, as it’s part of a puzzle in the game ... but anyone who knows the real dialogues should be able to guess it.)

In most modern treatments, though, Atlantis isn’t the star. It’s just a hook. The implausibility of Atlantis is something that has to be redeemed: either by the plot, or the characters, or the visual design.

That’s certainly the case in the Disney version (Atlantis: the Lost Empire, 2004). The main character, Milo, goes on a journey of exploration and discovery, but the discovery of Atlantis itself is always secondary. The real interest lies in the characters that accompany Milo on the expedition, and the steampunk tech that they use. When they actually find Atlantis, it turns out to be a mash-up of other films, especially The Road to El Dorado (2000) and Castle in the Sky (1986). There, and in Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009), you could replace Atlantis with any old lost city and the story would work just as well.

The Tracy family hears about the discovery of Atlantis (Thunderbirds Are Go, ‘Lost kingdom’)

Thunderbirds lies somewhere betwixt and between. The writers throw in some ancient Greek things for flavour. There’s a colossal statue of Poseidon. There’s an Ancient Mystery in the ruins, an advanced mechanical computer whose controls are labelled with letters of the Greek alphabet. This version of Atlantis aims at being slightly more than just a convenient name for a lost city.

The mash-up effect

But there’s no interest at all in the details of Plato’s story. Plato’s Atlantis is in the Atlantic (hence the name!); in Thunderbirds it’s near Greece, in the Aegean Sea. Plato’s story is about Athens’ resistance to an overwhelming threat from outside; Athens doesn’t even get a mention in Thunderbirds. Plato’s Atlantis is flooded under shallow, muddy water; the Atlantis of Thunderbirds is hundreds of metres down.

I wouldn’t criticise this by calling it a hodge-podge. It’s obviously not meant to be systematic. What it is meant to be is a mash-up.

This Atlantis is a constellation of evocative gestures, not a creative expansion on the source material as in Indiana Jones. It points at themes and genres, rather than at a single story.

The first gesture is the colossal statue of Poseidon that the characters take as a sign that Atlantis has been found. This statue evokes Plato, and so it evokes an appearance of authenticity, without actually being a faithful representation of Plato’s story. Plato does say that the main civic cult of Atlantis is devoted to Poseidon -- but he also explains that ‘Poseidon’ is a translation of an Egyptian god’s name, which is in turn a translation of an Atlantean god. So it wasn’t really ‘Poseidon’, but an Atlantean equivalent. (By the way, there is no Egyptian god that ‘Poseidon’ might have been a translation of. The Egyptians didn’t have an equivalent to Poseidon. They had deities responsible for specific bodies of water, but none for the sea in general. This bit of Plato’s story never ... er ... held water.)

Another obvious gesture is the mechanical computer that the characters find in the ruins, called the ‘Solar Kythera’. The ‘Solar Kythera’ doesn’t appear in Plato’s Atlantis or any other ancient story. It’s added in by the writers. And it’s transparently an allusion to a real machine, the Antikythera device, a 2nd-1st century BCE astronomical computer found in an ancient shipwreck in 1902. ‘Antikythera’ isn’t the device’s actual name, by the way: it’s called that because the shipwreck is near the island of Antikythera. So the ‘Solar Kythera’ takes us away from Plato, but it still keeps us firmly in the realm of ancient Greek things under the sea.

Starting at top left: (1) a working model of the Antikythera device; (2) the colossal orrery from the film Tomb Raider (2001); (3) the ‘Solar Kythera’ from Thunderbirds; (4) and (5) colossal orreries from the video games Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time (2003) and Prince of Persia: the Forgotten Sands (2010).

A third gesture relates to the size of the ‘Solar Kythera’ and its role in the story. The real Antikythera device is the size of a toaster; the Solar Kythera in Thunderbirds is as big as an office building. Totally impractical as an astronomical tool. But useful as a gesture.

In the final act of the episode, the Solar Kythera’s controls have to be adjusted to avert a disaster, and so two characters climb up it, bounding from one level to the next, and rescuing each other from fatal drops as they go. At this point it becomes much more obvious what its real inspiration is: it’s a jumping puzzle out of a video game. It’s become a bit of a tradition in video games to have a gigantic orrery that the player has to climb and adjust. Real orreries, by contrast, are compact table-top devices, mostly dating to the Georgian era. I say ‘video games’, but the earliest example I can find of someone climbing a colossal orrery comes from the film Tomb Raider (2001). Still adapted from a video game, mind.

Between them, this mash-up of gestures evokes authenticity (Plato’s Atlantis); the flavour of Atlantis in the modern imagination (Greek, ancient, underwater, sophisticated); and the excitement, rapid pace, and physicality of a video game jumping puzzle (the colossal orrery Solar Kythera). This episode doesn’t have as much space as usual for the Thunderbirds’ technology fetish, so the Solar Kythera acts as a substitute.

As archaeology, it’s hopeless. For a children’s programme -- well, I’ll take it.

David Graham's roles
Shout-out in closing to David Graham, the legendary British voice-actor. Some of his many roles: in Supercar (1961-1962) as Dr Beaker; in Doctor Who (1963-1966) as the co-originator of the Dalek voice; in Thunderbirds (1965-1966) as Kyrano, Gordon Tracy, and Brains; in Timeslip (1970-1971) as Controller 2957; in Doctor Who ‘City of Death’ (1979) as Dr Kerensky; in Moomin (1990-1991) as the Snork; in Peppa Pig (2004-present) as Grandpa Pig; in Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom (2009-2012) as the Wise Old Elf; and perhaps his most iconic role, unless that honour goes to the Daleks, in Thunderbirds (1965-1966) and Thunderbirds Are Go (2015-present) as Parker.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The hanging gardens: ‘seven wonders’ postscript

Eight months ago I wrote a post on the ‘seven wonders’, as canonised in several ancient lists. I pointed out that the make-up of the list changed over time; that the lighthouse of Alexandria wasn’t in the ancient canon; that there’s no reason to imagine the Colossus of Rhodes stood at the harbour (and it certainly didn’t stand astride the harbour); and that the pyramids are described as ‘shadowless’ in two sources, possibly because ancient tourists were impressed at the shadowless view from the top in the middle part of the day.

I also committed my share of blunders. In particular, I pointed out that the extant lists of seven wonders that mention the gardens -- Antipater, Greek Anthology 8.177, and Philon -- do not tell us where the hanging gardens were. But I blithely ignored several sources that do tell us the hanging gardens were at Babylon.

The hanging gardens as imagined in Lego by ‘Brickman’, Ryan McNaught (‘Let’s go build’ exhibition, Te Papa, Wellington, Dec. 2017. Photo by T. Schaefer.)

This is just a short note to correct that blunder. (I’ve also annotated the older post with some corrections, leaving my blunders present but stricken out.)

Greco-Roman sources

First, here are the extant sources that state that the hanging gardens counted among the ‘seven wonders’:
  • Megasthenes (C. 4-3 BCE) or Abydenus (C. 2 CE). Megasthenes’ Indica book 4, reported by Abydenus’ History of the Chaldaeans, reported in turn by Eusebius in the Armenian text of the Chronika. Translations: p. 19.13-17 Karst; p. 39 Petermann; pp. 55-6 Aucher Ancyranus. Citation of Megasthenes at p. 41 ed. Petermann (mistranslated in Karst).
  • Antipater of Sidon (C. 2 BCE), Greek anthology 9.58.
  • Strabo (C. 2 CE), Geography 16.1.5.
  • Greek anthology 8.177 (date unknown).
  • Philon (C. 4-5 CE), On the seven wonders.
Abydenus-Eusebius and Strabo don’t give complete lists of seven wonders, but they do count the hanging gardens among the seven.

Antipater, Gk. anth. 8.177, and Philon don’t specify locations for the gardens, but Megasthenes(-Abydenus-Eusebius) and Strabo do. They tell us the gardens were in Babylon. So do three other sources. Here’s a complete list of sources that report a location for the hanging gardens:
  • Berossus of Babylon (C. 4 BCE), Chaldaean histories book 3, reported in Josephus Against Apion 140-141 and Jewish antiquities 10.225-227Babylon.
  • Megasthenes (C. 4-3 BCE), Indica book 4, reported in Josephus (C. 1 CE), Jewish antiquities 10.225-227 (= FGrHist 715 F 1a); and with Abydenus (C. 2 CE) as an intermediary source, in the Armenian texts of Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica 9.41 (= FGrHist 715 F 1b) and the Chronica, p. 19.13-17 Karst = p. 39 Petermann = pp. 55-6 Aucher Ancyranus (citation of Megasthenes at p. 41 ed. Petermann) — Babylon.
  • Diodorus of Sicily (C. 1 BCE) 2.10.1-6Babylon.
  • Pliny the Elder (C. 1 CE), Natural history 36.94Thebes (i.e. Luxor), Egypt. (Possibly also reflected in Gregory of Nazianzus (C. 4 CE), Oration 34.63, who lists six remarkable places and buildings including ‘Egyptian Thebes’.)
  • Quintus Curtius Rufus (C. 1 CE?), History of Alexander 5.1.31-35Babylon.
  • Strabo (C. 2 CE), Geography 16.1.5Babylon.
The earliest sources, Berossus and Megasthenes, do not survive. But they are probably the most important sources. Berossus came from Babylon and wrote about his home city. Megasthenes lived shortly after the time of Alexander and wrote extensively about his travels to the east. But they’re not the only possible sources. Diodorus cites Ctesias for his description of the wall of Babylon (2.8.5), another of the seven wonders in Antipater’s canon. Ctesias was a Greek doctor who worked in the Achaemenid Persian court around the time of Herodotus (late C. 4 BCE): it’s possible he wrote about the hanging gardens as well. As for Pliny’s testimony, I think we can all agree to disregard it as an aberration.

And here’s one last list of sources, this time on the story of the gardens’ origin. See above for links.
  • Megasthenes-Abydenus-Eusebius — the gardens were built by the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (C. 6 BCE) as an adornment for his palace.
  • Josephus, Jewish antiquities 10.225-227 citing both Megasthenes and Berossus, and Against Apion 140-141 citing just Berossus — the gardens were built by Nebuchadnezzar II, with the appearance of mountains, to please his wife who was a Mede (i.e. from northern Iraq).
  • Diodorus — built by an Assyrian king (which suggests C. 7 BCE or earlier), at some point later than the legendary Semiramis (Shammuramat), in order to please one of his concubines, who was Persian and missed the mountainous countryside of her home.
  • Curtius Rufus — built by an Assyrian king to please his wife, who missed seeing groves and forests.

The hanging gardens as imagined in Minecraft by ‘lonestarr86’. (‘I only know what these are because of Sid Meier[’s Civilization games].’ -- noseonarug17)

... or Nineveh?

Stephanie Dalley has made an alternative argument that the gardens were actually at Nineveh. This is in her book The mystery of the hanging garden of Babylon (Oxford, 2013). Nineveh is some 440 km to the north of Babylon, at modern Mosul. The evidence is circumstantial -- there is no direct testimony supporting it -- but that is not to say that it is weak.
  • The references to Nebuchadnezzar that Josephus attributes to Berossus may have been inserted by an intermediate source.
  • The theme of homesickness is not one that is seen in Babylonian or Assyrian literature, and therefore likely to be a spurious Greek addition.
  • Some parallels to Berossus can be found in Babylonian epigraphy, but that is not the case for the hanging garden story.
  • The ‘mountainous’ appearance of the gardens as described by Josephus and Diodorus is typical of Assyrian gardens, as shown by illustrations of gardens in bas-relief panels found at Khorsabad and Nineveh. Babylon, by contrast, is flat.
  • Nebuchadnezzar’s citadel at Babylon was 13 metres above the level of the river Euphrates, making hands-free irrigation impossible.
  • Nineveh had an excellent canal system.
  • Sennacherib is known from epigraphic evidence to have built a garden irrigated by a canal at Nineveh.
  • Dalley interprets a difficult passage on an inscription from the time of Sennacherib (early C. 7 BCE) to mean that he had access to so-called ‘Archimedean’ screws, used for raising water by applying horizontal force.
I am impressed by Dalley’s argument, but it’s not all plain sailing:
  • You can sway between Nineveh or Babylon depending on whether you think the point of the gardens is to be typical for their location, or to be an exceptional reminder of a faraway place. The Greek sources firmly opt for the latter. They specifically state that the gardens were so striking because of Babylon’s flatness, and the point of the story about the king’s wife or concubine is that she missed the hills of her home.
  • Much of Dalley’s argumentation is designed to cast Nineveh as a possible location, rather than to make Babylon impossible. For example, the ‘Archimedean’ screws. If Sennacherib did have access to Archimedean screws (which is perfectly plausible), that doesn’t mean they didn’t also exist at Babylon. The Greek sources unhesitatingly put screws at Babylon, as Dalley herself points out: Strabo refers to a screw (kochlias) used to raise water from the Euphrates, and Philon refers to water being raised by a spiral engine (kochlioeidōs ... ton helika tōn mēchanēmatōn). This tells us nothing about the location of the gardens.
  • In a similar vein, absence of reference to gardens in Babylonian inscriptions doesn’t mean absence of gardens. We can’t expect a perfect match between Berossus and epigraphic evidence. (It’s not as though we have direct testimony linking the hanging gardens to Nineveh, either.)
  • Dalley has overlooked Megasthenes’ testimony. Now, she does posit a Greek intermediate source between Berossus and Josephus, to explain why Josephus’ story features Nebuchadnezzar, which Dalley regards as spurious, without committing to calling Berossus a liar. I suspect if she had been aware of Megasthenes, she’d certainly want to identify him as that vehicle. Megasthenes wrote about Nebuchadnezzar’s western campaigns (so Josephus tells us), which are certainly fictional, and the link between the gardens and Nebuchadnezzar also appears in Megasthenes as reported by Eusebius. It looks pretty likely that it really was Megasthenes that introduced Nebuchadnezzar into the story. But that doesn’t mean that the gardens weren’t at Babylon: it means that Diodorus and Curtius Rufus, who make an Assyrian king the star of the story, didn’t draw on Megasthenes. They’re independent evidence putting the gardens at Babylon.
The idea of homesickness as a Greek literary motif is the one really cogent argument against Babylon: it shows that the Greco-Roman testimony is heavily fictionalised. That carries a lot of weight.

On the other hand, if we’re deciding to disregard every scrap of testimony, why imagine any hanging gardens at all? What Dalley has shown, to my mind, is that it’s very possible the hanging gardens were completely fictional, and that the idea of them was inspired by Assyrian gardens. The choice is between that, and the gardens of Babylon being a real thing. I’m still leaning towards the latter, because of the independent lines of testimony from Berossus-Megasthenes-Josephus-Eusebius, Diodorus, Curtius Rufus, and Strabo. Either way, it doesn’t look like any Greek list-maker ever included a specific garden at Nineveh in the Greek canon of ‘seven wonders’.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Not ‘the oldest written record of the Odyssey’

The Odyssey is in the news this week. The media are reporting the discovery of ‘perhaps the oldest preserved written piece of the Homeric Epics that has come to light’ (‘ίσως το παλαιότερο σωζόμενο γραπτό απόσπασμα των Ομηρικών Επών που έχει έρθει στο φως’: press statement, Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, 10 July 2018). It was found at Olympia, one of the most important religious sites of the Greek world, and the original home of the Olympic Games.

An extremely interesting fragment of the Odyssey -- but nowhere near ‘the oldest record’

The discovery is certainly important, and quite unusual. It isn’t written on papyrus, like most literary texts. It isn’t a verse inscription on stone, of which we have many. It’s a clay tablet. This was never a common writing medium in the Greco-Roman world. Its use for this tablet, and for this text, is something quite unique. The research project The Multidimensional Site of Olympia, led by Dr Erofili-Iris Kollia, head of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia, deserve congratulations on their exciting discovery.

But the most widely repeated claim -- that it’s the oldest copy of the Odyssey ever found, or even that it might be the oldest -- is dead wrong. The tablet misses out on being the oldest existing copy by some 700 years.

Dr Kollia, regrettably, has also had her name mangled in the media. (The Washington Post calls her ‘Kolia Erofili-Irida’.) This is partly because the Ministry’s own press release misspelled her name in Greek, and partly because automatic translation tools have difficulty with possessive forms of Greek names.

This was a really sloppy press release, and Reuters was negligent to disseminate it so gullibly.

The most responsible handling of the story by any news outlet in the world, as far as I can see, is by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. They realised that the thing about the date was untrue and contacted the Greek embassy in Rome about it. The response was that the tablet was the earliest copy of the text on a hard material. In a similar vein the Süddeutsche Zeitung casts it as the oldest inscription containing verses from the Odyssey. This might sound plausible, but it’s pretty obviously a case of someone scrambling for an excuse. Because the very earliest copy of any part of the Odyssey is incised on a 5th century BCE potsherd. ‘Potsherd’ means it’s a hard material. ‘Incised’ means it’s an inscription.
Some news sources that have spread the false info from the press release: the BBC; the Frankfurter Allgemeine; The Guardian; Le Monde; The New York Times; The New Zealand Herald; Reuters; Time; The Washington Post. Some outlets that give a report with reduced misinformation:; La Repubblica; Science Alert;; Die Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The text

Since there’s intense interest, here’s a transcription and translation. I’ve made them from the photograph that has been circulated in the press. Underneath is a version of the photo with the letter shapes highlighted. In my transcription the square brackets don’t represent edges of the tablet, as they normally would, but the edges of the photograph.
7    [κ]α[λη τε μεγαλη τε περιδρομοϲ ην ρα ϲυβω]-
8    αυτοϲ δ’ αμφι ϲυεϲϲιν αποιχομενοιο
9    νοϲφιν δεϲποινηϲ και Λαερταο γ[εροντοϲ]
10  ρυτοιϲιν λαεϲϲι και ετριγκωϲεν αχερ[δωι]
11  ϲταυρουϲ δ’ εκτοϲ ελαϲϲε διαμπερ[εϲ ενθα]
      και ενθα
12  π̣υκνουϲ και θαμεαϲ το μελαν δ[ρυοϲ]
13  [ε]ντοϲθεν δ’ αυληϲ ϲυφεουϲ δυοκ[αιδεκα]
      ποιει ...

      [There was a f]i[ne and large enclosure which the swineh]erd
      and he himself, around the pigs during his lord’s absence,
      independently of his mistress and the o[ld man] Laertes,
10  surrounded (them) with quarried stones and pear (wood);
      and on the outside he drove stakes [this way] and that in a mesh,
      densely and close-spaced, [s]plitting the core (or: the bark?) of the t[ree];
      and on the [i]nside of the yard he made twe[lve] pigsties ...
-- Odyssey 14.7-13

The tablet doesn’t require any changes to the standard text of the passage. It does have a couple of differences from the standard text, but they’re clearly errors:
  • The tablet omits a verb in line 8, making lines 7-10 a bit of a jumble: it changes δείμαθ’ ὕεσσιν ‘(which) he built for the pigs’ into δ’ ἀμφὶ σύεσσιν ‘and around the pigs’.
  • In line 10 ἐθρίγκωσεν, ‘he surrounded’, the tablet changes the aspirated θ to unaspirated τ. This is uninteresting from a textual point of view, but very interesting phonologically. It shows that either the scribe or the person who dictated the text was aware of the classical pronunciation of theta, as in tin. In the Roman era, when the tablet was written, θ was regularly pronounced as in thin, just like in modern Greek.
But the standard text is secure: we’ve got ancient commentaries and a 3rd-4th century CE papyrus (no. 28 in West’s edition of the Odyssey, P. Rylands 53 fol. 13r) which both favour the standard text over the version in the tablet. Not to mention, the standard text actually makes sense.

The date

A complete list of ancient copies of the Odyssey -- not including this tablet, of course -- can be found in the introductory material to the recent edition of the Odyssey by M. L. West (2017), starting at page xxvii, headed Exemplarium antiquorum fragmenta (‘fragments of ancient copies’). There are something like a hundred that are older than the 3rd century CE, the date of the Olympia tablet.

The very oldest is a potsherd found at the Greek colony of Olbia, modern Ukraine, dating to the 400s BCE, which has Odyssey 9.39 written on it: ‘a wind bearing me from Ilios put me ashore among the Kikones’. Very evocative: to me it suggests someone who feels a long way from home. (Catalogue details for the potsherd:; SEG 30: 933.)

Some news outlets realised the claim was dubious and softened it.
“If this date is confirmed, the tablet could be the oldest written record of Homer’s work ever discovered in Greece,” the culture ministry said.
... notwithstanding the fact that the softer claim is contradicted by the article’s title. Greece is not a good source of ancient papyri: too damp. The vast majority of our ancient copies of the Odyssey have come from Egypt, which has much better conditions for preservation.

Even an expert might well think the tablet is the oldest copy discovered in Greece -- I did at first. But then I am no expert on papyri. Even that would be an error, though. One of the two oldest papyri found in Greece, the Derveni papyrus, found in Thessaly Macedonia and dating to ca. 340-320 BCE, quotes a line with a variant of Odyssey 8.335 (P. Derv. col. xxvi line 4). It’s possible that isn’t meant to be an Odyssey line: it could be from an Orphic poem that happens to resemble the Odyssey line closely. Even aside from that, we’ve got a bunch of Hellenistic vases that quote lines from Homer, collected in a 2013 dissertation by Dr Maria Nasioula -- as Prof. Vayos Liapis has pointed out in a reply to his own post on Facebook. (I owe thanks to Dimitri Nakassis, again, for alerting me to Vayos Liapis’ post and Maria Nasioula’s dissertation.)

The tablet

What about the purpose of the tablet? Why clay? ‘The Philological Crocodile’ has posted a suggestion that it’s a votive offering made by a rhapsode. That seems very plausible, given the find location at the temple of Olympian Zeus.

It still poses some mysteries. Votive offerings with verse inscriptions are normally stone, or some object of personal significance. Also, the writing on this tablet is frankly sloppy: the lines are uneven, the line divisions and many letters are scrawled. If I had paid a scribe to make a votive offering for me and this was the result, I would not be happy. The choice of passage is also curious: why should the description of Eumaeus’ stockyard be apt, regardless of what kind of offering it is? I’m interested to see what ideas anyone has about these questions.

Miscellaneous misinformation

There’s a fair amount of other misinformation floating around in the news reports on this tablet -- some coming from the press release, some from Wikipedia, some from other half-remembered sources. Briefly:
  • In the passage on the tablet Odysseus does not address ‘his lifelong friend Eumaeus’, as the BBC and some other sources have put it. It’s a description of Eumaeus’ farm, and Eumaeus is Odysseus’ slave.
  • The Odyssey does not date to the 11th century, and even the 8th century is a push. ‘The eighth century date is more often stated than argued for’, as Barbara Graziosi has memorably put it. The mid-7th century is a more likely date.
  • While there was an oral epic tradition, that does not mean that a fluid Odyssean narrative was floating around waiting for someone to write it down and turn it into a canonical form. First, we can’t be sure when it was written down: there’s no guarantee that the seventh century date involved a transcription event. Second, the Odyssey feeds on many legendary narratives, including an Oresteia narrative and an Argonautica narrative, of which either, or more probably neither, may have existed in epic form. We can’t know that the story of Odysseus’ homecoming would have been at all recognisable in a hypothetical period prior to those influences.
  • There is no evidence that the Greek alphabet was invented to write down Homer: that’s a fringe theory, and scarcely any Homer scholar outside the University of Wisconsin believes it.