Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Tiamat ... and other dragons

Tiamat is the most famous dragon of ancient Near Eastern mythology. Just a small hitch: no ancient Babylonian text actually describes her as a dragon.

But it isn’t actually a problem after all. This story has a twist: we probably should think of Tiamat as a great serpent, even though there’s no direct testimony. It’s just that the reasons for thinking that are indirect.

Marduk fighting Tiamat? Or Marduk charging into battle alongside the mušḫuššu, his personal symbol and ally? Or some other god with a serpent-like monster? (Assyrian cylinder seal, ca. 800-750 BCE)

The following summaries, at least, are straight-up wrong --
Some sources identify [Tiamat] with images of a sea serpent or dragon. ... In the Enûma Elish, the Babylonian epic of creation, she ... wars upon her husband's murderers, taking on the form of a massive sea dragon ... Tiamat is usually described as a sea serpent or dragon ...
-- Wikipedia, ‘Tiamat’ (retrieved 14 Oct. 2018)

The dragon’s form varied from the earliest times. The Chaldean dragon Tiamat had four legs, a scaly body, and wings ...
-- Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Dragon’ (retrieved 14 Oct. 2018)
The Wikipedia article does give a citation for the claim that some sources identify her with images of a serpent. But the source it cites -- Jacobsen (1968), a very competent and clear article -- says nothing of the kind. And where Wikipedia claims that Tiamat is ‘usually described as a sea serpent’, there’s a conspicuous absence of citations. The reason for that absence is that no such descriptions exist.

As for the Britannica article, its description is pretty clearly based on the illustration below, from Nimrud in what is now northern Iraq. We definitely don’t have any textual source giving Tiamat four legs, scales, or wings. Yet you’ll often see this same illustration cited as if it’s a typical ancient depiction of Tiamat.

Just one thing: Tiamat is a primordial female divinity, right? So ... notice a tiny problem?

Definitely NOT Tiamat: this monster has a penis. (Drawing of a Neo-Assyrian relief from the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud, 800s BCE. Source: Layard, The monuments of Nineveh vol. 2 (1853), plate 5)

(You’ll probably need to click on the image and zoom in. Yes, it is tiny, yes that’s very funny, ha ha.) Anthony Green (1997a: 142, 1997b: 258) points out that the relief comes from a temple of Ninurta, and suggests that the monster might be Asakku or Asag, slain by Ninurta in the poem Lugal-e.

Moreover, the Britannica claims to be talking about a Chaldaean Tiamat; the illustration is Assyrian. And just in case you weren’t sure already that the Britannica article is garbage: a couple of lines later it claims, as a matter of historical fact, that it was Uther Pendragon himself who established dragons’ role in English heraldry. Yes, seriously.

How is Tiamat really depicted?

In the Enuma elish, the Babylonian creation epic, Apsu and Tiamat are primordial divinities of the cosmic waters, husband and wife, and the ancestors of the gods. Misbehaviour among the gods leads to battles between Ea and Apsu (tablet 1), and then between Marduk and Tiamat (tablets 2-5). Marduk’s conquest of Tiamat, who is the stormy salt sea, is a key step in bringing about cosmic order.

However, the poem is short on physical descriptions. Marduk gets a bit of a description in tablet 1; Tiamat, not so much. We’re told that she creates or gives birth to eleven monsters in preparation for the battle:
She created the Hydra, the Dragon, the Hairy Hero,
the Great Demon, the Savage Dog, and the Scorpion-man,
(three?) fierce demons, the Fish-man, and the Mighty Bull ...
-- Enuma elish 1.141-143 = 2.27-29, 3.31-33, 3.89-91 (trans. Lambert)
Some of her physical features get mentioned. She has a throat (4.31), blood (4.32), entrails (4.41), a mouth (4.65), legs (4.91), lips and a belly (4.98-99), a head (4.130), and eyes, nostrils, and breasts (5.55-56).

There’s just one clearly non-human detail: Tiamat has a tail (5.59), which Marduk uses to make the Durmahu or ‘great bond’ that holds the earth in place. So whatever she is, she isn’t totally humanoid. Still, it’s not exactly specific.

Another couple of possible candidates for depicting Marduk fighting Tiamat. Left: cylinder seal, yellow frit, glazed, 17 mm high; Assyrian, Nineveh, ca. 900-700 BCE (Berlin VA 7951). Right: cylinder seal, serpentine, 17 mm high; Assyrian, Nineveh, ca. 800-600 BCE (Pierpont Morgan Library, NY).

Do the pictorial arts help? Well, potentially. But they don’t exactly simplify things.
  1. Text ≠ image. There’s no reason to expect that textual sources and pictorial arts should resemble each other, or even try to resemble each other. Verbal narratives and visual myths are very different things, with different storytelling techniques, different symbols, and maybe even completely separate stories. For example, in the Ninurta relief above, it may be surprising to see Ninurta carrying lightning bolts; but one variant makes Adad, the storm god, the hero of the Asakku story instead. From the point of view of someone that relies on texts, this looks like leakage and hybridisation between separate variants. For someone who begins with the pictorial arts, it’ll seem artificial to unravel the textual sources into separate ‘variants’.
  2. No name tags. Mesopotamian pictorial arts don’t give many clues as to who’s who. There are several options for identifying a giant serpent. It might be Tiamat. But it might also be another sea divinity, Irhan, whose name is written with a symbol for ‘snake’; it could be the mušḫuššu serpent that serves as Marduk’s symbol and ally; it could be another monster which is Nabu’s symbol; it could be one of Tiamat’s eleven monstrous offspring. Or it could be an entity that doesn’t even get mentioned in any textual source.

... and other dragons

That brings us to the subject of other dragons. What do we know about them? Do we have stories about battles with them? The Greek god Zeus has links to storm gods in other mythologies, like Jupiter and Thor: does Tiamat have links to actual dragons?

The story-type of a god battling a Chaos Monster in order to establish the order of the cosmos is a widespread one, and the Chaos Monster is quite often a serpent. In Babylonian-Assyrian myth Marduk defeats Tiamat and Nergal defeats a giant serpent called a bašmu. In Greece Zeus defeats Typhoeus, and Apollo defeats Python, both giant serpents. In Ugarit Baal defeats Yamm and Litan, and in Israel Yahweh defeats Leviathan, all of them serpents.

There are poetic and linguistic links between many dragon-slaying stories, too, as argued by Calvert Watkins in his classics study How to kill a dragon (1995).

Tiamat as a five-headed dragon in the game Dungeons and Dragons. Left: Monster manual, 1st edition (1977); right: The rise of Tiamat (2014).

Don’t think of explaining this as some cultures copying their myths from another. That isn’t how myth works. Think instead of people drawing on a common pool of myths, story-types, and imagery, a bundle of mythical elements that they have all inherited.

A good example is the parallels between Job, in the Hebrew Bible, and the Ugaritic Baal Cycle. Job has Yahweh defeating several monsters, and the Baal Cycle talks about Baal’s and Anat’s conquests. Take this passage where Anat boasts of her victory over Yamm:
I (Anat) fought Yamm, the Beloved of El,
surely I finished off River (Nahar), the Great God [or: god of the great waters],
surely I bound Tunnanu and destroyed (?) him.
I struck down the Twisty Serpent,
the Powerful One with Seven Heads.
-- Baal Cycle 3.iii.38-42 Smith (= CAT 1.3)
and compare it with this passage from the Hebrew book of Job --
By his power he stilled the sea (yam);
by his understanding he struck down Rahab.
By his wind the heavens were made fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
In the Baal Cycle Yamm is a sea divinity/monster, in Job the same name may simply mean ‘the sea’, lower-case -- though I think it’s worth considering it a possible personification there too. The Baal Cycle passage isn’t a list of different enemies, but a list of titles for Yamm (Smith and Pitard 2009: 248-249); the same may be true of the Job passage. Tunnanu is cognate with Hebrew tannin, ‘serpent’ or ‘dragon’.

Later on Job devotes an entire chapter to Yahweh’s victory over Leviathan (Job 41). There Leviathan is a sea monster that spits fire and breathes smoke, and has glowing eyes. Other passages in the Hebrew Bible make it clearer that Leviathan is a serpent. In Psalm 74.13-14 Leviathan is a water serpent with multiple heads. And then there’s this passage:
On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon (tannin) that is in the sea (yam).
Compare this to the Baal Cycle passage above, and to the following passage about Litan:
Litan, the Fleeing Serpent,
... the Twisty Serpent,
the Powerful One with Seven Heads
-- Baal cycle 5.i.1-3 Smith (= KTU 1.5)
We get the same formulas referring to both Yamm and Litan in Ugaritic, and to Leviathan in Hebrew: ‘fleeing serpent’, ‘twisty serpent’, ‘Tunnanu/tannin’, multiple heads.

Leakage between dragon stories. I think it’d be a mistake to draw a firm distinction between Yamm and Litan, because the sources seem to make a point of blurring sea serpents together.

Should Yamm/Litan/Leviathan be equated with Tiamat as well? Well, given how much blurring we’ve already got ... maybe. Hebrew does have a cognate for Tiamat as well -- tehom, the ‘sea’, and also the primordial waters before creation in Genesis 1.1. We don’t have any multi-headed dragons in Mesopotamian textual sources, but there are a couple of pictorial depictions.

{Edit, three days later: we do in fact have a seven-headed serpent in a Sumerian myth: it is one of the ‘Slain Heroes’ killed by Ningirsu or Ninurta in the poem Lugal-e. Green 1997a: 141, 1997b: 259 identifies it with one or both of the serpents shown below.}

Left: engraved shell plaque of unknown provenance; 39 mm high, ca. 2600-2300 BCE (Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem). Right: stone cylinder seal from Tell Asmar, Iraq; 32 mm high, ca. 2271-2154 BCE (Iraq Museum, Baghdad). Source: Green 1997a, plates 13 and 14 (= ANEP 671 and 691).

The dragon dies one head at a time. In the left figure a god (Ningirsu/Ninurta?) has already killed one head; in the right, two figures are fighting the dragon and four of its heads are drooping dead. In both pictures, flames seem to be shooting from the monster’s back.

Some later sources, ranging from the Greek world to Mesopotamia, also feature multi-headed dragons, with varying degrees of similarity:
  • Zeus vs. Typhoeus (Hesiodic Theogony 810-868, Greek, ca. 700 BCE): Typhoeus is a serpent with a hundred heads (825, cf. 855-856), and flames shoot from his body when he is struck (859-867).
  • Heracles vs. Hydra (ps.-Apollodoros Library 2.5.2, Greek, ca. 100-1 BCE): the Hydra has nine heads, and its blood is a deadly poison; Heracles’ ally Iolaus burns the root of each head as Heracles defeats it, one by one. The final head is immortal and ends up being buried under a rock. After the battle, Heracles ‘cuts up’ (anaschis-) the Hydra’s body.
  • The Christian New Testament, Revelation (Anatolian/Syrian?, ca. 80-100 CE): ‘a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns’ (Rev. 12.3-4). A ‘beast’ with the same number of heads and horns (13.1-14) has had one head mortally wounded, but the wound heals. (One or both of these also symbolises Rome, with its seven hills.)
  • Rav Acha vs. the demon: the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 29b (ca. 500 CE) tells how Rav Acha bar Ya’akov defeated a demon in the shape of a serpent with seven heads, and how one head died each time that he bowed and prayed.
It’s not hard to draw parallels between the pairing-up of two figures in the Tell Asmar seal, and Heracles and Iolaus; or between the flames shooting from the dragon’s body in the Mesopotamian images and the Typhoeus story; the one immortal head in the Heracles story and in Revelation 13; or the one-head-at-a-time procedure that we see in most of these variants.

Does Tiamat herself belong to the same family? That’s another question. On the one hand, there aren’t many echoes between the Tiamat story and the multi-headed dragons.

But there are some. When Heracles ‘cuts up’ the Hydra, explicitly a water dragon (hydr- = ‘water’), that’s reminiscent of Marduk cutting up Tiamat. The stormy sea winds that come from Typhoeus (Theogony 869-880) are reminiscent of the storm winds that Marduk appoints ‘to harass Tiamat’s entrails’, that is, to create storms at sea (Enuma elish 4.42-48). And the narrative of a divine battle to destroy chaos and establish order in the cosmos is a common theme.

That probably isn’t enough to justify identifying Tiamat with the seven-headed dragon, specifically. However, there’s a lot of leakage between dragon stories. It probably is justified to imagine Tiamat as some kind of dragon. And it doesn’t seem like it would have been impossible for an ancient Assyrian to have interpreted a seven-headed dragon as a picture of Tiamat.

References and further reading

  • Blust, R. 2000. ‘The origin of dragons’ (subscription required). Anthropos 95.2: 519-536.
  • Green, A. 1997a. ‘Myths in Mesopotamian art.’ In: Finkel, I. L.; Geller, M. J. (eds.) Sumerian gods and their representations. Cuneiform Monographs 7. Styx. 135-158.
  • Green, A. 1997b. ‘Mischwesen. B. Archäologie.’ In: Meissner, B., et al. Reallexikon der Assyriologie. Berlin: De Gruyter. Vol. 8, 246-264.
  • Jacobsen, T. 1968. ‘The battle between Marduk and Tiamat’ (subscription required). Journal of the American Oriental Society 88.1: 104-108.
  • Lambert, W. G. 2013. Babylonian creation myths. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
  • Miller, R. D. 2014. ‘Tracking the dragon across the ancient Near East.’ Archiv Orientální 82.2: 225-245.
  • Smith, M. S. 1997. ‘The Baal cycle.’ In: Parker, S. B. (ed.) Ugaritic narrative poetry. Society of Biblical Literature. 81-180.
  • Smith, M. S.; Pitard, W. T. 2009. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, vol. 2. Leiden: Brill.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Modern coins in a Roman market

If you had a time machine, would you be able to exchange modern coinage in an ancient market? If you could, how much value would it have?

I saw this question posed in an online forum once and it has come back to my mind every now and then. It’s a silly question in the sense that we don’t have time machines. But I can also see how someone writing a time travel story might find it interesting.

On the one hand, the main factor that determines a coin’s value is its fiduciary value -- that is, how much exchange value it is acknowledged to possess. The same goes for ancient coins. On one level it is the component metals that give it value. But the stamp of a Ptolemaic king or a Roman aristocrat on a coin is what guarantees that value and allows it to be used in legitimate transactions.

Modern stamping would offer no fiduciary value at all in an ancient market. So the main factor in their value would be the bullion value: the value of the metals composing the coin.

Pretty much all modern coins are alloys. And they’re alloys that were not standardly used in antiquity. In many modern currencies, low-denomination coins are even more base, made of copper- or nickel-plated steel.

This means that the practical value would be the value of the component metals, minus the cost of extracting those component metals. This would very likely result in a net negative value. You would literally need to pay people to take the coins from you.

If you could magic the metals out of the coin and convert them to bullion, then you’d get some positive value. How much value?

In modern coins, the only value worth looking at is the value of the copper (and modern coins tend to contain about 4 to 8 g copper). This was the basest metal used in ancient coins; but even in antiquity, the value of copper/brass/bronze coins was primarily fiduciary, not intrinsic. Good coinage that could be used in international trade was silver. Gold was for ultra-high-value exchanges and storage. For domestic use, copper and bronze coins were dominant, as they still are today.

The upshot is: in an ancient market you might be able to fob off modern coins to someone as a souvenir, but then the coins’ value is going to be a function of your haggling skills rather than any intrinsic value.

Below I give some sample coins. To work out the intrinsic values, or ‘bullion’ value, is easy if we wanted to sell the materials in the modern era: we simply look at the current price of copper. For that column, I’ve gone for a price per kg of EUR€5.41, USD$6.06, GBP£4.81, and NZD$9.43.

How to reckon the ancient price of copper, though? Well, in the early Principate, during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, the material that the sestertius was made of, brass or orichalcum, was reckoned as double the value of copper. Sestertii of that time range between about 22.5 to 26.5 grams. So, for want of anything better, I’m going to set the exchange rate at 1 sestertius = 24 grams of orichalcum = 48 grams of copper. However, this has to come with the caveat that in actual practice, the value could be anything up to an order of magnitude on either side of that.

Euro coins

Coin Copper content Modern value (EUR€) 1st cent. Roman value (sestertii)
€2, €1 can’t calculate
50 c 6.94 g 3.76 c 0.145 HS
20 c 5.11 g 2.77 c 0.106 HS
10 c 3.65 g 1.98 c 0.0760 HS
5c/2c/1c negligible (steel)

US coins (post-2009)

Coin Copper content Modern value (USD$) 1st cent. Roman value (sestertii)
$1 6.24 g 3.78 c 0.130 HS
Susan B. Anthony dollar 7.43 g 4.50 c 0.155 HS
25 c 5.20 g 3.15 c 0.108 HS
10 c 2.08 g 1.26 c 0.0433 HS
5c 3.75 g 2.27 c 0.0781 HS
1c negligible (97.5% zinc)

UK coins (1997-2016)

Coin Copper content Modern value (GBP£) 1st cent. Roman value (sestertii)
£2 can’t calculate
£1 6.65 g 3.15 p 0.139 HS
50 p 6.00 g 2.84 p 0.125 HS
20 p 3.75 g 1.77 p 0.0781 HS
10 p 4.88 g 2.31 p 0.102 HS
5p/2p/1p negligible (steel)

New Zealand coins (post-2006)

Coin Copper content Modern value (NZD$) 1st cent. Roman value (sestertii)
$2 9.20 g 8.55 c 0.192 HS
$1 7.36 g 6.83 c 0.153 HS
50c/20c/10c negligible (steel)

I’m ignoring the value of the steel in the coins, because the modern price of steel is on the order of 1/10 that of copper. Also, I can't evaluate the 1€/2€ coins or the £2 coin, because they’re made of an outer ring and an inner ring, each made of a separate alloy, and I haven’t managed to track down figures on overall composition.

In term of practical value: it is impossible to make direct equations between ancient and modern currency because the goods traded are different, and where they are the same, they are generally used very differently. Donkeys and slaves were commonly traded in ancient Roman markets; not so much in a modern first world urban setting. Wine was cheap, wheat was expensive. Many goods that are standard commodities in modern markets simply didn’t exist (heating oil, coffee, cocoa ...). The Big Mac index has no meaning for antiquity.

What we can say is that a Roman infantryman was paid 900 sestertii per annum in that period, and on that scale, the sestertii prices that we see above for modern coins are ... not inconsiderable, actually. A tenth of a sestertius comes out to about 1/24 of a soldier’s daily wage.

On balance, it might well be fair to say that modern coins would after all have some value in an ancient market -- assuming the people you were selling them to (a) recognised the metal content of your coins, and (b) had access to a means for extracting the raw materials.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Fake quotations

Have you seen a quotation from an ancient writer recently? Did it come with a specific source citation attached to it -- including page or chapter numbers? If not, you can be very, very confident that it’s fake.

That isn’t a logical syllogism, it’s just a rule of thumb, but it doesn’t fail often.

The web already has several resources for debunking fake quotations. Recently the blog Sententiae Antiquae devoted a post to debunking fake Aristotle quotations. The website Quote Investigator has sections on Aristotle, Cicero, Philo, Plato, Plutarch, Socrates, and Sophocles. I’ll avoid overlaps with these.

Movie quotes: Aristophanes, Aeschylus

Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, and drunkenness sobered, but stupid lasts forever.
-- The Emperor’s Club (2002)
Supposedly Aristophanes. This fake quotation isn’t even old enough to vote. It was made up for the film, and so was the Aristophanes attribution (video link).

Actually Aristophanes does touch on this topic, but his sentiment is the exact opposite: a change in character from dull sobriety to blissful drunkenness.
I envy the happiness
of this old man! What a change for him
from his sober habits and lifestyle.
... it’s a difficult thing to give up
the nature you’ve always had,
but then again, lots of people have done it:
they adopt other people’s opinions
and change their character.
-- Aristophanes, Wasps 1450-60
Here’s the opening caption from another film:
In war, truth is the first casualty.
-- Eye in the Sky (2015)
Supposedly Aeschylus. Truth is a casualty here too, I guess. The line is modern. It first appeared as the epigraph of a book by the British politician Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in War-time (Allen & Unwin, 1928), p. 11.

(Many sources assign it to US Senator Hiram Johnson, instead, in 1918 -- but there doesn’t seem to be any support for that.)

The film didn’t invent the Aeschylus attribution: in this case the writer was just lazy, not fraudulent. The attribution was invented in the early 1970s. A group of Vietnam War veterans formed a publisher for creative writing called ‘1st Casualty Press’. They published two books, with Ponsonby’s epigraph, and added the attribution to Aeschylus: Winning Hearts and Minds, 1972; Free Fire Zone, 1973. Under Aeschylus’ name the line enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in the 1970s, and the attribution has been revived in several more places in the 1990s and 2000s.

(Thanks to Isaac B. for pointing out the Eye in the Sky caption to me.)


A room without books is like a body without a soul.
The earliest occurrence of this exact wording comes from the magazine Zion’s Young People, 2.9 (January 1902) page 271. Now, there is a historical link between the aphorism and Cicero -- but that link consists of some heavy distortion which took place in 1864.

In April or May 56 BCE Cicero wrote a letter to his friend Atticus from his country house near Antium. In it he mentioned how relieved he was to have his library properly set up.
postea vero, quam Tyrannio mihi libros disposuit, mens addita videtur meis aedibus.

And in fact, since Tyrannio organised my books, a mind seems to have been added to my house.
-- Cicero, Ad Atticum 4.8
In an 1864 biography of Cicero, William Forsyth used this line but substituted ‘soul’ for Cicero’s mens ‘mind’:
His fondness for books amounted to a passion. He tells Atticus, that when his librarian Tyrannio had arranged his books it seemed as if his house had got a soul ...
And then a review of Forsyth’s book in Blackwood’s distorted the line almost beyond recognition.
Without books, he said, a house was but a body without a soul.
From there it was just a short hop to the modern form of the aphorism. So the line isn’t Cicero: it’s a variant of a line by the anonymous Blackwood author, who was in turn misquoting Forsyth.


Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.
A paraphrase of a loose translation, and they’re both wrong. The paraphrase distorts the translation, the translation distorts Plato.

The loose translation runs:
Laws are made to instruct the good, and in the hope that there may be no need of them; also to control the bad, whose hardness of heart will not be hindered from crime.
-- Plato, Laws book 9, 880d-e, trans. Benjamin Jowett
No suggestion there that laws aren’t currently needed for good people, and nothing about ‘finding a way around the laws’.

Jowett’s no better, though. Plato didn’t actually say anything about not needing laws. He also wasn’t talking about ‘the bad’, but about people who haven’t had much education. Here’s what Plato actually wrote:
Νόμοι δέ, ὡς ἔοικεν, οἱ μὲν τῶν χρηστῶν ἀνθρώπων ἕνεκα γίγνονται, διδαχῆς χάριν τοῦ τίνα τρόπον ὁμιλοῦντες ἀλλήλοις ἂν φιλοφρόνως οἰκοῖεν, οἱ δὲ τῶν τὴν παιδείαν διαφυγόντων, ἀτεράμονι χρωμένων τινὶ φύσει καὶ μηδὲν τεγχθέντων ὥστε μὴ ἐπὶ πᾶσαν ἰέναι κάκην.

Some laws, it seems, exist for good people, for the sake of teaching how they may interact and live with one another amicably; others, for those who have avoided education, who have a rather stubborn character and haven’t had any softening to stop them from proceeding to every vice.
-- Plato, Laws 880d-e (trans. by me)
An alternate translation in case there’s any doubt: Pangle (1980).


The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.
Quote Investigator covers this one -- It comes from a 1907 book by Kenneth J. Freeman -- but I want to add a little context. The misattribution arose because Freeman does purport to be summarising Plato. Here’s the context, starting at the bottom of page 73:
Call Plato next. “In a democratic state the schoolmaster is afraid of his pupils and flatters them, and the pupils despise both schoolmaster and paidagogos. The young expect the same treatment as the old, and contradict them and quarrel with them. In fact, seniors have to flatter their juniors, in order not to be thought morose old dotards.”

The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise.
Freeman’s paraphrase in the first paragraph is genuinely based on a passage of Plato.
In this kind of situation a teacher fears his pupils and flatters them, and the pupils make little account of the teachers or their enslaved school-escorts. And, in general, the young resemble their elders and try to rival them in their words and actions; while the old condescend to the young and are full of pleasantries and wit, copying the young so as not to seem odious or overbearing.
-- Plato, Republic 563a-b
But Freeman was already being tendentious. He has Plato say, ‘The young expect the same treatment as the old, and contradict them and quarrel with them’, but the real Plato depicts both the older and younger generations as trying to imitate each other.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.
or: One thing I know, that I know nothing.
Maybe it’s a little churlish to criticise this one: it’s a very heavy-handed paraphrase, rather than an outright fake. Here are the words that Plato actually puts in Socrates’ mouth:
But it is quite possible, men, that the god really is wise; and that in this oracle what he is saying is that human wisdom is worth little, in fact nothing at all. And he seems to be talking about Socrates, but is really just using my name and making me an example, as if to say: ‘That one of you is wisest, mortals, who like Socrates recognises that he is in truth worthless with respect to wisdom.’
-- Plato, Apology 23a-b
In tourist shops in Greece you can get T-shirts with the slogan ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα (‘I know one thing, that I know nothing’). Well, it is real ancient Greek. But it isn’t a real quotation.

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
This is about as distant from Socrates as you can get. It’s a Christian aphorism, which became popular in various religious tracts throughout the 1950s-1980s, especially in fundamentalist groups. There is one earlier appearance, in a 1902 periodical for missionaries:
Beware of the barrenness of a busy life! Beware of the words which break the bond of fellowship!
-- Christian Missionary Review 53 (1902) p. 811
The aphorism takes its inspiration from the New Testament story where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.’
-- Luke 10.40-42 (NRSV translation)

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.