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.

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.

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.

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).

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’.