Tuesday, 26 November 2019

The Archimedes palimpsest

The ‘Archimedes palimpsest’ is the most famous manuscript of any ancient pagan text. I’d better explain its title first:
  • A palimpsest is a parchment manuscript that has been recycled and had a second layer of text written on it. The word literally means ‘re-polished’, that is, a parchment that had the original text washed or scraped off. Scholarly publications sometimes use the term rescriptus (‘rewritten’).
  • Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 BCE) is the most renowned of all ancient mathematicians. He wrote important books on topics like conic sections, the uses of infinitesimals and infinity, combinatorics, mechanical principles, and buoyancy.
Not much of Archimedes’ writings survives, even though he was a revered authority. So the Archimedes palimpsest is a big deal.
Monastery of Mar Saba, West Bank, where the palimpsest was housed in the 1600s. (Source: Jean and Nathalie, cropped; CC BY 2.0)
The manuscript, once catalogued as Metochion of the Holy Sepulchre MS 355, Constantinople, contains
  • Archimedes’ Method, which survives nowhere else;
  • the only Greek copies of On floating bodies and the Stomachion, both of which survived elsewhere in Arabic translations (a fragmentary translation in the case of the Stomachion);
  • other works by Archimedes known from other copies (Planes in equilibrium, Spirals, On the sphere and cylinder, Measurement of the circle);
  • two speeches by the Athenian orator Hypereides, which survive nowhere else (Against Diondas, Against Timandros);
  • an ancient commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.
So far the story is all true. Now we’re going to look at three widespread misconceptions about the manuscript.
  1. The belief that the palimpsest is a potent example of how religion corrupts science: that a 13th century scribe destroyed Archimedes’ text to make a prayer book, and that this is characteristic of the opposition between religious belief and the scientific method.
  2. The belief that the texts in the palimpsest went unread between 1229, when the prayerbook was completed, and 1998, when it was sold at auction.
  3. The belief that modern technology, such as X-ray fluorescence imaging and ultraviolet imaging conducted from 1999 to 2008, bears the sole credit for rescuing the texts in the palimpsest.
OK, there are elements of truth to each of these. But they wildly misrepresent the reality.

It’s true that a 13th century scribe erased Archimedes’ and Hypereides’ text to create a prayerbook. It’s true that modern technology saved texts that would otherwise have been lost.

But it’s false to imagine that this represents a conflict between religion and science. (Who do you think copied out the Archimedes in the first place? Elves?) It’s at most half true to imagine that modern technology was undoing damage wrought by a monk. It’s false that Archimedes’ Method went unread until 1998, and it’s false that the Method was saved by modern imaging techniques.

The illicit antiquities trade

This isn’t a story of the scientific method triumphing over religious ignorance. The bigger story is about the trade in stolen antiquities.
The Archimedes palimpsest. Where is it now? Officially, no one knows.
Over the last few years there’s been heavy attention to the fact that sales of ancient -- and mediaeval -- manuscripts often take place without any attention to provenance or legal ownership. This has been in the news just recently thanks to a fiasco surrounding an early papyrus of the New Testament gospel of Mark, owned by the Egypt Exploration Society. In 2013 the papyrologist Dirk Obbink secretly tried to sell it and three other New Testament papyri, without the EES’s knowledge or consent, to an American company, Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby is a prominent supporter of Christian evangelicalism, and has a reputation for rapaciously acquiring ancient Christian manuscripts without the slightest concern for where they came from. It has since turned out that Obbink ‘sold’ eleven other EES-owned papyri to them in 2010 -- and possibly to other buyers too.

At the time, Obbink was the general editor of the EES’s Oxyrhynchus papyri collection. He held that position until the EES got wind of his activities.
In August 2016 the EES did not re-appoint Professor Obbink ... primarily because of unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties, but also because of concerns, which he did not allay, about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts, especially the Sappho text.
-- EES press release, 14 Oct. 2019
As it happens, the Mark papyrus and ‘the Sappho text’ mentioned here are both very relevant to the case of the Archimedes palimpsest.

In 2014 Obbink published some new fragments of Sappho. Obbink has been nearly as secretive about where they came from as he was about the New Testament papyri. His initial publication stated only that the Sappho was ‘now in a private collection, London’, without a word about where it came from or how it was found.

He has since stated that the Sappho was bequeathed to the University of Mississippi (sometime around 1960, apparently) then sold at auction by Christie’s in 2011. Rather conspicuously, the Sappho also has a past with Hobby Lobby: see research by Brent Nongbri (Dec. 2018, Apr. 2019).

Where is the Sappho papyrus now? Only Obbink knows.

(Well, officially. Most likely it’s in the hands of Mahmoud Elder, a collector who once ran an antiquities trading company with Obbink, and who has also sold papyri to Hobby Lobby.)

What has that got to do with Archimedes? Well, several experts have pointed out recently that classicists have been eager to leap on the text of newly found manuscripts, while ignoring the secretiveness -- and often illegality -- surrounding the physical objects.
... the BMCR review of the 2016 edited volume devoted to the newest Sappho poems omitted any discussion whatsoever of questions of provenance, save a brief comment that the editorial board felt “obliged” to insert as a header. The “recovery” of even the slightest scrap — let alone a trove including a nearly complete, previously unknown poem — is, so the reasoning seems to go, to be celebrated no matter the means by which it is achieved.

The scope of Obbink’s alleged activities on the antiquities market would seem to put the lie to this reasoning.
-- Sampson and Uhlig, Eidolon, 6 Nov. 2019

I would personally avoid publication if documents are lacking, but anyone who decides otherwise must be very clear about why, though documents are missing, they think the papyrus was legally acquired. ...

In other words, dear Classicists, especially those among you who have commented and written pages and pages on the new Sappho poems, we have completely lost track of the only extant copy of the verses in question, verses otherwise unknown and unattested. Leaving aside the problems connected to the very unclear provenance of this “elderly” gentleman’s fragment, to me this seems a remarkable illustration of the unfair conditions of access that come with private collections.
-- Mazza, Eidolon, 8 Nov. 2019
Exactly the same reservations apply to the Archimedes palimpsest. Like the Sappho papyrus, no one knows where it is -- except for the people who published it. And, again like the Sappho, its location is only a secret officially. Everyone knows the Archimedes palimpsest is at Jeff Bezos’ house.

But in the case of the Archimedes, we can say with 100% certainty that it is stolen property.

When Anne Guersan sold the Archimedes palimpsest to Jeff Bezos, all attention was focused on the price, the text, and the conservation efforts. Some people did pay attention to where the physical object came from and where it was going -- but these things weren’t part of the popular story.

The false narrative

Read up on the palimpsest, and you will mostly find praise of the conservators, imaging specialists, and philologists who have studied the manuscript since 1998. I don’t exactly want to condemn their work: they aren’t the ones who stole it. And we have seen real discoveries about Archimedes and Hypereides. Would I have acted differently, in their shoes? I don’t know.

But, as with the Sappho, the scholars have been careful to avoid looking a gift horse in the mouth. They are effusive in their praise of ‘Mr. B.’ In public discussions they tend to avoid drawing too much attention to the palimpsest’s history between 1908 and 1998. A 2007 popular book on the palimpsest lays so much emphasis on the auction -- ‘a huge day for the history of science’ -- that if you stopped reading before chapter 7, you might well come away thinking the palimpsest was completely unknown beforehand.
A team of scientists used a special x-ray imaging technique, called x-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging, to finally unlock these scientific secrets, hidden from view since antiquity on a goatskin parchment manuscript.
-- California Council on Science and Technology, July 2006

(The project leader) assembled a team of some of the world’s best imaging experts to recover as much as possible of Archimedes' text from the Palimpsest that no eyes had seen in modern times.
-- Scientific American, Sep. 2011
Well, the 1998 auction was a huge day, but not for science. It was a terrific day for trading in stolen antiquities. The huge day for science was 91 years earlier, in 1907, when the Method was published by Johan Ludvig Heiberg, a Danish expert on Archimedes. The popular story keeps so quiet about this that the authors of the above snippets simply never knew it.
Archimedes’ Method, published by Heiberg in 1907. Here’s a translation-cum-paraphrase from 1912.
The popular story also tends to create an imaginary timeline --
  1. the text was written by Archimedes,
  2. then a monk damaged it, illustrating the perniciousness of Christianity,
  3. then it was rescued by 21st century secular technology.
If you listen to this TED talk, given by the project leader in May 2012, you may notice how he directs his audience’s attention. He spends nearly a minute describing how a monk tore apart seven unique texts and erased them (1:05-1:58). Then he spends 9 seconds on the damage done by 20th century looters and forgers (2:28-2:36) -- without ever mentioning that they were looters. He even says (2:40),
It’s the sort of book that you (would have) thought would be in an institution. But it’s not in an institution: it was bought by a private owner in 1998 ...
Well, it was in an institution, actually. And it was kept in pretty good condition, all things considered. Until it was stolen from that institution sometime around 1920.

So, here are a few counterpoints to the beliefs I outlined above.
  • The palimpsest didn’t go unread between 1229 and 1998. Johan Heiberg published the Method all the way back in 1907. Heiberg’s equipment was a magnifying glass and a camera. A German translation appeared the same year, an English translation-cum-paraphrase in 1912, then another critical edition in 1913.
  • Between 1999 and 2011 a barrage of careful and high-tech conservation efforts were aimed at the palimpsest. These efforts certainly revealed more of the text than Heiberg had been able to read, especially the diagrams. But, contrary to what is claimed in a 2007 popular book about the palimpsest, the important parts of the Method were known since Heiberg.
  • Conservation efforts weren’t primarily aimed at fixing damage inflicted by a Christian monk. Yes, the manuscript was damaged by the 13th century monk. Some of the text was illegible to Heiberg, and Heiberg didn’t even try to transcribe the Hypereides speeches. But the main focus of the conservation efforts were to rescue the book from damage done by thieves, forgers, and illicit collectors in the 1900s, after it was stolen.
The discovery of the Archimedes palimpsest in 1907: front page coverage. (New York Times, 16 July 1907, page 1)
You have to treat this story pretty selectively to make it a story of religion versus science. Yes, the 13th century scribe made Archimedes’ text harder to read. But it was Christian monks that made the Archimedes manuscript in the first place. And the damage done in the palimpsesting process pales in comparison with the reckless treatment of the manuscript over the last hundred years --
  • Some damage was probably done when the palimpsest was stolen after the end of World War I.
  • Much worse damage was inflicted by Salomon Guerson, Marie-Louis Sirieix, and Anne Guersan, who had the palimpsest at various points in the 1900s:
    • Guerson removed seven leaves, got a forger to erase the text and paint fake illuminations on four of them, and reinserted those four leaves (the other three leaves are lost).
    • Sirieix and possibly Guersan kept the palimpsest in a damp cellar where it grew mouldy.
    • One of them, or maybe all of them, put rusty objects and Blu-tack inside the palimpsest’s pages, and tried to ‘fix’ the book with layers of PVA glue.

The real history of the palimpsest

The most thorough history is one written by John Lowden (2011). Most of the following is a condensed, streamlined version of his report.
Note. I do have reservations about some aspects of Lowden’s account. As a team-member in the 2000s research project, Lowden has a vested interest in casting the current ownership of the palimpsest as legitimate. He suggests the mould on the manuscript may not be Sirieix’s fault; his closing paragraph tries to give the impression that the 13th century scribe is equally as culpable as the 20th century looters and forgers; he casts Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the stolen book as something ‘that can be unequivocally praised’; he says Bezos himself has ‘heroic generosity’. (Try telling that to Amazon employees.) It’s very tendentious. Still, his investigations into the history of the forged illuminations, and his interview of Elie Behar, make his account indispensable.
The Archimedes manuscript was made by Christian monks in the 10th century. In the 13th century a scribe recycled the manuscript into a prayerbook -- making it a palimpsest -- and completed his work in 1229. During the 1600s the palimpsest was housed in the Mar Saba monastery, in what is now the West Bank, about 9 km south-east of Jerusalem.

In the early 1800s the Patriarchate of Jerusalem took over the monastery’s collection. They relocated a number of books to Constantinople (as it then was), to a sort of embassy monastery that they had there, the Metochion of the Holy Sepulchre.

In the 1840s the biblical scholar Constantin Tischendorf visited the monastery, and secretly cut out one leaf and stole it. He knew it was a mathematical text, but he probably didn’t know it was Archimedes. He bequeathed the page to Cambridge University Library, and the stolen item is still there, catalogued as MS Add. 1879.23.

In 1899 Athanasios Papadopoulos-Kerameus catalogued the Metochion’s holdings, and published a description of the manuscript, including an insert that showed that it had come from Mar Saba. He also transcribed a passage of the palimpsest.
The Metochion as it appears today. (Balat, Istanbul)
Heiberg realised that Papadopoulos-Kerameus’ transcription was Archimedes, and travelled to Constantinople in 1906 and 1908. He studied the manuscript as carefully as he could, took photographs, and published the Method and the Stomachion in 1907. Between 1910 and 1915 he published a complete new edition of Archimedes’ works.

It was probably in the hubbub following World War I that the palimpsest was stolen from the Metochion. The people who worked on the palimpsest between 1998 and 2011 insist the palimpsest was bought, not stolen, and they point to one other manuscript being bought from the Metochion in the 1920s. They have a vested interest in that belief. If the palimpsest is stolen property, that would compromise every aspect of their work.

Even if it was bought, we know that Patriarch Damianos of Jerusalem wrote to the Metochion in 1923 with strict instructions not to sell any manuscripts. Whether it changed hands for money, or it was seized by a French soldier in the occupation force, it went without the knowledge or consent of its actual owner.

If money did change hands, the situation is identical to that of the Oxyrhynchus papyri that Dirk Obbink sold to Hobby Lobby. Just like the papyri, the palimpsest is stolen property.

After this point, there are two versions of what happened.

Story number 1 is the story given by Anne Guersan, the seller of the palimpsest in 1998. Her father Marie-Louis Sirieix (1884-1956) was a French soldier who served in Greece in World War I, and acquired the palimpsest in the early 1920s. This is the story she gave to a New York court when the Patriarchate of Jerusalem sued to prevent the sale in 1999, but with no evidence of how Sirieix acquired it.

Story number 2 is that Sirieix didn’t get the palimpsest until 1942. Prior to that it was held by Salomon Guerson (1872-1970), a carpet dealer who moved his business from Istanbul to Paris in the 1920s, and who is known to have been trying to sell mediaeval manuscripts to various museums and libraries between 1926 and 1934. In 1942 Guerson fled Paris to escape the Nazis, and at that point he sold the palimpsest to Sirieix, who was in the Resistance. This is the version given by Guerson’s grandsons, Elie Behar and Salomon Guerson, according to H. Brandt Corstius, who phoned Guerson in 2007, and John Lowden, who was in contact with Behar in 2010. After the war Salomon’s and Sirieix’s children, Robert and Anne, married in 1946. (The variation Guerson-Guersan comes from transliteration differences when the family moved from Istanbul to Paris.)

In addition, we know that in 1932 Guerson showed one folio of the palimpsest to the curator of the Huntington Library in Los Angeles -- probably Reginald Haselden -- who identified it as Heiberg’s Archimedes text. Subsequently Guerson offered it to collections in Paris, Oxford, and Chicago. These details come from a letter that Guerson wrote to Harold Willoughby at Chicago University in 1934, naming the price as $6000.

Guerson’s 1934 letter is pretty much a guarantee that story number 2 is the true one. Anne Guersan’s testimony at the 1999 trial was false.

Between 1938 and 1942 Guerson arranged to have illuminations forged and painted over some pages. Lowden documents Guerson’s track record of faking illuminations into manuscripts that passed through his hands. We know this happened after 1938 because the paint contains phthalocyanine green, a synthetic pigment, and that’s the year that it became commercially available. It’s likely that three further leaves, which vanished from the manuscript between 1908 and 1998, were also taken out to have illuminations forged on them, and never reattached.

According to Anne Guersan’s testimony -- though based on what we’ve seen, we should doubt every word of it -- Sirieix passed the palimpsest on to Anne in 1947. The information about what the palimpsest actually was didn’t make it as far as her: she claims that she began asking people for advice about the manuscript in the 1960s, following Sirieix’s death in 1956. She had it identified -- so she says -- by Abraham Wasserstein, a specialist in ancient science who during the 1960s was at Leicester University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Père Joseph Paramelle, a hellenist-byzantinist at the CNRS in Paris.
Note. A 1976 review written by Wasserstein discusses the palimpsest without giving a particular impression that he was aware of its whereabouts.
In the early 1970s the Guersan family started trying to sell the palimpsest. This may have been prompted by Salomon Guerson’s death in 1970; alternatively it might be that she was feeling pressure in the wake of the 1970 UNESCO agreement on the trade of cultural property. She got expressions of interest from various American universities -- Yale, Texas, and Pittsburgh -- but none of them was rich enough for her taste.

Finally in the 1990s she tried Christie’s in New York. And there she struck gold.

Just one snag: it was stolen property, and everyone knew it. Christie’s informed the Greek government of the situation in August 1998, two months before the auction. In September they listed the sale publicly. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem, to which the Metochion belonged, notified Christie’s a week before the auction that they believed the manuscript was theirs.

But the palimpsest was already in the US. In 1999 a New York court ruled that the sale was legal. There’s zero chance of the decision being overturned.

Given that the Patriarchate responded to news of the auction so quickly, it may sound crazy that the court ruled that they had delayed unreasonably. It was the right call, actually. The court pointed out
... if the Patriarchate was able to retain counsel with impressive speed to bring this action the night before the Christie’s auction, it could have retained counsel to search for the Palimpsest, or at least make some inquiries, at some point during the previous seventy years.
-- Greek Orthodox Patriarchate v. Christie’s, Inc. 1999, at *31
For further legal discussion see Reyhan 2001: 999-1002; Carver 2005; Ray 2015. Carver thinks the Patriarchate would have had a stronger case with different arguments -- but she also concludes that the case probably can’t be relitigated.

So the judgement is final. It may even be just: the Patriarchate admitted at the trial that they hadn’t taken much interest in the fate of the Metochion’s manuscripts before 1998. And it’s not clear that the palimpsest’s condition would be improved by going back to Jerusalem.

Still, the fact remains that the stolen palimpsest stays in Jeff Bezos’ keeping. Bezos has allowed detailed publications and open access information about the palimpsest. But an important cultural object is lost forever -- not only to the Patriarchate, but to the whole world.

More importantly, Bezos has set a potent example. The enormous amount of money he has spent on buying and conserving it is a huge encouragement to the trade in stolen antiquities. The incident certainly didn’t discourage Christie’s from auctioning the Sappho papyrus in 2011. It isn’t going to put them off other similar deals in future.

References

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Spartan losers

The battle of Thermopylae resonates incredibly strongly with alt-right white nationalists. This is especially striking considering that the Spartans lost that battle. And, so far as we can tell, achieved nothing.
‘White pride’: members of the Shield Wall Network pose with their ‘Spartan’ shields. The lambda symbol adopted by this group in Mountain View, Arkansas, is ‘supposed to signify the defense of Europe against "nonwhite hordes."’ (Source: ADL, retrieved 31/10/19.)
We’re being topical here, for a change. On Wednesday 23 October 2019, twenty-eight Republican members of the US Congress trespassed in a secure space, or SCIF (Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility). Many of them took recording devices, made phone calls, used WhatsApp and Twitter, and took films on mobile phones while inside the SCIF. They delayed the process of law several hours. And not one of them was arrested or charged.
Note: a press release from the office of Rep. Matt Gaetz named 41 members of Congress; 13 of them were on committees involved in the hearing, and so were authorised to be there (but not to take photos or films). The other 28 were committing a crime. Press release, 22 Oct. 2019.
The ringleader of the cabal, Rep. Matt Gaetz, spoke as follows:
Interviewer. Anyway you just single-handedly led a group to shut down this entire impeachment investigation right now. And what were you thinking about?

Gaetz. We were, uhhh ... like ... the 300, standing in the breach to try to stop the radical left from storming over our democracy. And I think we have made the point that President Trump deserves due process.
-- TMZ, 23 Oct. 2019
Commentators quickly pointed out that Gaetz apparently doesn’t remember the story of the 300 very well. The Spartans who fought at Thermopylae lost. They all died.
What part of the 300’s experience was it most like?

The part where every one of them was killed?

The part where Leonidas’ head was cut off, fixed to a pole and paraded before the cheering Persian troops?

The part where Xerxes took the Spartans’ arms?
-- Myke Cole, Twitter, 23 Oct. 2019
Entertainingly, after Gaetz tweeted from inside the SCIF, he realised belatedly that it’s very very illegal to do that. So he posted a follow-up tweet, claiming
**Tweet from staff**
-- Matt Gaetz, Twitter, 23 Oct. 2019
-- presumably hoping no one would notice that his staff tweets are on a different account, and use Media Studio or the Twitter web interface. The tweet in question was posted on his personal account, using the Android app. Oopsie!

Thermopylae and the alt-right

Anyway, Gaetz’s language about the 300 is nothing new from alt-righters and white nationalists. Thermopylae, the 2007 film 300, and the 1998 comic book it’s based on, are all part and parcel of the language of modern racism.

To document this fully would take a large book. Tharoor (2016), Bond (2018), and Cole (2019a, 2019b) make a start, though.

Tharoor points out that a motto associated with the 300 Spartans, molōn labe (‘come and get them’), has come to be closely linked to alt-right merchandise, nationalists, and gun rights activists. (See for example here; here at bottom; here.) He mentions a YouTuber called ‘Aryan Wisdom’ who in 2016 edited Trump and his political opponents into scenes from 300.

Bond discusses Steve Bannon’s fondness for Sparta, and the historical use of ‘come and get them’. She gives an incisive analysis of the problematic relationship between Hellenistic-era Spartan propaganda and modern America, especially in relation to eugenics.

Cole reports that in 2012 a representative of Golden Dawn -- a Greek political party that instigates racial violence -- described present-day immigrants as ‘descendants of the first waves of Xerxes’ army ... wretched people’. A prominent supporter of the terrorist acts in 2011 that left 80 people in Norway dead went by the pen-name ‘Angus Thermopylae’.

In his more recent essay Cole points to an Italian fascist political party using panels from Frank Miller’s 300 in its propaganda posters. He also reminds us that members of the UK Conservative Party’s Brexit wing, the European Research Group, call themselves ‘the Spartans’ -- language echoed by the far-right newspaper Daily Mail. I’ll add that according to a March 2019 report, some hard-line Brexiteers refer to themselves as the ‘Grand Wizards’ -- in other words, they see ‘the Spartans’ and the KKK as interchangeable.
Leonidas in the film 300 (2007) is modelled on the painting Leonidas at Thermopylae (1798-1814), by the French artist Jacques-Louis David. David carries the main responsibility for the modern myth that Spartans fought in the nude.
Why does Thermopylae resonate so strongly with racists, nationalists, and terrorists? I can think of a bunch of possible reasons. They’re all based on naive readings of the historical battle.
  • Thermopylae can be imagined as a battle for racial purity: ‘pure’ Spartans versus ethnically diverse Persians.
  • Thermopylae can be imagined as one force defending its home against an external threat.
  • If alt-righters think of themselves as a minority defending a set of values against a tyranny of the majority, they will readily imagine Thermopylae as a tiny force of 300 making a heroic stand against a vast faceless enemy.
  • Thermopylae can be imagined as a conflict between individualism and freedom (the Spartans) versus coercion and autocracy (the Persians).
  • Thermopylae can be imagined as a religious conflict by proxy: western Greeks stand for Christianity, eastern Persians stand for Islam.
  • Thermopylae can be imagined as a case of self-sacrifice, and can additionally be used to rationalise terrorist acts: kamikaze squad and suicide by cop aren’t worlds apart.
  • Thermopylae can be imagined as an instance of losing the battle but winning the war.
Each and every one of these characterisations is wrong -- or probably wrong -- with the partial exception of the last one.

If only that weakened the battle’s potency as a symbol!

The problem is, how the battle is depicted is more important than what actually happened at Thermopylae. These bullet-points, above, that’s how Frank Miller and Zack Snyder depicted the battle. So, in the popular imagination, that’s what Thermopylae represents. In 300 the Persians are darker-skinned than the Greeks, they’re an external threat attacking without any sensible motive, the 300 Spartans are left to fight all alone, Greekness represents freedom, Xerxes represents enslavement, Miller and Snyder are both militant islamophobes. Add in a touch of homophobic/homoerotic self-hatred, and bang, you’ve got 300.

That hasn’t always been the subtext. In the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, the conflict was political, not religious: capitalism versus communism. But the way the battle comes to have this meaning is much the same:
‘O stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their word.’ This last message of the fallen heroes rallied Greece to victory. First at Salamis, as predicted, and then at Plataea. But it was more than a victory for Greece. It was a stirring example to free people throughout the world -- of what a few brave men can accomplish once they refuse to submit to tyranny.
-- The 300 Spartans (1962), closing voice-over
West versus east, Xerxes in blackface, self-sacrifice, losing the battle but winning the war, freedom ... the name of the enemy is different, but the racism and the symbolism haven’t changed much.

The historical battle

I don’t expect to persuade any committed alt-rightists and racists, but for the sake of interest, and for the record, here are a few notes on the real-life battle in 480 BCE.

1. The Spartans lost. Take heed, all you self-proclaimed ‘Spartans’. (Incidentally, there have been at least six battles of Thermopylae over the millennia, the last one in World War II. The pass has never been defended successfully. See Londey 2013 for full details.)

2. The Spartans didn’t stand alone. They were a minority of the southern forces -- only about 5% of the force initially stationed there, less than 15% of the force that remained and died. Besides the Spartans there were 700 Thespiaean troops, 400 Thebans, and several hundred Laconian perioikoi and helots; one source reports that there were 700 perioikoi. (Laconia was the region that had Sparta as its capital; perioikoi were residents without citizen rights; ‘helots’ were an ethnic group that served as a slave caste.)

3. It wasn’t a racial conflict. Many northern Greek states fought on the invading side, from Thessaly and Thrace. Herodotus reports that there were 300,000 Greeks in Xerxes’ army. That’s certainly an exaggeration -- Xerxes’ entire army probably didn’t have that many soldiers. But we can be certain that at Thermopylae, there were more Greeks fighting for Xerxes than for ‘Greece’. There’s an excellent chance that the Spartans were slain by Greek forces. This was a north-south conflict as much as a west-east conflict.

4. It wasn’t an ideological conflict. Various parties involved did use religion for propaganda purposes -- Xerxes, on his way over to Greece, supposedly paused at Troy to make sacrifices to Ilian Athena, and visited other cult-sites too -- but it was certainly not grounded in religion.

It wasn’t a conflict of political systems either. Yes, Persia was ruled by a single king, while the Greek world was a cluster of city-states, but Persian subjects typically enjoyed greater freedoms and economic benefits than people in Greece did. (Go ask one of the Spartans’ helots how much Greek ‘freedom’ is worth.)

Persia wasn’t simply making a territory grab. They were dealing with a clear and present danger. Their territorial possessions in Anatolia and the east Aegean had been threatened by Greek unrest for decades, so from the Persian perspective, mainland Greece was a threat that had to be neutralised. (A nationalist might argue that Persia didn’t have a legitimate claim to those territorial possessions: if you want to play that game I’ll be happy to shift the goalposts too.)

5. It (probably) wasn’t a heroic self-sacrifice. Not intentionally, anyway. That’s how ancient sources cast it -- but these are the same ancient sources that tell us in tremendous detail what happened towards the end, when there were supposedly no witnesses who survived.

Some historians in the modern era have seen the battle as a heroic self-sacrifice too -- Paul Cartledge (2006: 130) compares them to Japanese kamikaze pilots -- but it’s never backed up by any reasoning. There’s no good reason to think of self-sacrifice as an effective strategy. There was nothing to be gained from suicide by cop suicide by Persians.

And don’t go suggesting that a three-day delay was an essential military goal, to get Athens evacuated or something like that: even ancient sources don’t try to get away with that notion. The ancient writers suggest instead that the idea was to delay the northern forces until reinforcements could arrive. Even if there’s any truth to that, it still isn’t the whole story. If reinforcements had arrived, there was no way they could engage the northern army. The whole point of Thermopylae was that it was too confined for a large engagement.

One thing that the ancient sources do agree on is that Leonidas ordered a withdrawal of the bulk of the southern forces. The question is whether the Thespiaeans, Thebans, and Spartans remained to spend their own lives in cover the retreat of the other southern forces, or whether it was supposed to be a graduated withdrawal -- that the Thespiaeans, Thebans, and Spartans were intending to withdraw too.

My money is on the latter. The remaining troops would cover the general retreat, then they would leave as well. It should have been a full withdrawal, like that of the Greeks who defended Thermopylae against the Celts in 279 BCE, or the ANZACs who defended it against the Germans in 1941. However, Persian troops managed to scale the hills and get in behind the defensive line. That’s the reason that the southern Greeks were surrounded and cut off. It was too late to complete the withdrawal, and so they died.
Some of the key locations and cities involved in the battle of Thermopylae
Chris Matthew goes further. He argues (2013: 73-83) that Leonidas’ intent was actually offensive, not defensive. Before Leonidas ordered the withdrawal, there were somewhere between 6000 and 11,200 infantry stationed there, with a naval force of 280 ships and over 50,000 men stationed at Artemisium. The southerners may well have believed that that was plenty to hold the pass -- 10,000 infantry had been stationed for the defence at Tempe, further north. Matthew proposes that the idea wasn’t simply to delay Xerxes’ army, but to trap it in a position where it had no access to food or water. The figures we have for Xerxes’ army are outrageous -- ancient sources claim he had 1,700,000 Persians and 300,000 Greeks -- but even if we assume these numbers are exaggerated by a factor of 20, the northern army was far too large to live off the land while staying in one spot. Eight years after the battle the playwright Aeschylus wrote that
The land itself is an ally to [the Greeks] ...
killing with hunger an army that is far too numerous.
-- Aeschylus, Persians 792-794
If the southern force could delay Xerxes for even a week, and southern reinforcements came via another pass and appeared behind the northern army at Heraclea in Trachis, Xerxes’ forces would be trapped at the very moment that they were weakening from hunger, thirst, and disease. The southerners might have annihilated them. But, as it turned out, they couldn’t hold the northerners that long. Leonidas only managed three days. It wasn’t enough.

6. The 300 Spartans weren’t Leonidas’ personal guard. This myth is widely reported in modern accounts of the battle, and also in 300. The idea is supposedly that Sparta refused to engage its military officially, because of a religious festival or for some other reason, and so Leonidas decided to ‘go for a walk’ with his own retinue. In reality they were regular soldiers, sent by the Spartan state in an official capacity. Herodotus reports that the Spartan royal guard was 100 in number, and that their function was to protect the king(s) while campaigning (Herodotus 6.56). Matthew shows that 300 was a typical number for Spartan contingents on special assignments (2013: 71-72).

7. Spartan soldiers weren’t invincible killing machines. The typical alt-right caricature of Spartan soldiers is an anachronism. The Spartan agōgē as seen in 300, the idea that a Spartan phalanx was unbeatable in the field, the trope of ‘Never give up, never surrender’ -- all these things were invented as Spartan propaganda, centuries after the battle.

In the 300s BCE, Sparta was reduced to a minor power with big ideas about itself. The south did not rise again. Instead, Sparta drew on its propaganda successes from the 400s BCE to create a national image of a glorious past, which ended up being more for the tourist trade than anything else. Plutarch’s stories of Spartan military training and Spartan laconicisms are products of that period of self-invention.

Late archaic/early classical Sparta did have a better organised military than most other states, that much is true. They were very good at propaganda -- why else would a crushing military defeat like Thermopylae be celebrated? But they didn’t have their well organised military because they were autonomous freeholders, as the likes of Victor Davis Hanson fervently believe. They were able to specialise because they owned an ethnic slave caste.

There’s probably some truth to the notion of a Spartan ‘heroic code’, as idealised in the poetry of Tyrtaeus. But then again, Tyrtaeus wasn’t Spartan. He was an immigrant. Tyrtaeus was a weeaboo. If you look at actual Spartan poetry, by Alcman, you’ll see it’s largely about men leering at dancing girls.
Some outstanding spear-throwing from The 300 Spartans, 1962. (Hold up ... why are they throwing their spears?)
Despite their military specialisation, the Spartans were very beatable. When a Spartan hoplite phalanx faced another hoplite phalanx, sure, they’d never be at a disadvantage. But when they faced mixed forces and mixed tactics, they regularly lost. The first time a band of Spartan hoplites threw down their shields and surrendered unconditionally in a land battle was at the hands of archers and slingers. And Thebes found out in 371 BCE that, even in a phalanx-on-phalanx situation, Spartans could be totally trounced. When Sparta tried to resist Roman forces in 196 BCE, their soldiers fled for their lives at the sight of Roman standards; the Spartan king Nabis made a complete capitulation after three days of fighting (Livy 34.28-40).

Being Spartan wasn’t about independence and choice. It was about exerting power over other people. They weren’t racially pure plucky freeholders: they were just people. They had a powerful city-state, and the power of that city-state rested on slavery.

And often, it seems, three days was all it took to beat them.

References

  • Bond, Sarah E. 2018. ‘This is not Sparta.’ Eidolon, 8 May 2018.
  • Cartledge, Paul 2006. Thermopylae: the battle that changed the world. Pan.
  • Cole, Myke 2019a. ‘How the far right perverts ancient history -- and why it matters.’ Daily Beast, 2 Mar. 2019.
  • Cole, Myke 2019b. ‘The Sparta fetish is a cultural cancer.’ The New Republic, 1 August 2019.
  • Londey, Peter 2013. ‘Other battles of Thermopylae.’ In Matthew and Trundle 2013: 138-149 and 208-211.
  • Matthew, Christopher 2013. ‘Was the Greek defence of Thermopylae in 480 BC a suicide mission?’ In Matthew and Trundle 2013: 60-99 and 178-196.
  • Matthew, Christopher; Trundle, Matthew (eds.) 2013. Beyond the gates of fire. New perspectives on the battle of Thermopylae. Pen & Sword.
  • Tharoor, Ishan 2016. ‘Why the west’s far right -- and Trump supporters -- are still obsessed with an ancient battle.’ The Washington Post, 7 Nov. 2016.
[Note: edited two days after initial post. In the previous version I missed Sarah Bond’s essay for Eidolon, which I regret.]

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Ancient languages in Assassin’s creed: origins

Earlier this year I wrote two posts about bad Latin in movies (1, 2). In the world of video games, there’s plenty of good Latin -- and some other ancient languages too. Take for example the title music to Super smash bros. brawl (2008) and Clive Barker’s Undying (2001). They aren’t perfect -- Smash bros. has its word stresses all over the place, Undying is rather simplistic -- but they’re recognisably Latin. If there are problems, it’s not for want of trying.

You can play some games completely in Latin -- either because the publisher has added the language as an option (Minecraft) or because fans have made a full conversion (The legend of Zelda, Final fantasy III). Then there are games in an ancient setting that use authentic snippets of ancient languages, like Age of mythology (2002). One game notably gives some attention to ancient phonology, Fallout: New Vegas (2010).
You know my name. And you know how to pronounce it. (Fallout: New Vegas, 2010)
Some games just have trivial snags. In the Assassin’s creed games, assassins tell their victims ‘may s/he rest in peace’ (requiescat in pace) as though they’re talking about someone who’s somewhere else. Some games dodge problems by pretending language doesn’t exist: Ryse: son of Rome (2013) has a Roman general as its main character, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t contain any Latin at all.

And then there’s Assassin’s creed: origins (2017).

Admission time: I haven’t played the game myself. (One day, when I have the energy and money, I’ll upgrade my computer with its ageing dual-core CPU. One day ...)

Instead, I have to watch YouTube playthroughs. This is (a) not nearly as interesting as playing the game, and (b) it’s much harder to check things carefully. In particular, I haven’t been able to get a full impression of the incidental banter that you hear from people you run past in the streets.

In places like Cyrene, this banter is in Greek. And yes, it definitely is Greek! But though it’s ancient -- mostly, I think -- it’s hard to make out how authentic it is: partly because they use modern pronunciation -- which is absolutely fine, I’m just not used to it --; partly because YouTube players don’t stand still long enough for whole lines to be audible, and partly because I have only a smattering of modern Greek and I can’t tell how much of what I’m hearing is modern.

(Note on the pronunciation: it’s authentic enough. The sounds of Greek in the 40s BCE were much closer to modern pronunciation than to what you’d hear in 431 BCE Athens.)

It’s an intriguing mix. On the one hand, you can see signs of intense research. But there are a few things that stick out like a sore thumb because they are seriously half-arsed. I mean, we’re talking relying-on-Google-Translate levels of half-arsed.

Other than Googlified Latin, I don’t know what linguists Ubisoft employed or what other resources they used. But I will say that they put in an effort. The Latin and Greek are pretty bad in places, but they are Latin and Greek. According to Maxime Durand, the main historical researcher for the series, for the ancient Egyptian the game adopts a blend of linguistic elements.

What went right

The result usually carries verisimilitude. And there are loads of genuine historical allusions. The celebrities that appear in the game -- Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Potheinos/Pothinus, Caesar, Pompey -- were real people. (Lucius Septimius, not so much. The only Lucius Septimius that I know of is a 4th century writer who translated a Greek novel into Latin -- definitely not the villainous character who appears in the game.)
Edit, a few days later: I hadn’t done my research on Pompey’s death adequately. Septimius is indeed a real individual, though the praenomen ‘Lucius’ is weakly attested. See Caesar Bell. Civ. 3.104; Plut. Pompey 78; Dion Cassius 42.4.1. Appian names him ‘Sempronius’, Bell. Civ. 2.84.
There’s even a literary allusion! When Caesar and Cleopatra visit the tomb of Alexander, Caesar quotes Catullus --
Caesar. Did I tell you of the poet Catullus?
Cleopatra. I don’t believe so.
Caesar. Another cur, who made brief mention of me in his verse.
     ‘I do not study overmuch to please and court you, Caesar,
          nor do I care much to know if you be black or you be white!’
Cleopatra. Heh heh heh! Impudent man. Plato’s dislike for poets had merit.
Caesar. Heh heh heh, yes, as pretty as their words can be, they are roaches by the best measure. Annoying, but easily handled.
Cleopatra. And how did you handle this one?
Caesar. I invited him to my house for dinner and drinks.
Cleopatra. Know thy enemies as thy kin.
Caesar. And get them excessively drunk, when it needs be. [ . . . ]
[Inside the tomb]
Caesar. Rex immortalis! [ . . . ] Ever since I was a boy I’ve idolised this man.
Cleopatra. He is similar to you.
Caesar. I wept at the base of his statue in Rome. At thirty he was a god, with an empire stretching across the known world. What have I done with my five long decades here on earth? Ita me di iuvent!
Caesar’s quotation is from Catullus’ poem 93. The translation is by Humphrey Clucas (uncredited), published in a 2004 biography of the poet. Clucas’ version is wordy, but accurate. The original is:
nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere,
     nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo.
Caesar actually misses an opportunity at the end of this extract: when he says ita me di iuvent, ‘May the gods help me!’, he could have quoted Catullus again -- ita me iuvent caelites!, Catullus 61.192-193.

Naturally we get to hear Caesar say ‘The die is cast.’ And, in the course of his assassination -- oops, sorry, spoiler alert -- of course he says ‘You too, my son?’ to Brutus. (Minor sigh. No ancient source believes Caesar said anything at all.) When Caesar declares the start of the Alexandrian War he channels Shakespeare, saying ‘Let havoc reign!’ -- paraphrased from Julius Caesar act 3 scene 1, ‘Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.’

There’s an awful lot of incidental banter that you hear while walking around the streets, or in combat. Much of it is authentic. I can’t give it a complete evaluation, as I said above. But Roman soldiers will yell state! ‘Halt!’ when they want to intercept illegal activity. When they’re attacking you they may say things like et percutiamus illum! ‘And let’s run him through!’ They’re not always so authentic, though.

What didn’t go right

Apparently the main thing that irritated some fans was the combat. Fans of military history are most likely to notice that no Roman soldier in the game ever uses a pilum -- a spear that was the mainstay of Roman military equipment -- or ever fights in formation. Instead, we get Zack-Snyder-style mêlée throughout. This is taken to a ridiculous extreme in the ‘Battle of the Nile’ episode, where we see Caesar in mêlée combat with Egyptian enemies with only a couple of companions to support him.

Names can be a minor annoyance. There’s a character named ‘Felix Martialus’. Martialis is a real Roman name, Martialus absolutely is not. That isn’t just a spelling problem, it’s a noun type problem: it’s as if you counted houses by saying ‘one house, two hice’. Some Roman characters have faux-Italian names as if they’re characters in a Shakespeare play: ‘General Rufio’, ‘Legatus Tacito’. The Ptolemaic police force are called phylakes or the phylakitai, both plural Greek words, but the game uses phylakitai as singular too: ‘Gennadios the phylakitai’ is a bit like referring to ‘Commissioners Gordon’ or ‘Detectives Pikachu’.

And the incidental banter has lots of cracks. Roman soldiers will tell you to halt by saying ibi manere! They’ll give directions by saying hoc modo. They’ll taunt you with ‘You futuo!’, or a prisoner will demand to be executed by saying ‘Futuo! Just kill me already!’

With these, it’s totally obvious that someone just typed the corresponding English phrases into Google Translate. Go try it yourself with these phrases: ‘Stay there!’, ‘This way’, ‘Fuck!’ Unfortunately, Google Translate is so bad at Latin that you are better at Latin than it is even if you have never learned any Latin at all. For the record:
  • ibi manere isn’t a command.
  • hoc modo means ‘in this manner’, not ‘in this direction’.
  • futuo means ‘I am having sex.’ It doesn’t mean ‘fuck!’ in a vacuum, as an exclamation or an insult. When a soldier says ‘You futuo!’, that can only mean ‘I am currently having sex with you.’ Pretty sure that’s not what the writers intended.
Minor voice-work does a decent job with Latin pronunciation, though it’s often drowned out by environmental noise. The main actors ... well, not so much. They frequently stress the wrong syllables: ‘Venator’ becomes /veh-nah-tor/ instead of /veh-naah-toor/, imperator is /im-peh-rah-tor/ instead of /im-peh-raah-toor/, senatus is /seh-nah-tus/ instead of /seh-naah-tus/.

As for Greek, probably the major character with the most Greek is the mercenary Phoxidas. And good gods, he’s awful. His voice actor, Robbie Stevens, obviously doesn’t know a word of the language. It doesn’t help that he plays the character as a really offensive stereotype: he sounds like a Mexican bandito in a particularly racist spaghetti western. (Phoxidas is supposed to be Athenian, incidentally, but the -idas suffix shows that he’s actually West Greek: compare Doric Leonidas, Athenian Euripides. This is because the historical figure from whom the writers got the name was West Greek, either an Achaian or a Phthiote.)
Greek actors? We don’t need no steenking Greek actors!
Most of his insults are modern Greek, but there is one authentic ancient one: at one point he calls someone a μητροκοίτης, ‘motherfucker’. That would be a perfectly cromulent obscenity -- it’s in Hipponax -- but the actor manages to give it an extra syllable and get most of the vowels wrong. (For the record, standard pronunciation in the 1st century would be /mee-tro--tees/, with the /ü/ as in German Tür, French une.)

This is all incidental stuff, though. I’d like to close with two more ... striking cases where things went a bit peculiar.

‘The leisure of man-mounters’

Next to the gladiator arena in Cyrene you can find this graffito, which begins a side-quest:
Wall on north side of arena, Cyrene
μισθός! ὁ πρωτεύων τῶν ἀνδροβατῶν ὑμέτερος Πολυμνήστωρ ἀποδέδρακε. ὁμιλήσατε τῆς τῶν ἀνδροβατῶν σχολῆς.
The intended meaning of the graffito appears on screen when you interact with it:
Reward! The gladiator champion Polymestor has escaped. Talk to the Lanista at the Gladiator School.
Unfortunately, what it actually means is more like this:
Pay! The foremost of the man-mounters your Polymnestor has done off. Have intercourse of the leisure of man-mounters.
Yikes. You can see what’s happened with most words. ἀποδέδρακε ‘he has done off’ is just missing a syllable: it’s supposed to be ἀποδεδράμηκεν ‘he has run off’. σχολή is the origin of the word ‘school’, but it didn’t mean ‘school’ in ancient Greek (unlike Latin schola, which did). The word for ‘lanista’ is simply left out.

But ... ‘man-mounters’. How on earth the writers got from ‘gladiator’ to a rare word for anal sex -- that’s beyond me. There’s absolutely no ambiguity about its meaning either. It affects the flavour of ὁμιλήσατε too: in other contexts ὁμιλήσατε could well mean ‘converse with’. But in conjunction with ‘man-mounters’ ...?
ἀνδροβάτης and a related verb are attested in four ancient sources: Meleager, Palatine anthology 5.208, where the poet says he is going back to the hetero lifestyle because he’s fed up with selfish boys (‘My heart isn’t into boys any more. What joy is there in mounting men, if someone gives but doesn’t want to receive?’); two 2nd-century Christian writers, Justin Martyr, Second defence of Christians 12.5, and Aristeides the apologist, fr. 9.9, who both treat it as immoral (Aristeides puts it on a par with patricide); and the lexicographer Hesychius, π.77, who defines the even rarer word παιδοπίπας by giving ἀρσενοβάτης and ἀνδροβάτης as synonyms.
By the way, exclamation marks weren’t invented until sometime around the 12th century.

‘Of Your Works with Respect to a Gemstone Camp’

And then there’s the image at the top of this post. In the Sinai, in the expansion ‘The hidden ones’, you will pass through a Roman camp called Operum Tuorum Gemmam Castra.

This one really hurts, because the writers probably thought they were being terribly clever. You see, Sinai was the richest source of turquoise in the ancient Mediterranean. That’s why the first quest in ‘The hidden ones’ is called ‘The land of turquoise’. Also, the Bible happens to mention turquoise in a few places, notably Ezekiel 27.16. And operum tuorum gemmam are three consecutive words in the Latin Vulgate translation of that verse. Clever allusion, huh?

Well ... the original Hebrew text mentions turquoise. The Latin version, which is where the phrase comes from, does not.
Syrus negotiator tuus propter multitudinem operum tuorum: gemmam, et purpuram, et scutulata, et byssum, et sericum, et chodchod proposuerunt in mercatu tuo.

The Syrian did business with you because of the abundance of your goods: in trade with you they have exchanged gemstone, and purple, and embroidered work, and linen, and silk, and ruby.
Modern translations of the Bible are based directly on the Hebrew, so that’s why you will find ‘turquoise’ in English versions. (You’ll also find ‘Edom’ or ‘Aram’ instead of ‘the Syrian’. The Latin Syrus isn’t a mistranslation, it’s just that in antiquity ‘Syrian’ referred to a much bigger area than it does today.)

Unfortunately, whoever fetched this phrase from the Vulgate didn’t know any Latin. They didn’t spot that the Latin version just says ‘gemstone’, not ‘turquoise’ specifically. And they made the mistake of consulting an edition without any punctuation.

The camp’s name comes from Latin words in two unrelated phrases -- it’s made up of the words corresponding to ‘of your goods’ and ‘gemstone’ in my translation above. If you jam them together without any context, and without punctuation, the result is just ... weird. It means ‘Camp with respect to a gemstone of your labours’, or something like that.

I have a lot of respect for the makers of the Assassin’s creed games, I really do, and for the historical research that goes into them. In terms of authenticity, I will say that Origins seems more uneven than its follow-up, Odyssey. I still look forward to playing Origins one day, though. It looks like nothing beats Origins for the feel of walking around an ancient Egyptian or Hellenistic city. It’s just that ... a few things ring very false indeed. ‘Man-mounters’ is hilarious, and the bit about turquoise makes me cringe. But there’s also a lot that went right.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Achilles on death

If you read up on Greek attitudes to death and the afterlife, you’ll very often see the following sound bite quoted as typical. When Odysseus summons up the souls of the dead, in the Odyssey, one of the ghosts he meets is Achilles. And Achilles says:
‘Don’t give me consolation about death, glorious Odysseus.
I’d rather be above earth and labour for someone else,
a man with no land of his own and little livelihood,
than be king over all the lifeless dead.’
-- Homer, Odyssey 11.488-491
Odysseus’ consultation of the ghosts, depicted as a psychagogia or soul-summoning. Left, Elpenor’s ghost; centre, Odysseus; right, the god Hermes as soul guide. Hermes doesn’t appear in this bit of the Odyssey: the vase obviously isn’t an illustration of Homer. The artist may have taken some inspiration from a lost drama, Aeschylus’ Psychagogoi, where Hermes is named in two fragments (Aesch. frags. 273, 273a Radt). (Attic, Lykaon Painter, ca. 440 BCE; Boston Museum of Fine Arts 34.79)
Now, it’s true enough that the picture of the afterlife that we see in Odyssey 11 is ‘grey and dreary’. But these lines aren’t all that gets said about death in the Odyssey. They aren’t even all that gets said in this scene.

Odysseus’ conversation with Achilles carries on for another 39 lines. And by the end of the scene, Achilles’ sentiment is completely turned on its head.

This post is a reprise of a journal article I wrote over a decade ago (Gainsford 2008). When I published that piece, the journal format meant that I had to put my point in the context of lots of modern interpretations -- of very uneven quality. The main point got crowded. Today I’m giving the more direct version.

And the direct version is this: if you ever hear someone citing Achilles’ words as though they’re any kind of summing up of anything, or as though they’re typical, then you are listening to a fool.
Note in this passage the typical early Greeks’ attitude to existence after death. Its shadowy impotence appalled them, for they loved vigour, action, personality, and the sunshine. Contrast Milton’s Satan -- ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven’. The recurrent melancholy of all Greek literature is mainly due to this abhorrence of losing one’s vital physical powers after death. The Mystery Religions and some philosophies tried to dispel it. But it met no decisive challenge till St. Paul on the Areopagus proclaimed the Resurrection of the Body.
-- Stanford 1959: 398

Achilles’ famous reply nicely sums up Greek pessimism about the afterlife.
-- Powell 2009: 394
Codswallop. If, by some mischance, you are inclined to stop at the words ‘king over all the lifeless dead’, then I have to ask: how is it that you’re reading this sentence? How on earth are you energetic enough to have read 400 words of a blog post -- so far -- but too lazy to read the 39 lines that make up the rest of Achilles’ scene?

Achilles’ famous words aren’t some kind of pronouncement from on high about the nature of death. They’re bitter words, full of grief and anger. They express resentment at the loss that death brings. That’s just the set-up. The pay-off comes later.

Family

Achilles goes on to ask Odysseus for news of his surviving family.
‘But come, tell me news of my noble son (Neoptolemus).
Did he follow the army to war, to be a front-line hero, or not?
And tell me if you’ve heard anything of (my father) blameless Peleus.
Does he still hold honour among the Myrmidons ...?’
-- Odyssey 11.492-495
This scene isn’t about the dead, it’s about the living. It’s about family. Achilles couldn’t care less about illustrating the nature of the afterlife: he just doesn’t want Odysseus to offer false comfort (‘Don’t give me consolation’). The scene with Achilles is about showing us that family relationships carry on being important when a family member dies. A relationship doesn’t just vanish when life stops.
Jan Styka, Ulisses pragnie uscisnać zjawę swojej Matki (‘Odysseus wants to embrace his mother’s ghost’; Paris, 1901)
Odysseus obliges. He doesn’t have any news about Achilles’ father, but he can report on the son’s heroism at Troy. The boy was an outstanding policy-maker, a superb warrior, and one of the bravest soldiers to hide in the wooden horse. He survived the war uninjured, with glory, and with a pile of wealth.
So I (Odysseus) spoke. And the ghost of swift Achilles
marched off, taking long strides across the asphodel meadow,
joyful because I told him of his outstanding son.
-- Odyssey 11.538-540
That’s the pay-off to this scene.

Now, of course, there’s more to Neoptolemus’ story too. Earlier on in the Odyssey we saw celebrations for the wedding between Neoptolemus and Menelaus’ daughter Hermione (Od. 4.1-9). But in other ancient sources, he’s a very unpleasant character. Later writers paint Neoptolemus as the most brutal and bloodthirsty of all the Greeks in the destruction of Troy. He got home from the war safely, but later he was murdered at Delphi for one reason or another -- the details vary.

The Odyssey keeps quiet about all of that. The emphasis is on reasons to be proud at the son’s achievements, and the continuity of the family line into another generation, complete with a marriage to a noble wife.

Exactly the same things are at stake in Odysseus’ family, with his son Telemachus.

Not a scene about Achilles

It just doesn’t work to stick to Achilles’ words -- ‘better to labour for someone else than to be king over the dead’ -- as though that was the punchline, the moral to a fable. This scene isn’t about Achilles. The Odyssey isn’t his epic. The scene is about what his story means to Odysseus.

That’s the main problem with some alternate interpretations I’ve heard. Like the idea that Odysseus’ news about Achilles’ son is a way of cheering up Achilles, distracting him from his own woes. Never mind that Achilles expressly tells Odysseus not to do that back in line 488 (‘Don’t give me consolation about death’). Or the idea that the Achilles of Odyssey 11 is meant to be a counterpart to the Achilles of the Iliad -- either as a parallel (Achilles has learnt nothing, he’s incapable of change) or as a reversal (the Achilles of the Iliad preferred glory to death, this one is an imperfect imitation).

All that kind of reading tells me is that the reader would rather be reading the Iliad. But this isn’t the Iliad. And it isn’t trying to be.

The point is that Achilles’ viewpoint isn’t the point. We’re not looking at death as something to be experienced. No one experiences death -- death is what happens after you’ve finished your experiencing. We’re looking at what Achilles’ story means for Odysseus.

That’s the argument made by Jean-Pierre Vernant, in probably the most influential essay ever written about this scene:
The episode of the Nekuia [i.e. Odysseus’ visit to the dead] does not contradict the ideal of the heroic death, the fine death. It strengthens it and completes it. ... The only values that exist are the values of life, the only reality that of the living.
-- Vernant 1981: 291
Even Vernant doesn’t bother to read past line 491. But he’s clearly latched on to the right way of reading the lines, because that’s what the main bulk of the scene is about: the values of life, and Achilles’ surviving family.

That’s what Odysseus is looking for too. He isn’t visiting ghosts to get insight into the meaning of death: he’s there because his own family’s survival is in doubt. He’s been gone for years, he already knows his mother is dead and his family are in trouble, and he’s trying to get home. Achilles’ family is a success story -- for now, at least -- and succession is assured. But if Odysseus fails, he will leave no survivors.

That’s the point of another ghost conversation that Odysseus had earlier: his chat with the ghost of the prophet Teiresias, who foretold Odysseus’ death.
                ‘And your own death: away from the sea,
without violence, that’s just how it will come. It will slay you
when you’re worn down by comfy old age. Around you your people
will be blessed. These are sure things I’m telling you.’
-- Odyssey 11.134-137
‘Around you your people will be blessed.’ The Greek word, laoi, doesn’t mean ‘family’ as such, but the implication is still one of community. The promise is that Odysseus’ community will survive and thrive, even after he’s no longer there to watch over them.
Odysseus, with two companions, consults the ghost of the seer Teiresias, whose head is poking out of the underworld in a hole in the ground (circled). (Metapontum, Dolon Painter, ca. 390 BCE; Bib. nat. France De Ridder 422)
This is quite different from some heroes. In the Old English epic Beowulf, the sense is quite the opposite, that Beowulf dies to protect and help his people, but it’s made clear within the poem that after his death the community is going to wither and blow away. (I’ve written an article on that too: Gainsford 2012.)

The Odyssey is far more optimistic. Not just about Odysseus’ fate, but Achilles’ too.

References