Monday, 20 November 2017

West's Odyssey

This post doesn’t stick to the usual subject-matter for this blog. An important new critical edition of a very important book has come out recently, and it’s a book that is very dear to me: one of the two great Homeric epic poems, the Odyssey. So, with apologies for doing stuff that is going to be uninteresting for general readers, I give here a few notes about this new edition by the late lamented Martin L. West (Homerus. Odyssea, Bibliotheca Teubneriana, De Gruyter, 2017).

There’s no doubt this Odyssey is a major achievement, just as West’s Iliad was. For the mass of papyrological material alone, it is an essential edition for any serious student of Homeric epic. But West’s practices do sometimes ring alarm-bells, for those who don’t quite know what he’s doing -- sometimes even for people who do understand what’s going on.

A few days ago there was a minor twitterstorm when this tweet appeared from the Twitter account of the blog sententiae antiquae, surprised that even the first lines of the poem looked weird. A couple of days later they summed up the subsequent discussion on Storify.

In the context of that conversation I started doing a reasonably systematic investigation of the text. (I’ll admit in advance that I didn’t have access to West’s previous book The making of the Odyssey over the weekend; so I’ve been trying to avoid being judgemental.) Some of the fruits of that investigation I posted on Twitter; I’m using this post to give further details.

I started drawing up a detailed list of textual divergences between West and earlier editions, but it quickly became obvious that while West does often choose his manuscript readings idiosyncratically, he does not make changes that spring solely from assumptions about poetics. To put it more bluntly: he selects, but he does not make stuff up. In that respect he is rigourous. And he does not make mistakes easily: I have yet to find anything that I am sure is an error in this text (though there are some points that puzzle me mightily). West has very, very many textual divergences from the manuscript tradition, but nearly all of them are caused by linguistic considerations, all of which come from his ideas about (a) Greek dialects; (b) textual transmission in the 7th-5th centuries BCE; and (c) the circumstances in which the text was written down. So I will not give a catalogue of the divergences: neither the major ones, nor the orthographic quirks.

(Briefly: West’s edition is for people who believe that the Odyssey was written down by the author himself, in the 7th century, in an Ionian context. It is not an edition for people who give time to the metagrammatism theory, which involves oral transmission (possibly verbatim) and transcription in a 6th century Athenian context. And it is certainly not an edition for oralists! The folks at Harvard are working on a ‘multitext’ edition of the Iliad for oralists; I wonder if anyone will ever write an edition of Homer for metagrammatists?)

However, West also deletes and brackets many lines -- 76 deletions, 101 bracketings -- and, broadly speaking, these decisions are not driven by the same considerations. These may be considered independently of his linguistic policies about readings and orthography.

Below I give a catalogue of West’s deletions and bracketings, as an aid for anyone investigating his text. I assume that his decisions are driven by (a) papyrological evidence, and (b) ideas about the poetics of the Odyssey.

Decisions in the first category make perfect sense. Where a line is missing from ancient copies of the text, that can be compelling evidence that it is a mediaeval intrusion: oralists need fear no evildoing there. Absence in available ancient copies accounts for 50 of West’s deletions and 19 of his bracketings. There is still room for doubt -- in places we have multiple ancient copies that disagree with one another -- but as a policy it makes sense. (To take the most egregious case, Od. 21.276 does not exist in any manuscript of the Odyssey and was only introduced in the 1488 Florence edition: a line like that has no business existing in any modern copy of the Odyssey, of any ideological strain.)

But the second category: there I am much more suspicious. In particular, West deletes or brackets some lines even when they are unanimously supported by both ancient and mediaeval evidence: these account for 5 deleted lines, and 10 bracketed lines. Another 48 lines are bracketed because of modern editorial choices -- without direct support from ancient evidence, but also without any discrepancies in the mediaeval tradition. I suggest that any reader of the Odyssey in Greek would do well to pay very close attention to lines in these categories.

Lines deleted in West’s Odyssey

Missing in multiple papyri: 2.407, 2.429, 3.78, 3.493, 4.783, 9.489, 9.547, 10.265, 15.113-119, 17.547, 18.131, 22.43, 23.48, 23.127-128, 24.143. Total: 22.

Missing in one papyrus (including some where mediaeval support is dodgy): 4.57-58, 4.303, 5.91, 5.479, 8.27, 8.58, 10.253, 10.368-372, 10.504, 11.60, 11.92, 11.343, 14.369-370, 14.515-517, 17.565, 18.393, 18.413, 21.109, 21.276, 24.121. Total: 28.

Mediaeval evidence only: 3.19, 4.432, 5.157, 8.303, 9.30, 10.430, 10.456, 10.470, 10.482, 10.569, 11.407, 12.140-141, 12.147, 15.63, 15.139. Total: 16.

Doubtful or contradictory ancient evidence (again, including some where mediaeval support is dodgy): 2.191, 11.604, 13.347-348, 22.191. Total: 5.

Deleted in spite of substantive ancient evidence supporting the lines: 6.313-315, 15.295, 17.49. Total: 5.

Grand total: 76.

Of these, 64 lines are also bracketed by von der Mühll. Von der Mühll keeps the other 12 without brackets: 4.303, 4.432, 5.479, 10.569, 15.113-119, and 17.547.

Van Thiel has 20 brackets in common with West’s deletions: 2.191, 3.78, 5.91, 10.253, 10.265, 10.368-372, 10.430, 10.456, 11.92, 13.347-348, 15.63, 15.295, 21.276, and 23.127-128. Note that all of these are bracketed by both von der Mühll and van Thiel, and deleted by West.

Lines bracketed in West’s Odyssey

(Note: asterisks indicate lines bracketed by both West and von der Mühll.)

Missing in one papyrus: 2.393, *4.399, 9.55, 9.90, 10.101, 10.497-499, 17.62, 21.65-66, *21.219-220, 21.308. Total: 14.

Ancient but missing/athetised in some ancient copies/critics: *1.148, 1.171-173, 4.276, *4.553, *5.84, 8.141, *9.483, *10.189, *10.315, *11.428, *11.525, 11.590, 12.441, 13.289, 14.159, *15.74, 17.181, 18.330-332. Total: 22.

Disagreement among mediaeval manuscripts: 12.6, *15.345, *17.402, *19.153, 19.291-292, 19.466. Total: 7.

Modern editorial opinion: 1.140, 1.238, 2.251, *3.131, 3.214-215, 4.246b-249a, 4.514-516, 4.519-520, 5.39-40, 7.255, 10.148, 13.192, 14.242, 14.258, 15.191-192, 16.286-294, 16.326, 17.399, 18.109, 18.254-256, 20.175, 20.256, 21.133, 22.442, 23.100-102, 23.157-158, 24.158. Total: 48.

Modern editorial opinion in spite of ancient evidence supporting the lines: 12.332, 15.31-32, 15.298, 18.148, 19.236, 19.602, 22.274-276. Total: 10.

Grand total: 101.

15 lines are bracketed by both von der Mühll and West. Of the 48 lines bracketed because of editorial judgement, without manuscript problems, only one judgement is shared by von der Mühll (3.131).

Of the above list, only 1.148 is also bracketed by van Thiel. It is bracketed by all three editors.

Particularly heavily hit in West’s edition are books 4 (5 deletions, 11 bracketings), 10 (13 deletions, 7 bracketings), and 15 (10 deletions, 7 bracketings).

There is no overlap between West’s deletions/bracketings and places where analysts have levelled stylistic charges at the ‘Epilogue’ (23.297-24.548).

Monday, 30 October 2017


‘... in a single day and night of misfortune,
the island of Atlantis disappeared
into the depths of the sea.’
-- Plato, 360 B.C.
-- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001), opening caption
... under the assault of a harsh day and night, the whole of your (Athens’) military body sank beneath the earth.
-- Plato (for real), Timaeus 25d (trans. M. Anderson)
The popularity of the Atlantis story comes and goes in waves. It was big in the 1990s, but in the years since 2001 it has had a quiet patch: conspiracy theorists have had other things on their minds. You might think that would still be the case now. But, I suspect, the current trend is to bundle all manner of fringe theories into a single politicised bundle -- flat-earthism, pizza shops, chemtrails, uranium, you name it.

Just yesterday among my alerts I was vaguely distressed to see a Reddit thread where someone was arguing for the reality of Atlantis -- in the middle of a thread full of all manner of deranged misinformation -- and even the main voice raised against the Atlantis-hunter was giving far more credence to his/her arguments than any sensible person should. A range of other seemingly-sensible-but-also-dead-wrong theories were also floating around in that thread too.

So, why not? Let’s do Atlantis.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001)

A story about Atlantis Athens

Our sole source is Plato, writing around 360 BCE. The story is spread between two of his dialogues, Timaeus (20d-25d) and Critias (108d-121c). Timaeus is a direct continuation of a much longer conversation in Plato’s Republic, and Critias is a continuation of the Timaeus. The storyteller is Critias, a prominent politician of the late 400s. Here’s the gist:
Long ago, in 9600 BCE, the peoples of the Mediterranean Sea lived in harmony. Then everything changed when the Atlanteans attacked. Only Athens, the finest and best-governed city in the world, could stop them. Athens single-handedly beat off the invaders, who came from a huge island just beyond the strait of Gibraltar, at least half the size of the lower 48 states of the USA. Afterwards, over the course of millennia, the Atlantean civilisation kind of faded away. But Athens was more resilient and survived.
A tad different, isn’t it? If you look back at the quotations at the top of this post you’ll see something similar going on there. Two important points to make here:
  1. It is not a story about Atlantis, it’s about Athens.
  2. The story is not about a continent sinking. It’s about a plucky little city, with 10,000 fighting men (Critias 112d) and the ideal philosophical constitution, successfully fighting off a large and aggressive power from Outside.
Floods do come into it, of course, but they’re definitely not the main thrust of the story: they look more like a way of removing Atlantis from the world map of the present day. And the flooding, too, doesn’t happen quite the way you may expect -- we’ll come back to that later.

Why is Plato telling a story about Athens single-handedly saving the world? Well, around 360 BCE it so happened that a large and aggressive power from Outside -- Macedon -- was starting to get involved in Greek affairs, and there was one plucky little city, where Plato happened to live, and which happened to be the main Greek power that is still independent of Philip II of Macedon, and made serious attempts of its own at empire-building in the 370s and 350s ...

In this light it makes perfect sense for Critias, or rather Plato’s Critias, to be telling a story that casts Athens as the saviour of the Hellenic world, able to resist any threat, no matter how large.

Of course at that date, and probably to the end of his life, Plato presumably had no idea just how far Macedonian influence was going to end up spreading ... but let’s not criticise him for being a poor fortune-teller.

Map of the main city of Atlantis, as described by Plato Critias 115d-116a and 117d-e. Plato gives exact distances in stadia; in the legend I’ve adopted the rate of 185 metres to the stadion. The outermost canal around the citadel is 27 stadia in diameter (ca. 5 km).

Critias and his ‘sources’

The Republic dealt with the organisation of the ‘ideal’ state; the story in the Timaeus is about a time when Athens actually was that ideal state. The aims of the Critias are a bit harder to judge, because the text breaks off partway through.

But Timaeus 20d-22a gives us the ‘chain of evidence’, so to speak. Critias explains that he got the story from his grandfather, also named Critias; old Critias got it from his father, Dropides; Dropides got the story from his good friend Solon; Solon got the story while travelling in Egypt; Egyptian priests got the story from having lots of Really Old Things floating around.

Two of these figures need a bit of background. Solon was a famous reformer, poet, philosopher -- one of the so-called ‘Seven Sages’ -- and traveller. There are other legends about his meetings with various contemporary figures, like the story in Herodotus about his conversations with the Lydian king Croesus about who was the happiest of all people. He was believed to have played an important role in the formation of the Athenian constitution, and was universally revered.

Critias, Plato’s storyteller, was a notoriously hawkish politician active in the late stages of the Peloponnesian War. But he was more than that: he was a brutal thug, widely loathed as a betrayer and mass murderer. At the end of the Peloponnesian War, in 404 BCE, the victorious Spartans established a government in Athens under a group called the ‘Thirty Tyrants’, with Critias as their ringleader. The Tyrants abused their power and murdered somewhere between 5% and 15% of the male citizen population to seize their property for themselves. (This is one of those rare times when comparisons to Hitler actually make sense.)

But wait, there’s more. Critias had also led an attempted anti-democratic coup d’état in 411. He was suspected of being involved in an infamous vandalism of state and religious property in 415 (‘the mutilation of the Herms’) to sabotage the city’s morale immediately before a major military operation. Socrates’ links to Critias, and other people involved in these misdeeds, were almost certainly the true motivation behind his own trial in 399 (that’s what we find in the only 4th-century reference to the trial that isn’t written by one of Socrates’ fans: Aeschines, Against Timarchus 173).

Imagine a story where Hitler reveals secrets from thousands of years ago, which had been passed down secretly in his family, and which one of his ancestors had got from Goethe himself. Goethe in turn had got these secrets from a funny little old man who interpreted some ancient Sumerian tablets for him. Does that sound plausible?

That’s pretty much the situation we’ve got with the Atlantis story. It would certainly have sounded just as farcical to Plato’s contemporaries as the Hitler-Goethe story does to us.

Plato’s description of the circular design and canals of Atlantis crop up in most modern depictions: see the Disney film (above), and here, the classic adventure puzzle game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (LucasArts, 1992), widely regarded by its players as the true sequel to the classic Indiana Jones films.


In the 300s BCE, some Greek thinkers based in Athens believed that the sea beyond Gibraltar was unnavigable because it was all shallow mud. In reality that’s completely untrue, of course. But that’s the belief we find in Plato (Timaeus 24e, 25d) and Aristotle (Meteorology 354a.22-3): evidently someone had given a false report of the region, which took a long time to get corrected.

(This wasn’t a universal Greek belief: there’s a report of people sailing beyond Gibraltar in Herodotus 4.43, for example.)

This ‘muddy Atlantic’ piece of truthiness is the context for the sinking of Atlantis in Plato’s story. Here are the relevant bits:
... your city (Athens) once successfully resisted a ... power that bestirred itself from out of the Atlantic sea. At that time the sea there was navigable, for there was an island before the mouth that your people call the Pillars of Herakles, an island larger than Libya and Asia combined ...
-- Plato Timaeus 24e
The island Atlantis likewise sank beneath the sea and vanished, wherefore even now the sea in that area is unnavigable and unexplored, for there is an impediment of mud just beneath the water produced by the settling of the island.
-- Plato Timaeus 25d
So bear in mind that the sinking of Atlantis is, at root, Plato’s backstory for a natural phenomenon that doesn’t actually exist.

Aside from that, popular imagination has the sinking of Atlantis as a single cataclysmic event: the island drops into the sea, or a colossal tsunami swallows the whole land for good in one go. This is not at all what Plato describes.

What Plato actually describes is a series of many catastrophic floods over the millennia, each of which destroyed civilisation not only in Atlantis but everywhere (Timaeus 22c-23c; Critias 109d-e, 111a-b) -- except Egypt. Each flood wipes out all civilisation in that era, and only ‘the illiterate and uncultivated’ survive; this is supposedly why no one recalls events that far back, except in Egypt, which according to the story is protected by its unique geography. The greatest of these periodic floods was supposedly the mythical flood of Deucalion.

It just so happens that in the course of these occasional disasters, Athens always reemerged from the waters, and so survived to the present day. Atlantis, whose chief city was in the middle of a vast coastal plain a bit bigger than California, did not.

The Disney Atlantis isn’t just based on Plato: it takes much of its design inspiration from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, which is in turn based on the flying city of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Top: stills from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001). Bottom: stills from Castle in the Sky (Studio Ghibli, 1986). Note the repetition not just of the circular city (which is also in Swift), but also the robot sentinels, and the glowing blue crystal pendants -- which must surely owe something to the fantasies of the occultist Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), who believed that Atlanteans used precious stones to harness the energies of the earth and sun.

This is also the context for Aristotle’s more serious discussion of the mud that supposedly blocks off the Atlantic:
The same parts of the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence and dry up. And so the relation of land to sea changes too and a place does not always remain land or sea throughout all time, but where there was dry land there comes to be sea, and where theres is now sea, there one day comes to be dry land. ...

But the whole vital process of the earth takes place so gradually and in periods of time which are so immense compared with the length of our life, that these changes are not observed, and before their course can be recorded from beginning to end whole nations perish and are destroyed. ...

[W]e must take the cause of all these changes to be that, just as winter occurs in the seasons of the year, so in determined periods there comes a gerat winter of a great year and with it excess of rain. But this excess does not always occur in the same place. The deluge in the time of Deucalion, for instance, took place chiefly in the Greek world and in it especially about ancient Hellas, the country about Dodona and the Achelous, which has often changed its course.
-- Aristotle Meteorology 351a.19-25, 351b.8-13, 352a.28-b.1 (trans. E. W. Webster)
This is just a couple of pages before his reference to the mud that makes the Atlantic unnavigable. This discussion is a few decades later than the Timaeus, but it looks to be inspired by the same material. Plato’s reasons for specifying a period of 9000 years; the periodic floods, including Deucalion’s flood; and Atlantis itself -- all these things become a lot clearer in light of Aristotle’s discussion.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Black Romans

Governors of Britain

Remains of Tiddis, Lollius’ home town
Quintus Lollius Urbicus. Urbicus was born probably in the 70s CE, in Tiddis, Numidia. He enjoyed a very successful military career, becoming commander of the Tenth Legion Gemina. Afterwards he became consul at Rome in 135 or 136, then governor of Lower Germany (ca. 137-139), then Britain (ca. 139-142). He was a novus homo, a man whose family had no previous tenure in the senate. After achieving success he built an impressive family mausoleum in his hometown Tiddis, which is still standing. Several inscriptions in northern England and southern Scotland attest to his work overseeing fortifications there, including the initial phases of building the Antonine Wall. After his governorship he returned to Rome to become Urban Prefect; his actions in that role led to criticism from Justin Martyr, who perceived Christians as being persecuted by Urbicus.

Quintus Antistius Adventus. Born in Thibilis, Numidia in the early 100s CE. Adventus served in the military in the Parthian War (162-164) and subsequently became governor of Arabia. After a consulship in 167, he became governor of Lower Germany, then Britain. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about his activities in Britain, because of a lack of epigraphic evidence.

An extremely rare gold coin (aureus) of ‘Imperator Caesar Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus Augustus’ (195-197 CE)
Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus. Aside from his distinguished military career and his governorship in Britain, Albinus also became co-emperor, after a fashion. He held the title of ‘Caesar’ along with Septimius Severus (who was also African) in 193-195 CE. In 195-197 the two fell out, and Albinus staked a claim to sole emperorship: it did not end well. If Albinus were alive today he might be called ‘white-passing’: the surname ‘Albinus’ reportedly comes from his having unusually light skin for an African. He was born in Hadrumetum, in what is now Tunisia, in the mid-100s. The details of his military career that we get in the Historia Augusta are pretty much all fictional, unfortunately, or at best untrustworthy. However, he did have a consulship, and emperor Commodus appointed him governor of Britain probably ca. 190. In 193, Commodus’ successor Pertinax was assassinated without an heir, and a flurry of provincial governors claimed the throne -- the ‘Year of the Five Emperors’. Albinus was one of the main contenders, but not the winner. Severus won out in Rome. But Albinus had a very strong position, with the strongest provincial army in the empire. The settlement was that Albinus would stay with his legions in Britain, and Severus would appoint him ‘Caesar’ at a distance. In 194 Albinus was co-consul again (with Severus), in spite of his absence. The situation wasn’t stable. In 195 Albinus declared himself ‘Augustus’; Severus declared him an enemy; and there was a short civil war. Albinus invaded Gaul (France) with three legions from Britain. He enjoyed early success, but in 197 Severus defeated him at his base in Lugdunum (Lyon). Albinus probably died in the rout. There are lurid stories of Severus abusing Albinus’ corpse and his family, but they’re probably fictional.

Lucius Alfenus Senecio. Senecio was born in Cuicul, Numidia. His father was a financial officer (procurator Augusti), and he achieved the same position in Belgian Gaul and Mauretania Caesariensis. After a consulship in Rome, he went on to become governor of Coele Syria, then Britain around 205-207 CE; Septimius Severus was still emperor at the time. Britain was a troubled place during his governorship, and there were complaints of invaders from the north having the run of the province. (After Senecio’s time these troubles led Severus to come in person to Britain to try -- and fail -- to conquer Scotland.) Senecio oversaw substantial restorations at Hadrian’s Wall.

Note: we know of around 53-57 governors of Roman Britain. In the province’s first 50 years, starting in 54 CE, all of the governors whose background can be identified were Italian. From 104 CE up until the end of Septimius Severus’ reign we have 3 Numidians, 2 Italians, 2 Dalmatians, 1 African (the province, not the continent; approximately modern Tunisia), and 13 unknowns. Of the unknowns, one has been suggested to be Sicilian, one Spanish, and one a further Numidian. Wikipedia claims yet another Numidian (Gaius Valerius Pudens) but mistakenly. Of the Italians, Pertinax (later emperor) was born in Italy but is of unknown ancestry, since he was the son of a freedman.

Manuscript illustration showing a scene from Terence’s play the Mother-in-law (Hecyra). (15th century, Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Literary figures

Whitewashed Terence: manuscript illustration dating 1000 years after his death (Vatican. Lat. 3862 fol. 2r)
Terence. One of the most celebrated playwrights of antiquity. Terence initially came to Italy as a slave. By birth he was an Afer, an ethnic group who are probably the origin of the name ‘Africa’. He probably passed through slave markets in Phoenician Carthage, which was still standing in his lifetime. It’s likely he learned Greek while there. In Italy he was freed, and as was customary, took the name of his former owner, one Publius Terentius. Terence went on to become one of the most famous comic playwrights of all time. His genre was New Comedy, a form also represented by two other surviving playwrights (Plautus, and the Greek writer Menander). Terence’s six plays were popular throughout antiquity and the Mediaeval period, and influential on Renaissance-era drama, including Ralph Roister Doister and the comedies of Ariosto and Shakespeare. Terence’s comedy is more mannered than Plautus’, less bombastic and farcical, and shows impeccable style. While his characters are very three-dimensional, Terence’s decorousness tends to make him a bit dull for present-day audiences. His plays work much better on stage than on the page.

Terentianus Maurus. Grammarian, ca. mid-200s CE. Terentianus, a Mauretanian (the origin of the word ‘Moor’), was author of three surviving poetic treatises On letters, On syllables, and On metres, which got a new edition in 2002 (ed. C. Cignolo). The second and third are among the most important surviving documents on the subject of ancient poetic rhythms. Terentianus has one famous line: pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli, ‘books have their own destinies, adjudicated by the reader’s reception.’

Apuleius. Author of the only complete surviving Latin novel, the Metamorphoses (or Golden Ass, as his later fellow countryman Augustine calls it). Apuleius’s full name is unknown. He was Numidian, born in Madaura ca. 125 CE. He became a well-known orator and a Platonic philosopher, famous to the point that he had statues erected of him during his lifetime. His Metamorphoses is the earliest picaresque novel. It is a bawdy story of a rogue named Lucius, told in the first person. Lucius’ pursuit of a girl leads to an encounter with a witch in Thessaly, who turns him into an ass. On the run in ass shape, he has a series of episodic misadventures. Halfway through comes a long and famous telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche. Finally, Lucius is turned back into a human by the grace of the goddess Isis, and in an unexpectedly serious turn, the story ends with him converting wholeheartedly to her religion. Apuleius’ prose style was immediately influential on Christian writers, though they sometimes took his novel as autobiographical and true, and accused him of being a magician ... Apuleius would probably have been amused.

Whitewashed Augustine?
Fresco in the library of the Lateran Palace, Rome, popularly thought to be a depiction of Augustine (if so, the earliest: ca. 600 CE, about 170 years after Augustine’s death).

Some notable Christian writers

Tertullian. Coiner of the word ‘Trinity’ (Latin Trinitas) to refer to the Christian deity. Tertullian was born in Roman Carthage around 160 CE. He was trained in rhetoric and law, and had a superb knowledge of contemporary pagan literature (including Apuleius, above). He wrote a few lost works in Greek, but most of his writings led the way in promoting the use of Latin in the western churches. Tertullian was extremely intolerant of religious disagreement, and regularly called his opponents idiots (or worse). After 200 he split from the mainstream church to join the Montanist sect.

Cyprian. Thascius Cyprianus was born probably sometime after 200 CE, and converted to Christianity after 240. We don’t know his hometown, but Thascius is a Phoenician name and he lived in Carthage. So somewhere near Carthage is a decent bet. He became bishop of Carthage in 248/9. His tenure was troubled by two decrees from the Roman emperor in 250 and 257 requiring participation in the imperial cult, and by a dispute with the Roman church because he readmitted Christians who had obeyed the decrees. Cyprian’s writings emphasise the unity of the church, and seem to envisage the church as supplanting the Roman state.

Arnobius. Rhetorician and Christian apologist, 3rd-4th cent. CE. Arnobius was Numidian, from Sicca Veneria. He reportedly converted to Christianity because of a dream, and wrote his lengthy treatise Against the Pagans to prove his sincerity to the local bishop and get baptised. Arnobius became a vigorous apologist, with some quirks: he avoided allegory and parable, and he regarded the pagan gods as real beings.

Lactantius. Lactantius was not so much a theologian, but more a rhetorician who wrote about his Christian beliefs. He was born in Numidia ca. 250 CE. We’re told he studied under Arnobius at Sicca Veneria, but it’s hard to be sure since Lactantius’ writings don’t mention Arnobius. He was very successful, and enjoyed the favour of emperor Diocletian, who gave him a teaching position in Nicomedia (modern Turkey). There he encountered the future emperor Constantine and the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry. He also converted to Christianity, and Diocletian was not keen on Christianity. He had already resigned his post when Diocletian demolished the Nicomedian church in 303 and decreed that all Christian priests and bishops should be arrested. When Constantine took the western throne in 306 things improved, and around 315 the emperor installed him in a new post in Gaul (possibly in Trier), where he died shortly after 324. Lactantius’ most important work is the Divine instructions. While an excellent rhetorician, the best-known aspect of Lactantius’ influence is not so positive, and relates to his espousing of flat-earthism (Div. Inst. 3.24), making him one of the very few known western Christian flat-earthers until the modern era. This has earned him widespread scorn in later centuries -- and that’s fair enough, really.

Augustine. One of the greatest Christian theologians, and one of the finest thinkers of antiquity. Aurelius Augustinus was Numidian, born in Thagaste to a non-Christian family in 354 CE. He and his mother Monnica spent time living in Carthage, and later Rome, where he converted to Christianity. Afterwards he returned to Africa and became bishop of Hippo Regius. Augustine’s Confessions is pretty much the world’s first autobiography. Several of the most important religious tracts in the history of Christianity are his work, such as On the city of God and On catechising the uneducated. I’m particularly a fan of his phenomenological discussion of the nature of time in Confessions book 11.


(Believe it or not, I had planned out this post before seeing Mary Beard’s recent blog post on Lollius Urbicus, and before hearing that Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors came out a couple of weeks ago -- and by the way, it looks like a really interesting book.)

In antiquity, race was tied to geographical and tribal identifiers, not skin colour. You weren’t white or black: you came from the Aedui or the Afri. ‘White’ and ‘black’ as ethnic categories didn’t emerge until around 500 years ago. They’re modern ethnic categories, and they have nothing to do with historical methodology. So when we talk about skin colour in antiquity we’re not properly ‘doing history’ -- what we’re doing is making colour visible. And that’s fine. It’s important to do history right, but the modern reception of history is important too.

Greek black-figure vase: an Aethiopian archer with two Amazon warriors (Brussels, Musée Cinquantenaire A 130; mid-500s BCE)
The ‘invisibility’ of colour in Greco-Roman antiquity isn’t because it didn’t exist. It’s because the Greeks and Romans themselves paid almost no attention to it. Roman writers hardly ever mention anyone’s complexion -- that just isn’t how they thought about race.

Where colour does seem to exist, it can even be artificial, or misleading. If a Roman got the surname Niger (‘black’) because of a physical feature, it was probably more often for their hair than their skin. And in the Greek vase shown here, with an Aethiopian archer flanked by two Amazons, the Aethiopian has some characteristics based on real Africans, but the skin colours have nothing at all to do with race or ethnicity: they’re about gender. It was the convention in Greek art of the time that all men were painted with black skin, and all women were painted with white skin. That’s why this style of vase painting is called ‘black-figure’.
Note: I use the old spelling ‘Aethiopian’ here because pinning down the Greek word Αἰθίοψ to just one meaning would be misleading. The classical Greeks used Αἰθίοψ to refer to (1) a mythical people, the ‘burning-looking ones’, who supposedly lived near the places where the sun rises and sets; (2) real-life Africans away from the north coast, including the region south of Egypt around modern Ethiopia. Both meanings appear in this vase. The archer is an Αἰθίοψ in the mythical sense, because Amazons and the legendary Aethiopians both turn up at the Trojan War (the contingents of the Amazon Penthesileia, and of Memnon, son of the dawn goddess); at the same time, the archer’s hair and face suggest that the painter was trying to depict real Nubian-Ethiopian physical features.

Some individuals in my catalogue may not actually have had African ancestry: a few might be children of Italian migrants, or somesuch. Instead of worrying over specific cases, let’s assume I’ve misidentified some proportion of them. Pick a high proportion if you want, it doesn’t matter. Because migration was emphatically not a one-way street: mobility through military service, and through slavery and subsequent manumission, saw to that. If a certain proportion of these Roman Africans were actually of European stock, we must also assume that a comparable proportion of Europeans were of African stock. Even if Augustine might possibly have had migrant ancestry, for all we know exactly the same might be true for Ambrose or Jerome.

A definite shortcoming in my catalogue is that I’ve stuck to the Latin west, and avoided the Greek east altogether. I’m relying on the tidy linguistic split between ancient Morocco-Algeria-Tunisia (‘Latin’ Africa) and Libya-Egypt (‘Greek’ Africa). If modern race categories are a poor fit for ‘Latin’ Africa, they’re an even poorer fit for ‘Greek’ Africa, which saw intensive Greek migration starting in the 7th century BCE, and there the migration was much more one-way. We can’t even begin to guess at how mixed the ancestry was for Alexandrians like Heron, Menelaus, or Diophantus.
One of the traits that most people would associate with race -- skin color -- is a terrible classifier. ... [Our] study really discredits the idea of a biological construct of race. There are no discrete boundaries between groups that are consistent with biological markers.
-- Sarah Tishkoff, The Atlantic, 12 Oct. 2017, interviewed about a new study on skin colour genes in African populations

Friday, 29 September 2017

Caesar’s birth and death

Caesar and caesarean section

2. (Also with lower-case initial): spec. (in Obstetrics) Caesarean birth n. (also Cæsarean operation, Cæsarean section) the delivery of a child by cutting through the walls of the abdomen when delivery cannot take place in the natural way, as was done in the case of Julius Cæsar. Also fig.
-- Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Caesarean’ 2

This is how the entry for ‘Caesarean’ looks in the 1989 Second Edition of the OED. It’s basically unchanged since the original 1893 printing. Even the spelling ‘Cæsar’, as opposed to ‘Caesar’, is a bit of a giveaway as to how old-fashioned this entry is. The entry hasn’t yet been revised in the post-Second-Edition online revision.

The misinformation lies in the last nine words: ‘as was done in the case of Julius Cæsar.’

The myth arose because of an ancient story that linked the origins of the name ‘Caesar’ to a Latin word for ‘cut’, caesus. Pliny the Elder mentions the story that the first Caesar, Julius’ earliest ancestor, was born that way:
... primusque Caesarum a caeso matris utero dictus, qua de causa et Caesones appellati.

... and the first of the Caesars, who was said (to have been born) from cutting (caes-) his mother’s womb; the Caesones (family) also got their name that way.
-- Pliny, Natural History 7.47 (repeated in Solinus 1.68)
Later the story reappears in a commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid dating to around 400 CE, and two Byzantine encyclopaedias dating to the 900s and 1000s. By then, it’s turned into a story about Julius Caesar himself -- or J.C., as Asterix sometimes calls him:
The emperors of the Romans receive this name from Julius Caesar, the one who was not born. For when his mother died in the 9th month, they cut her open, took him out, and named him thus; for in the Roman tongue dissection is called ‘caesar’.
Probably the earliest printed illustration of a caesarean section, depicting J.C.’s birth: from the 1506 Venetian edition of Suetonius’ Lives (coloured in some copies). The accompanying notes mention several of the stories quoted here. Notice that, here, J.C.’s mother appears to have died -- unlke the real Aurelia, who lived another 46 years.
This version of the story definitely isn’t true:
  1. We know of people named Caesar going back many generations before J.C.: the earliest known Caesar is one Sextus Julius Caesar who held a praetorship in 208 BCE.
  2. J.C.’s mother, Aurelia, lived until 54 BCE, just ten years before her son’s death; yet mothers undergoing caesareans had a near-100% mortality rate until the 19th century, 80-90% during the 19th century, and only started surviving routinely in the 1940s, after the advent of antibiotics. (To be fair, this 1961 article suggests an interpretation of some 2nd century CE Jewish texts which would put successful caesareans a lot earlier. Even if it’s right, still, it’s hardly typical.)
  3. Neither of the ancient biographies of J.C., by Suetonius and Plutarch, so much as mentions his birth, let alone any unusual circumstances.
(If you’re observant you may have noticed that the Pliny text I linked to above has a footnote that also equates ‘the first of the Caesars’ with J.C. For the Suda that mistake might just be excusable, but the modern editor definitely should have known better!)

We can be confident that even Pliny’s relatively sensible version is pure fiction. There’s no shortage of origin stories for the name ‘Caesar’:
According to the most learned and erudite people, the person who was first called ‘Caesar’ got the name either (1) from an elephant, which in the Mauretanian language is reportedly caesai; or (2) because his mother died and he was born by cutting (caes-) open the belly; or (3) because he poured out of his parent’s womb with a thick head of hair; or (4) because he had pale grey (caesi-) eyes and thrived more than most people do.
-- Historia Augusta, Aelius 2.3-4
(Numbers 1 and 2 also appear in Servius on Aeneid 1.286: except that in Servius, it’s J.C.’s grandfather that killed the elephant -- still not true; the name went back earlier than that -- and the word supposedly comes from Carthaginian, not Mauretanian. Number 3 is inspired by the word caesaries ‘white hair’.)

With this context, it’s clear that all of the stories are inventions. They’re ‘just so’ stories, designed as guesses for how the name came about. Even if by some miracle one of them were correct, we’d never have any way of telling.

Having said that, there’s no doubt that the modern name for the life-saving procedure -- ‘caesarean section’ -- is based on the J.C. story. The illustration, above, from the 1506 edition of Suetonius, may even have been an inspiration. Some people suggest the name for the operation is linked to a (purportedly early) Roman law that mandated caesarean sections on women who died while pregnant, which came to be known as a ‘caesarean’ law in late antiquity, thanks to the J.C. story. That’s comparatively obscure, though: I find it easier to imagine 16th century physicians reading Pliny than the Digest of Justinian.

Another illustration of Caesar’s birth, this time from a manuscript dating to ca. 1376-1400, in a text titled Li Fet des Romains. Again, Aurelia appears to have died 46 years early. (British Library Royal 16 G VII, f. 219)

Caesar’s last words

Caesar. Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!
-- Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act III Scene 1
Calpurnia. Julie don’t go, I said, it’s the Ides of March, beware already!
-- Wayne and Shuster, Rinse the blood off my toga (1958)
This one’s relatively easy to dispose with. It’s only Shakespeare that has him saying ‘You too, Brutus?’ in Latin -- or, to be strict: Shakespeare, and a few other 16th century plays.

The only ancient source to serve as a counterpart is in Suetonius, who has the following report of the assassination:
utque animadvertit undique se strictis pugionibus peti, toga caput obvolvit, simul sinistra manu sinum ad ima crura deduxit, quo honestius caderet etiam inferiore corporis parte velata. atque ita tribus et viginti plagis confossus est uno modo ad primum ictum gemitu sine voce edito, etsi tradiderunt quidam Marco Bruto irruenti dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον.

And when he realised that he was surrounded by drawn daggers, he covered his head with his toga, and at the same time he drew its fold down to the bottom of his legs with his left hand, so that he should fall more decently, with the lower half of his body covered. Like this, he was struck with twenty-three blows in the same way; at the first stroke he gave a groan, but uttered no cry. Though certain sources have reported that when Marcus Brutus attacked, he said to him (in Greek) ‘You too, child.’
Even Suetonius doesn’t quite believe the story of the last words, and he was more gossip columnist than historian. Other accounts -- Plutarch Life of Caesar 66.7), Cassius Dio 44.19.4-5 -- agree about many details, including the covering his face, and in Plutarch’s case, the toga gesture and the number of blows, but there are no last words: J.C.’s only response to seeing Brutus is to cover his face. Cassius Dio, like Suetonius, emphasises that he spoke no words at all.

So we’ve got plenty to reject the words to Brutus as spurious. There’s also the fact that Brutus was not Caesar’s ‘child’ in any way, shape, or form (the story that Caesar adopted him is an invention, based on this very passage).

But it’s especially weird how the words are given in Greek. Despite the opinions of certain pop historians, Greek was not anything like a common mode of speaking for aristocratic Romans: even Cicero, who was fluent, wrote to his best friend, who was an ardent hellenophile, in Latin with only sprinklings of Greek. Augustus never got comfortable enough in Greek to hold up a conversation; Marius knew no Greek at all.

That strongly suggests the possibility that the phrase is a quotation, perhaps from a poem. A. J. Woodman, drawing on work by Pascal Arnaud, points out that two related phrases spoken to the future emperor Galba suggest a context. Suetonius reports how the young Galba had an audience with Augustus, and Augustus pinched his cheek and said, in Greek, ‘You too, child, will have a nibble of our power’ (Life of Galba 4.1). Elsewhere, Tiberius addresses Galba with the line ‘You, too, will taste command one day’ (Cassius Dio 57.19.4; Tacitus Annals 6.20.2). Combining these, Woodhouse suggests the reconstruction
καὶ σὺ τέκνον ποτὲ τῆς ἀρχῆς ἡμῶν παρατρώξῃ.

You too, child, will one day have a nibble of our power.
In this form the line makes a dactylic hexameter, which would suggest an origin in Hellenistic epic or elegiac poetry (though it should be pointed out that the lack of a sense-break at the third-foot caesura raises grounds for doubt, and ποτέ doesn’t attach to τέκνον very comfortably).

If he’s right, that would make Caesar’s supposed phrase something along the same lines. He doesn’t mean, ‘Have you joined my enemies too? Woe is me!’ as in Shakespeare. Instead, it’s a statement of disgust at Brutus’ hypocrisy: ‘You’re no tyrant-slayer like your ancestor was -- you really want power for yourself!’

The words may well be old, but the idea that Caesar spoke them is obviously a fictional invention. In the first place: Suetonius, Plutarch, and Cassius Dio all believe that he didn’t speak. And in the second place: who, while being stabbed 23 times, would offer a moral judgement on their slayer with an apposite epic quotation in a foreign language?

‘Stabbed? In the senate?’ ‘Yeah, they got him right in the rotunda.’ ‘Oo, that’s a painful spot. I had a splinter there once.’ (Jean-Léon Gérôme, La mort de César, 1859-1867

Friday, 15 September 2017

Aristotle’s errors

How many teeth did Bertrand Russell have? Did Galileo float in water?
Ἔχουσι δὲ πλείους οἱ ἄρρενες τῶν θηλειῶν ὀδόντας καὶ ἐν ἀνθρώποις καὶ ἐπὶ προβάτων καὶ αἰγῶν καὶ ὑῶν· ἐπὶ δὲ τῶν ἄλλων οὐ τεθεώρηταί πω.

Males have more teeth than females, in the cases of humans, sheep, goats, and pigs. In other species an observation has not yet been made.
-- Aristotle, History of animals 501b (2.3.13)
Aristotle sometimes gets a rep nowadays as a pretentious idiot: The Scientist Who Got Everything Wrong. Sometimes even Aristotle’s fans think this --
[Bertrand] Russell provides a concise summary of the thoughts of both [Plato and Aristotle], as well as painting a picture as to why they are so important, despite being wrong about almost everything.
This from a fan of Aristotle! And Bertrand Russell loathed Aristotle:
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths. He said also that children will be healthier if conceived when the wind is in the north. One gathers that the two Mrs Aristotles both had to run out and look at the weathercock every evening before going to bed. He states that a man bitten by a mad dog will not go mad, but any other animal will (Hist. An., 704a); that the bite of the shrewmouse is dangerous to horses, especially if the mouse is pregnant (ibid., 604b); that elephants suffering from insomnia can be cured by rubbing their shoulders with salt, olive-oil, and warm water (ibid., 605a); and so on and so on. Nevertheless, classical dons, who have never observed any animal except the cat and the dog, continue to praise Aristotle for his fidelity to observation.
-- Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society (2016) pp. 6-7 (orig. publ. 1952)
The trouble with attacking the entire oeuvre of a scholar and scientist in this way is that the examples are very, very cherry-picked. These five blunders are taken from a span of over 400 pages of tiny print full of literally thousands of observations about the animal world. Do we take Russell on faith that they’re representative?

No, we don’t. And I’m not going to let that ‘and so on and so on’ pass. If you want to show that Aristotle was wrong about almost everything, show that he was wrong about almost everything. ‘And so on’ is lazy if you can’t back it up. Russell couldn’t.

Russell’s first criticism, about women’s teeth, is the one that gets the most traction. That must be because it’s the easiest one to correct. Testing the claim about conception during a north wind would require an enormous amount of coordination and many years of research; no one is going to try out the effects of rabies on humans; I defy anyone to get a shrew to bite a horse on command; and elephants were not exactly an everyday sight in ancient Greece.

In fact some of them don’t even necessarily look like blunders, if you approach them in the right way. Seasonal winds are a thing: in Greece, a north wind at conception will often correspond to a birthday between mid-February and the summer solstice. And the time of year of a birthday can correlate very strongly with a child’s success under some circumstances. Aristotle didn’t know why that was, but he did know something about astrology, a field which was not considered ridiculous in his day, and which made similar kinds of predictions. And the behavioural effects of rabies are unquestionably different in animals that can talk and communicate their distress (humans) and those that cannot (every other species). I won’t venture to defend Aristotle on shrew bites and elephant massages.

And then there’s the teeth thing. Aristotle doesn’t use it as a way of showing that women are inferior to men, contrary to what is often claimed -- but it does look ridiculous.

Aristotle on teeth

Did Bertrand Russell count the teeth of any of his wives?

Robin Herbert poses this question in an eloquent defence of Aristotle written in 2014. I certainly haven’t ever counted anyone else’s teeth. I only even counted my own when I was about 10 and was wondering how my adult teeth were coming on. Aristotle, Russell, Herbert, and myself -- we all rely on other people to do that for us.

It may still be fairly argued that women’s teeth is one observation that Aristotle really should have done for himself. I think that’s fair. But only on one condition: you’re only allowed to make that argument if you first go and count the teeth of someone of the opposite sex. After all, you’re the one claiming it’s easy to check ...

Herbert’s defence of Aristotle focuses on rejecting the false idea that Aristotle put his own preconceptions ahead of any observations.
Of course Aristotle is wrong, but he is wrong because he was misinformed about the observation, not — as Russell and de Bono suggest, because he did not believe that observations were important.
With that in mind, let’s do a fact-check of all of Aristotle’s claims about teeth in History of Animals book 2 chapter 3. We don’t want to cherry-pick, do we?
  1. All mammals have teeth -- TRUE
  2. Camels have no teeth in the upper jaw -- FALSE
  3. Some species have tusks, e.g. boars -- TRUE
  4. Some species have pointed teeth, e.g. lions, panthers, and dogs; in such cases, the teeth on either jaw fit into each other -- TRUE
  5. No animal has both tusks and horns -- TRUE as far as I can find out
  6. In general front teeth are cutting teeth, hind teeth are molars -- TRUE
  7. There are exceptions: seals have only cutting teeth -- TRUE
  8. No mammals have a double row of teeth -- TRUE as far as I can find out (apart from anomalous situations, e.g. when a child’s milk teeth don’t fall out until after the permanent teeth have come through)
  9. Doubt cast on Ctesias’ claim of a species called ‘martichora’ that has three rows of teeth -- TRUE that Ctesias’ claim is nonsense
  10. Some species shed their teeth, including humans, horses, mules, and asses -- TRUE
  11. But no species sheds molars -- FALSE
  12. Doubt expressed over reports that some species shed only canines -- TRUE that caution warranted, because the report is inaccurate
  13. Older dogs have blunter teeth -- TRUE
  14. Most animals’ teeth darken as they age; horses are an exception, as their teeth whiten with age -- TRUE observation, but FALSE interpretation in the case of horses: horses’ permanent teeth gradually emerge from the gums and wear down at the tips, over a period of many years, meaning that there will be less discolouration
  15. Canines, between the cutting teeth and molars, are wide at the base but sharp at the tip -- TRUE
  16. Males have more teeth than females in humans, sheep, goats, and pigs -- FALSE
  17. Humans with more teeth tend to be longer-lived; humans with gaps between teeth tend to be shorter-lived -- probably TRUE (edit: because of the economic implications of having good/bad teeth, if nothing else)
  18. Wisdom teeth appear around the age of 20; but sometimes at an advanced age, in which case they are very painful -- TRUE (I haven’t been able to confirm/reject Aristotle’s claim about wisdom teeth erupting as late as age 80, but it is true that problems with wisdom teeth increase significantly with age)
  19. Elephants have four molars on each side -- TRUE
  20. Elephants have two tusks: large and turned upwards in the case of males, small and bent downwards in the case of females -- mostly TRUE: female elephants’ tusks do curve upwards, like males’, but often will be too short to have a significant curve
  21. Elephants have teeth at birth -- TRUE
I’ll score TRUEs as 1. Number 14 gets 0.75: the observations are all accurate, but the interpretation is only half accurate. Number 20 gets 0.75 as well, since female elephants’ tusks curve upwards.

So Aristotle on teeth gets a score of 17.5 out of 21, or 83.3% correct. In my university’s marking schedule, that would get him a grade of A-. Certainly not perfect. But it could be much much worse.

The usual accusation cast at Aristotle is that he put theory, logic, and his own preconceptions ahead of any empirical evidence. Do you seen any sign of that in the list of his claims about teeth? I sure don’t. I see a whole bunch of second-hand reports of empirical observation: most accurate, some inaccurate. I don’t see any trace of a priore assumptions.

Aristotle on gravity

Robin Herbert’s essay brings up another common accusation against Aristotle: that, according to Aristotle, heavier things fall faster than light things. Many modern scientists will put it even less generously: the historian Herbert Butterfield claimed that
Aristotle’s argument [was] that the falling body moved more jubilantly every moment because it found itself nearer home.
-- and many eminent scientists, like B. F. Skinner and Stephen Hawking, have taken this claim on faith even though it is the most bald-faced lie.

Now, it is true that Aristotle probably believed that heavier bodies fall faster than light bodies. And it is certainly true that he was interpreted that way throughout the Mediaeval period and Renaissance, until Galileo’s famous experiments. But once again, Aristotle’s problem isn’t a result of letting a priore assumptions take precedence over empirical evidence: the problem is one of confusion.

The confusion is between gravity and buoyancy. Because in buoyancy, things absolutely do accelerate differently depending on their density.

The context of Aristotle’s claims about heavy and light bodies accelerating differently, in On the sky 308a-b (4.1-2), makes it crystal clear that he is really talking about buoyancy, without realising it.
Language recognizes (a) an absolute, (b) a relative heavy and light. ... Our predecessors have not dealt at all with the absolute use of the terms, but only with the relative. I mean, they do not explain what the heavy is or what the light is, but only the relative heaviness and lightness of things possessing weight. ... By absolutely light, then, we mean that which moves upward or to the extremity, and by absolutely heavy that which moves downward or to the centre. By light or relatively light we mean that one, of two bodies endowed with weight and equal in bulk, which is exceeded by the other in the speed of its downward movement. Those of our predecessors who have entered upon this inquiry have for the most part spoken of light and heavy things only in the sense in which one of two things both endowed with weight is said to be the lighter.
-- Aristotle, On the sky 308a7-308b2, trans. J. L. Stocks
(My underlinings.) You see how the confusion arises? He believes some things like flames are ‘absolutely light’ because apparently they always go up; and he’s wrong about that, because fire is buoyant in air, not because it’s ‘absolutely light’. He hasn’t understood that light : heavy is something different from buoyant : unbuoyant. His definition of heaviness relates to buoyancy, not weight: ‘that one, of two bodies endowed with weight and equal in bulk, which is exceeded by the other in the speed of its downward movement’. This is an exact description of a relatively dense body, that is to say, an unbuoyant body.

So, once again, his problem isn’t that he hates empirical evidence. On the contrary: he has a good grasp of how buoyancy works in practice. It’s that he doesn’t realise that there are situations where even a maximally buoyant object, like a flame, won’t move upwards -- namely, in a vacuum.

If he had lived a century later, and had a chat with Archimedes (whose discovery of the Archimedes principle was more explicitly about buoyancy), Aristotle might well have worked it out. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Archimedes didn’t connect the dots, though he could have. Nor did any of Aristotle’s mediaeval followers. Instead, we had to wait for Galileo, who wasn’t interested in the context of Aristotle’s original claim. Because in context, the underlying idea was dead right: Aristotle’s mistake was in generalising from it.

In fact, it’s hard to believe Galileo even read the Aristotle passage I quoted above.
Salv. ... I greatly doubt that Aristotle ever tested by experiment whether it be true that two stones, one weighing ten times as much as the other, if allowed to fall, would so differ in speed that when the heavier had reached the ground, the other would not have fallen more than 10 cubits.

Simp. His language would seem to indicate that he had tried the experiment, because he says: We see the heavier; now the word see shows that he had made the experiment.

Sagr. But I, Simplicio, who have made the test can assure you that a cannon ball weighing one or two hundred pounds, or even more, will not reach the ground by as much as a span ahead of a musket ball weighing only half a pound, provided both are dropped from a height of 200 cubits.

Salv. But even without further experiment, it is possible to prove clearly, by means of a short and conclusive argument, that a heavier body does not move more rapidly than a lighter one provided both bodies are of the same material and in short such as those mentioned by Aristotle.
First, Aristotle does not say ‘We see the heavier’ at any point; where he does describe his observations of buoyancy, they are strictly accurate. And second, ‘a heavier body ... [and] a lighter one provided both bodies are of the same material’ is exactly not ‘such as those mentioned by Aristotle’. What Aristotle actually says is: ‘two bodies endowed with weight and equal in bulk’ (δυοῖν ἐχόντων βάρος καὶ τὸν ὄγκον ἴσον).

Galileo, who was not a well-mannered man at the best of times, is arguing against what he imagines Aristotle said. Recent figures like Russell, Butterfield, Skinner, and Hawking are following all too closely in Galileo’s footsteps: in misrepresenting an exceptionally clear-headed researcher who was an empiricist, albeit one who made mistakes; someone whose chief flaw was that he sometimes trusted reports of observations which, in hindsight, he should not have trusted.

Put another way: taking other people’s reports on faith is a flaw shared by Aristotle, Skinner, and Hawking. If that makes Aristotle the scientist who got everything wrong, doesn’t it do the same for Stephen Hawking?