Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Off limits: these theories aren't for debunking (not here, anyway)

Initiation scene at Eleusinian Mysteries. Left: Demeter is shown sitting on the sacred kistē (basket) containing secret initiation paraphernalia. The basket is wound about by a snake. Demeter looks back at Persephone, who is holding a burning torch. Right: thronōsis scene. An initiate, veiled, sits on a ramskin; a priestess, approaching from behind, holds a burning torch close to his hand. (Relief on a Roman-era sarcophagus from Torre Nova; composite image)

Not all modern myths about antiquity come from misunderstandings. People at the centre of the academic discipline, too, sometimes come up with theories that I for one regard as 'myths', in the popular sense of theories that are widely believed but untrue. Some of these people are tenured professors in university departments, surrounded by eminent colleagues.

Sometimes these theories go unrefuted by their peers, in spite of or maybe because of their idiosyncrasies. In these cases, I won't be doing any kind of debunking. This is partly out of professional respect, but mainly because of the limitations of blogs. Even if I am dead sure that these theories are untrue, this isn't the right place to do so -- unless I'm just supporting an existing published refutation. The right place is in the pages of an academic journal. The catch is that writing an academic article is generally a tad harder than debunking myths in a blog, even if some blog posts involve nearly as much work and research.

A debunking in an academic journal requires, or should require, an absolutely masterful command of both the primary evidence and the modern scholarship. Now, for some topics, that's actually achievable in a blog format. For example, I think this post on irrational numbers covers all the relevant testimony in existence, and there won't be any real controversy among specialists in the field. For some topics I have to settle for a lower goal: I can cite ancient testimony about broad beans as well as anyone, but that doesn't mean my coverage of the epidemiology of G6PD deficiency is good enough for a journal. Yet here, again, I don't think there'll be any controversy among scholars of ancient religions.

And then there are topics that are controversial, and which have no dedicated counter-arguments in scholarly journals. (Or at least, not yet.) These are the ones I've decided not to touch.

This policy decision came about after I had already done a fair amount of work on one of the topics I'll mention below. I think I have the broad outline of a compelling debunking of it. But
  • the principal living proponent deserves some professional respect;
  • there is no dedicated debunking of the idea in any academic publication;
  • what would be the point of doing the one and only debunking, if it's in a place that can't realistically be cited by any future studies?
So I won't offer any comment on the following theories. But I will offer them up in their authors' own words. I think they don't have enough support to stand up. You judge them on their own terms, and see what you think:
  • Do you get a sense of what evidence they are relying on? If so, do they deal with that evidence in a balanced fashion, or selectively?
  • What competing theories can you think of? How would you expect the authors to deal with those competing theories?

Drugs at Eleusis

The ancient testimony about Eleusis is unanimous. Eleusis was the supreme experience in an initiate's life. It was both physical and mystical: trembling, vertigo, cold sweat, and then a sight that made all previous seeing seem like blindness, a sense of awe and wonder at a brilliance that caused a profound silence since what had just been seen and felt could never be communicated: words are unequal to the task. Those symptoms are unmistakably the experience induced by an entheogen ...
-- Carl Ruck, Sacred mushrooms of the goddess. Secrets of Eleusis (Berkeley, 2006) p. 14
(Note: the above is rephrased from Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck, The road to Eleusis: unveiling the secret of the Mysteries (1978), chapter 3, also by Ruck.)

Suggested bibliography:
  • Burkert, W. 1983. Homo necans. The anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth. U. of California Press. (Orig. publ. in German as Homo necans, 1972.) pp. 265-293.
  • Richardson, N. J. 1974. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 344-348.
  • Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 2003. 'Festival and Mysteries: aspects of the Eleusinian cult.' In: Cosmopoulos, M. B. (ed.). Greek mysteries. The archaeology and ritual of ancient Greek secret cults. London: Routledge. pp. 25-49.
  • Walcot, P. 1979. Review of Wasson et al., The road to Eleusis. Greece & Rome 26: 104.

Fossils and mythical monsters

Herakles (left) fights the monster Kētos (right) to rescue Hesione (centre). (Corinthian black-figure kratēr, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Monsters of Greek myth were perceived in the popular imagination and portrayed by artists either as huge beasts or as giant humans. The artist of the Copenhagen vase has opted for the latter. The Perseus vase and the Copenhagen vase therefore illustrate the two branches of mythical interpretation of monsters. But the unparalleled depiction of the Monster of Troy as a large fossil animal skull on the Boston vase points to a natural basis for the two branches of monster and giant images in art and literature. Here is powerful evidence that fossil remains of prehistoric animals influenced ancient ideas about primeval monsters!
-- Adrienne Mayor, The first fossil hunters. Paleontology in Greek and Roman times (Princeton, 2001) p. 163
Suggested bibliography: I know of none, other than Mayor's own book.

Herakles and Kētos: here, Kētos is depicted as he usually is, as a giant snake's head attached to a fish's body. (Caeretan black-figure vase, Stavros S. Niarchos collection)

The alphabet was invented in order to write down the Iliad

Homer's floruit falls within the first half of the eighth century [BCE]. He is pehaps an exact contemporary of the adapter [of the Phoenician alphabet]. At the very least, he lived within fifty years of the invention of an idiosyncratic writing that cocks the ear to fine distinctions of sound and is used in its earliest remains to record hexametric verse. If the alphabet was fashioned to record the poet Homer and no other, we can account for the coincidence in time. If we believe that the adapter restructured Phoenician writing not in order to record Homer specifically, but in order to record 'hexametric verse in general,' meaning a poet or poets of whose existence and achievement all memory has been lost, we must admit that at the same time, or within a generation and a half at most, the new writing was also used to write down Homer.
-- Barry Powell, Homer and the origin of the Greek alphabet (Cambridge, 1991) p. 221
Suggested bibliography:
  • Graziosi, B. 2002. Inventing Homer. The early reception of epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 90-98.
  • Svenbro, J. 1993. Phrasikleia. An anthropology of reading in ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Orig. publ. in French as Phrasikleia, 1988.) pp. 26-43.
  • Van Wees, H. 1994. 'The Homeric way of war: the Iliad and the hoplite phalanx.' Greece & Rome 41: 1-18 and 131-155, at pp. 138-146.

You too can own a 'Nestor's cup' coffee mug! Only NZD$27.85 plus shipping from Zazzle. Just be aware that line 1 contains a very doubtful supplement.

The Mahābhārata was based on the Iliad

I have, in effect, been attempting to prove that the author(s) of the Mahābhārata, based on their fervor for the Homeric epics and interest in other mythological figures such as Heracles, utilize very diverse Greek sources and put them into play in very versatile and creative ways all throughout their story built around the massacre of the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas. ... We are not talking about minor details, motifs, or loose elements. The creative genius behind the work is articulated from within an extensive blueprint inspired by the one which underlies the Iliad. Accordingly, those chronological frameworks, situations and characters are changed or inverted at will, and, amongst numerous other possibilities, some stories are embedded in larger, more central ones or components of all sorts are mixed to form fascinating amalgamations.
-- Ferdinand Wulff Alonso, The Mahābhārata and Greek mythology (Delhi, 2014) pp. 446-447
Suggested bibliography:
  • Watkins, C. 1995. How to kill a dragon. Aspects of Indo-European poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Entire book, but esp. pp. 12-27.
  • West, M. L. 2007. Indo-European poetry and myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Entire book, but especially pp. 19-24.
Heroes take part in bow contests to win a bride. Left: Arjuna shoots at a fish's eye to win Draupadi (source: a 19th century edition of the Mahābhārata). Right: Odysseus shoots through twelve axes to win Penelope (source: Ulysses (1954), starring Kirk Douglas).

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Pi Day

I'm a bit late for Pi Day, but hey, research takes time. It has become trendy to celebrate the 14th of March as 'Pi Day', because in American notation the date looks like '3/14'. These are the first three digits of the mathematical constant π, or pi, the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter. (Assuming we're talking about Euclidean geometry. Which we are.)

Outside the US, some people like to celebrate the 22nd of July instead -- because in everyone else's notation, that looks like '22/7', and 22/7 is a very good approximation for π.

A few incidental bits of trivia about π:
  • π is an irrational number. This means it cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Put another way: the circumference and diameter of a circle are incommensurable. Or put yet another way: if you write out π in decimal notation, it will never ever repeat.
  • π is also a transcendental number. This means that it cannot be expressed as the solution to a polynomial equation with integer coefficients. That is: given an equation axn + bxn-1 + cxn-2 ... + zx0= 0, where a, b, c ... are integers, a transcendental number is any number that x cannot be.
  • π is widely suspected to be a normal number. This is not known for sure. A normal number is, roughly, one whose decimal expansion shows no patterns, where every digit is equally likely, and every finite sequence of digits is equally likely. This sounds pretty limiting; at present no one really has any idea how to prove that a given number is normal with 100% certainty. But if you look at it statistically, almost all real numbers are irrational; almost all irrational numbers are transcendental; and almost all transcendental numbers are normal. If you randomly pick a number on the real number line, the probability that it will be normal is 1. So, pretty good odds that π is normal, then.
  • If you know π to 39 decimal places -- 3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288 4197 -- then you know it precisely enough to measure a circle the size of the observable universe to a precision finer than the width of an atom.
So much for interesting trivia of the day. What about myths? Give me modern myths about antiquity!



OK, here's one myth.
The first recorded algorithm for rigorously calculating the value of π was a geometrical approach using polygons, devised around 250 BC by the Greek mathematician Archimedes.
-- Wikipedia, 'Pi'
It is true that Archimedes used this method to calculate π. But it is not true that he devised the method. He just did it with a bit more precision than anyone had done previously. He made an advance, but it was an incremental advance, not something revolutionary. You can find Archimedes' full exposition in a surviving work, the Measurement of the circle.

The 'exhaustion method'. If you draw regular polygons inside and outside the circle, then the more sides the polygons have, the more closely they approximate the actual circumference of the circle. (source: Wikimedia.org)

The illustration shows how the exhaustion method works. Using 96-sided polygons, Archimedes narrowed down the value of π to between 3 10/71 and 3 10/70 -- that is, he found that π is somewhere between 3.1408... and 3.1429...

But the method was already in use 200 years earlier. Antiphon of Athens (ca. 480-411 BCE), Bryson of Heraclea Pontica (ca. 400 to after 340 BCE), and Eudoxus of Cnidus (ca. 391-338 BCE) had all used a similar method to calculate π long before Archimedes came along.

Antiphon, the earliest of the bunch, only used inscribed polygons -- that is, he only drew one shape, inside the circle, but not outside. As a result he only had one bound for the value of π. We don't know much about Eudoxus' effort. We do know that Bryson guessed (wrongly) that π would be given by the arithmetic mean of the inner and outer perimeters; and that Antiphon and Bryson were working on the area of the circle, not its perimeter. It was Eudoxus who showed that the area and perimeter were linked by the square of the radius.

The New Pauly encyclopaedia reports (subscription needed) that it was Eudoxus, not Archimedes, whose influence led to the widespread use of exhaustion for all problems involving infinitesimals. Archimedes' work on π was just a refinement of Eudoxus.



Here's another myth, from a Time article published on 'Pi Day' this year.
However, not too many generations after [Archimedes'] lifetime, the world experienced a "real decline in math," according to John Conway, mathematics professor emeritus at Princeton University who once won the school's Pi Day pie-eating contest. "Math and science in general went into a great decline from roughly the year zero to the year 1,000, and then the Arabs developed lots of math after that, like trigonometry."
Oooh, do I detect a note of a renowned world expert saying something a little bit silly about another field? I think I do!

What, no love for all those Alexandrian mathematicians of the Roman era? No love for Heron, whose Metrica has recently been published in a new French translation? Or Menelaus, whose work on spherical geometry was foundational for Arabic, Hebrew, and western astronomers for over a thousand years? Not to mention Diophantus, whose work laid down the parameters for the modern study of polynomials, and whose notation foreshadowed the development of algebra?

And then there are many other figures who are, admittedly, lesser, but still made important contributions: Sporus of Poros, who demolished earlier mathematicians' reliance on a curve called the 'quadratrix' in problems to do with squaring the circle; Ptolemy, who in the early 100s CE gained the world record for closest approximation of π (3 + 8/60 + 30/3600, = 3.141666...); and commentators like Pappus, Theon, Hypatia, Proclus, and Eutocius, whose work on Euclid, Ptolemy, and Archimedes were colossally useful in helping later mathematicians to understand the impenetrable language of their predecessors.

I guess it is fair to speak of a decline in Greek mathematics -- but Archimedes was not the be-all and end-all. If there was a decline, it was after the time of Diophantus. Archimedes has a curiously inflated reputation. I suppose that's because there are lots of good stories about him: the story of his death ray; the dramatic story of his death that we find in Plutarch and Valerius Maximus; the story of the bathtub and the running around naked shouting 'eurēka!'; and the story of the Cattle Problem, whose solution involves a number with over 200,000 digits (ca. 7.76 × 10206544). Everything about him sounds tremendously exciting. But hey, let's not forget later giants like Hipparchus, Menelaus, and Diophantus, all right?

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The library of Alexandria: vox populi

You may think I've already spent too much effort on the 'loss' of 'the library' of Alexandria. I make no apology: there is an obsession with the topic in popular culture.

This post isn't meant as a critique but as a sampler. I think it's worth having an awareness of what kinds of things people believe about the Alexandrian libraries. There is a gaping discontinuity between what a trained classicist is likely to think about this topic, and what your average viewer of Cosmos is likely to assume. I think it is salutary to have a reminder of that gap: improved communication of realities about antiquity can only be a good thing.

Relief from Neumagen, Germany, now lost, showing a slave at work in a 2nd century CE bookshop or library (source: Brower and Masen, Antiquitatum et annalium Trevirensium libri XXV [1670] vol. 1 p. 105)

Still, for the sake of clarity, I'd better be explicit about some points that are not popular knowledge.
  1. Libraries existed in the hundreds, maybe thousands, around the ancient Mediterranean. Any book whose survival depended on one specific library was already as good as lost. Books didn't disappear because of a single library, but because of the collapse of a whole system of knowledge exchange. (And, I believe, a format shift.)
  2. The royal archive at Alexandria was indeed burned in the Alexandrian War of 48/7 BCE. But other similar incidents are at best poorly attested, at worst illusions. (The supposed destruction in 389 or 391 CE was invented by Gibbon; the supposed destruction in 642 is a 13th century morality fable inspired by the Letter of Aristeas.)
  3. Libraries don't need calamitous tragedies to destroy them: time will do that all by itself. If you don't believe me, go visit Pergamon and see how many books are still on the shelves.
  4. The fetishisation of the Alexandrian libraries is driven by Gibbon, Carl Sagan, and (probably) Sid Meier's Civilization games. None of them is reliable, and the second and third are actively misleading. To get a more balanced picture, read an actual book about ancient libraries. Try especially Lionel Casson's Libraries in the ancient world (2001), and Yun Lee Too's The idea of the library in the ancient world (2010).
And now, for the sake of grasping how present-day people think about antiquity, I present a list of suggestions of what was lost in the 'destruction' of the libraries. The list is taken from a recent social media discussion; I've done a bit of categorisation to make things easier. I offer relatively little comment, meant more for clarification than as criticism.


Question: 'What books and knowledge did we definitely (and likely) lose in the library of Alexandria?'

Answers #1: non-Greek books

  • the works of emperor Claudius ('an Etruscan history and eight volumes on Carthaginian history, as well as an Etruscan dictionary and a book on dice playing') (1)
  • 'how to make Roman concrete and Greek fire' (2)
  • 'Carthage advances in science', especially their death ray (3)
  • 'the complete works of Julius Caesar' (4)
  • history of Carthage (5)
  • Egyptian music and hymns (6)
Some notes:
  1. We have one piece of testimony, the Letter of Aristeas, that the library acquired some non-Greek material. We have no indication of how much, why, or from which languages, other than Hebrew. (The Letter is about the creation of the Septuagint, which is why it picks out Hebrew.) If you want to speculate on which other source languages were represented in the Alexandrian library, native Egyptian material isn't a terrible candidate. But there's no reason to suspect that would include poetic material like hymns: according to the Letter, these acquisitions were all in Greek translations. Roman texts would be a terrible guess. A stronger candidate would be astronomical and mathematical texts from Achaemenid Persia.
  2. Julius Caesar and Claudius lived later than the destruction of the Ptolemaic royal archive.
  3. The 'Etruscan dictionary and book on dice playing' attributed to Claudius are fictional. Robert Graves made them up.
  4. The 'death ray' is presumably the legendary one associated with Archimedes, a Sicilian, not with the Carthaginians.
  5. We have most of Julius Caesar's historiographical output. The stuff we're missing is rhetoric and rhetorical theory (the De analogia, the Anticato, some legal speeches).

Answers #2: things from long after the library ceased to exist

  • how to make Greek Fire (Byzantine, not Egyptian) (7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)
  • how to make Damascus steel (introduced westward from India to Syria at some point after the 12th century) (13, 14)
  • the Key of Solomon (14th/15th century; it is extant) (15)
  • the maps that Piri Reis used as a source (early 16th century) (16)
Little comment needed on these, except to note the extraordinary popularity of Greek fire.

Answers #3: 'hidden knowledge'

  • blueprints of the pyramids (17)
  • the location of Atlantis (18)
  • a 'history of man going back 25,000 years' (19)
These contributors appear to be dead serious. I don't think it's worth engaging with them though.

Is this vision from Disney's Atlantis: the lost empire (2001) a real one? What secrets did Disney steal from Alexandria in their time-travelling black helicopters?

Answers #4: things that actually sound sensible ...

... until you pause to think that of course nothing here can possibly have existed in only one copy in only one library.
  • 'most of' Democritus' books (20)
  • history (21, 22)
  • lost plays by Euripides and Aeschylus (23)
  • Sappho (24)
  • the six lost poems of the Epic Cycle (25, 26, 27, 28, 29)
  • 'romances, musics, poem and so on' (30)
  • book 2 of Aristotle's Poetics (31, 32)
  • Heron's work on steam engines (33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38)
  • Hellenistic tactical manuals and the works of Alexander's successors (39)
  • 'all of the world's knowledge on magic' (40, 41)
  • how the Colossus of Rhodes was built (42)
  • Archimedes (43)
  • works of Galen and Hippocrates (44, 45)
  • works of Plato (1)
  • the majority of Aristotle (46)
  • history prior to Herodotus (47)
  • Chrysippus and Cleanthes (48)
  • commentaries on the Iliad (49)
Some notes:
  1. Best to start by repeating that the destruction of one library didn't suddenly obligate every other copy of its books to cease to exist.
  2. All of Democritus is lost.
  3. Sappho still survived in the 7th century CE as a school text (p. Berol. 5006).
  4. On the Epic Cycle: the last indication we have of anyone having personally read intact copies of these poems dates to the late 2nd century CE, in Athenaeus and Pausanias. That's more than 200 years after the destruction of the royal archive at Alexandria, and 200 years before Gibbon's supposed destruction under Theodosius. The heyday of the Cycle was in the 3rd-1st centuries BCE. Some poems (AethiopisTelegony) may have disappeared as early as the 1st century CE; the last remaining pieces of the Cycle probably disappeared in the 200s CE.
  5. Poetics book 2 is never cited by any ancient source other than Aristotle himself. It may well have been lost before it ever left Athens, within decades of being written. (There are those who disagree: notably Richard Janko, in his work on the Tractatus Coislinianus.)
  6. We do, actually, have quite a lot of Galen, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and commentaries on Homer. And Galen spent most of his career in Rome, so that'd be the place to expect copies to be preserved.

Answers #5: and to finish off with ...

  • 'prior era philosophy, science, religious, mathematics, and historical texts that went against the then current era ideologies' (50)
  • 'about everything we ever had as human collective' (51)
  • 'They probably all still exist in the vatican archives' (52)
On the last one, I should perhaps mention that the Vatican Apostolic Library is entirely open to visiting scholars, so feel free to go pay a visit or at least browse the online catalogue. As so often, the confusion here is to do with the Secret Archive, which is (a) mostly open access; (b) for documents relating to the papacy, the Curia, and various religious institutions; (c) its oldest document is a collection of ecclesiastical formulae dating to the 8th/9th century.

A reading room at the Secret Archive, Vatican City (source: ArchivioSegretoVaticano.va)

There are depressingly few joke responses. One person suggests a book about the origins of Cthulhu; books on why aliens helped humans build the pyramids; an autobiography by Jesus. Aside from these, they all take the subject terribly terribly seriously. (I'd like to categorise the Atlantis one here too, but I'm very much afraid that one isn't a joke.)

Multiple respondents also pause to genuflect at the altar of Carl Sagan (53). If you want proof that Sagan is key to the fetishisation of the library, hey presto.

There isn't much point making fun of any of this. I'll admit it's sorely tempting in a number of cases: you can certainly say that it's making fun of them for me to write this post at all.

But ignorance is just a matter of not having done the right research yet. What's really worrying, because they have an impact on present-day society, are the ones espousing heavily teleological views of the history of knowledge, where knowledge is a quantity that changes as a function of time, as though it were a score that humanity has achieved --
  • 'It's impossible to say what subsequent research would have occurred had the library not been burned. Maybe we would have seen the microscope invented centuries earlier.' (54)
  • 'I like to compare knowledge to compound interest. The more knowledge you accrue, the more it returns.' (55)
These are the ones to worry about. Opinions like these have a potential impact on things like research funding and school curricula. They also affect how people think about, and interact with, societies that aren't as wedded as western elite culture is to post-Enlightenment ideas of cultural teleology.

Ignorance, in and of itself, is no problem. I have no quarrel with the other people posting their suggestions on what was lost. We can never expect to fix the misapprehensions of every layperson, and it's unreasonable to expect perfection. However, specialists can realistically aim to be accessible to the people that popularise ancient history -- the Carl Sagans, the QIs, the Wikipedias, the Snopeses. If they can be reached, there's a chance they can teach their readers and viewers to put a high value on accurate facts ... and avoid the alternative ones that we've seen here.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Getting the Iliad right

There are so many misconceptions and myths about antiquity in mainstream culture that it's a refreshing pleasure to see someone with a really solid grasp of their subject. (Especially when I've criticised the same author on a previous occasion for spouting absolute nonsense ...)

Lindybeige, a.k.a. Nikolas Lloyd, talks about the Homeric Iliad in a video published to YouTube almost exactly a year ago today. No nonsense this time. Instead, we have a discussion that is well-informed, accurate, and also, apparently, interesting -- at least to the 400,000-odd people who have watched it. So let's take a moment to celebrate popular media getting antiquity more or less right!
I think that a lot of people buying this [holds up a copy of the Iliad], buy it, start reading, get a little bit confused, and realise, 'Oh! We're already deep into the war when this starts,' and they go alllll the way to the end, they slog through it, and are so disappointed! No wooden horse! That's right! It ends before Achilles dies, so we don't get him being shot in the heel or any of that, and it ends before anyone even has the idea of making a wooden horse.
-- Lindybeige, 'The Iliad' 0:40-1:07

Alexander Ivanov, Priam asking Achilles to return Hector's body, 1824 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Lindybeige's mini-lecture spends its first 5 minutes (1) dispelling a popular misconception about the Iliad (see quotation above), and (2) giving some basic information about the epic and its historical context. The remaining 9 minutes are literary criticism, highlighting two ideas: (3) that the poem walks a tightrope between celebrating warfare, and celebrating the human tragedy caused by war; and (4) the resolution to Achilles' personal narrative in the final third of the epic.

His points are well chosen, and there are no major inaccuracies or misrepresentations. Sure, there's room for disagreement on something as subjective as the core meaning(s) of a literary work -- people come up with wild readings sometimes: there are people who actually think characters like Humbert Humbert and Walter White are heroes -- but it's clear that the themes Lindybeige emphasises are important ones.

As fourteen-minute lectures go, you could do a lot worse. Would I be happy for Lindybeige to do a guest lecture in a course I was teaching? Mm, not necessarily. But I would give his essay a decent mark.

Let's look at his account of the historical context of the poem. He highlights the Iliad's importance in antiquity by comparing it to the Bible -- not an exact analogy, but a traditional trope, and one that makes its point -- and mentioning, entirely correctly, that there are stories of Alexander taking his personal copy with him on campaign,* and that at Alexandria scholars spilled a great deal of ink over the Iliad (and here's the main end-product of that scholarship).
* Alexander's copy of the Iliad: see Plutarch Alexander 8 (= Onesikritos BNJ 134 F 38), 26. Cf. Plutarch On the fortune of Alexander i.327f, where he also takes the Odyssey on campaign.

I especially like his comments about modern popular culture's fetishisation of the library of Alexandria:
You can tell how middle-class you are by how aggrieved you are and how much you wince every time someone mentions the fact that the library of Alexandria burnt down. Ahh! Grr! Oh if only it hadn't! Agh!
(I could wish the same about the Palatine library in Rome, the Athenaion at Pergamon, and hundreds and hundreds more. Any of them would involve multiple miracles.)

Anyway, the next bit is what's most likely to raise the hackles of those who have been taught about the Iliad in a certain way.
...it was an epic poem that would be performed over several nights by a poet. Quite often we are told that they would beat a stick to a strict rhythm, as they spoke the rhythmic words. And it would take a few nights for them to get all the way through this. And yes, they wouldn't have a script to work from: they had to memorise the entire lot, a feat that was made possible by an oral tradition and the fact that there are a lot of standard phrases and repetitions within the rhyme itself.
-- Lindybeige, 'The Iliad' 2:12-2:43
There are a few things here that some classicists would probably want to see phrased differently, but I'm on Lindybeige's side. The word 'rhyme' is just a trivial slip (rhyme was almost unheard-of in ancient poetry): we'll skip that.

The real qualm I'd expect a classics student to have is with the word 'memorise'. American scholarship on Homer in the last 30 years or so has strongly disliked the idea that Homer was memorised and transmitted. They tend to prefer to talk about recomposition. The idea is that bards supposedly improvised the poem afresh every time they performed it. That idea is common in America, but in the rest of the world it's more common to think of the epic as informed by a sophisticated tradition of recomposition-in-performance, without necessarily being produced directly within that tradition. The archaic language of the Iliad belongs firmly to the first half of the 600s BCE, but the earliest likely date for its transcription is in the second half of the 500s. To bridge that gap, there's a much stronger case for verbatim or very-nearly-verbatim transmission than you'd think if you just read American books. I'm not certain which books or people have shaped Lindybeige's views: but he's English, and I gather he's based in Newcastle, so there's that.

Then imitate the action of the rhapsode; stiffen the sinews, summon up the hexameters! Lindybeige illustrates using a staff to beat time (2:20)

I'm especially pleased to see no reference to singing. Lindybeige describes a performer 'beat[ing] a stick to a strict rhythm'. As an onscreen caption makes clear, he's talking about rhapsodes, who declaimed epic, not about bards who sang with a musical accompaniment. 'Singing' often appears in Homeric epic as a metaphor for performance, but all external evidence points strongly to rhapsodic declamation. This is a position that many professional classicists would contest, but I'm firmly on Lindybeige's side here. One of Homer's rivals, Hesiod, describes performance in their genre as follows:
And [the Muses] gave me a staff, a branch of lovely laurel
that they'd plucked, a marvel: and they inspired me with a voice
divine, so that I would popularise things that will happen and did happen,
and they told me to hymn the race of the blessed ones, who are eternal,
and always sing of themselves both first and last.
-- Theogony 30-4 (ca. 700 BCE)
Rhapsode with staff,
declaiming an epic episode
set at Tiryns; from the cover
of my own book (BM E270,
ca. 490-480 BCE)
Hesiod talks about 'hymning' (hymnein) and 'singing' (aeidein), but the staff shows that he's thinking about rhapsodes. For my money, I'd say 'singing' is a conventional poetic image, not a literal reality. (See also my Early Greek hexameter poetry, 2015, pp. 76-7, with more sources.)

Lindybeige is also nicely cautious about the date of the Iliad: 'somewhere between the 700s and 500s BC', he says. Modern scholarship dates the Iliad anywhere from ca. 800 (Powell) to the mid-500s (Jensen) -- for what it's worth, in my view the most powerful evidence points to ca. 670-650 -- so this is a fair reflection of an open question.

So much for the historical aspects. The rest of the video is occupied with literary exegesis. Lindybeige illustrates how the Iliad simultaneously celebrates war and shows an extraordinary sensibility to the human suffering caused by war. He gives a full reading of Iliad 11.218-247, the death of Iphidamas, killed by Agamemnon, and his touching backstory ending in 'bronze sleep ... far from his wedded wife'. In the last minutes, he turns to Achilles' fury. The very first line of the epic highlights this theme, but Lindybeige confines himself to talking about the last third of the poem, where Achilles is enraged at Patroclus' death, rampages on the battlefield, fights a river-god, kills, captures, and sacrifices Trojans, buries his friend, but cannot find peace anywhere -- until the night-time visit from king Priam in book 24 (also a genuinely powerful moment in Petersen's film Troy (2004), with Peter O'Toole as Priam, as Lindybeige points out).

'Perhaps more than anything, the Iliad is about this scene.' (10:00-11:25)

Do these points give an exhaustive account of the literary merit of the Iliad? Of course not. But they're a very good selection. Lindybeige's discussion of war and humanity neatly encapsulates two divergent modes of interpretation which focus on the Iliad as praise poetry and as tragic, respectively -- the Gregory Nagy school and the Aristotle school, you might say. And his treatment of Achilles' fury, while not the deepest or most thorough, nonetheless draws out an aspect of how the Iliad develops that theme throughout books 17 to 24, and does so without mistakes.

The only real criticisms I can imagine being levelled at Lindybeige are about all the other things going on in the Iliad which he doesn't mention. The rampages of the other Greek heroes; how the poet plays on competing poetic traditions; the narrative of divine withdrawal and return; the humanity and failings of Hector; the use of folkloric themes. And so on. But who has time for all that? This is 14 minutes long. And it's perfectly good for that length. It's a delight to see something this competent in the popular arena. Congratulations.



Postscript: for more multimedia coverage of Homer and the Iliad, try the BBC World Service's programme 'The Iliad: beauty, brutes, and battles' (Dec. 2016), with Bettany Hughes talking to Stathis Livathinos, Antony Makrinos, Folake Onayemi, and Edith Hall. I haven't listened to it yet, and the cast-list makes it sound like it's more about reception than about the Iliad itself, but I'm looking forward to it!