Friday, 29 May 2020

An experimental translation of Homer

Does Homer have flow? By which I mean, flow as in rap?

The answer is yes. Homer has flow coming out the wazoo. Unfortunately, you won’t see that in any published translation of the Iliad.
Professor Brandon Bourgeois, University of Southern California, performing his Trilliad (the Iliad in rap) in a lecture.
I’m not just talking about the idea of performing Homer in English in rap. That’s something that Brandon Bourgeois is famous for. He’s a professor at the University of Southern California, and his Trilliad is a rap adaptation of Homer — and by the way it’s absolutely fantastic and you should certainly watch it or listen to it.

Bourgeois does an outstanding job of conveying the feel of Homeric epic. What I want to get at today is a little different: the flow in the original Greek. Even students of the language might not notice Homer’s flow. They get trained in Homer’s dialect, scansion rules, caesuras, metrical bridges. But it’s hard to see the rhythmical forest for the technical trees. It’s all analytic.

It’s all there between the lines — so to speak — if you read about the work of Parry on the Homeric formulaic system, Kirk’s theory of colons and the accumulative style, Nagy and West on the building blocks of the Homeric hexameter. But it’s pretty indirect. If you’re thinking metrical scholars have any notion of flow, even heroic figures like Bryan Hainsworth or Rainer Friedrich ... well, no offence to them intended, but I’m pretty confident that isn’t how they think of it.

My advice: why not put away caesuras for a century or two. They’ve had their day. Learn about flow instead.

If you want to learn about flow, watching YouTube tutorials will give some basic musical guidance. But I don’t think that’ll help you appreciate what happens when a rap god goes to work. Better to look at some favourites, especially with a focus on freestyling (improvised rap) and rap battles. You’ll get a much better sense of how much variety there can be, and the importance of rhythmic versatility.

For flow in Homer, think about colometry. Homeric Greek has a very distinctive style. When students of ancient Greek come to Homer, after reading things like Sophocles and Lysias, they’re often amazed at how simple the syntax is, once they get past the hurdle of the strange vocabulary. But there’s a specific reason for the syntactical style.
‘Looking like a cyclone hit you, tank top screaming “Lotto, I don’t fit you!”’ — B-Rabbit vs Lotto (Eminem and NaShawn ‘Ox’ Breedlove), 8 Mile (Universal, 2002)
And that reason is flow. Flow and colometry. A colon is a rhythmic phrase, which is partially or completely syntactically independent of its context. In Homeric poetry colons are important because many of them are formulas. Modern rappers use rhymes; Homer uses formulas. The idea is that you can freestyle by chaining colons together, so that the result simultaneously makes sense and also fits the strict rhythms of Homeric epic.

The base rhythm has twelve beats, called hemipedes:
♩ ♫ ♩ ♫ ♩ ♫ ♩ ♫ ♩ ♫ ♩ ♩
That’s the modern musical notation. In academic notation it looks like:
— ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏖ — ×
but in most cases ♫ can be replaced by ♩.

Chaining (or as Kirk puts it, accumulation) works like this. You can have a line with two colons of 5 + 7 hemipedes, or 5½ + 6½ hemipedes, with a stock of formulas to fit each of those rhythms. Put them together, and hey presto, you have a meaningful line of Homeric Greek. Or you could have three colons: 2 + 6 + 4, or 5 + 2 + 5, or 3 + 2½ + 6½, or other combinations. With each of these there’s a huge range of traditional formulas that you can slot into each colon. Alternatively, you can adapt them if desired. Here are some examples of 5 + 2 + 5 lines:
ton d’ apalon gelasas — prosephē — Dios huion Apollōn
laughing gently — he spoke to him — Zeus’ son Apollo

ton d’ epimeidēsas — prosephē — nephelēgeretā Zeus
smiling at him — he spoke to him — cloud-gathering Zeus

ton de meg’ ochthēsas — prosephē — polymētis Odysseus
greatly angered — he spoke to him — cunning Odysseus

ton de cholōsamenos — prosephē — krateros Diomēdēs
in anger — he spoke to him — strong Diomedes
What if our whole translation looked like that? The result, I find, has some striking similarities to hip hop. Here’s a snippet from Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Triumph’ (1997):
I bomb atomic’lly — Socrates’ philosophies —
and hypotheses — can’t define how I be dropping these —
mockeries — lyric’lly perform armed robbery —
flee with the lottery — possibly they spotted me —
battle-scarred shogun — explosion when my pen hits —
tremendous — ultra-violet shine — blind forensics —
I inspect — view through the future — see millennium —
Killa Beez sold fifty gold — sixty platinum —
I’ve put in line divisions to match the musical beat, and dashes to mark the colons. And here’s a bit from Odyssey book 1:
he grasped her right hand — he took the bronze spear —
speaking to her — he said winged words out loud —
welcome — guest among us — good to see you — but later —
when you’ve eaten a meal — you can tell me what you want —
that’s what he said — he led the way — she followed — Pallas Athena —
when they were inside — they were in the high-roofed hall —
he set the spear down — he took it to a tall pillar —
inside the spear-holder — well-polished — where the other ones were —
spears of Odysseus — patient-suffering — they were set there —
There are differences: Inspectah Deck uses rhyme, Homer doesn’t; Homer’s rhythms are much stricter than in modern rap. But I hope you can see the syntactical similarities. Each new colon is either (a) a sense-break, (b) an expansion or clarification of the previous colon, or (c) a grammatical supplement of the previous colon.

That’s Kirk’s accumulative style in action. And that’s flow.
‘You don’t even get enough credit for being Atlanta’s first mumble-rapper’ — Pass vs Ness Lee, KOTD’s ‘Blackout 7’ (Toronto, April 2017)
So, without further ado, here’s a colon-by-colon translation of the start of the Iliad. I don’t think this kind of translation could ever be published — can you really imagine reading 16,000 lines of this? — but it’s a nifty experiment.

Iliad book 1, lines 1-52

sing of wrath — goddess — of Peleus’ son Achilles —
destructive — it put endless pains — on the Achaians —
and many strong souls — it sent them to Hades —
heroes’ souls — and them — it made them a feast for dogs —
and for all birds — it was all Zeus’ will —
since that time — that first moment — those two took each other on —
Atreus’ son — the king of men — and excellent Achilles —
so which god did it to those two — set them arguing and fighting —
Leto’s and Zeus’ son — because he was furious at the king —
a disease on the army — he sent a deadly one — and the people perished —
because of Chryses — he dishonoured the priest —
Atreus’ son did — when he came — it was at the Achaians’ swift ships —
meant to ransom his daughter — bringing a huge ransom payment —
holding the ribbons in his hands — far-shooter Apollo’s —
they hung along the golden sceptre — he beseeched them — all the Achaians —
especially Atreus’ two sons — marshals of the people —
sons of Atreus — and the others too — well-greaved Achaians —
may the gods grant you — they’re the ones who hold Olympus’ halls —
to sack Priam’s city — and to get home well —
but ransom my daughter to me — accept this compensation —
honour Zeus’ son — far-shooter Apollo —
then all the others — the Achaians approved —
honour the priest — take the shining pay-off —
but not Atreus’ son — it didn’t please Agamemnon in his heart —
he sent him away badly — he dumped violent speech on him —
better not, old man — if I find you by the hollow ships —
better not delay — better not come again later —
that won’t help you — the sceptre and the god’s ribbon —
I won’t ransom her — old age will come on her first —
in our house — in Argos — far from her homeland —
back and forth at the loom — and coming to my bed —
but go — don’t provoke me — safer if you go —
that’s what he said — that old man was scared — he obeyed the speech —
he walked in silence — by the shore — by the ever-roaring sea —
then a very long way off — he prayed as he walked — that old man —
to king Apollo — lovely-haired Leto bore him —
hear me — silver-bowed — the one who walks around Chryse —
and holy Killa — and you rule Tenedos with your might —
Smintheus — if I ever served you — fed you pleasing offerings in your shrine —
if I ever served you — burnt a sacrifice of fat thighs —
of bulls and of goats — grant my wish —
make the Danaans pay — for my tears — with your arrows —
that’s what he said — praying — and he heard him — Phoibos Apollo —
he came down from Olympus — from the peaks — his heart was angry —
bringing the bow on his shoulders — and the covered quiver —
they rattled — the arrows — on his shoulders — he was angry —
as he raced — he moved — he looked like night —
then he set down — a long way off from the ships — he fired one shot —
a horrific noise — it came from the silver bow —
first the mules — he visited them — then the eager dogs —
but then on the men — firing the sharp arrow —
he shot — constant pyres of the dead — they burned all the time —

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

How to make sense of ancient Greek colours

When people want to talk about how language affects colours, ancient Greece is a handy thing to point at. Fundamental errors pop up again and again, though.
  1. Popular treatments (and scholarly discourse, too) rely far too much on dictionary definitions. Languages divide up the available colour palette in different ways. A colour term in one language does not necessarily correspond to a single term in another language. This is totally normal. It happens in modern languages too, and it has nothing to do with the physiology of the eye or the optic nerve. So a translation that works in one situation won’t work in others. Basically, for the purposes of scholarship, never translate colour terms.
  2. Because of the reliance on dictionary definitions, 19th-20th century discussions often take an essentialist view, that there’s something real and objective about linguistic labels for colours. Historically, this view goes back to Isaac Newton’s canon of seven ‘primary’ colours — ROY G. BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).
No word for ‘blue’? Homer would have called Alexis Tsipras’ jacket kyaneos. The shirt is glaukos. The catch is, Tsipras’ hair is kyaneos too.
  1. More specifically: yes, you can say ‘blue’ in ancient Greek. More precisely, Greek has words for the area of the colour palette that English calls ‘blue’. But English ‘blue’ covers a huge region of the palette. Greek splits it into multiple smaller regions: glaukos for lighter, non-vivid shades; kyaneos for darker non-vivid shades ranging to black; porphyreos for vivid shades ranging from blue to violet to ruby, but also for less vivid shades in the middle of that range (light magenta, pink); lampros for metallic-silvery-azure. Yes, ancient sources do mention sky colour: it’s glaukos or lampros. It’s just that Homer doesn’t mention the sky’s colour (and why would he). For example: Cornutus, Compendium 10.18-20, compares sky colour to olive-tree foliage, because both are glaukos: glaukos covers a much larger area of the palette than ‘azure’ does. But Homer does refer to kyaneos clouds, and glaukos eyes and sea.
  2. It’s often claimed that ancient Greek colour distinctions are based mainly on brightness. Well, it’s true that Homer mentions ‘dark red, brown, black’ (melas) much more often than most other colours. And it’s true that brightness and saturation matter for some colour terms. But the same is true of English. ‘Pink’, ‘brown’, and ‘olive’ are low-saturation or low-brightness versions of red, orange, and yellow; then there’s ‘azure’, ‘navy’, ‘crimson’, ‘scarlet’, ‘lime’, ‘indigo’, and so on. Don’t take it for granted that there’s something methodologically different about how ancient Greek organises its colour terms, just because one individual (Aristotle) happened to like sorting by brightness.
I have covered colour terms in Homer previously: (1) The bronze sky, (2) The wine-dark sea, both from January 2016. I feel the need for an update: The second one had a bit too much speculation in its last section, and a topic that’s under such a constant barrage of misinformation and confusion (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) is always worth revisiting.


We can’t interview ancient Greek people, and we can’t conduct experiments to see where they would draw colour boundaries on a Munsell array. We have to rely on found evidence.

This does not mean looking at colour terms in translations of ancient texts, or even in a dictionary. See point 1 above. Translation is not one-to-one.

Dictionaries can help. But they aren’t evidence, they’re tools. Take for example the LSJ entry for kyaneos (1889 New York edition, with some modernisation):
properly, dark-blue, glossy-blue, of a serpent’s iridescent hues ... (Iliad 11.26, 38, Hesiodic Shield 167); of the swallow, Simonides 21; of the halcyon, Aristotle HA 9.14.1; of the skin of the porpoise, Aristotle HA 6.12.3; of the deep sea, Simonides 18, Euripides IT 7; ... 2. generally, dark, black, of the mourning veil of Thetis ...; of clouds ...; of the brows of Zeus ... of the hair of Hector ...
And so on. The entry gives the impression that there’s no single correct translation, and rightly so, and it lists a bunch of ancient sources as evidence (I’ve omitted most of them here). From there, we can do a lexical survey and look at the kinds of objects and surfaces that are called kyaneos; we can actually look at the sources, and expand beyond the ones that LSJ list; we can look at the context in the sources — metaphors, connotations, implied lighting conditions, and so on.

Even then, a dictionary is still just a tool, not an authority. Lexicographers may have their own biases about how colour works. Plato, Timaeus 68b-c, treats lampros as a colour, but if you look at the LSJ entry you’ll see no sign of that.

Yes, that’s partly because lampros usually denotes brightness. But it’s also partly because we don’t have a single word for ‘metallic silver with a blue tint’ in English. We really ought to, though, considering how often we see that colour. Like, for example, in the sky.

(Yes, I went there. An ancient Greek might well complain that modern English has no word for sky colour!)
A lampros car

Different languages, different boundaries

Translation is not one-to-one. Let’s illustrate: take ‘ground’ and ‘floor’. English-speakers are comfortable with the distinction between them. But in German there’s one word for both, Boden. If you’re translating German-to-English and you come across Boden, you cannot give the correct English equivalent unless you know the context: you have to know whether the Boden is indoors or outdoors.

Similarly with colour terms. German Lila and Purpur have no exact equivalents in English; English ‘crimson’ and ‘chartreuse’ have no exact equivalents in German. That doesn’t mean they can’t be translated! If you know the context, you can come up with a workaround. English ‘lilac’ and ‘violet’, are light shades of Lila: Lila is more general. Similarly Purpur covers English ‘magenta’, but it also includes royal purple and the red of a toadstool. Similar things apply to English ‘crimson’ and ‘chartreuse’. Hellgrün (‘light green’) is the dictionary rendering of ‘chartreuse’, but the English word is normally about halfway between ‘yellow’ and ‘green’.

What about ancient Greek? Well, think of your favourite image editor, and its colour picker:
Colour palette in the Windows programme Paint.NET, with HSV selectors in the red box
Outlined are the controls for three parameters which define the physical parameters of any colour uniquely. ‘Hue’ for the part of the spectrum the colour falls on; ‘saturation’ for the range from grey to vivid; and ‘value’ for lightness-darkness. (When Albert Munsell devised this system in the early 1900s he used ‘chroma’, not ‘saturation’.) In the colour circle at the left, the direction from the centre represents hue, and distance from the centre is saturation. It leaves out value: that would be a third dimension, extending from white to black.

Each colour term refers to a region of the palette. But the boundary of that region is arbitrary — to an extent, at least. There are non-linguistic constraints: the typical human eye has receptors for three colours, and that biases our colour perception ability; evolved cognitive traits may well give a higher priority to red, as a critical colour. But outside those biases, different languages may well assign colour terms to regions of different shapes and with different boundaries.

Most English speakers would be comfortable using ‘blue’ to refer to all of the top left quarter of the circle. But we wouldn’t feel nearly as comfortable grouping all of the bottom right quarter under a single term.

In ancient Greek, by contrast, colour term usage suggests that porphyreos could cover at least a full quarter of the circle, not just ‘purple’. If you take non-vivid hues on the left and lower-left of the circle, and extend it to darker values as well, that’s glaukos. The top left, in a narrower band than English ‘blue’, is kyaneos, again weighted towards darker values. All of the bottom part of the circle would be chlōros.

Some terms do have tidy equivalents in English: erythros is ‘red’, leukos is ‘white’. But others aren’t nearly as easy. For them, to translate them correctly, you have to know the context.
A selection of ancient Greek colour terms, plotted on the colour palette based on lexical usage and a healthy dose of guesstimation. Note that this wheel is only one slice of the available range: the full palette would have a third dimension extending from white (maximum value) to black. Kyaneos extends to lower values all the way down to black (it gets used of hair and Ethiopian skin), and glaukos is also frequently a bit darker than this (the colour of olives or vine leaves). At their darkest shades, kyaneos and melas represent black approached from opposite sides of the wheel: in some passages of ancient texts they appear as synonyms. Some caveats: I’ve left out plenty of terms here (prasinos, ōchros, etc.). Plus, this is at best an approximation, at worst guesstimation, so allow plenty of room for corrections — not to mention disagreement between ancient sources.
There are other parameters too. Hue, saturation, and value represent only the physical characteristics of coloured light. English terms like ‘navy’ and ‘pastel’, and qualifiers like ‘vivid’ and ‘violent’, carry connotations of a colour being vivid or washed out in comparison with its context. Maria Michela Sassi, a scholar of ancient philosophy, identifies three other parameters as significant in Greek colour terms (2017):
  • Saliency — related to how we as humans are programmed to perceive colours. For example, if we are hardwired to detect redness as a matter of urgency, then red will be much more universal than other colours.
  • Colour event — the subjective experience of colour, including the context in which it is seen (relative vividness, lighting, etc.) and its cultural meaning.
  • Glitter effect and material — scattering and textural effects resulting from the type of surface being observed. She cites porphyreos as a key example, in reference to things like the shimmering of pigeon neck-feathers. I’d suggest aithōps as another.
Sassi is absolutely correct that these are all important. Lampros, for example, has a specular quality that can’t be conveyed by a single point on the Munsell spectrum. There are languages where parameters like these are even more important. But today, I think, we can afford to take a simplified approach: we can still convey the problems with how ancient colour terms are represented, while sticking to Munsell’s parameters.

The main point to hammer home (and the Munsell spectrum is enough to make that point) is that English colour terms are neither more nor less arbitrary than ancient Greek. There’s no reason to treat ‘blue’ as an objectively defined region on the palette, any more than there is with Greek glaukos.

Gladstone, Newton, and others

William Gladstone, the 19th century British politician and Prime Minister, is often credited as the source of the idea that Homer had no word for ‘blue’. Sometimes he’s even said to have claimed that ancient Greek as a whole didn’t have ‘blue’. As we’ve seen, that’s false. But Gladstone isn’t totally guilty of creating the myth. (I’ve also seen it credited to Goethe: he’s completely innocent.)

Gladstone does make a starkly racist declaration that ancient colour systems are ‘less mature’ than contemporary English. He refers to the ‘paucity of [Homer’s] colours’ (1858: 457-458), at the same time as producing long lists of them. And he points out (correctly) that Homer never applies a colour term to the sky (483). But he never says, ‘There is no word for blue.’ (In one place he writes of three English colour terms that don’t have exact counterparts in Homer, and mistakenly writes ‘violet’ for ‘blue’: 459, line 6 from bottom. Even if he had written ‘blue’, as he obviously meant to, he’d still be wrong.)

Be that as it may, Gladstone’s assumptions are terrible. He’s an essentialist through and through. He assumes in advance that there are seven ‘primary’ colours — the seven of Newton’s canon — and that there’s something universal about them. He lists eight colour terms that appear in Homer, then carries on (1858: 459):
Now we must at once be struck with the poverty of the list which has just been given, upon comparing it with our own list of primary colours, which has been determined for us by Nature, and which is as follows:
  1. Red.
  2. Orange.
  3. Yellow.
  1. Green.
  2. Blue.
  3. Indigo.
  1. Violet.
He adds ‘white’ and ‘black’ to these, then asserts that four of the Greek ones are equivalent to four of the English ones. On the next page he grudgingly adds another 13 Greek terms, and proclaims that they ‘have very slight claims indeed to be treated as adjectives of definite colour’. He doesn’t give any reasoning, but it’s clear enough. Many of them he takes as synonyms for ‘glittering, shiny’ or ‘gloomy’; several are comparisons, like ‘rose-coloured’ or ‘marbled’; and two, chlōros and glaukos, absolutely are colour terms, but Gladstone excludes them simply because they don’t line up with Newton’s seven.
Newton’s colour wheel. Left: Newton 1704, fig. 11. Right: a corrected version that actually follows Newton’s specifications (indigo is supposed to be the only segment that’s much narrower than the others; 1704: 114).
Gladstone’s overconfidence in the objectivity of English terms comes partly from Isaac Newton’s materialist approach. Newton (1704) studies the splitting of white light into component colours, the relationship between different coloured light and different refractive properties. The quantifiable nature of refraction gives the impression that everything he says is objective. And for the bits about refraction, that’s fine. But when we start adding on linguistic boundaries, as if they’re as real as the refractive indices, then there are going to be problems.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1810) criticised Newton too, but his critique wasn’t linguistic: it was more about the idea that refractive indices exhaust the nature of colour. We could say that Goethe’s understanding of colour was phenomenological: he preferred to understand colour in terms of qualia — irreduceable atoms of experientiality. Even today, qualia still pose problems for philosophers of mind. Personally, I think the more insidious problem is translation between languages. (Not that I subscribe to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — don’t go thinking that!)

Goethe is the most influential authority for the notion that ancient Greek colour terms are mainly about brightness. Gladstone certainly inherited that. So does Eleanor Irwin, in her study of colour terms in Greek poetry (1974). But the notion is much too reductionist. Early Greek philosophers are partly to blame too. Some of them tried to reduce everything in the cosmos to a single element, and hand in hand with that, thinkers like Theophrastus and Aristotle tried to reduce all colours to a simplistic dualism (Theophr. De sens. 59; Arist. De sens. 439a-440b; see Irwin 1974: 22-27).

But that kind of dualism is just what happens if you’re too reductionist. If you’re a 19th century scholar and you use ‘black, dark’ to translate all of kyaneos, melas, ioeis, and ēeroeidēs; ‘bright, shining’ for lampros, aithōn, aithōps, sigaloeis, charopos, argennos, and argos; and ‘grey’ for glaukos, phaios, and polios — well, don’t be surprised if you come away thinking there isn’t much variety in Greek colour terms.

Irwin’s study is an improvement, with an awareness of Munsell coordinates. She gives a review of scholarship from the 1700s to her own time. But she still succumbs to an awful lot of the older essentialism. On one level, she’s aware that Greek colour terms have a range of potential translations. But she still persists in pinning Greek words to a single English word. And, I’m afraid, she inherits a lot of Gladstone’s ethnocentrism.
The Homeric Greeks had not yet learned to think in abstract terms. ‘What is colour?’ is a question they would never have formulated, let alone been able to answer. (p. 22)

... ‘bright’ [λαμπρόν], not strictly a colour term at all ... (p. 25)

... if ξανθόν is ‘yellow’, then [Aristotle] lacked a particular term for orange. (p. 26)
I don’t know of any general treatments of Greek colour terminology in the last 40 years. The most recent good treatment, according to a 1982 review, is a 1977 Erlangen dissertation written by Helmut Dürbeck. Unfortunately it’s somewhat difficult to get hold of. I haven’t read it, and there are no copies in my country. We could do with a major update, published by a major publishing house.

Edit, several hours later: Professor Melissa Funke of the University of Winnipeg has very kindly alerted me to her book-chapter on the use of Greek colour terminology in 19th-20th century classical scholarship, Funke 2018. I haven’t got access to a copy yet, but I’m looking forward to reading it!


Irwin does at least show some willingness to allow that colour terms are sometimes metaphorical ... sometimes. ‘We find λειριόεις “lily-white” used of sound in Homer and Hesiod, and if we refuse to call it a “metaphor” ...’ (pp. 27-28). Why would we refuse to call it a metaphor, though? I’m guessing because Irwin was trained not to apply a modern concept to ancient poetry, on the grounds that that would be an anachronism. But just because ‘metaphor’ wasn’t widespread as a literary term, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist — any more than ‘blue’ didn’t exist. Nowadays, in the 21st century, it’s harder to imagine why anyone would ever refuse to admit the possibility of metaphor in ancient poetry.

Some of the most troubling uses of colour terms in Greek — troubling to those who conclude that the ancients must have been physiologically different, or something like that — can easily be explained as metaphor. Take the ‘green’ blood in Euripides, Hekabe 126-127:
γνώμῃ δὲ μιᾷ συνεχωρείτην
τὸν Ἀχίλλειον τύμβον στεφανοῦν
αἵματι χλωρῷ

Unanimously you must concede
to adorn Achilles’ grave
with chlōros blood
Gladstone admits that this can’t be literally green blood, but ‘green’ in the metaphorical sense of ‘fresh, new’ — though, like Irwin, he too avoids the word ‘metaphor’. But Gladstone’s words betray a bias. He doesn’t credit Euripides for an ingenious oxymoron. Instead, he treats the line as an infelicity, and blames it on a deficiency in the ancient Greek colour sense (1858: 492: ‘When the epithet [chlōros] could be thus used, colour could be only very carelessly and faintly expressed in [ancient Greek] minds’).

Similar things apply to Homer’s ‘bronze sky’ and Pindar’s ‘blue earth’. ‘Bronze’ was never a colour term. ‘Bronze sky, iron earth’ is standard 7th-century-BCE imagery, with connotations of being harsh and unyielding: the same image appears in Assyrian and Hebrew texts of the same period (see my piece from 2016). And Pindar (Hymns fr. 33e.3-6) —
χθονὸς εὐρεί-
ας ἀκίνητον τέρας, ἄν τε βροτοί
Δᾶλον κικλῄσκουσιν, μάκαρες δ’ ἐν Ὀλύμπῳ
τηλέφαντον κυανέας χθονὸς ἄστρον.

(Delos,) the broad earth’s
immoveable wonder. To mortals, it’s called
Delos; to the blessed ones on Olympus,
‘the far-visible star of the kyaneos earth’.
On one level kyaneos is used here as a synonym for melas, in the familiar formula ‘black earth’. Apparently that’s enough to justify using kyaneos in a metaphorical sense. At the same time, we don’t know what the flavour of Pindar’s metaphor is: maybe it’s related to the idea that Delos is born from the dim-blue sea, maybe it’s something to do with religion, we just don’t know. Plenty of metaphors are lost on us now. Homer’s ‘wine-looking sea’ is one of them. There are plenty of theories as to what metaphors like that mean, but often there’s no clear winner.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Let’s end with a mention of Sapir-Whorf. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that linguistic categories have an effect on cognition.

In connection with colours, the idea would be that if the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for ‘blue’ — which, as we’ve seen, isn’t true in any sensible way — then that would mean they weren’t even able to conceive of the colour blue. In some popular accounts, this might even mean that they were unable to perceive the colour blue!

This is, of course, bollocks. It would make about as much sense if someone were to say: Greek has a word, glaukos, which denotes the colour of a clear sky and vine leaves, and modern English doesn’t, so that must mean that English-speakers can’t even perceive the colour of the sky or of vine leaves!

Strong Sapir-Whorf is nonsense, and all cognitive scientists know that.

Much, much weaker forms of the hypothesis are still being explored, though. For example, one recent study of the effects of colour terminology on speakers of Mandarin and Mongolian (He et al. 2019) suggests that, while different linguistic boundaries between colour terms have no noticeable effect on people’s ability to recognise and categorise colours, they do have an effect on the speed at which people sort colours. And, moreover, the study finds that this effect is linked to verbal working memory: that supports the idea that language is involved in some parts of cognitive processing.

But that doesn’t mean that ‘the way you see colour depends on what language you speak’, as a 2018 article in The Conversation put it. That title was so misleading that the authors had to step into the comments and try to explain what they meant. But their explanations didn’t exactly clear things up —
This does not mean that we can´t physically perceive the full gamut of colours, but that we do perceive them differently depending on the words that we hold to describe them.
‘Perceive them differently’ is very, very vague. It doesn’t need to be as vague as that. Language has an effect on cognitive processing of colour: that’s clear, and it isn’t difficult to explain. But ‘we perceive them differently’ is a gigantic overstatement. It implies that there’s something incommunicable about colour terms in different languages. It begs the question, in other words. It takes qualia for granted. And it does so before even starting to explore whether we really ought to be talking about ineffable qualia. It’s much more precise to say only what is meant: that we’re talking about how fast people can sort colours, and how this is affected by language.


  • Dürbeck, H. 1977. Zur Charakteristik der griechischen Farbenbezeichnungen. Habelts Dissertationsdrücke, kl. Phil. 27 (Bonn).
  • Funke, M. 2018. ‘Colourblind: the use of Greek colour terminology in cultural linguistics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.’ In: Varto, E. (ed.) Brill’s companion to classics and early anthropology. Brill. 255-276.
  • Gladstone, W. E. 1858. ‘Homer’s perceptions and use of colour.’ In: Studies on Homer and the Homeric age, vol. 3 of 3. The University Press (Oxford). 457-499.
  • Goethe, J. W. von 1810. ‘Erste Abtheilung. Griechen.’ In: Zur Farbenlehre, vol. 2 of 2. J. G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung (Tübingen). 1-59. (= 1879. Goethe’s Werke, vol. 36. Gustav Hempel (Berlin). 10-47; = html text version).
  • He, H., et al. 2019. ‘Language and color perception: evidence from Mongolian and Chinese speakers.’ Frontiers in psychology 14 Mar. 2019, 10:551.
  • Irwin, E. 1974. Colour terms in Greek poetry. Hakkert (Toronto).
  • Newton, I. 1704. Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light. Sam. Smith and Benj. Walford (London). ( copy)
  • Sassi, M. M. 2017. ‘The sea was never blue.’

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Abaris of Hyperborea and his magic arrow

They say that there was a plague throughout the whole world, and Apollo ordained to the Greeks and barbarians who had come to consult his oracle that the Athenians should make prayers on everyone’s behalf. And many races sent embassies to them. And they say Abaris came as ambassador of the Hyperboreans, in the 53rd Olympiad (568-565 BCE).
A bunch of legendary mystics pop up in late Archaic and early Classical Greece. Abaris is easily the most colourful. Yet not many people have heard of him. So, I must admit, there aren’t really any modern myths here that need dispelling -- unless it’s that a few modern occultists apparently imagine he was a historical magician (examples: 1, 2, 3). He wasn’t, just to be clear! But the stories about him are wonderfully weird.
John Raimondi, Abaris (1992). Bronze sculpture in the collection of the accounting firm Vitale, Caturano & Co., Boston. Source:
(The constellation Sagitta) is an archer’s arrow, said to be Apollo’s. With it Apollo killed the Cyclopes, the makers of Zeus’ thunderbolt; he killed them because of Asklepios. Then he hid it in Hyperborea, which is where he has a winged temple. ... It was enormous. Heracleides of Pontos also (says) in his On Justice that a certain Abaris went around riding on it. Afterwards Apollo turned it into a constellation, as a memorial of his battle.
-- Eratosthenes, Catasterisms 29 (~ Heracleides fr. 51c Wehrli)

Abaris rode on the arrow, and in this way crossed impassable places, like rivers, lakes, marshes, mountains, and so on. And, the story goes, he recited that the arrow performed purifications, and it drove off plagues and storms from cities that saw fit to give him assistance.
-- Iamblichus, Pythagorean life 91

‘Salmoxis, firing arrows through the crowd’ -- that is, Abaris of Hyperborea. As Herodotus says, this Abaris came from the Hyperboreans. They are north of and inland from the Scythians. This Abaris was divinely inspired and went around Greece with an arrow, and gave various oracles and prophecies. The orator Lycurgus says in his Against Menesaechmus that there was a plague among the Hyperboreans, and Abaris went and took employment with Apollo. Abaris learned oracles from him, and took the arrow of Apollo as a token and went around Greece prophesying.
-- gloss on Gregory of Nazianzus, ii.2.7 To Nemesius 274 (Gaisford 1812.i: 50-51)
The Gregory scholion comes from Bodleian MS E. D. Clarke 12, fol. 173. The passage in Gregory is at xxxvii.1572 Migne. Gregory’s line is καὶ Γετικὸς Ζάλμοξις ὀϊστεύων δι’ ὁμίλου; the scholion rephrases it as Σάλμοξις ὁ διὰ πλήθους τοξεύων. Gregory refers to Abaris and his arrow elsewhere, as a pagan who could fly, in Oration 43.21, xxxvi.524b Migne. (The Lycurgus is not preserved; part of this scholion appears as Lycurgus fr. 14.5a ed. Conomis.)


Abaris is fictional, but there were real books supposed to have been written by him. The Suda, a Byzantine encyclopaedia, lists five titles (α.18):
  • Scythine oracles
  • Marriage of the river Hebrus
  • Purifications
  • Theogony
  • Apollo’s arrival in Hyperborea
The Suda says Apollo’s arrival was verse, and the Theogony was prose, but there’s doubt over the first three depending on how you punctuate the text. On the one hand, ‘in prose’ looks like it refers to all of the first four; on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine literary oracles being delivered in prose (unlike real oracles, which were almost invariably prose).

Does this seem odd, the idea of real texts with a fake author? If so, you’re in for an educational treat, because this kind of thing is all over the place in Archaic Greece.

Take Orpheus. Orpheus was the son of Apollo and one of the Muses, Calliope. He visited the Underworld, he was one of the Argonauts, and his songs could charm all living creatures and even rocks and rivers. And yet ... we have chunks of poems attributed to him, some dating to the 6th century BCE.

Then there’s Linus, who competed in a musical contest against Apollo. Or Epimenides, a prophet who supposedly went to sleep for half a century. Or Musaeus, or Olympus, or Terpander. They’re all clearly mythical -- but we have pieces of their poetry.

You can see the same trend even with some major poets whose work survives in much better shape. There were detailed, completely fictional, biographical traditions about Homer and Hesiod, Sappho and Solon, and others. Now, some of these poets were surely historical individuals. In some sense, at least. But the stories about their lives are almost pure legend. But those legends also pop up in the surviving poetry. Homer’s blindness, Hesiod’s meetings with the Muses and Homer, Sappho’s love affair with Phaon ... they all scream ‘fictional embellishment’, but they’re also right there in the poems.
Homer’s blindness: Hymn to Apollo 166-173; Demodocus as narratorial self-insertion in Odyssey 8. Hesiod’s meeting with the Muses: Theogony 22-34; contest with Homer: Works and days 650-659. Sappho’s love affair with Phaon: frs. 211(a), (b.i), (b.iii). See further Gainsford 2015: vii-x.
That should provide a cue on how to interpret what we’re told about Abaris. The texts were real -- but it’s the texts that created the character’s backstory.
Did you know Abaris pops up in ancient magical papyri? Except, um, he doesn’t: that’s completely made up.
And, just like Orpheus and Solon, the texts existed at an early date. The quotations at the top from Iamblichus and Gregory of Nazianzus come from centuries later, but older stories do exist -- they just aren’t as detailed. A lost poem by Pindar mentioned Abaris in some connection with Croesus (fr. 270 Maehler). Herodotus mentions Abaris as a footnote to his account of Hyperborea, but he rejects the story as cheap trash --
And that is the end of my account of Hyperborea. For I’m not reporting the story of Abaris, who is said to be Hyperborean. I’ll only mention that he carried his arrow around the world without eating.
-- Herodotus, Histories 4.36
And Plato mentions Abaris together with Zalmoxis, in passing, as two northern mystics known for their magic spells (Plato, Charmides 158b-c).

Our sources disagree on when Abaris was supposed to have been around. Two of them put Abaris’ arrival in Greece in the 560s BCE, one in the time of king Croesus of Lydia (nowadays dated to 547/6 BCE), one in the 730s BCE. Another has him take classes from Pythagoras in Italy on his way home to Hyperborea. All pure fiction, so don’t put any stock in them. For the real books ascribed to Abaris, Dowden suggests a date of around 530-510 BCE (Dowden 2016).
568-565 BCE: Hippostratos, FGrH 568 fr. 4 (reported by Harpocration s.v. Ἄβαρις); Suda α.18 s.v. Ἄβαρις. In the time of Croesus: Pindar, fr. 270 Maehler (reported by Harpocration). 736-733 BCE: unnamed others (reported by Harpocration). Meeting with Pythagoras: Iamblichus, Pythagorean life 90-93 and 135-136.


But neither on foot nor by sea could you discover
the fabulous way to the gathering of the Hyperboreans. ...
Apollo always takes special delight in their feasts and worship,
and laughs to see the beasts’ upright arrogance.
Nor is the Muse a stranger to their customs: everywhere
maidens whirl in the dance to the loud lyre and the pipes’ strident voice.
At their merry feasts they bind golden laurel in their hair;
disease has no place among that holy people, nor ruinous old age,
but they live without toil or battle, avoiding Nemesis’ severe judgement.
-- Pindar, Pythian ode 10.29-45 (tr. Verity)
This rosy picture is obviously fictional, and probably based on another obscure mystic, Aristeas of Proconnesus. But Greeks of the 5th-4th centuries BCE adopted Hyperborea as a name for a real place. The name literally means ‘beyond the north wind’. Most of our sources use the name to refer to the region north of Scythia, or southern Ukraine, which was familiar to Greek colonists on the Black Sea. If the name was used by people who actually went that far north, they presumably would have thought of Hyperborea as extending to Belarus and western Russia. Later writers sometimes treat Hyperborea and Scythia as the same thing. Still others identify Hyperborea with the land of the Cimmerians. (See further Dowden 2016, commentary on T 1.)
Not this Cimmerian, though. Mind you, if we had a film about Abaris with voice-over narration by Mako, I definitely wouldn’t complain. Fantasy authors like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Lin Carter, and Fritz Leiber made the most of names like ‘Hyperborea’ and ‘Cimmeria’ -- mysterious and far-off, but also semi-real. Unfortunately, they just had to go on and tie them to the idiosyncratic 4th century fiction of Atlantis.
Eratosthenes, that colossus of ancient geography, went badly astray in identifying Hyperborea with the island of Thule. The Greeks’ only source of information on Thule was Pytheas of Massalia, who visited the island sometime in the 4th century BCE. Eratosthenes devised a north-south meridian that went from from Syene to Alexandria, then Rhodes, a city near Byzantium, then Olbia (a Greek colony in south Ukraine), and finally Thule. This has led some commentators to try and place Thule in the Baltic. But Pytheas’ Thule seems more likely to have been further west: perhaps one of the island groups north of Scotland, the Shetlands or the Faroes (see in particular Ptolemy’s badly warped idea of Scotland’s geography and its relationship to Thule, conceived as a small island).

The texts

We don’t have substantial evidence about the literary output of ‘Abaris’. What little there is can be found in just two modern editions: Kinkel’s edition of epic fragments (1877: 242-243), and Jacoby’s Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, now supplanted by Brill’s new Jacoby (FGrHist 34 = Dowden 2016).

Alas, there’s very little hope of ever recovering any lost Greek text from before the Hellenistic period. The books that turn up in places like Lucius Calpurnius’ library, in Herculaneum, are almost inevitably going to be contemporary, or by major figures like Aristotle. The only minor pre-Hellenistic work that has ever been discovered in a relatively intact ancient copy is the Derveni papyrus, and that was a tremendous fluke.

The only real idea we can get of the content of Abaris’ works is:
  • The backstory itself: this must originate with Abaris. The catch is, from around the 300s BCE onwards we see Abaris’ backstory being contaminated by stories about other mystics: the link to Zalmoxis that we find in Plato, and to Pythagoras in later authors like Iamblichus. Sorting out which is which isn’t always straightforward. But the link to Aristeas, at least, seems to originate with Abaris himself. Dowden suggests the idea of Hyperborean origins was based on Aristeas’ account of Hyperborea.
  • I’d say the most likely candidates for authentic elements of the backstory are:
    • Apollo hides his arrow in Hyperborea, in a winged temple (Eratosthenes)
    • Apollo sends a worldwide plague, and Athens invites embassies (including Abaris), and makes prayers on the world’s behalf at the Proerosia festival (Suda; sch. Ar. Knights 729)
    • Abaris wears Scythian clothes but shows a good character (Himer. Or. 23.4-8; Str. 7.3.8)
    • Abaris delivers oracles predicting earthquakes, plagues, and astronomical events (Ap. Hist. mir. 4)
    • Abaris drives off plague from Sparta forever (Ap. Hist. mir. 4; Paus. 3.13.2; Iamb. VP 92)
    • Abaris flies across rivers and swamps on Apollo’s arrow
  • A passage in Philodemus’ On piety (F 1 Dowden) says that according to Abaris, Kronos and Rhea were the parents of the gods, by contrast with other poets like Homer and Pindar.
  • A fragmentary papyrus that deals with literature (F 2 Dowden = p. Oxy. 1611) mentions Abaris in connection with the names of ethnic groups far to the north, Issedonians and/or Assedonians.
(For the record I doubt that the references in Heracleides of Pontus, frs. 74 and 75 Wehrli, have anything much to do with the 6th century Abaris.)

In addition to these, I have suspicions about a couple of other isolated phrases that we find in the literary sources.

1. διὰ πλήθους τοξεύων. The third passage that I quoted near the start, the gloss on Gregory of Nazianzus, uses a different phrasing from Gregory’s line. Gregory’s line was καὶ Γετικὸς Ζάλμοξις ὀϊστεύων δι’ ὁμίλου, ‘And Getic Zalmoxis, firing through the crowd’; the gloss says Σάλμοξις ὁ διὰ πλήθους τοξεύων, meaning much the same, but with different words for ‘crowd’ and ‘firing’.

As a whole the gloss’s version is unmetrical. But the last three words, διὰ πλήθους τοξεύων, can work as part of a hexameter. And the idea of someone firing arrows has nothing to do with what we know of Zalmoxis -- but it has everything to do with Abaris.

I suspect these three words could be a quotation from Apollo’s arrival among the Hyperboreans. Maybe they could have been used in connection with Apollo’s slaying of the Cyclopes. More likely, I think, they could be to do with Apollo sending the worldwide plague that was the occasion for Abaris’ visit to Greece.

As a final note, διὰ πλήθους may not mean ‘through the crowd’ as in Gregory’s version: ‘in a swarm’ is another possible interpretation, suggesting a mass of arrows.

2. Ἀβάρις. The Suda entry for Abaris ends with an odd linguistic description of his name.
κλίνεται δὲ Ἄβαρις, Ἀβάριδος, τοὺς Ἀβάριδας, καὶ κατὰ ἀποκοπὴν Ἀβάρις.

The name declines Abaris, Abaridos; accusative plural Abaridas, and giving Abarīs by apocope.
Abaris, Abaridos is the standard way of indicating how a Greek noun can change its form. ‘Apocope’ means omitting a syllable. But why is the Suda giving plural forms? Why would anyone be writing about ‘Abarises’?

I think the answer again lies in scansion, and in the syncopated form Abarīs. Abaridas could never fit in a hexameter poem. But Abarīs, with two short syllables and one long, could. (Consider also that the form might originally have been Ἀβάρεις, which was a homophone of Ἀβάρις by the Hellenistic period: might the correct declension have been Ἄβαρις, Ἄβαρεως?)

The idea of a poem talking about ‘Abarises’ is an oddity. Bear in mind that Abaris’ backstory must have been a large component of his works. We can speculate that he might have said something along the lines of ‘Apollo has sent many Abarises through the ages’, or ‘Sparta will need no more Abarises in future’, and so on. Yes, that’s only speculation. But I find it very hard to imagine any other reason to be talking about ‘Abarises’, plural -- let alone for using a form of the name that is clearly designed for use in a poem.

There are several other mystics that we could turn our attention to in future posts: Aristeas, who gave the first (fictional) description of Hyperborea; Anacharsis, a Scythian philosopher who tried to introduce Greek customs to the Scythians and was killed; Zalmoxis, who became a Thracian divinity.

What I think sets Abaris apart is the flavour of excessiveness and oneupmanship. He seems like a conscious attempt to outdo the mystics I just mentioned: ‘Zalmoxis was Thracian? Pfft, hardly north at all. Anacharsis was Scythian? Ha, we’re going to look beyond the north. Aristeas wrote about Hyperborea? Well, my guy comes from there!

Well -- that, and his habit of flying around on Apollo’s magic arrow. Anyone who’s ever tried playing at being a witch and actually sitting on a broomstick knows just how ... uncomfortable it is.
A much more comfortable way to fly: ‘... A TRULY MAGNIFICENT BROOM! / With seats for the witch and the cat and the dog, / A nest for the bird and a shower for the frog.’ J. Donaldson and A. Scheffler, Room on the broom (Macmillan, 2001).
Further reading on Abaris: see especially Burkert 1972: 141-150; Dowden 2016; Zhmud 2016.


Sunday, 16 February 2020

Did Roman engineers stand under bridges?

Did Roman engineers or architects have to stand underneath their bridges, to prove that they were properly built? This story sounds weird, and it’s totally implausible. (Bear in mind that the Romans built bridges to go over water.)
Hmmm, thinks: if I were a Roman engineer, where would be the best place for me to stand under this bridge so it can be tested? (The Ponte di Tiberio, Rimini, dating to the principates of Augustus and Tiberius, early 1st cent. CE)
If you haven’t heard the story before, I’ll grant that it is niche. But like so many myths about antiquity, it does pop up all over the place. Here’s Nassim Taleb in a 2012 book:
First, never get on a plane if the pilot is not on board. ...

The first heuristic addresses the asymmetry in rewards and punishment, or transfer of fragility between individuals. Ralph Nader has a simple rule: people voting for war need to have at least one descendant (child or grandchild) exposed to combat. For the Romans, engineers needed to spend some time under the bridge they built -- something that should be required of financial engineers today. The English went further and had the families of the engineers spend time with them under the bridge after it was built.
-- Taleb, Antifragile (2012), chap. 23
We shouldn’t expect Mr Taleb to be very accurate about the Romans, mind. In 2017 he infamously had an online shouting match with Professor Mary Beard, the eminent Roman historian, in which he insisted tenaciously (and falsely) that there was racial purity within each province in the Roman empire.
I’d better grant that later in the same chapter Taleb adds a couple more snippets about the Romans which are at least partially accurate. (1) Roman soldiers had to swear a military oath on joining the army (apparently Taleb believes other armies don’t do that); (2) there existed an extremely rare military punishment called decimatio, the random execution of 1 in every 10 or every 100 soldiers (Taleb comments that ‘putting more than 10 per cent to death would lead to weakening of the army’ -- apparently a 10% casualty rate wouldn’t do that). It’s clear he gets his ancient history mainly from popular culture.
Taleb didn’t invent this story, but I do wonder if it’s because of his book that the notion entered popular culture.
Predictable aswer alert! (QI, ‘Keys’, 2013)
Stephen Fry. In Roman times, they’d get the constructor of the arch to stand right under the arch when the support scaffolding was taken away, just to show that he had faith enough in his own, er ...

Tim Minchin. Well, it’s natural selection of arch-builders, isn’t it. Is that guy any good? Well he’s still here!

Isy Suttie. I like that idea of getting people to test things. It’s like going to a barbecue and getting someone to try the sausage.
-- QI, series 11 episode 8 ‘Keys’ (first broadcast 25 October 2013)
Notice how Stephen Fry spots the problem with having this as a story about bridges: he makes it about arches instead. There’s no basis for that either, just some imaginative rewriting, to try to get the story to make some kind of sense.

It wasn’t QI or Taleb that invented the story. The oldest version I’ve found is a signature line used in a USENET post back in 2004:
"When Roman engineers built a bridge, they had to stand under it while the first legion marched across. If programmers today worked under similar ground rules, they might well find themselves getting much more interested in Ada!"
-- Robert Dewar
-- Preben Randhol, post to comp.lang.ada, 11 Feb. 2004 (alternate link)
Robert Dewar was a computer scientist who ran a company involved with the Ada programming language. Is he the ultimate origin of the myth? Who knows.

But I will say this: to me, it sounds awfully like the kind of thing you might hear from a tour guide.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the story really originates with the Pons Fabricius, in central Rome. It’s about 10 minutes’ walk from the Forum and from the Circus Maximus, and just around the corner from the Theatre of Marcellus. It was built in 62 BCE, and it’s still in use for pedestrians and cyclists to cross between the east bank and the Isola Tiberina.
The Pons Fabricius, a.k.a. Ponte Fabricio
Not that Fabricius had to stand underneath his bridge while the legions marched across! No no, I have in mind something much more mundane. It’s a simple misinterpretation. You see, there are inscriptions on the side of the bridge recording who built it and who restored it. Things like

L(ucius) Fabricius G(ai) f(ilius), cur(ator) viar(um) faci<e>ndum, c<u>ravit

Lucius Fabricius, son of Gaius, curator in charge of making roads, supervised (the building of the bridge)
But in separate places, the following gets tacked on:

idemque probavit

and the same man (i.e. Fabricius) approved it
(Don’t mind the spellings, that’s just what Latin looked like when Caesar was in his 30s.)
The thing is, the word probavit is ambiguous. Probare can mean ‘approve’, but it can also mean ‘test, demonstrate’. The same ambiguity can be seen in two English words derived from probare: ‘approve’ and ‘prove’, with ‘prove’ in the sense of test (as in, ‘the exception proves the rule’).

The modern Italian derivative, ha provato, is more specific. It’s almost always going to mean ‘he tried, he demonstrated, he tested’. So if someone like a tour guide were explaining or describing the inscriptions, I’m imagining they might well give the the meaning as ‘test’.

And just to show how plausible this is, here’s an ancient history website set up by an Italian family that reports the inscription exactly like that.
A latin inscription above the arch, on both sides of the bridge reminds us that it was built by Fabricius curator viarum (warden of roads) and that "idemque probavit" - he personally tested it.
-- ‘Ancient Roman Bridges’,, May 2006
I suggest we’ve got three stages in the development of the myth:
  1. The original: ‘Fabricius supervised the bridge, and the same man (idem) approved it (probavit).’
  2. An intermediate version, like on the MariaMilani site, with the mistranslations: ‘Fabricius built the bridge and personally (mistranslation of idem) tested it (mistranslation of probavit).’
  3. The misinterpretation of the mistranslation: ‘Fabricius built the bridge and personally tested it by standing underneath it.’
When tourists in Rome want to walk across a real, ancient, Roman bridge, they’re going to be crossing the Pons Fabricius. It’s nice and central, ten minutes’ walk from the Forum, as I said. So this is a misinterpretation that stands a good chance of going viral.

Of such things are myths made. Even ones as small as this.

Monday, 10 February 2020

The Epic Cycle wasn't as popular as you think

The Epic Cycle is perhaps the most famous group of lost texts of all time. They haven’t existed for at least 1500 years. Yet, when people studying Greek myth nowadays learn that they once existed, they’re often inexorably drawn to the lure of what has been lost -- what might have been.

What is the Epic Cycle? For those lucky people who are about to learn this for the first time, the Cycle was a group of eight early epic poems about the Trojan War -- the legendary war over Helen, fought between the city of Ilion or Troy, and an alliance of Greek heroes. Together the eight epics formed a complete poetic account of the war.
The wooden horse in the film Troy (2004). The horse used in the film is now by the waterfront in the nearby city of Çanakkale.
The two surviving Homeric epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, were reckoned among the eight. For the other six we have titles, summaries, author names. Of the poems themselves, we have only a few isolated snippets of text.
  • Kypria. This epic covered everything from the wedding of Thetis up to the start of the Iliad, in the ninth year of the war. (Some scholars like Jonathan Burgess think it originally covered the whole war. That’s more than just speculation, but we don’t have time to talk about it today.)
  • Iliad. This one survives.
  • Aithiopis. This covered two major episodes: the arrival of Penthesileia and her Amazons, and her death at the hands of Achilles, then the arrival of Memnon and his Aithiopes, and his death at the hands of Achilles. (Memnon’s Aithiopes are kind of linked to the real Ethiopia, but only kind of.) And then Achilles dies too.
  • Little Iliad. This covered various prophecies that had to be fulfilled before Troy could be defeated, like the theft of the Palladion and the story of Philoctetes. Also, the wooden horse gets built.
  • Sack of Ilion (or Iliou persis). The wooden horse goes into action, and Troy is razed to the ground. (Incidentally, the historical Troy was inhabited continuously through the end of the Bronze Age until about 950 BCE. The traditional date for its destruction is 1184 BCE. The real Troy survived after that date for about as long as the USA has existed.)
  • Returns. The homecomings and/or deaths of the major Greek heroes ...
  • Odyssey. ... except Odysseus, who gets a whole epic to himself.
  • Telegony. Another one with two episodes, synthesising inconsistent traditions about Odysseus’ later career and death, in northwest Greece and in central Italy.
See the ‘further reading’ list below for the surviving summaries and other material: they can be found in West 2003.
By the way the Brad Pitt movie, Troy (2004), uses material from the Iliad, but none of the others. The non-Iliadic bits of the film -- some of the Iliadic bits too -- are based on original material, combined with some other ancient sources.

What if we had even one of these epics? How great would it be to have the story of Achilles’ death? What literary glories are we missing out on?

These are the questions that tantalise Cycle fans. Let’s boil the questions down into slightly more academic terms:
  1. How different were the Iliad and Odyssey from the rest of the Cycle?
  2. What about the Theban cycle?
  3. Why did only the Iliad and Odyssey survive?
  4. When was the Epic Cycle lost?
The fall of Troy: the oldest surviving visual depiction, a Cycladic vase from Mykonos, ca. 670 BCE, roughly contemporary with the Iliad. Centre: the wooden horse, with peepholes for the Greek soldiers inside. Right: the death of Astyanax, son of Hector, perhaps being thrown from a tower by Odysseus, while the child’s mother Andromache reaches out her hands to plead for his life.

1. How different were the Iliad and Odyssey from the rest of the Cycle?

It’s best to withhold judgement on this, because it’s just too speculative. We have Aristotle’s opinion that the Kypria and the Little Iliad weren’t as good as Homer. But it’s a bit tendentious. The Little Iliad seems to have had much more unity of plot than he lets on. Around Aristotle’s time ‘cyclic’ became a generic word for tiresome, rambling storytelling. But we don’t know exactly how it came to have that sense. The Greek word kyklikos literally means ‘circular’, but it has other metaphorical meanings too; and there’s testimony linking kyklikos as a literary term to Antimachus, an epic poet who lived a few decades before Aristotle.

We can assume the lost epics weren’t as good as Homer. Anything more than that is speculative. There’s a famous article condemning the literary qualities of the Cycle, mostly because of its fantastic elements (Griffin 1977) -- but bear in mind that we’d be raising eyebrows at the Iliad, too, if only a summary survived. Just imagine: ‘Achilles’ horses talk to him, then a river chases him across the battlefield.’ You can’t judge literary quality from a summary.

2. What about the Theban cycle?

There’s no such thing as a Theban cycle. It never existed.

Poems about Thebes did exist! But no cycle. Modern scholarship has often grouped together four lost epics, the Oidipodeia, Thebaid, Epigonoi, and Alkmaionis, but there’s no reason to imagine they were grouped together in antiquity. No source, anywhere, ever mentions a ‘Theban cycle’. The idea was invented in the 19th century by the scholar Friedrich Welcker.

Some ancient sources do refer to a ‘cyclic Thebaid’. Others assign stories that may have belonged to Theban poems to ‘the cyclic (ones)’ -- poets? summarisers? mythographers? Who knows. The most robust interpretation is that ‘cyclic’ could be used as a catch-all term for any early epic that wasn’t the Iliad or Odyssey. Or maybe they’re references to Antimachus’ Thebaid. Either way, there’s no suggestion of a group of four epics.

One of the Tabulae Iliacae -- miniature carvings depicting Greek heroic legends, made in the early Roman principate -- lists the Oidipodeia and the Thebaid together, and mentions a ‘cycle’ shortly afterwards. But it still isn’t a Theban cycle. The tablet also lists two other epics, the Danais and the Titanomachy, which are totally unrelated. Plus, the word ‘cycle’ seems to be the next item in the list, not an umbrella term for the other titles.

Two poems do get grouped, but only sometimes, and never as a ‘cycle’. The Thebaid and Epigoni both get assigned to Homer by two early sources, Herodotus and (probably) Alcidamas. Also, the first line of the Epigoni survives, and its wording suggests the existence of a previous story. So these two may have gone together as a pair -- sometimes. But no group of four.
  • ‘The cyclic Thebaid’: Thebaid fragments 2, 3, 6 ed. West. Theban-related stories ‘in the cyclic (writers)’: Thebaid frs. 9 and 11 West; Epigoni fr. 3 West.
  • Titanomachy, Danais, Oidipodeia, and Thebaid listed together in conjunction with a ‘cycle’: Tabula Iliaca 10K ed. Sadurska, the ‘Borgia tablet’ = Cyclus Epicus fr. 2 Bernabé. Note that ‘Titanomachy’ is a supplement for ]μαχίας.
  • Thebaid and Epigoni assigned to Homer: Epigoni fr. 1 (from the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, quoting the first line of the Epigoni, probably based on Alcidamas) and fr. 5 (= Herodotus 4.32) ed. West.
In particular, no ancient or mediaeval source ever mentions a ‘Theban cycle’, contrary to what some people claim.
Sure, it’d be great to know more about the Theban epics. I’d love to have the Thebaid in particular! The Iliad has a few odd features that seem to be inspired by Thebaid material. For example, the fact that Agamemnon sometimes lives in Argos instead of Mycenae. Also, the Homeric formula anax andron Agamemnon ‘Agamemnon lord of men’ sounds like it was designed with Adrestus, anax of Argos, in mind: Agamemnon is a basileus, not an anax.

That doesn’t mean I have to assume the epics were ever a tetralogy. It’s high time to abandon that invention. There never was a Theban cycle.
The wooden horse imagined in Lego by ‘Brickman’, Ryan McNaught (‘Let’s go build’ exhibition, Te Papa, Wellington, Dec. 2017. Photo by T. Schaefer.)

3. Why did only the Iliad and Odyssey survive?

We’re damned lucky they did survive. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The Homeric poems didn’t hit the big time until the late 500s BCE, maybe a century and a half after the Iliad was composed. Until that moment, they might easily have gone the same way as the Thebaid and the Cycle.

We have only a couple of mentions of Homer in settings earlier than 500 BCE, and there it’s pretty clear that the name referred to epic poetry in general -- a bit like using ‘Hollywood’ to refer to all films regardless of where they’re made. In one story, set in the early 500s, it’s clear that ‘Homer’ means the Thebaid, not the Iliad or Odyssey:
For when Cleisthenes (tyrant of Sicyon) made war against the Argives, firstly he banned rhapsodes in Sicyon from competing in (performing) Homeric epic, because Argos and the Argives get praised so much all the way through. And second, there is a hero shrine to Adrestus, son of Talaos in the marketplace of Sicyon, and Cleisthenes wanted to cast him out of the country because he was Argive. ...

(Unable to ban the cult of Adrestus directly,) he introduced (a shrine to) Melanippos, on the grounds that he was Adrestus’ archenemy, since he had killed Adrestus’ brother Mekisteus and his son-in-law Tydeus.
-- Herodotus 5.67
The Iliad does have lots of references to all the Greeks as Argeioi, ‘Argives’. But this story is entirely about things from the Thebaid -- Adrestus, king of Argos, which made war on Thebes; Melanippus, one of Thebes’ defenders.

The fame of the Iliad and Odyssey suddenly skyrocketed with the advent of performances at the Panathenaia festival in Athens. After that they never lost their popularity. From about the 520s BCE onwards, their survival was guaranteed. The Cycle just didn’t get as lucky.

4. When was the Epic Cycle lost?

Look, the Cycle was never popular. It never enjoyed any prestige. It never had a wide readership. We have plenty of citations of it, sure, but only in antiquarian material -- scholars citing obscure words from an early text, abstruse mythological details, that kind of thing.

But even with scholars, hardly any of them knew the Cycle firsthand. They repeat odd facts and words without any context. Often it’s obvious that they've only encountered the material in earlier scholarly works. We can literally count on one hand the ancient writers who claim to have read any of the actual poems: Herodotus, Aristotle, and Pausanias. That’s it.

Pausanias is the latest. He’s a travel writer, living in the 2nd century CE. He states explicitly that he has read the Kypria and the Little Iliad. (Some scholars doubt even that this is true.) In one passage (10.29-10.30) he cites the Returns, so he may have known that poem as well. It isn’t impossible that some other late authors might have known some of the poems -- maybe Athenaios, maybe Porphyry -- but they don't say outright that they knew them, so we can't be sure.

Does this sound overly sceptical? Let’s put it in the context of which early poems people were actually reading. We have thousands of fragmentary literary papyri from Egypt, mostly Roman-era. The best represented author is Homer, unsurprisingly: there are hundreds of copies of the Odyssey, well over a thousand of the Iliad. If we look at lost authors, we see some of the big lyric poets -- Archilochus; Simonides; Sappho’s poetry was still a school text in the 7th century CE. For lost epics, the big name is Hesiod: we’ve got around sixty fragmentary copies of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (more than either of the surviving Hesiodic poems).

Here’s the question you should be immediately be thinking of. How many papyri of the Epic Cycle do we have?

If you guessed ‘none at all’, then congratulations, you are an excellent guesser of papyrus quantities. This doesn’t necessarily mean the Cycle had already disappeared completely. But it does show that it was way less popular than any other early poetry we know of.
Note. For completeness, I’d better note that one papyrus does appear in Bernabé’s edition as Little Iliad fr. 32. But no one believes it’s genuinely from the Cycle: Bernabé himself catalogues it as a ‘doubtful fragment’.
So if no one was reading the Cycle, how did the stories survive? In the Hellenistic and Roman eras there was a fashion for mythological manuals, encyclopaedias of myth, and prose summaries of myth. That’s how we know about the Cycle: the summaries that have survived were apparently copied from one of those manuals. The summariser makes it clear that the poems weren't popular in his own time:
... the poems of the Epic Cycle are preserved and have many people interested in them, no so much because of their merit, but because of the continuity of the material in it.
-- Proclus, Chrestomathy §20 ed. Severyns
The material also had a vogue in the visual arts. There are some Megarian ‘Homer cups’ from the 3rd-1st centuries BCE. And I’ve already mentioned the Tabulae Iliacae miniatures, from around the time of Augustus. These adapt many scenes that we know of in the Cycle summaries, but without trying to copy the poems or their summaries slavishly.
The most famous of the Tabulae Iliacae: tablet 1A, the Capitoline tablet (Rome, Musei Capitolini, Sala delle Colombe inv. 316). The left side of the tablet is missing. The panels down the right side illustrate books 13 to 24 of the Iliad, summarised in tiny writing on the pillar to their left. The central panel shows the destruction of Troy. At bottom centre are scenes relating to lost Cyclic epics. Perhaps the most striking thing about this tablet is its size: it’s tiny. It’s just 28 cm wide.
Several tablets mention Cyclic epics: tablet 1A has captions mentioning the Aithiopis, Little Iliad, and Sack of Ilion; 2NY and 6B mention the Sack of Ilion alongside the Homeric epics; 9D mentions the Iliad, Aithiopis, and Sack of Ilion; 7Ti mentions the Little Iliad and Sack of Ilion, and refers to events from the Aithiopis.

But these weren’t working directly from the poems either. They’re using summarised forms, the kind of thing you get in an encyclopaedia. One giveaway is that though the artists clearly spoke Greek perfectly well, they don’t use the spelling that you’d find in an early epic: their spelling is phonetic. They write Αἰνήας for Αἰνείας, Ποσιδῶν for Ποσειδῶν, Ἰλίας μεικρά for Ἰλίας μικρά, that kind of thing. If they’re not familiar with the spellings used in early epic, that means they weren’t reading early epics.

Another giveaway is the phrase used for the wooden horse. Tablet 1A calls it the δούρηος ἵππος (again phonetic, for δούρειος ἵππος). But that phrase could never have appeared in an epic poem. It doesn’t scan. Whatever the Little Iliad called the wooden horse, it wasn’t that. When Homer mentions the wooden horse in Odyssey 8, he calls it the δουράτεος ἵππος.

But guess what we find when we look at the summary of the Little Iliad? Yup: δούρειος ἵππος, just like in the tablet.

No one was reading the Epic Cycle. People lapped up Cyclic material in secondhand accounts instead.

It’s possible Pausanias is telling the truth, and that he found intact copies of the Kypria and Little Iliad in a library in Athens. But even if he is, they must have been among the last copies still in existence. We don’t know if the poems ever even got to Alexandria. And no ancient writer ever claims to have seen a copy of the Aithiopis or the Telegony. I’d bet those poems were lost even before the Roman conquest. (Which is a pity -- those are the most interesting ones!)

Even if the poems did survive, they were very obscure. When Roman poets like Vergil and Ovid went looking for Cyclic material, it’s most likely that they got hold of summaries, in Rome, rather than making a research trip to Athens like Pausanias did.
Note. The last part of this post is based on a paper I gave at the ASCS 41 conference in Dunedin in January 2020, titled ‘The Aeneid and the Epic Cycle’. Abstracts can be found here, and the slides I used here.

References and further reading

  • Bernabé, A. 1996. Poetarum epicorum graecorum testimonia et fragmenta vol. 1, 2nd ed. (1st ed. 1987). Teubner.
  • Burgess, J. S. 2001. The tradition of the Trojan War in Homer & the Epic Cycle. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Davies, M. 2001. The Epic Cycle, 2nd ed. (1st ed. 1989). Bristol Classical Press.
  • Davies, M. 2014. The Theban epics. Harvard University Press.
  • Fantuzzi, M.; Tsagalis, Ch. (eds.) 2015. The Greek Epic Cycle and its ancient reception. Cambridge University Press.
  • Gainsford, P. 2015. Early Greek hexameter poetry. Cambridge University Press.
  • Griffin, J. 1977. ‘The Epic Cycle and the uniqueness of Homer.’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 97: 39-53.
  • Huxley, G. L. 1969. Greek epic poetry from Eumelos to Panyassis. Faber and Faber (London).
  • Sadurska, A. 1964. Les tables iliaques. Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe (Warsaw).
  • Sammons, B. 2017. Device and composition in the Greek Epic Cycle. Oxford University Press.
  • West, M. L. 2003. Greek epic fragments. Harvard University Press (Loeb 497).
  • West, M. L. 2013. The Epic Cycle: a commentary on the lost Troy epics. Oxford University Press.