Thursday, 31 October 2019

Spartan losers

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

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

The part where every one of them was killed?

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

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

Thermopylae and the alt-right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The historical battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Ancient languages in Assassin’s creed: origins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What went right

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

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

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

What didn’t go right

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The leisure of man-mounters’

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

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

‘Of Your Works with Respect to a Gemstone Camp’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Achilles on death

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Not a scene about Achilles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Mythbusters Jr. on Odysseus’ axes

Earlier this year, an episode of ‘Mythbusters Jr.’ tried to repeat Odysseus’ feat of shooting an arrow through twelve axeheads. With the constraints imposed by the Mythbusters Jr. team, their archer Byron Ferguson wasn’t able to achieve the feat. But a Mythbusters Jr. machine did, after careful calibration.
Mythbusters Jr. (2019) attempt to replicate the bow contest from Odyssey book 21.
The set-up they choose for the attempt (Mythbusters Jr. 2019) is twelve axes firmly fixed vertically on their shafts, each with a loop at the top of the shaft where the two blades meet. We’re told that the hole in the loop is 3 inches in diameter (76.2 mm). We aren’t told how far apart the axeheads are, but I’ve measured on a screenshot with minimal foreshortening, and that suggests that the spacing is very close to four times the diameter of the loops, or one foot (304.8 mm).

Mythbusters Jr.: San Francisco, USA, 2019

Here’s how the programme introduces the task:
Narrator. Even over a short distance, an on-target arrow may wobble. But does that really mean that it doesn’t fly straight? A definitive answer demands a definitive test. So it’s all hands to the workshop to reconstruct a legendary arrow obstacle course. This particular challenge is actually a myth in itself, and it involves a dozen replica double-bladed battleaxes.
     While Greek hero Odysseus was fighting the Trojan wars, Penelope was left to fend off a bunch of unwanted admirers. She promised to marry whichever man could fire an arrow through twelve axeheads, confident that the shot was impossible. But Odysseus returned, and in disguise, took the shot -- and nailed it.
     If the Mythbusters could repeat that success, it would prove beyond doubt that an arrow flies straight and true.

Rachel Pizzolato. Here we have our twelve axes with the target of three inches in diameter, inspired by Odysseus’ archery trick shot. So we’re going to have Byron take this shot, and see if he can get through all twelve with his longbow. They say it’s impossible -- so good luck, bro.

Narrator. It’s a daunting prospect. Even Byron has his doubts.

Byron Ferguson. Now I know shooting through a three-inch ring shouldn’t be a very hard shot, and it’s not. Shooting through three or four of them, not a hard shot. Shooting through twelve of them -- heh, it’s a very hard shot, doing it with a traditional bow.
As it turns out, Byron can’t manage the shot. He can consistently get an arrow through anywhere up to half of the loops, but the slightest brush against metal makes the arrow go off course and shatter.

The Mythbusters Jr. team go on to devise a mechanical set-up that can outdo the human expert. I congratulate them on their success! The way they set it up, the task truly is legendary.

There are a few potential misunderstandings involved, though, which the team weren’t aware of -- and at least one error, where they got something quite wrong.

At several points in the episode it’s claimed that the feat has never before been achieved in real life. This isn’t true. There is in fact documentary evidence of it being accomplished at least once before, and maybe twice.

Corridor Crew: Los Angeles, USA, June 2018

First, the more doubtful case. In a video released on YouTube on 7 June 2018, members of the popular ‘Corridor Crew’ channel -- they have 2.6 million subscribers at the time of writing -- compete to see who can shoot an arrow through twelve axeheads with holes in the blades. They don’t cite measurements, but the holes look no bigger than 3 inches in diameter, and may be smaller. The distance between the axes looks likely to be around a foot.
Nick Laurant’s successful shot, with the arrow circled (Corridor Crew 2018, 5:54)
In the video, each member of the crew takes one shot. Two of them, Niko Pueringer and Nick Laurant, succeed. At the end the two successful archers have a second try, and though Laurant misses, Pueringer repeats his shot. Comments interspersed throughout the video indicate that Pueringer is an experienced archer.

In all three successful shots, the arrows graze multiple axeheads and send them spinning on the spot, yet the arrow remains on target enough to get through all twelve holes.

This is an interesting reversal of the Mythbusters Jr. scenario. The axeheads are made of some light, soft substance, not metal; and they rotate freely rather than being fixed. More importantly, the archers are all amateur -- and yet two of them succeed on their first shot.

However, it’s much harder to give this test credence, in comparison with the Mythbusters Jr. test, for three reasons.
  • The video is entertainment, not documentation. It’s just not careful enough.
  • Corridor Crew don’t provide any technical details of their test -- such as materials used, the draw weight of the bow(s), measurements of the holes, the distance between the axes, and the distance between the archer and the first axe.
  • Corridor Crew are known primarily for their skills with movie techniques like stunts and special effects. Many of their videos are advertised specifically as videos where ‘VFX artists react to’ special effects in films, or VFX artists create ‘deepfakes’, where CGI is used to make an actor look like some real person. In their archery video they don’t even claim to be presenting events as they actually happened -- so we can’t even take it for granted that their evidence is presented in good faith.
The second and third reasons really go back to the first one. There’s nothing unreasonable about making an entertainment video, and for the record I am prepared to believe that Niko Pueringer could legitimately make the shot. It’s just that the tone of the video weighs against taking it very seriously.

It would be useful to know more about the differences between the two tests. With the details they give -- that is, none -- it’s just hard to evaluate.

Brain and Skinner: Durban, South Africa, 1978

Peter Brain (source:
Brain’s obituary, 2005: 92)
In fact we need to go back a lot earlier. Forty years earlier, Peter Brain and D. D. Skinner performed a successful test in South Africa. Brain was a prominent immunologist and part-time classicist. In his 50s he learned ancient Greek and did a classics degree, and later published a well-respected book on Galen. Skinner was an amateur archer and, I suspect, a former biologist -- he collaborated on a published biology paper in the early 70s, but I haven’t managed to trace a career in the field after that point.

They give detailed textual documentation about their efforts in an academic journal. Skinner pulled off the feat successfully, and because of their high-quality documentation, there is a good presumption that they are reporting their tests accurately.

Mythbusters Jr. (2019) believe the main obstacle to getting the arrow to fly straight is the ‘archer’s paradox’: the arrow flexes as it passes the handle of the bow, and the resulting flex and spin continues throughout its flight, increasing its cross-section. Brain and Skinner (1978) don’t experience that problem. One reason is that they use 4 inch openings (101.6 mm), instead of the 3 inches in Mythbusters Jr., and apparently this was enough to avoid the problem.

Another is that they station the archer at a distance such that the first opening is equidistant between the archer and the last opening: with this extra distance, the flexing of the arrow may have reduced in the first half of its flight. Their reason for doing this is that they think a more important problem is the vertical rise and drop of the arrow in the course of its flight. So first, they determine the vertical variance over the total distance, to ensure that it’s at least possible for a human to replicate the feat. They decide that the peak of the flight should be at the first axehead, so the arrow will be dropping the whole time while it’s passing through the axeheads:
Our first experiment, conducted in an office corridor,
-- presumably outside Brain’s office at the Natal Blood Transfusion Service. These guys are the original corridor crew! --
established the fall of the arrow over the second half of its flight (i.e. the part occupied by the axes) for various values of x. Having shot several arrows into a target from a distance x, our archer retired a further x, and, aiming at the same mark without altering his sights, shot a further series of arrows. The difference in height between the first and second groups is the fall over the second distance x.
Given a bow with a 47 pound draw (i.e. relatively light), they obtain the following figures:
If we use rings 4 inches in diameter, and take account of the over-all diameter of the arrow (it has fletches at the rear end to make it fly straight, and no part of the arrow may touch any of the rings), then a fall of 2 inches is about as much as we can allow. This is obtained when x is 12 feet. Placing the rings a yard apart, as suggested by Page, would mean a fall of more than a foot in the second half of the 66-foot flight, and this makes the shot quite impossible. We therefore decided to put our rings one foot apart.
The feat as depicted in the 1997 miniseries The Odyssey. Armand Assante (front) as Odysseus, Alan Stenson (rear) as Telemachus.
So they settle on the same spacing used in the Mythbusters Jr. test. Their design of the rings is different, however:
To simulate the rings we cut twelve pieces of expanded polystyrene, 9 inches square and 3/4 inch thick, and made a 4-inch-diameter hole in the middle of each. These were attached with rubber bands to cross-pieces nailed to a horizontal plank 11 feet long, so that they stood vertically with the holes one behind the other and a foot apart. These rings are extremely light and the slightest touch causes obvious movement, while any hole or nick is easily seen.
Unlike the Mythbusters Jr. team, they don’t have access to a high-speed camera. The test is successful:
After three sighting shots with only the first and last rings in place, in the course of which the first ring was damaged, we fitted all the rings and he made a perfect shot; no ring was touched ... His next shot nicked one of the middle rings, but the following three were all perfect.
(My emphasis.) Skinner feels that 3-inch rings would at least in principle be possible:
We then increased the distance between the archer and the first ring, and found that the shot was still possible when this was 15 feet (a total course of 26 feet) but not when it was 18 feet. The archer thinks that at the original distance of 11 feet he could probably do it with slightly smaller rings, say 3 inches in diameter, but we have not tried this
Niko Pueringer’s shots in the Corridor Crew video tend to support this. However, there are several factors that could affect the outcome:
  • Distance from the first axe. Skinner stands far enough away that the arrow is already on its descent as it passes the first axe; Pueringer and Ferguson are much closer. What effect does this have?
  • Material of the axeheads. The Brain-Skinner and Corridor Crew tests use a soft material, Mythbusters Jr. use metal. Is the task harder if the fletching brushes against metal, as opposed to a soft substance?
  • Mobility of the axeheads. The axeheads rotate freely in the Corridor Crew test, but are fixed in the other two. Does rigidity make the task harder?
None of the experiments control for these factors. It could be that a lot depends on them.

Anyway, if we imagine Odysseus’ feat as a historical event, we need to remember that the first part of the feat was about strength -- being strong enough to string the bow. So his bow would presumably have a much heavier draw. Maybe on a par with a longbow with a 120 pound draw, or even more. A much heavier draw weight could double the arrow’s speed, and that would reduce the drop by half.

Other interpretations

The set-up of the axes in Ulysses 31,
episode 31 (1982)
There’s a question over the exact set-up of the axes in Odyssey book 21. If you look again at the stills from the Mythbusters Jr. and Corridor Crew experiments, above, you’ll notice they have quite different ideas of what exactly the archer is supposed to be shooting through.

In Mythbusters Jr., the axes are double axes with a metal loop at the top of the shaft. In Corridor Crew, the axes have holes in the the blades themselves. That doesn’t even begin to exhaust the possibilities.

This is because the Odyssey itself doesn’t give any details on what, precisely, is going on. The text doesn’t tell us where the holes are, how far apart they are, how high off the ground the holes are, whether the axes are fixed as in Mythbusters Jr. or rotating freely as in Corridor Crew.

In point of fact we’re not even told there are holes. Here’s what we are told. The winner of the contest will be:
διοϊστεύσῃ πελέκεων δυοκαίδεκα πάντων

... whoever shoots through all twelve axes
-- Odyssey 19.578
At 21.114 and 21.126-127 we have people trying to string the bow and dioisteus(ein) te sidērou, ‘shoot through the iron’. At 21.328 the phrasing is dia d’ hēke sidērou, also ‘he shot through the iron’. Here’s the description of Telemachus setting up the axes:
πρῶτον μὲν πελέκεας στῆσεν, διὰ τάφρον ὀρύξας
πᾶσι μίαν μακρήν, καὶ ἐπὶ στάθμην ἴθυνεν,
ἀμφὶ δὲ γαῖαν ἔναξε.

First he placed the axes, after digging a continuous trench,
a single long one for all of them, and made (them) straight in a line,
and he pressed the earth around them.
-- Odyssey 21.120-122
Here’s when Odysseus finally shoots through the axes:
τόν ῥ’ ἐπὶ πήχει ἑλὼν ἕλκεν νευρὴν γλυφίδας τε,
αὐτόθεν ἐκ δίφροιο καθήμενος, ἧκε δ’ ὀϊστὸν
ἄντα τιτυσκόμενος, πελέκεων δ' οὐκ ἤμβροτε πάντων
πρώτης στειλειῆς, διὰ δ' ἀμπερὲς ἦλθε θύραζε
ἰὸς χαλκοβαρής.

He took the string and the arrow-notches and drew the bridge (of the bow),
on the spot, sitting in his chair, and shot the arrow
aiming in front of him, and did not miss any of the axes
from the first steileiē, but it went through to the doors,
the bronze-heavy arrow.
-- Odyssey 21.419-423
Homer isn’t exactly giving us detailed documentation. Even if we limit ourselves to interpretations that are taken at all seriously, there are at least four ways scholars explain what’s going on here:
  1. The arrow goes through gaps of some kind in an intricately-shaped axehead, or a gap between a curved axehead and the shaft. This could be suitable for Bronze Age Minoan double axes, but we don’t have evidence of similar shapes in the Iron Age.
  2. The arrow goes through metal hanging-rings, or onkia, at the butt-end of the axe shaft. There’s no mention of onkia in the text. The rationale for this explanation is that the word steileiē, which I’ve left untranslated in Odyssey 21.422, might possibly mean ‘shaft’ or ‘haft’ -- but its exact meaning is uncertain. (See Sauge 2014: 66-67 for discussion of its meaning.)
  3. The axeheads are detached from the shafts and placed vertically with the blade resting in the earth; the arrow is supposed to go through the sockets. Shaft sockets are way too small for the task to be remotely feasible in real life.
  4. The idea is to shoot an arrow so powerful that it pierces metal axeheads. This is obviously implausible, but (a) this is myth, not history; (b) it takes the repeated phrase dia sidērou ‘through the iron’ literally.
The set-up of the axes as imagined by (1) Page 1973: 112, Fig. 6; (2) Page 1973: 101, Fig. 3; (3) Delebecque 1975: 59, Fig. 3; (4) Pocock 1961: 349, Fig. 1.
If the openings are too small, or too close to the ground, the task is superhuman. That isn’t necessarily an obstacle: this is legend, after all. The idea of the contest, the setting, and the genre all encourage the idea that Odysseus is performing a superhuman feat beyond the reach of any living mortal.

But if we’re going to go that direction anyway, why not take a good look at explanation 4? That’s the interpretation favoured by Walter Burkert (1973), and I have to say I find it very, very attractive. You can imagine an arrow fired so hard that it pierces or shatters a brittle Iron Age axehead. Someone like Odysseus, then, should be able to get through twelve of them!

The fact that it’s physically impossible is, once again, no obstacle. Remember that the first part of the task was to string the bow -- a feat of strength, not aim -- and not one of the suitors was able to do it. Only Odysseus was mighty enough to bend the bow enough to attach the string. (His son Telemachus could too, except that he basically let his father win.)

The idea of a weapon that only one person can wield is a fairly standard kind of folktale motif. Another example appears in the Iliad, the spear that only Achilles can wield (Iliad 16.139-144). Another, in Irish myth, is the gáe bolga of Cú Chulainn. The Iliad also features plenty of cases where heroes can lift things no living person could. (Heroes use inhuman strength to lift boulders at Il. 5.302-304, 13.378-383, 13.443-450, and 20.285-287.)
Left: Arjuna shoots at a fish's eye to win Draupadi (source: a 19th century edition of the Mahabharata). Right: Ulysses (Kirk Douglas) shoots through twelve axes to win Penelope (source: Ulysses, 1954).
And it is definitely a thing, in myth, to have stories where a hero courts a wife by performing an archery feat that’s impossible for anyone else. The strongest parallels are in Indic myth. In the Mahabharata Arjuna competes for the hand of Draupadi by stringing a bow that no one else can string and then shooting five arrows at a fish’s eye, somehow getting the arrows through a ‘wheel’ that’s in the way. In the Ramayana Rama competes for the hand of Sita by drawing on a bow that no one else can draw, and drawing it so hard that the bow shatters.

In Burkert’s eyes, the Odyssey story also has resonances in Egyptian iconography, where we see depictions of pharaohs who can shoot arrows through sheets of metal. In itself, that’s entirely realistic, as shown by the still below.

Personally, I think all of this is plenty to justify taking Homer at his word. ‘Loops’ and ‘holes’ aren’t mentioned anywhere in the text. Odysseus quite literally sends the arrow through the iron of the axes.
An arrow shot through a steel car door (source: TWANGnBANG, YouTube, 2013). The bow used was a PSE TAC-15 crossbow, with power equivalent to a 150 pound draw.

References and further reading

  • Bérard, Jean 1955. ‘Le concours de l’arc dans l’Odyssée.’ Revue des études grecques 68.319: 1-11.
  • Brain, Joy 2005. ‘Peter Brain.’ Natalia 35: 92-94.
  • Brain, Peter; Skinner, D. D. 1978. ‘Odysseus and the axes: Homeric ballistics reconstructed.’Greece & Rome 25.1: 55-58.
  • Burkert, Walter 1973. ‘Von Amenophis II. Zur Bogenprobe des Odysseus.’ Grazer Beiträge 1: 69-78.
  • Corridor Crew 2018. ‘Can you fire an arrow through twelve axes? (Odysseus archery challenge.)’ YouTube (retrieved Sep. 2019).
  • Delebecque, Édouard 1975. ‘Le jeu de l’arc de l’Odyssée.’ In: Bingen, J.; Cambier, G.; Nachtergael, G. (eds.) Le monde grec. Pensée, littérature, histoire, documents. Hommages à Claire Préaux. Brussels: Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles. 56-67.
  • Fernandez-Galiano, Manuel 1992. ‘Books XXI-XXII.’ In: A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, volume III. Books XVII-XXIV. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 129-310. (137-147 on the axes and the bow contest)
  • Fries, Carl 1937. ‘Zur τόξου θέσις.’ Philologische Wochenschrift 43 (23 Oct. 1937): cols. 1198-1199.
  • Monro, D. B. 1901. Homer’s Odyssey. Books XIII-XXIV. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (176-177 on the axes and the bow contest)
  • Myres, John L. 1948. ‘The axes yet again.’ Classical Review 62.3-4: 113.
  • Mythbusters Jr. 2019. ‘Battery blast.’ Television episode, Season 1, Episode 3, first broadcast (USA) 16 Jan. 2019.
  • Page, Denys L. 1962. Folktales in Homer’s Odyssey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (95-113 on the axes and the bow contest)
  • Pocock, L. G. 1961. ‘The arrow and the axe-heads in the Odyssey.’ American Journal of Philology 82.4: 346-357.
  • Sauge, André 2014. ‘L’arc et l’olivier.’ Gaia 17: 63-82.
  • Stubbs, H. W. 1948. ‘The axes again.’ Classical Review 62.1: 12-13.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Learning Latin: why conjugations?

Verb conjugations were invented to torment first-year Latin students. OK, that wasn’t really the aim. But it is the effect. Learning four sets of endings is a pain. It’s also a waste of time.

Things would be hugely simplified for beginner Latin students if textbooks would explain thematic vowels properly.
What do you mean I need to learn four conjugations?
Latin has four basic types of verbs, or conjugations. Here’s a typical table for the verbs clamare shout, habere have, dicere say, and audire hear. The table shows the forms corresponding to I shout, you shout, she shouts, and so on. Each conjugation behaves slightly differently: I’ve added highlighting where the forms are distinctive to one conjugation.
1st conj. 2nd 3rd 4th
1 sg. (I) clamo habeo dico audio
2 sg. (you) clamas habes dicis audis
3 sg. (she, he) clamat habet dicit audit
1 pl. (we) clamamus habemus dicimus audimus
2 pl. (y’all) clamatis habetis dicitis auditis
3 pl. (they) clamant habent dicunt audiunt
The endings, at least, are nice and systematic. Looking down each column, you see -o, -s, -t, -mus, -tis, -nt (I shout, you shout, she shouts, etc.). The problem is the bit in between the stem and the ending, which changes depending on which conjugation the verb belongs to.

The outcome is that students have to memorise four separate sets of forms. There are 22 distinctive forms highlighted in the table, and it’s a pain to learn every single one of them.

As it happens, it’s also wasted effort. In reality, there are only two genuinely anomalous forms. Except for those two forms, you can have a full understanding of Latin verb conjugations -- in the present tense, at least -- in terms of just two things:
  1. Stem-sounds, that is, the sound that comes at the end of the verb stem: this will be either a consonant, or one of three possible vowels.
  2. Thematic vowels, that is, an unstressed vowel that appears in between a consonant stem and a consonant ending -- like in English hated.
Textbooks hint at these things -- some textbooks, anyway -- but they never explain them properly, they never get to the point.
A fairly typical introduction to Latin verb conjugations. (The yellow highlighting is my doing.)
As things stand, students have to memorise four sets of endings, with 22 distinctive forms. BOOOO-RING. Things are much easier if you learn (1) what the four conjugations really are, and (2) how thematic vowels work.

A better verb table

Here’s a revised table. This time, the highlighting isn’t there to mark differences between conjugations. Instead,
  • yellow marks the stem-sound, that is, the sound at the end of the stem;
  • green marks a contraction;
  • pink marks a thematic vowel.
1st conj.
1 sg. (I) clamo habeo dico audio
2 sg. (you) clamas habes dicis audis
3 sg. (she, he) clamat habet dicit audit
1 pl. (we) clamamus habemus dicimus audimus
2 pl. (y’all) clamatis habetis dicitis auditis
3 pl. (they) clamant habent dicunt audiunt
The real difference between the conjugations isn’t that they take different endings, it’s that they have different stem-sounds. ‘1st conjugation’ simply means a-stem, 2nd is e-stem, 3rd is consonant-stem, and 4th is i-stem.

This way, you can see that the verb system is actually extremely consistent. The actual endings -- the -o, -s, -t, etc. -- are still identical for every verb-type. 1st, 2nd, and 4th conjugation verbs have vowel stems, highlighted in yellow. And in most forms, the stem vowel is there in plain view. So, for example, e-stem verbs have
  • e + -o  >  -eo
  • e + -s  >  -es
  • e + -t  >  -et
  • e + -mus  >  -emus
  • e + -tis  >  -etis
  • e + -nt  >  -ent
3rd conjugation verbs have consonant stems. There, too, the consonant is in plain view, highlighted in yellow.

But take a look at the endings -- -o, -s, -t, -mus, -tis, -nt -- and notice that most endings are consonantal. Because of that, consonantal endings need a thematic vowel, to make the word pronounceable: to separate the dic- from the -s, -t, -mus, etc. This vowel is normally /i/, but when there’s a nasal sound it moves to the back of the mouth, /u/.
  • c + -o  >  -co
  • c + -s  >  -cis
  • c + -t  >  -cit
  • c + -mus  >  -cimus
  • c + -tis  >  -citis
  • c + -nt  >  -cunt
(When there’s an /r/ the thematic vowel becomes more open, producing /e/, as in dicere and diceris.)

The net result is that, in this revised version of the table, there are only two anomalies, instead of twenty-two:
  1. the contraction in clamo;
  2. the surplus thematic vowel in audiunt.
Compare that to the 22 distinctive features in the first version of the table. Easier, huh?

(Noun declensions developed in a similar way, but their history is more complex and you can’t simplify them as much. The declensions are, respectively, a-stem nouns (1st declension), o-stem (2nd), consonant-stem and i-stem (3rd), u-stem (4th), and e-stem (5th). In early Latin their endings were more similar to each other than they were by Caesar’s time.)

The mixed conjugation

The mixed conjugation is the reason we can’t have nice things. It is Latin’s fifth verb-type. And it is not determined by the sound at the end of a verb stem -- or at least, not straightforwardly. The mixed conjugation is the miscellaneous conjugation; the whatever-I-don’t-care conjugation; the Lord-High-Everything-Else conjugation.

Mixed conjugation verbs are hybrid, with elements of both consonant-stem and i-stem verbs, the 3rd and 4th conjugations. That’s exactly how they’re normally taught, and I can’t really tidy it up any further, because the mixed conjugation didn’t come about as systematically as the other ones. Mixed-conjugation verbs aren’t consistent in their linguistic origins, and there’s no getting around that.

Some mixed conjugation verbs are relatively friendly. Take cupio desire. That’s a very tidy case, because for some of its history, cupio can actually be treated as a 4th conjugation verb in disguise. If you look at its principal parts, except the infinitive --
cupiō, ______, cupīvi/cupiī, cupītum
-- a trained Latinist will immediately recognise all the hallmarks of a standard 4th conjugation verb. If you look up an etymological dictionary, you’ll see it comes from an i-stem. At heart, cupio is a 4th conjugation verb, with an irregular second principal part.

(Of course it’s not as simple as that ... it never is. cupio went through a phase shift in the 1st century BCE. In Lucretius, its imperfect subjunctive appears as cupīret, just as you’d expect for a 4th conjugation verb. Just a few years later, in Cicero, it appears as cuperet, treated as mixed conjugation.)

Some other verbs shift between consonant stem or i-stem depending on a variety of factors, like facio do, capio catch, iacio throw. They’ll be i-stem in the present indicative, but consonant-stem in the past participle -- stuff like that. Some are much more consonant-ish: rabio rave is solidly consonant-stem in its origins, but somehow acquired elements of an i-stem verb. Conversely, pario give birth was originally i-stem, but somehow lost the i altogether in the important participle parens parent. Often a mixed-conjugation verb is one that was originally i-stem in the present tense but consonant-stem in the past tense, like fugio flee, past tense fug-i I fled.

The perfect tense

Next time I teach Latin, I’m going to abandon conjugations altogether for the present tense. I’ll teach thematic vowels instead. Only the mixed conjugation needs special treatment.

But maybe Latinists will raise objections over the perfect tense: aha! the four conjugations do behave differently in the perfect! So you do need conjugations! Well, kind of. Here’s how the traditional conjugations look in the perfect tense:
  • 1st (a-stem): para-  >  parav-i
  • 2nd (e-stem): habe-  >  habu-i
  • 3rd (consonant-stem): inconsistent
  • 4th (i-stem): audi-  >  audi-i / audiv-i
Well, you could do it that way. Or you could learn what a glide is.

A glide is the opposite of a thematic vowel. Remember how a thematic vowel is a sound that pops up between two consonants to make the word pronounceable? Well, a glide is a sound that pops up between two vowels.

English has glides too. Try saying this sentence out loud: The law is just. The sound that comes up between law and is will vary depending on your dialect. For most people, it’ll be either /r/, /w/, or a glottal stop.

In Latin, glides are normally /w/ or /y/. (/r/ only in the genitive plural of 1st/2nd/5th declension nouns.) For example, the word filius son is going to be pronounced /feeleeyus/. With that in mind, let’s look at some perfect tense verbs.

Take the a-stem verb para- prepare. The perfect tense should, by rights, be para-i. But that’s hard to say ... so you add a glide /w/. The result is /parawee/ (as pronounced in the republican period, at least), spelled paravi I have prepared.

The same thing happens with i-stem verbs, but there you have a choice as to which glide you use. So audi- hear can become either /audeewee/ or /audeeyee/, spelled audivi and audii I have heard.

Consonant-stem verbs don’t need a glide, so you often end up with the ending attached directly to the stem: ascend-i I have climbed, vert-i I have turned, em-i I have bought. (More often the stem will be mutated, but let’s not go into that just now: you have to deal with irregularities like that with the other conjugations too.)

It’s the e-stem verbs that are the odd ones out. There, the stem-vowel stays short and the glide moves it back in the mouth, so instead of /habewee/ you get /habuwee/, written habui I have had.

Now, I can see a case for keeping conjugations around for the sake of the future tense. When I suggest abandoning conjugations, it’s really absolute beginners that I have in mind. There’s no point memorising four paradigms. Much better to learn a single paradigm, with just a couple of anomalies.