Saturday 16 December 2017

Christmas reminder 2017

Note. This is superseded by some follow-up pieces: on Yule (2018), on the nativity stories in the gospels (2020), more on Yule (2021), a four-part series on ‘the dates of Jesus’ (2021), on the construction of the Julian calendar (2022), and on the origins of Santa (2022). The later pieces also correct a few errors made here (notably: there is no reason to reject the 25 December date found in Hippolytus as spurious; and the date of the solstice in the Julian calendar isn’t quite as straightforward as I thought).
Happy holidays! Here is your annual reminder that Christmas isn’t actually pagan. Not even a little bit. It’s possible that some present-day customs now associated with Christmas have pagan ancestors. But we can’t even be sure of that: mostly the similarities look like they’re just patterns in the noise of historical data.
The tradition of Christmas was set up to replace pagan worship of the winter solstice. Just as Easter was set up to replace pagan worship of the spring equinox (the actual holidays/festivals were most likely yule and eostre/eostara)
-- social media (does it really matter where?), 9 Dec. 2017
Here’s the long explanation from two years ago. Today we’re just doing an abbreviated version. There’s one update: I’ve now managed to track down an obscure and spurious source relating to Pope Julius I.
  • Christmas isn’t based on Yule, and Easter isn’t based on Eostre. Yule and Eostre both appear in the historical record for the first time in the 8th century CE writer Bede. Christmas was being celebrated at least 400 years earlier (by 354 CE at the latest: see below), and Easter 200 years before that (in the time of Pope Anicetus in the 100s CE).
  • Christmas didn’t replace any Roman holiday, and it wasn’t adapted from one. Saturnalia continued to be celebrated, by Christians, alongside Christmas, for at least a century and probably a lot longer. Brumalia survived longer still. The festival of Sol Invictus on 25 December was confined to a single city (Rome), and it isn’t attested any earlier than Christmas anyway. One source dating to 400 CE explicitly contrasts Christmas with the secular New Year festival. And as for Mithraism, all of its purported similarities with Christianity are fictional and were mostly made up in the 1990s.
  • None of the modern trappings of Christmas can be linked to any Roman festival. Father Christmas seems to originate in a blend of St Nicholas (a Christian saint) and the Christkind, which Luther attached to Christmas in the 1500s in order to discourage the Catholic cult of St Nicholas and his feast day on 6 December. Decorated fir trees are first known in the 1600s. Advent wreaths apparently originate in colonial North America, Advent calendars in 19th century Germany, Christmas cards in 19th century England, and Santa’s flying reindeer in 19th century America. (If you really want to link the 19th century reindeer to the Wild Hunt, or to Cernunnos, you’d better dig up some pretty solid evidence...)
Les Saturnales by Antoine-François Callet (1783): nothing to do with Christmas
  • The 25 December date for Christmas wasn’t based on Saturnalia (that’s 17 December), it wasn’t reported by Hippolytus of Rome in the early 200s CE (that’s a mediaeval interpolation), and it wasn’t determined by the Council of Nicaea in 325 (that’s Easter). It’s possible that it was discussed in a letter supposedly written from Cyril of Jerusalem to Pope Julius I around 349-354 CE, but the only evidence is a very suspicious-looking quotation in a 9th century letter attributed to John of Nicaea: no one really believes that the quotation is authentic (link 1 [see under ‘Z.’]; link 2). The earliest unequivocal evidence for the 25 December date is a catalogue of Christian martyrs’ feast days dating to 354 CE.
  • That doesn’t mean the date was first decided in 354. We know that Christian thinkers had been linking the date of Jesus’ death (Easter) to his conception, nine months before his birth, all the way back in the late 100s CE; and we know that earlier still, in the mid-100s, there was a dispute over the best way to relate Passover (in the Hebrew lunar calendar) to Easter (in the Roman solar calendar). The ‘classical’ canonical date for Easter and the Creation was 25 March. We can’t be absolutely certain that Jesus’ birth was already being observed on 25 December at that time, but we can be confident in tracing the origins of the observance, at least, to the time of the Quartodeciman controversy in the 2nd century.
  • Christmas and the solstice are linked -- indirectly. 25 December isn’t the date of the solstice nowadays, but it was as far as 1st century CE Roman writers were concerned (Columella De re rustica 9.14.12; Pliny Natural history 18.221). Even at that time they were wrong, because the Julian calendar gradually drifts out of synch with the seasons, slowly but constantly. Nonetheless, 25 December was the traditional date, probably because of astronomical records going back to the 4th-3rd centuries BCE: it’s likely that the Julian calendar was designed based on older records from that period. Be that as it may, the solstice isn’t the reason for the date of Christmas: the date of Easter is. (See above.)
  • Note that even though Easter was originally linked to the equinox, and Christmas to the solstice, that doesn’t mean that either of them is based on a pagan solstice/equinox festival. There weren’t any Roman solstice festivals, that we know of -- not until Christmas came along. Contrary to popular belief, ancient religions only occasionally took any interest in solstices. Then as now, it was mainly astronomers that found solstices interesting. (There was another solstice festival, Brumalia, but it’s late. It may well have arisen as a pagan counterpart to Christmas, rather than the other way round: it’s first attested in Tertullian, and it was never very important.)

Friday 8 December 2017

‘Odysseus is not a hero, he’s a douchebag’

Cyclops cast as a pastoral figure with panpipe: Giulio Romano, Polyphemus (1526-1528, Palazzo del Tè, Mantua)
Only a master thief, a real con artist,
could match your tricks -- even a god
might come up short. You wily bastard,
you cunning, elusive, habitual liar!
Odyssey 13.291-3 (trans. Stanley Lombardo)

Modern readers sometimes get quite angry at Odysseus. Maybe this is particularly true for younger readers? I’m not sure. Today’s title comes from a younger reader, anyway: it’s a high school student’s answer in a test, taken from this March 2016 piece by Jane Morris.

And the incident that really gets their goat, more than any other, is the Cyclops story. Won’t someone think of the poor Cyclops? And how Odysseus is so mean for stealing his cheeses? And the Cyclops is so good with his sheep, d’awww! Not to mention the bit at the end where Odysseus is such a meanie, jeering at the Cyclops as he escapes. The Cyclops calls on Poseidon for vengeance, vengeance comes, and I bet at that point a lot of readers are thinking, yeah, see how you like it, douchebag. Justice served!

#MCROdyssey students got to hear from me today that Polyphemus is a great guy (evidence: he looks after baby animals!) and Odysseus is a BAD GUEST (evidence: he eats other people's cheese without asking).
Kate Cook, 20 Nov. 2017

OK, fine, it’s a great joke, but this really is the gut feeling for a lot of readers. It’s an interpretation that gets plenty of airtime even in academic journals (subscription required). I can accept that people find Odysseus an unsympathetic character. Personally I find Achilles in the Iliad entirely brutal and horrifying. No problem there.

But the way that this reading completely reverses the moral situation in the Cyclops story -- that is a bit odd. If the Cyclops brutally murders and eats raw several of Odysseus’ companions, then the idea of having genuine sympathy for him seems weird to me. Does eating a cheese uninvited justify popping half a dozen people’s skulls open against a stone wall?

Let’s take it a bit more seriously: here’s what a non-joking version of the ‘Odysseus is a douchebag’ idea could look like.

Yes, the Cyclops is a horrific monster. There’s no real sympathy for him: that’s just comical grotesquerie. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad guy vs. good guy. It’s a really bad guy, and a sorta bad guy. Odysseus is still a douchebag.

And that’s fine for someone reading the Odyssey without any context. A perfectly sensible reading. But what I want to put to you today is that it doesn’t quite do justice to the story. A bit of context can transform a story’s meaning ...

‘They act surprised that the Cyclops is mad at them for eating all of his cheese’ -- rjmcmullen02, StoryboardThat, March 2017

Hospitality scenes

Hospitality is a Big Fresh Deal in the Odyssey. The main plot revolves around 108 suitors who have invaded Odysseus’ house while he’s away and are trying to coerce his wife into marrying one of them. They are terrible guests. They’re eating the family out of house and home, and everyone is horrified at how they’re abusing their hosts.

Hospitality carries a lot of weight. Good hospitality means you’re a civilised traveller. Abusing the system, though ... that means you are pure evil and you must be destroyed.

Now, Homeric epic makes heavy use of a story-telling tool called type-scenes. A type-scene is a semi-formulaic episode, where a regular pattern of events happens in a regular sequence. For example, there are type-scenes for warriors arming before battle; making ritual sacrifices; recognising someone you haven’t seen for twenty years; battle scenes; and there is a type-scene for when someone welcomes a guest into their home.

But type-scenes aren’t just rigid, formulaic drudgery. They carry meaning. They’re part of a poet’s toolset, not a set of rules, and they can be altered whenever the poet wants. Yes, they could be a tool for improvising, and they could be little more than a mnemonic device for memorising a poem. But they can also send very specific messages.

There are lots of hospitality scenes in the Odyssey: Athena (in disguise) arriving at Telemachus’ house; Telemachus arriving at Nestor’s house; and, later, at Menelaus’ house; Odysseus arriving at Alcinous’ palace; at the swineherd Eumaeus’ farm (in disguise); at his own house (again in disguise); and -- of course -- arriving at the Cyclops’ cave. This isn’t even a complete list. The American scholar Steve Reece has written a whole book about these hospitality scenes (The Stranger’s Welcome, 1993). Reece looks at each scene, outlines the sequence of motifs, and goes into a detailed discussion of each scene.

No rigid rules, but there’s definitely a common pattern. Here are some of the standard motifs that crop up in many of them -- let’s call the guest Oscar, and the host Chuck:

  1. Oscar arrives at the door, Chuck comes to the door and acts as greeter personally
  2. Chuck brings Oscar to a seat without asking any questions
  3. Chuck gives Oscar a good meal and a drink
  4. Only afterwards, Chuck begins a conversation, asking Oscar questions
  5. Chuck offers Oscar a bed for the night and a bath
  6. In the morning, Chuck asks Oscar to stay on longer; Oscar says no, he’s got to go, and everyone’s fine with that
  7. Chuck gives Oscar a present, and offers an escort to his next destination

(Reece’s list is longer than this: he looks at 25 repeated motifs, plus 17 smaller details.) Now, how do Odysseus and the Cyclops stack up against the story of Oscar and Chuck?

  1. Odysseus arrives at the door, but there’s no host to greet him
  2. Odysseus has no one to take him inside; when the Cyclops does arrive, he immediately demands to know who Odysseus is
  3. Odysseus deals with the food situation himself; the Cyclops eats Odysseus’ men
  4. See 2. above
  5. No bed or bath (surprise surprise)
  6. The Cyclops imprisons Odysseus in his cave with a huge rock
  7. Odysseus gives the Cyclops a present; in return, the Cyclops offers him the ‘present’ of eating him last

In the normal pattern, it’s almost always Chuck who’s doing things -- the host is the one who has agency. Oscar is mostly a passive lump, except for the bit where he says he wants to leave. But in the Cyclops story, Odysseus takes on most of the agency. The result is a very warped type-scene. And at every stage, the warping is about the Cyclops, not Odysseus: every time it shows the Cyclops’ failings as a host.

From that perspective, Odysseus’ entering the cave uninvited doesn’t show him being nosy and intrusive, it shows the Cyclops failing to act as greeter. Odysseus eating the Cyclops’ cheeses isn’t about him taking things for granted, it’s about the Cyclops being absent and not playing his part. When the Cyclops demands to know who his guest is, the problem isn’t with the barrage of questions, it’s with the timing. (Nestor asked Telemachus exactly the same questions, word for word, back in Odyssey book 3, but it was fine then -- Nestor had the right timing.) And instead of feeding Odysseus’ men, he feeds on them. Then there’s the ‘gift’ that the Cyclops gives Odysseus -- the biggest topsy-turvy of them all.

A type-scene isn’t just a formula. It’s an integral part of the story’s meaning. It both creates meaning, and acts as a vehicle for meaning. Reading Homer without attention to type-scenes is like watching 300 without being aware that it’s about American politics and Islamophobia. The story will still make sense without that extra knowledge -- but it’ll have a different sense.

If you read the Odyssey without any context, in a vacuum, it makes perfect sense to judge Odysseus as a douchebag. But if you’re learning about the Odyssey in a classroom, I hope you get a more informed view of what’s going on.

Sympathy for the Cyclops taken to the extreme: Polyphemus, complete with sheep, panpipe, and faithful dog, watches his crush getting off with someone else (Antonio Tempesta, ‘Secret canoodlings of Acis and Galatea’, 1606, Met. Mus. of Art. The only thing missing is the cheese. The story of Polyphemus’ hopeless love for the nymph Galateia was a popular theme in Hellenistic-era pastoral poetry: see especially Theocritus Idyll 6, Idyll 11 (complete with wordplay on κώρα meaning both ‘girl’ and ‘pupil’ -- the Cyclops loves his one girl and his one eye, but he doesn’t get to keep either of them).


But wait, there’s more. Hospitality scenes are tied up with a thing called theoxeny, that is, ‘hospitality for gods’. This was a smallish-scale religious celebration where a god was imagined as coming for a visit in person, and the people there would set a place at a table and provide the god with a meal. Kind of like having an imaginary friend over for dinner.

In epic, there are a few places where this is very close to being what actually happens. Athena’s visit to Telemachus in disguise in Odyssey book 1 is one example. One that’s more obviously a religious occasion is Poseidon’s visit to the Aethiopes, mentioned in Odyssey 1.22-26, where we’re told

He had gone to visit the Aethiopes, who are far off, ...
to receive a hekatomb of bulls and rams.
That’s where he was sitting, enjoying the feast; ...

The one that’s most religious in tone is in the Hymn to Demeter, Demeter’s visit to the house of Keleos. And wouldn’t you know it? Demeter’s visit is structured as a hospitality type-scene -- a particularly full version of the pattern, in fact.

The semi-formulaic nature of hospitality type-scenes gives all hospitality in Homer a ritual air. The ceremonious greeting of the guest at the door, the procession to the seat, the seat laid with a blanket or sheepskin, the offering of a meal without small talk, the bath or ritual washing of the cult image ... these are all things that ritual theoxeny and Homeric hospitality have in common. Themes, liturgy, physical paraphernalia, the whole kaboodle.

It may well be that Homeric hospitality is modelled on the religious rite. Bear in mind, we have little evidence that Homeric guest-friendship was actually practised in real life in the archaic period. We have much better evidence for proxeny, an institution that was more like an official consulate than a personal friendship. Guest-friendship is well attested in later times, but that’s probably under the influence of Homer. It could be that theoxeny gave rise to Homeric hospitality, which in turn inspired real-life guest-friendships -- just as hero-cult festivals with sports gave rise to Homeric funeral games, which in turn inspired a few real-life instances of funeral games.

Anyway, what this means for the Cyclops story is that it’s not just about the Cyclops being a bad host. In symbolic terms, his refusal to welcome Odysseus is equivalent to someone committing a pretty horrid form of blasphemy. When the Cyclops tells Odysseus

For we Cyclopes do not pay any regard to aigiochos Zeus
or the blessed gods. That’s because we’re much stronger!
-- Odyssey 9.275-276

-- he’s not messing around. It isn’t a statement of atheism, it’s a statement of religious depravity.

Imagine the Cyclops episode as a theoxeny. A man refuses to take part in the procession or in setting a table for the god, and instead he imprisons the god(!), breaks religious protocol by talking during the quiet bits, kills the god’s companions -- in a real-life theoxeny these would be accompanying cult heroes or minor deities -- only for the god to escape anyway and then put on a display of divine epiphany (Odysseus revealing his identity as he leaves), which the depraved villain can’t even see because he’s symbolically blind.

In that version of the story, it’s a bit harder to see the guest as being badly behaved.

Now, it isn’t as simple as that of course. Odysseus is not actually a god, however much he plays the part of one in this story. It’s arguable that there is a moral lesson for him here after all:

You are not a god. Do not forget it -- or else.
Tim Rayner, ‘Odysseus and the Cyclops: mastery, humility, and fate’ (Philosophy for Change, 11 June 2013)

And the portrayal of the Cyclops’ relationship with his sheep is grotesque, but it does carry a kind of sympathy, even if it’s comical and perverse. And modern hospitality conventions are a tad different.

Odysseus dealing with the cheeses is not much different from a modern guest at someone’s house mixing themselves a drink, because the host wandered off to do something else. Still, I’ll understand if people who read the story in a vacuum get a bad impression of Odysseus. I’ll still say the Cyclops is a teeny bit worse, though.

‘Zeus is the avenger of suppliants and guests,
the guest-god. He accompanies respectable guests.’
‘We Cyclopes do not pay any regard to aigiochos Zeus
or the blessed gods. That’s because we’re much stronger!’
And he sprang and reached his hands for my friends,
and he grabbed two, and he dashed them on the ground
like puppies, and their brains flowed out on the earth and wet the ground.
Limb by limb he cut them up and prepared his meal.
He ate them like a mountain lion, and he didn’t leave anything:
innards, and flesh, and bones full of marrow.
We wept, and stretched our hands up to Zeus,
seeing these horrible things. Helplessness gripped our hearts.
-- Odyssey 9.270-271, 275-276, 288-295

Monday 27 November 2017

Seven wonders of the world

Both the wall of rocky Babylon, a road for chariots,
     and Zeus on the Alpheius have I seen;
and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun,
     and great toil of steep pyramids,
and Mausolus’ terrific monument; but when I saw
     Artemis’ house, racing to the clouds,
those others dimmed. I thought, ‘Look: apart from Olympus,
     the Sun never shone on anything like it.’
-- Antipater of Sidon, in Greek anthology 9.58
The ancient Greeks had lots of lists of seven things. The first one was a canon of ‘seven sages’. That’s the context for the ‘seven wonders’. Another source, spuriously attributed to Hyginus (Fabulae 221-223, 1st century CE), puts lists of ‘seven sages’, ‘seven lyric poets’, and ‘seven wonders’ right next to each other. And our earliest source, the Laterculi Alexandrini (Berlin papyrus 13044v), is partly lost, but enough survives that we can tell it had lists of ‘seven famous men’ and the ‘seven greatest islands’ as well. Seven is a typical number. (Not a symbolic number, mind: there isn’t anything in particular that it symbolises. Just typical.)

Antipater’s poem, above, is the earliest intact list (2nd-1st centuries BCE): (1) the city wall of Babylon; (2) the sculptor Pheidias’ statue of Zeus, in the temple at Olympia, on the river Alpheius; (3) hanging gardens, of uncertain location (usually Babylon) (correction:) at Babylon; (4) the ‘Colossus’, an enormous statue of the sun god Helios on the island of Rhodes (correction:) in the city of Rhodes; (5) the pyramids at Giza; (6) the tomb of Mausollus, or ‘Mausoleum’, at Halicarnassus; and (7) the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

But different lists exist. They shuffle the sequence, they have many substitutions. Pseudo-Hyginus leaves out the hanging gardens, and puts the palace of king Cyrus at Ecbatana in its place.

Let’s not spend time on all of the wonders. Before we look over a select few, I’d better confirm that this post was originally inspired by the recent announcement of a fascinating discovery at the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza: scientists used muon tomography to discover a large void in the middle of the pyramid. It’s a terrific discovery, but I don’t have any special insights myself: nothing I say here has any bearing on it.

‘The Great Lighthouse’, one of the wonders in Civilization VI (Firaxis Games, 2016): +1 to ship movement, +3 gold, and +1 Great Admiral point per turn. If you like that sort of thing.

The lighthouse of Alexandria (a.k.a. Pharos)

The lighthouse of Alexandria doesn’t appear in any ancient list of the seven wonders.

Oh, it existed. It just wasn’t one of the seven wonders.

This is contrary to what you may read in the New Pauly, or the Britannica, or Wikipedia, or the Ancient history encyclopedia. (The Oxford classical dictionary gets it right, though.) If you go and read the sources these encyclopaedias cite -- where they do cite any, that is -- you will find not a single mention of the lighthouse, nor any reference to the island of Pharos that the lighthouse was named after.

Conversely, if you read up on the Pharos -- for example, the description in Strabo 17.1.6, or Pliny the Elder’s Natural history 36.83-- you will find no mention of a list of seven wonders.

Now, this bald statement does need some qualification -- but only a little. Pliny’s description of the Pharos is embedded in an account of a couple of dozen remarkable constructions, of which two or three others are normally considered to be among the canonical seven wonders (the pyramids of Giza, 36.75-76 and 78-82; Pharos, 36.84; hanging gardens of Egyptian Thebes -- not Babylon! -- 36.94; temple of Artemis at Ephesus, 36.95-97). You could call this a kind of a list of wonders, but it’s certainly not ‘seven’ and there’s only a partial overlap with ancient lists of a canonical seven.

The Pharos only starts to creep into lists of seven in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. These late antique and early mediaeval lists are very different from the ancient canon. Here are the earliest appearances of the Pharos in these lists:
  • An anonymous poem in the Greek Anthology (9.656) listing: the palace of emperor Anastasius in Constantinople; the ‘Capitolian hall’ (not hill) in Italy; the ‘Rufinian grove’ at Pergamon; the temple of the deified Hadrian at Cyzicus; the pyramids; the Colossus of Rhodes; and the Pharos.
  • Gregory of Tours, On the course of stars (preface): Noah’s ark; the wall of Babylon; the temple of Solomon; the tomb of a Persian king (presumably Mausollus. who was a Persian satrap); the Colossus of Rhodes; the theatre of Heraclea; and the Pharos.
  • (ps.-?)Bede, On the seven wonders: the Capitolium of Rome; the Pharos; the Colossus of Rhodes; a statue of Bellerophon suspended in air (unknown location); the theatre of Heraclea; a heated bath (unknown location); temple of Artemis.
Why did the Pharos make its way into these late lists? That must surely be because the ancient canon had mostly been destroyed by that time. Only the Mausoleum (destroyed by earthquake in the early mediaeval period) and the pyramids were still standing. The Pharos remained in operation until the 12th century. Now, that doesn’t explain why these lists continued to include some long-lost structures: maybe the Colossus and the temple of Artemis owe their continued presence in the lists to their sheer memorability.

The Titan of Braavos (Game of Thrones, HBO)

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus was a statue of Helios (the sun), made by Chares of Lindos, which collapsed in an earthquake around 226 BCE, less than a hundred years after it was built. It’s popularly imagined as standing astride the harbour entrance at the port of Rhodes. But that’s a complete fabrication, dating to the early modern period.

Even so, that’s how George R. R. Martin imagines it when he parodies it in his A Song of Ice and Fire books -- and if it’s good enough for Braavos, then by golly it must be good enough for Rhodes! Just in case you weren’t sure Martin was taking inspiration directly from ancient Rhodes, we’re told that the Titan is one of a canon of nine ‘Wonders made by man’. The thing is, George Martin does get a bit over-excited about imagining ancient edifices as being really really big.

The Colossus was certainly a jolly big statue. Here are the sources on its size:
  • Strabo, Geography 14.2.5: quotes a poem (presumably 3rd cent. BCE) putting it at 70 cubits, or 32.3 m.
  • pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 223: 90 feet high, or 26.6 m.
  • Pliny, Natural history 34.41: 70 cubits high, or 32.3 m.
  • Philon of Byzantium (ca. 4th-5th century CE; not the same person as the 2nd cent. BCE mechanical writer), On the seven wonders 4: 70 cubits, or 32.3 m.
  • (Pseudo-?)Bede, On the seven wonders: 136 feet, or 40.2 m (if we reckon in Roman feet).
There’s no doubt that 70 cubits was the canonical figure. Ps.-Hyginus’ figures are untrustworthy, as we’ll see below, and Bede had no access to any better information than the ancient sources did. Even if the 70 cubit figure was exaggerated -- which is likely -- the statue was probably still around 30 metres high. For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 46 metres high (from feet to torch).

The modern harbour entrance at Rhodes is about 150 metres wide. Ancient triremes needed about 12 metres horizontal space (with oars). Even if the statue was getting on for 40 m high, which it wasn’t, its feet could hardly have been more than 10 metres apart. At 32 m, we’re talking more like 8 m apart. And that’s if it’s doing a really good stretch.

So, no.

In actual fact there’s nothing to suggest it was even located at the harbour, let alone standing astride the harbour. The whole scenario is hogwash. Pliny reports that ‘it is a marvel even lying down’, and talks of visitors seeing the places where the limbs became detached and trying to put their arms around one thumb. In other words: when it collapsed, it fell on land.

I’m a pyramid ... but probably not the one you were expecting. A 2nd century CE pyramid at Meroë (modern Sudan), much pointier and shorter than the famous ones at Giza. (Photo by Fabrizio Demartis, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence)

The pyramids

The list of wonders that we get in pseudo-Hyginus helpfully gives sizes for several buildings in the list. The last entry reads:
The pyramids in Egypt where no shadow is visible; 60 feet high.
-- ps.-Hyginus, Fabulae 223
A couple of problems here. First the height; second, the absence of shadows. They’re both wrong. But it turns out that neither of these elements is unique to ps.-Hyginus.

Ps.-Hyginus’ figure, 60 feet, in Roman feet comes to 17.7 m, which is much too small. Then again, Philon’s On the seven wonders (4th/5th cent. CE) gets it wrong too: Philon reports the height as 300 cubits (133 m, converting using Roman feet), and the circumference as 6 stadia (278 m per side). The actual figures for the Great Pyramid are 146 m high and 230 m per side. Philon is at least in the right order of magnitude, unlike ps.-Hyginus ... but it does show that accurate figures for the pyramids’ size were not well known.

Second problem: ‘where no shadow is visible’ (quarum umbra non videtur). A later writer, the 2nd century essayist Lucian, also refers to shadowless pyramids (Toxaris 27). (Later still, so does Cassiodorus, Variae 7.15.4; but Cassiodorus’ list of wonders is based closely on ps.-Hyginus, so he’s not an independent source.)

Now, ps.-Hyginus and Lucian can’t possibly be thinking of pyramids that were shadowless even at sunrise and sunset. That’s geometrically impossible. They must mean pyramids that were shadowless in the middle of the day, especially at midday -- because in antiquity, shadow measurements regularly refer to gnomon readings taken at midday.

In summer, the Great Pyramid is indeed shadowless at midday. But not all year round: only for eight months or so. In antiquity, the earth’s axial tilt was 23.8° (slightly greater than the present-day figure of 23.4°), and the Great Pyramid is at latitude 30.0° N; that means that at the winter solstice, the sun’s midday altitude was 36.3°. (Yes, there’s a rounding error in there.) But the slope of the Great Pyramid is 51.9°. Result: shadow.

It’s futile to go looking for alternative pyramids to suit ps.-Hyginus’ report, because there are no good candidates. Pyramids in present-day Egypt are all in the north, with none south of the Fayum, so the difference in the sun’s height at midsummer isn’t nearly great enough to matter. The Nubian pyramids at Meroë, in what is now Sudan, about 200 km north-east of Khartoum, are much further south -- the sun reaches 49.3° above the horizon in midwinter -- but they still get shadows, because they’re much steeper than the Egyptian pyramids (about 70°, as compared with the usual Egyptian angles of 40-50°). If an Egyptian-style pyramid were built at Meroë, it could easily have no midday shadow all year round; but Nubian-style pyramids are just too pointy.

Besides, pretty much every other account of the pyramids makes it clear that they’re talking about the pyramids at Giza. If there’s anything at all to the claims in ps.-Hyginus and Lucian, they must have been thinking of pyramids that are shadowless in limited circumstances: between the spring and autumn equinoxes, at most, and only in the middle part of the day.

So if this shadowlessness is so limited, why did ps.-Hyginus and Lucian find it so striking? There may be a clue in Philon:
The length of the ascent makes it tiring to travel up there, and standing on the peak makes people’s vision darken when they look down at the drop.
-- Philon (of Byzantium?), On the seven wonders 2
Modern visitors aren’t allowed to go climbing up the pyramids. The penalty is three years in prison, if you’re interested. But ancient tourists could. It seems plausible that looking down 146 m, with no shadows in any direction, could have been disorienting and disturbing. The modern lawbreakers who scale the Great Pyramid every few years don’t get to see this, because they have to do it under cover of darkness.

Further reading

  • Brodersen, Kai 2006 [1999]. Die sieben Weltwunder. Legendäre Kunst- und Bauwerke, 7th ed. Munich: C. H. Beck.
  • Clayton, Peter A.; Price, Martin J. (eds.) 1988. The seven wonders of the ancient world. London/New York: Routledge.
  • Roscher, W. H. 1906. Die Hebdomadenlehren der griechischen Philosophen und Ärzte. Abhandlungen der philologisch-historischen Klasse der königl. Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften 24.6. Leipzig: Teubner. pp. 186-193.

Endnote. Lists of the seven wonders

The earliest list, but incomplete, is in the Laterculi Alexandrini, partially preserved on Berlin papyrus 13044 v (late 2nd century BCE) at column 8. Preserved entries: temple of Artemis, pyramids, Mausoleum.

Antipater, Greek anthology 9.58 is the earliest complete list; the same items appear in a different sequence in Greek anthology 8.177; and an incomplete text, Philon’s On the seven wonders (4th/5th cent. CE) is missing the seventh wonder but is otherwise consistent with the two poems. Wall of Babylon; statue of Zeus; hanging gardens; Colossus of Rhodes; pyramids; Mausoleum; temple of Artemis. Philon breaks off before getting to the Mausoleum. These are the only full lists to include the ‘hanging gardens’, but none of the three mentions its location. Pliny Natural history 36.94 places the hanging gardens at Egyptian Thebes, i.e. Luxor; Strabo 16.1.5 places the gardens at Babylon, specifying that they are considered to be among the seven wonders; Gregory of Nazianzos’s reference to Thebes (see below) may support the Egyptian setting.
Correction, July 2018:

Though none of the three (Antipater, Gk. Anth. 8.177, and Philon) mention the gardens’ location, other sources do:
  • Berosus of Babylon, Chaldaean histories book 3, reported in Josephus Ap. 140-141 and J.Ant. 10.225-227;
  • Megasthenes, Indica book 4, reported (with Abydenus as an intermediary source) in Josephus J.Ant. 10.225-227 (= FGrHist 715 F 1a), Eusebius Praep. Ev. 9.41 (= FGrHist 715 F 1b), and Euseb. Armenian Chronica p. 19.13-17 Karst = p. 39 Petermann = pp. 55-6 Aucher Ancyranus (citation of Megasthenes at p. 41 ed. Petermann, mistranslated in Karst);
  • Diodorus of Sicily 2.10.1-6;
  • Q. Curtius Rufus Hist. Alex. 5.1.31-35;
  • Strabo Geography 16.1.5.
I’ve now made a new post (July 2018) with better information on ancient testimony for the hanging gardens. See here.

End correction.

Two more lists which are identical to one another (and in the same sequence) appear in ps.-Hyginus Fabulae 223 and Cassiodorus Variae 7.15. Mostly the same as Antipater, above, but they omit the hanging gardens, and include the palace of Cyrus. Only these two lists include the palace of Cyrus. Cassiodorus adds the city of Rome at the end, as an ‘eighth wonder’.

Gregory of Nazianzos, Oration 43.63 (xxxvi.580 Migne) lists six works, of which four or five also appear on the earlier lists: Thebes in Boeotia; Thebes in Egypt (a reference to the hanging gardens?); walls of Babylon; Mausoleum; pyramids; Colossus.

Late antique and early mediaeval sources start to give very different lists, which typically share only two or three items with the ancient lists: Greek anthology 9.656; Gregory of Tours On the course of stars, preface; (ps.-?)Bede On the seven wonders; and many more. For more mediaeval examples see Brodersen 2006.

References outside lists. Diodorus of Sicily’s Library refers to two edifices ‘numbered among the seven most famous works’: the Great Pyramid (1.63.2, 18.4.5); an obelisk at Babylon (2.11.4-5).

Propertius 3.2.17-26 states that the longevity of his poetry is greater than three items conventionally related to the canonical seven: pyramids; temple of Zeus at Olympia; Mausoleum.

Pliny, Natural history 36.64-100, lists numerous ‘wonders’, including three that normally belong to the canonical seven: pyramids (36.75-76, 78-82); hanging gardens of Egyptian Thebes (36.94); temple of Artemis (36.95-97). Elsewhere he describes the Colossus (34.41), in the middle of a discussion of many colossal statues.

Martial, On spectacles 1.1, lists six items of which four normally belong to the canonical seven: pyramids; wall of Babylon; temple of Artemis; altar of Apollo at Delos; Mausoleum; Flavian amphitheatre (Colosseum).

Strabo’s Geography names five items, separately, stating that they belong to the seven: Colossus (14.2.5); Mausoleum (14.2.16); wall of Babylon (16.1.5); hanging gardens of Babylon (16.1.5); pyramids of Khufu and Khafre (17.1.33). He appears to cite the last as two separate wonders.

John Malalas, Chronography 11.16 (279 Dindorf), names the temple of Hadrian at Cyzicus as ‘one of the wonders’.

(I’m sure I’ve missed other isolated references: I’ll admit I haven’t read Kai Brodersen’s book end to end, and I haven’t been able to read Clayton and Price because someone has it out of the library just now.)

Monday 20 November 2017

West's Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lines deleted in West’s Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

Grand total: 76.

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

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

Lines bracketed in West’s Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand total: 101.

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

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

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

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

Monday 30 October 2017


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

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

So, why not? Let’s do Atlantis.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001)

A story about Atlantis Athens

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

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

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

Of course at that date, and probably to the end of his life, Plato presumably had no idea just how far Macedonian influence was going to end up spreading ... but let’s not criticise him for being a poor fortune-teller.
Map of the main city of Atlantis, as described by Plato Critias 115d-116a and 117d-e. Plato gives exact distances in stadia; in the legend I’ve adopted the rate of 185 metres to the stadion. The outermost canal around the citadel is 27 stadia in diameter (ca. 5 km).

Critias and his ‘sources’

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s pretty much the situation we’ve got with the Atlantis story. To any modern reader, my Hitler-Goethe story is obviously farcical. To Plato’s contemporaries, the Critias-Solon story would have sounded exactly as farcical as that.
Plato’s description of the circular design and canals of Atlantis crop up in most modern depictions: see the Disney film (above), and here, the classic adventure puzzle game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (LucasArts, 1992), widely regarded by its players as the proper sequel to the classic Indiana Jones films.


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

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

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

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

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

It just so happens that in the course of these occasional disasters, Athens always reemerged from the waters, and so survived to the present day. Atlantis, whose chief city was in the middle of a vast coastal plain about half the size of California, did not.
The Disney Atlantis isn’t just based on Plato: it takes much of its design inspiration from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, which is in turn based on the flying city of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Left: stills from Castle in the Sky (Studio Ghibli, 1986). Right: stills from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001). Note the repetition not just of the circular city (which is also in Swift), but also the robot sentinels, and the glowing blue crystal pendants -- which must surely owe something to the fantasies of the occultist Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), who imagined that Atlanteans used precious stones to harness the energies of the earth and sun.
This is also the context for Aristotle’s more serious discussion of the mud that supposedly blocks off the Atlantic:
The same parts of the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence and dry up. And so the relation of land to sea changes too and a place does not always remain land or sea throughout all time, but where there was dry land there comes to be sea, and where theres is now sea, there one day comes to be dry land. ...

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

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

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Black Romans

Governors of Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary figures

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

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

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

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

Some notable Christian writers

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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