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 trespassers, 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.

Commentators quickly pointed out that Gaetz evidently 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 problematic tweet 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 self-proclaimed ‘Spartans’. (Incidentally, there have been several 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 enslaved ethnic group.)

3. It wasn’t a racial conflict. There were more Greeks fighting for Xerxes at the battle than against him. Herodotus reports a figure of 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 it was still more than the 11,000 or so southerners defending the pass. There’s an excellent chance that the defenders were slain by Greeks. 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 Fascists 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. The actual royal guard was 100 in number, not 300, and their function was to protect the king(s) while officially on campaign (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; BNF 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.


  • Gainsford, P. 2008. ‘Achilles’ views on death: succession and the Odyssey.’ Classical Bulletin 84.2: 7-26. [Zenodo]
  • —— 2012. ‘The deaths of Beowulf and Odysseus: narrative time and mythological story-types.’ Classica et Mediaevalia 63: 247-278. [Zenodo]
  • Powell, B. 2009. Classical myth, 6th ed. New York: Pearson.
  • Stanford, W. B. 1959 [1947]. The Odyssey of Homer, 2nd ed., vol. 1. London: St Martin’s Press.
  • Vernant, J.-P. 1981. ‘Death with two faces.’ Tr. J. Lloyd. In: Humphries, S. C.; King, H. (eds.) Mortality and immortality: the anthropology and archaeology of death. London: Academic Press. 285-291.