Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Top posts of 2019

Another year has passed, and who knows what the new one will bring? More illicit papyrus sales? An intact Hellenistic library in a cave in Afghanistan? A new Bronze Age shipwreck? More refined techniques for detecting ancient ink inside carbonised scrolls from Herculaneum?
But ‘Romans go home’ is an order, so you must use the ...?
We’ll find out as we go. 2020 isn’t hindsight -- not for another year, anyway. With that in mind, here are the most popular posts from 2019.
  1. Learning Latin: why conjugations? (5 September). Memorising a single pattern with two exceptions is way easier than memorising four separate patterns. But do note the criticism someone left about how I conflated thematic vowels with other kinds of epenthetic vowels. Technical, but true. I erred.
  2. Titans and Olympians (14 June). The Olympians overcoming the Titans aren’t a symbol for the Mycenaeans overcoming the Minoans. The two groups are very much baked into Greek mythology. Still, here’s something interesting: the succession myth is Mesopotamian in origin, but the ‘two families of gods’ thing seems to be Indo-European. Or maybe we should just give up on treating Titans and Olympians as separate families.
  3. Why maps have north at the top (31 July). Yes, there is a reason, and his name is Ptolemy. (Which direction was up on the maps made by Eratosthenes and Marinus? We may never know.)
  4. Bad Latin in the movies: Constantine (2005) (13 June). John Constantine’s demons speak Latin. Bad Latin, at that. Silly film writers! Everyone knows real demons speak Klingon. (I’ve heard rumours Keanu would like to do a sequel: maybe, for that, they could switch to bad Hebrew. Or maybe they’ll do that for the new Bill & Ted.)
  5. Upward attribution and ‘Go tell the Spartans’ (20 February). Simonides didn’t write ‘Go tell the Spartans’: he’s the punchline to a just-so story. Upward attribution strikes again -- and it’s such a pervasive thing that it really ought to take off as a technical term in literary criticism. Let’s make 2020 the year of #UpwardAttribution!
  6. Bad Latin in the movies: Life of Brian (1979) (21 June). Brian’s Latin lesson from a grouchy centurion has inspired many generations of anglophone Latin students. I’ve still got no idea whether versions of the film dubbed into other languages have had a similar effect. (If your Latin is good enough to spot what’s wrong with the centurion’s explanation of domum, in any language, then give yourself an A.)
  7. The ‘FCM’ scandal: a timeline (2 July). How do you solve a problem like Dirk Obbink? / Where do you buy a papyrus of the Bible? / How do you find the word that means Dirk Obbink? / I’d better not write the next line because of libel.
  8. The golden ratio (27 February). Who’d have thought it -- Donald Duck, responsible for a really widely believed myth about ancient Greek architecture. I hope it was obvious that all the illustrations in this post were in golden ratio proportions. Hey, maybe there’ll be another Donal Duck cartoon one day that claims Hippasus was murdered by his fellow Pythagoreans for revealing the existence of irrational numbers. (For reference, I covered that one back in 2015. That story’s false too, but it is at least an ancient story.)
Some artists have used the golden ratio -- just not Pheidias, even though the golden ratio was named φ for him. Left: Salvador Dali’s Last supper (1955), which uses the golden ratio and Fibonacci numbers in several ways. Right: Leonardo da Vinci’s illustration of a hollow dodecahedron for Pacioli’s Divina proportione (1509; plate xxviii), the book that ignited interest in the golden ratio in the modern era.
  1. Who preserved Greek literature? (10 December). Arab scholars were integral to the development of mathematics, medicine, and western philosophy. But they shouldn’t have a big role in the story of how ancient Greek texts were preserved. This post never did get around to explaining the true story of how ancient Greek texts were preserved, and some people called me out on that -- quite rightly. So it’s now re-titled as ‘Part 1’. Stand by for Part 2 in the new year.
This number two post squeaked in right near the end of the year, but it never really stood a chance of catching up with this year’s runaway winner --

(drum roll)
  1. Shanties in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (31 January). People really like finding out what their ancient Greek sailors are singing. I do find it sad that the writers of the shanties didn’t talk to someone who could have pointed them to copies of the Anacreontea and Homeric Hymns without typos, but I still respect the effort. I mean, they translated the title song into ancient Greek too, to the same tune as the English version -- and with fewer grammatical errors than you might expect.
On to 2020. Excelsior!

1 comment:

  1. I could be totally off and making a bad mistake, but still I have to note: should it rather be Excelsius? Likelihood is that I’m comparing it to phrases like Citius, altius, fortius! The meaning maybe being, “Onwards and upwards!” or, “To higher heights!” But I could be thinking this wrong.

    As to the Greek transmission, one should see the bigger picture: the cultures of the Mediterranean—also farther inland—have been in contact with each other for millennia. Ancient Greece was greatly influenced by more eastern cultures, and a millennium or so from Alexander the Great the mediaeval Arabo-Islamic culture absorbed large portions of the Ancient Greek culture, mainly in philosophy and sciences (for instance, Arabic فلسفة [falsafa] < φιλοσοφία). The Mediaeval Arabo-Islamic culture made countless contributions to these disciplines (between ca. 900–1200), and they were then absorbed by the Mediaeval Europe, which obviously in its turn began to make countless contributions on these.

    This is a rough skeleton of how these connexions should be understood. And yes, it’s not quite the same as the transmission of the Ancient Greek literature, even though some texts are (as you mention) preserved only as an Arabic translation.

    For instance Dimitri Gutas’ book Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (1998) describes one part of this chain of influences.

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