Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Top posts of 2020

I’m well aware how lucky I am to have been living in New Zealand in 2020. Still, I’ve had multiple personal reasons why much of 2020 has been an annus horribilis anyway. This year has had some bright spots — the astounding speed of the vaccine development, the continuing decline of fossil fuels, the reappearance of Boba Fett and Luke Skywalker — but not enough to make up for the bad.

Now, at last, 2020 is hindsight. Good riddance.

This is not how the ancient Greeks discovered the shape of the earth.

Visits to Kiwi Hellenist this year have been evenly split between 2020 articles and older ones. So this year, this list is a combo: the old and the new.

  1. The Epic Cycle wasn’t as popular as you think (10 Feb.). Fans of the Trojan War legend tend to idolise the Epic Cycle. I pretty much agree. Unfortunately, the ancients didn’t feel the same way. They just didn’t read the poems. Most ancient understanding of them was filtered through prose versions, like myth encyclopaedias.
  2. An oldie: Why are there no Romans named ‘Quartus’? (Apr. 2018). I’m guessing people are still reading this piece because, it seems, it’s the only article on the internet that covers the question. Names like ‘Marcus’, ‘Quintus’, ‘Sextus’, and ‘Decimus’ come from month names (March, Quintilis, Sextilis, and December). The first four months of the early Roman calendar didn’t have number names, so there are no personal names corresponding to those numbers.
  3. Stripping myths down to a historical core (part 1) (29 Jun.). This piece was more popular than its follow-up in July — maybe because of its focus on the fact that Troy was never lost (despite what Schliemann wants you to think), or maybe because part 1 was headed by Total War: Troy imagery. There’s also a timeline here of the ‘battle of Bunarbashi’, as Rachel Davies has called it (and again, my piece seems to be the only place on the internet you’ll find such a thing). By the way, I was grateful to be allowed to contribute a condensed version of this — omitting Schliemann but including Euhemerus (from part 2) — to the SCS blog in October, under the title ‘Truth behind myth: video games and the recreation of the Trojan War’.
  4. Detecting the earth’s curvature (23 Jan.). I loved writing this one, so I’m glad people enjoyed it. The key points: (1) Ships going over the horizon are not how the earth’s shape was discovered. (2) The discovery came from astronomical observations. It was probably partly to do with the angle between the plane of the ecliptic and the plane of the celestial equator.
  5. Lucian’s parody of the book of Revelation (31 Aug.). Again, this was fun to write, partly because it seems so clear-cut to me, and partly because it seems to be poorly known, and poorly accepted. Modern observers are weirdly resistent to recognising the parody, even though it’s such a close parody, even though Lucian had every opportunity to read Christian texts, and even though it’s clear he was totally unaware of the traditional Jewish motifs that Revelation was drawing on.
One thing that happened this year was a major new game, Hades (not related to the Disney film above), which has been extremely well received. I’m pondering a piece on it for early next year.
  1. Another oldie: Who preserved Greek literature? (Part 1) (Dec. 2019). This was late in 2019, so it’s unsurprising that it continued to get some hits into 2020. It took me six months to write its sequel ...
  2. Who preserved Greek literature? (Part 2) (12 Jun.). Part 1 made the point that we don’t rely on mediaeval Arabic transmission at all for modern editions of ancient Greek texts, except in very sparse cases. Part 2 gives the true story. Both parts emphasise that the false narrative is strongly flavoured with prejudice against Byzantine Greeks and racism against modern Greeks. It strikes me that it seems to go hand-in-hand with the myth that modern Greeks aren’t descended from the ancient Greeks: Spencer Alexander McDaniel gives an excellent debunking of that myth here. Yes, I do think it’s that blatantly racist. The myth about modern Greek ethnicity isn’t a quirk of the 19th century. I’ve heard it in person from living classical scholars in Cambridge (‘They’re all Balkan immigrants anyway, aren’t they?’), and it’s a major component in scholars’ resistence to modern Greek pronunciation. Some of the responses to Spencer’s piece on Quora are spine-chilling.
  3. Two oldies occupy the 3rd and 2nd places. First, Shanties in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (Jan. 2019), giving a transcription of the sea shanties sung by the ship’s crew in this hit game. I imagine the popularity of this article will start to decline once the next good Assassin’s Creed game comes out.
  4. The other oldie is Salt and salary: were Roman soldiers paid in salt? (Jan. 2017). This piece has been a hit for years — mostly, I’m guessing, because a couple of relevant Wikipedia articles have links to it. As of this year, it is now my most heavily visited piece of all time.

But that still wasn’t enough to beat this piece from 2020 —

(drum roll)

  1. How to make sense of ancient Greek colours (20 May). This topic is under a consistent barrage of misinformation, so I’m glad to help out in the huge task of repairing the damage. So much gets said on this topic by people who can’t be arsed to learn languages. Yes, the ancient Greeks could see blue. Yes, they had words for it. The misunderstanding comes from the fact that English suffers from disuse of terms for distinct parts of the blue side of the spectrum. English-speakers routinely assume that any well-designed colour terminology ought to have the same lack of distinctions.

The top three articles account for 54% of all visits.

And now, on to 2021. May the memories of 2020 fade quickly. But may we not forget those whose lives were lost because of politicians’ apathy.


  1. I love a good myth busting article.

  2. The most oppressed group of all: modern Greeks. I'm sorry, I know it's a serious issue but white on white crime always seems so fun to me, especially in a year so blatantly racist as 2020.