Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Greek contempt for archers

Vain archer! trusting to the distant dart,
Unskill'd in arms to act a manly part!
Thou hast but done what boys or women can;
Such hands may wound, but not incense a man.
Nor boast the scratch thy feeble arrow gave,
A coward's weapon never hurts the brave.
-- Alexander Pope, The Iliad 11.493-8
(inspired by Homeric Iliad 11.385 and 388-90)
In the Iliad, these words are spoken in battle by the hero Diomedes, straight after he has been injured by an arrow. It's not surprising he's cross. The question is whether his animus against archers is typical. Did the Greeks despise archers?

Heracles shooting arrows: sculpture from east pediment, temple of Athena Aphaia, Aigina, ca. 500-480 BCE. Glyptothek, Munich (source:

Spoiler alert: it's pretty much a myth. It's not quite simply flat-out false: it's at least true that different weaponry kits did have certain social implications. But it definitely wasn't a case of 'swords good, bows bad'. The position of archery in ancient Greek perceptions of warfare isn't a matter of moral character, and it doesn't have its roots in aristocratic prestige. It's about economic practicalities and material costs.

Yes, ancient sources will occasionally set archers in opposition to hoplites -- that is, spear-warriors, like the Spartans in the film 300 -- but if you read those sources in context, they're never quite that straightforward. In the Iliad passage, above, Diomedes' critique of archery comes in the context that an archer has just successfully beaten him in combat. Of course he's cross at archers!

Some relatively experienced people fall for the myth too. Here's one writer who should know better:
When the hoplite dominated Greek warfare, archers were generally looked down upon as men who lacked the bravery to engage in hand-to-hand combat. A fairly typical utterance is 'the measure of a man is not archery; rather he who stands fast in his rank and gazes unflinchingly at the swift gash of the spear [is a brave man]' (Euripides, Heracles, 190-192). This attitude may have existed as early as the Lelantine War if the evidence for the ban on missile weapons during this conflict has any value. The attitude probably developed even further with Greek exposure to foreigners such as the Persians and Scythians, who used the bow and not the spear as their principal weapon.
-- Iain Spence, Historical dictionary of ancient Greek warfare (2002), p. 59
Spence treats the status of archery as purely a moral thing, and that distorts things badly. First, an incidental correction: Spence's Euripides quotation comes from Heracles lines 162-4, not lines 190-2.

1. Says who? Spence treats the sentiment as 'typical'. This requires forgetting that the speaker in the play, Lycus, is no ethical paradigm: he's unquestionably a villain, a usurper and tyrant, who wants to murder Heracles' family unjustly, for no reason other than just to be a complete bastard. He is not typical.

2. Fair and balanced? Haha, no. Picking out Lycus' testimony is a really really bad case of cherry-picking. Spence cites Lycus' words at 162-4, but neglects to mention lines 188-203, where Amphitryon answers Lycus' claim and rejects it completely. Amphitryon speaks of a hoplite as someone who is 'slave to his arms' and to his neighbours in the battle-line. He also argues that archery is tactically superior. That doesn't mean that's Euripides' own verdict on the subject, of course! But it does show that it's tendentious to call Lycus' words 'a fairly typical utterance'. Amphitryon, the good guy of the scene, gets the last word.

3. The Lelantine War. Spence's second piece of evidence is a treaty according to which archery was supposedly banned during the Lelantine War. Even at the best of times, the Lelantine War poses historiographical problems. It's a very early war, and our earliest testimony about it is nearly 200 years later than the war itself. Evidence for the supposed archery ban is weaker still -- so weak that it undermines the story more than it supports it. The earliest sources for the war, Herodotus and Thucydides, make no mention of any ban. The ban only appears in Polybius and Strabo, another few centuries later. And Strabo's testimony makes it clear that the alleged treaty wasn't about archery, but about all forms of ballistic missile -- and at the time of the war, that would have included spears as well as bows! In other words, this supposed treaty banned both of the two weapons most commonly associated with aristocratic warriors. In the present day, consensus is that the ban was almost certainly invented by Polybius' and Strabo's source, Ephorus of Cyme, a historian who wrote ca. 350 BCE, some decades after Herodotus and Thucydides. Why did Ephorus come up with the story? Well, in light of Strabo's reference to all missiles rather than bows and arrows, Wheeler (1987) suggests that Ephorus' concerns were probably not about archery at all: he may have been thinking of early 4th century BCE developments in large artillery.

Odysseus slaughters the suitors: illustration by John Flaxman, 1805 (photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported))

In 5th century BCE sources it is possible to detect a less high regard for light-armed troops than for hand-to-hand hoplites. That's not really about archery, though: it's more to do with the class connotations of being a hoplite. Hoplite arms were very expensive -- much more expensive than being a slinger, or what the Greeks called a peltast (peltastēs), that is, a javelineer. Hoplites were more prestigious because they were richer; light-armed troops were proles. It wasn't about archery itself, it was about economic class. That didn't stop 5th-4th century combatants from recognising the advantages of ranged warfare (see for example Xenophon Anabasis 3.3.6-10). In the late 5th century, throughout the Peloponnesian War, whenever hoplites came into conflict with light troops, the hoplites consistently got massacred if they didn't have support from their own light troops or cavalry. The first ever time that a band of Spartan hoplites threw down their shields and surrendered unconditionally in a land battle was when they were utterly trounced by an army consisting of archers, peltasts, and slingers. It's hard to argue with success.

I wonder if people are tempted to see hoplites of the Classical period as successors to Homeric heroes. Well, in a way: there's a certain continuity in their armour. But not in their tactics. Hoplites fought in phalanxes; Homeric heroes fight in melee (or if they do fight in phalanxes, it's far from obvious). And they don't use their spears in hand-to-hand combat, as Classical hoplites did. They throw them. Homeric heroes are all warriors-at-a-distance.

Now, that's not to say that Achilles is a peltast. Iliadic combat is in a kind of in-between state. At the time of the Iliad, in the second quarter of the 7th century BCE, Greek warfare saw a transformation in the use of spears: pictorial depictions show a transition from soldiers holding multiple spears, evidently for throwing, to a single spear, evidently for hand-to-hand combat. There are hints of the same transition within the Iliad: in combat, spears are always thrown, but when Patroclus is arming for battle he takes two regular spears rather than Achilles' one special ultra-heavy spear (Iliad 16.139-144; the special spear appears again at 19.387-391); and it's only through divine intervention that Achilles gets to have two spear casts at Hector (22.273-277). Patroclus' two spears sound like peltast javelins; Achilles' one special spear sounds a bit more like a hoplite weapon.

Be that as it may. Spear-throwing is relevant -- it would have been banned under the mythical Lelantine War treaty, remember -- but it's archery that we're here to talk about.

Archery was prestigious, not contemptible. Do we really need to spell out that the supremacy of Heracles and Odysseus in battle was largely thanks to their prowess in archery? Or that archery is key to winning the Trojan War in Sophocles' play Philoctetes? Or that one of the most revered gods of the Greeks, Apollo, was an archer god? Or that among aristeiai in the Iliad -- that is, setpiece scenes where a Greek hero excels in battle and goes on a rampage -- one of the outstanding heroes is an archer, Teukros? (a.k.a. Teucer; the brief aristeia is at Iliad 15.442-483, with an arming scene unusually at the end, 478-483.) Or that the greatest warrior at Troy, Achilles, is laid low by an archer? Or that in Archaic depictions of sympotic scenes, when aristocratic homes have weaponry hanging on a wall as decoration, that weaponry will typically be shields, swords, and bows, and only rarely spears?

'Teucer', by Hamo Thornycroft, 1881 (photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)). (Backdrops can be deceiving: this statue is 2.4 m high!)

No matter how many positive icons I mention, it'll just never be enough, it seems, to dispel the idea that the Greeks despised archers. Because one particular archer outweighs them all in the popular imagination: Paris. Other characters in the Iliad really have it in for him. Diomedes' rant, at the start of this post, is aimed at Paris. And here's how Paris' brother Hector addresses him at one point:
Hector berated him when he saw, using harsh words:
'Wretched Paris! Beauty specialist, woman-crazy seducer,
if only you had never been born, that you had died without marrying!
I genuinely mean that: it would really have been much better
than to be a disgrace and have others roll their eyes at you. ...'
-- Iliad 3.38-42
And so on. Later, Paris' wife Helen scolds him for not being on the battlefield (3.427-436); further on Hector and Helen both lambast him at the same time (6.325-353); and then of course we get Diomedes' rant in book 11.

Other characters' loathing of him is so marked that he seems to have become iconic of all archers. Even within the Iliad, other archers like Teukros and Meriones should show that Paris is no model. And neither Hector nor Helen reproaches him for being an archer. It's only Diomedes that does that, and of course that's because he's just been beaten. In fact, Hector is very complimentary about Paris' abilities in combat (even if Paris wasn't good enough to stand up to Menelaus in a spear-duel in book 3):
In answer shining-helmed Hector addressed him:
'You oddball! No man who is reasonable
would ever dishonour your action in battle: you're a sturdy guy!
It's that you give up willingly, or you're unwilling. That's why my heart
grieves in my spirit, when I hear shameful things about you
from the Trojans, who have long suffering on your account. ...'
-- Iliad 6.520-525
Archery is one of his virtues, not a flaw. It's how he beats Diomedes; one day (not in the Iliad), Achilles himself will become another victim. Paris is so unconquerable with his favoured weapon that one day (again, not in the Iliad), the Greeks will have to bring in another archer specially, just to get rid of him: Philoctetes, armed with the bow and arrows of Heracles himself.

Actually the most damning thing said about archers in the Iliad has nothing to do with Paris. It's about the Locrians, mainland Greeks led by Aias son of Oileus:
Now, the Locrians were not there with great-hearted Oileus' son:
for their heart did not stand fast in close battle,
for they didn't have bronze horse-haired helmets,
and they didn't have circular shields and ash spears;
but in the bow and fine-spun sheep wool (i.e. slings)
they trusted when they came to Ilios. ...
-- Iliad 13.712-717
Not sturdy enough to be there with the front fighters -- sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? (Note, incidentally, how being in the front line involves using a spear? That ain't how people use spears in the Iliad...) Yet even here, the narrator recognises that it's more about tactics than about prestige. Of course you don't put slingers in the front line. Once again, it's hard to argue with success --
... As a result, with those (weapons)
they would break through the lines of the Trojans by shooting.
-- Iliad 13.717-718


  • Van Wees, H. 1994. 'The Homeric way of war: the Iliad and the hoplite phalanx.' Greece & Rome 41.1: 1-18, 41.2: 131-155.
  • Wheeler, Everett L. 1987. 'Ephorus and the prohibition of missiles.' Transactions of the American Philological Association 117: 157-182.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Did Thales predict a solar eclipse?

In the late afternoon of 28 May 585 BCE, a total solar eclipse took place over central Anatolia. It is widely believed, almost certainly rightly, that a reference to this eclipse appears in Herodotus:
A war went on between the Lydians and the Medes for five years. The Medes often beat the Lydians, the Lydians often beat the Medes. There was even a night battle, of a sort. They were evenly matched in the war, and when there was an encounter in the sixth year, during the battle it happened that day suddenly became night.
-- Herodotus 1.74
Herodotus, writing about 160 years after the event, goes on to tell us that the Lydians and Medes were so impressed by this that they got two external arbitrators to broker a peace treaty between them, with marriage ties.

What are we talking about, exactly?

Even at this point, there's room for endless quibbling:
  • Where did the battle take place? It's often thought to have been at the Halys river (the modern Kızılırmak), but that's just a guess based on the fact that the Halys was an important natural boundary to Lydian territory.
  • Which eclipse was it? Several other candidates have been proposed. For the record, the 585 BCE eclipse is by far the best choice. Here are maps from Gautschy 2012 showing the path of the moon's shadow for each of the eclipses that have been proposed: 30 Sep. 610; 18 May 603; 28 May 585; 21 Sep. 582; 16 Mar. 581. Note that e.g. '-584' = 585 BCE. The path of the moon's umbra (path of totality) is shown in red; surrounding lines indicate magnitude 0.9, or 90% totality; 0.8; 0.7; and 0.5. Around 600 BCE there's about 2° uncertainty in longitude -- ΔT, as the astronomers call it -- and this is reflected in the multiple bands of red, for the possible paths of totality. The trouble is that while the competing eclipses would have been visible, not one of them would have produced significant dimming. Hughes (2000) has calculated that, based on human perception of ambient lighting, anything less than a 3 point change in the sun's apparent magnitude may go completely unnoticed unless you happen to look directly at the sun and directly observe that it is partly hidden. And, Hughes goes on to show, this corresponds to an eclipse of magnitude 0.937 or greater -- that is, concealing 93.7% of the sun. (Remember that stellar magnitude is a logarithmic scale.) None of the other four eclipses achieved better than magnitude 0.7 -- a change in the sun's brightness of only 1 point of magnitude. The dramatic dimming associated with total eclipses is very sudden, and only happens within about four minutes of totality.
Graph from Hughes 2000, showing eclipse magnitude (= α/2) versus brightness (sun's apparent magnitude). Coloured elements are added by me, with approximate figures for eclipse magnitudes as seen in north-central Turkey based on Gautschy 2012.
  • Was it actually a solar eclipse? Herodotus says 'the day suddenly became night' (τὴν ἡμέρην ἐξαπίνης νύκτα γενέσθαι). He uses the same phrasing about the same battle at 1.103, and when talking about a different incident in 480 BCE at 7.37. The trouble is, there was definitely no historical eclipse corresponding to the incident in 7.37. Herodotus uses slightly different phrasing at 9.10 ('the sun became dim in the sky', ὁ ἥλιος ἀμαυρώθη ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ), and that could conceivably be a mag. 0.6 eclipse on 2 October 480 BCE -- except that a 0.6 eclipse wouldn't produce significant dimming. And none of these are remotely as clear as Thucydides' descriptions of partial solar eclipses on 3 August 431 (Thuc. 2.28; mag. 0.88) and 21 March 424 (Thuc. 4.52; mag. 0.71), or a lunar eclipse in the wee hours of 28 August 413 (Thuc. 7.50; total).
But let's leave all that for now, because it's just good old debate and no one's in any danger of serious misunderstandings from it. The thing that makes Herodotus' eclipse famous -- we'll take it for granted for now that it was an eclipse -- is that he also tells us that it had been predicted beforehand by Thales, a Greek sage.

Herodotus' report

Herodotus isn't the only source to tell us that Thales predicted an eclipse. But all the other relevant sources are very probably derived entirely from Herodotus, with some distortions along the way. So they're not independent: they have very little corroborative value, if any. Still, here they are, for what they're worth, in chronological order:
Clement, in particular, indicates that an important lost source, Eudemus of Rhodes (4th cent. BCE), was simply based on Herodotus. The only hint of independence here is in Cicero, who states that Astyages was on the Lydian throne at the time of the incident: in Herodotus, Astyages' father Cyaxares was still around. In other respects, unfortunately, Cicero's report is terse and vague.

The upshot is that we depend entirely on Herodotus for an account of what Thales actually predicted. So let's take a look at what Herodotus actually says:
τὴν δὲ μεταλλαγὴν ταύτην τῇ ἡμέρης Θαλῆς ὁ Μιλήσιος τοῖσι Ἴωσι προηγόρευσε ἔσεσθαι, οὖρον προθέμενος ἐνιαυτὸν τοῦτον ἐν τῷ δὴ καὶ ἐγένετο ἡ μεταβολή.

Thales of Miletus had advised the Ionians in advance that this transformation would happen, setting this year as a boundary, in which the change did in fact take place.
-- Herodotus 1.74
'Setting this year as a boundary'? This is not a report of someone predicting that an eclipse -- or whatever it was -- would happen on a specific day. What Herodotus actually claims is that Thales predicted in which year this 'transformation' would occur. To call that 'predicting an eclipse' is a colossal stretch.

How could Thales have predicted an eclipse anyway?

The simplest customary answer to this question is: he must have discovered that solar eclipses come in Saros cycles, just like lunar eclipses do.

A Saros cycle is a period of 223 lunar months which governs all eclipses, both solar and lunar. This period is determined by three simultaneous periodic movements of the earth-moon-sun system (the moon's orbit relative to the sun, the moon's orbit relative to the stars, and orbital precession) which which come very close to coinciding with one another after 223 lunar months.

In other words: if you have an eclipse at t = 0, you will have another eclipse at t = 18 years, 11 days, 7 hours, and 42 minutes. (Subtract one day if that period includes five leap years.) A Saros series doesn't last forever, because those periodic movements I mentioned aren't perfectly regular -- but it's pretty close: it will last for 1230 to 1550 years. Plenty long enough for ancient astronomers to notice it!

And, indeed, long before Thales came along, the Babylonians had already discovered the Saros cycle as it relates to lunar eclipses. So, hey, it's obvious: Thales must have discovered that solar eclipses follow the same cycle, right?

And that would be absolutely completely dead wrong. Here's why. A lunar eclipse is when the earth casts its shadow on the moon. As a result, the eclipse is visible from anywhere on that side of the earth. A solar eclipse is when the moon casts its shadow on the earth. As a result, the eclipse is only visible on that part of the earth which happens to be shadowed by the moon.

The solar eclipse of 8-9 March 2016, as viewed by the NASA-NOAA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). (source:

If you see a solar eclipse at the start of month 0, it's possible to see another eclipse 223 months later. But, because the Saros cycle isn't perfectly regular, you'll only see the second eclipse if you move south and west far enough to compensate for that irregularity, and for the fact that the end of the lunar month will fall 7 hours and 42 minutes later in the day. Solar eclipses may happen every 223 months, but there's absolutely no possible way for an ancient astronomer to have seen them every 223 months.

But wait, not so fast. If the 223 month period means that each eclipse is 7 hours and 42 minutes later in the day, that'll eventually wrap round, right? After three Saros cycles, you'll get another eclipse that's 23 hours and 7 minutes later -- pretty close to 24 hours. Put another way, you'll get an eclipse that's 53 minutes earlier in the day. That could be a realistic way to see solar eclipses! And in fact Greek astronomers had a technical term for this period of three Saros cycles, 669 lunar months or 54 years and 32 days: they called this period an exeligmos.

But wait again: yes, the exeligmos cycle was known to Greek astronomers -- 500 years after Thales' time, mind -- but to predict an eclipse on 28 May 585 BCE using the exeligmos cycle, you would need to have observed the eclipse one exeligmos earlier on 26 April 639 BCE. Unfortunately, that eclipse never got as far as Thales. Sunset intervened. The eclipsed sun set below the horizon while the moon's shadow was still over Estonia. Eclipses before that are even worse: the earlier in the exeligmos series you go, the earlier sunset puts an end to the eclipse.

This is why many people who have faith in Thales -- or rather, Herodotus' vague and poorly described version of Thales -- tend to opt for other eclipses. The 28 May 585 BCE eclipse is actually pretty hard to predict. But as we saw earlier, none of the rival candidates would have darkened the sky noticeably.

No one has any good theories on how Thales might have predicted the 28 May 585 eclipse. The astronomer Miguel Querejeta (2011) has rejected two leading candidates, and one of the targets of his criticism, Couprie (2004), rejects several more.

One thing is certain: there were no genuine techniques in Thales' time for predicting solar eclipses. Genuine predictions didn't start to emerge until around the 4th century BCE in Babylonian astronomy, and the 3rd century CE in Chinese astronomy (Steele 1997, 1998). The simple reason is that solar eclipses are really sodding hard to predict: because they are very localised, they require an awful lot of very precise observations, and observations of them are very tightly constrained by the geographical location of the observer.

We'd better not go too hard on Thales, though. He may not have predicted an eclipse -- and there's not much reason even to think he did, given how vaguely Herodotus describes his 'prediction' -- but he was a creature of his time. Like all Greek thinkers until the late 400s BCE, he imagined the earth as a flat disc: he believed the earth was like a wooden disc floating in water, as Aristotle and other later writers report (Couprie 2011: 63-7; see Thales frs. A.14, A.15 Diels-Kranz). On the other hand, we have testimony suggesting that he did get some things right. We have (1) two reports that Thales explained the light of the moon as the moon being illuminated by the sun (fr. A.17b D-K; p. Oxy. 3710, col. ii lines 38-43); (2) one report that he explained solar eclipses as being caused by the moon screening the sun (fr. A.17a D-K); and (3) one report that he discovered the periodic nature of eclipses and how 'they are not always exactly equal' (fr. A.17 D-K). What does the last of these mean? Maybe the fact that the Saros cycle isn't an integer number of days. He was no eclipse-predictor, but if half of these reports are true, he was not half bad as an astronomer.


Monday, 10 April 2017

Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned?

'Nero, and the burning of Rome', by M. de Lipman. Illustration in H. Sienkiewicz, Quo vadis (Philadelphia, 1897).
The impartial page of history informs us, that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
-- Dr Peter Crompton, campaigning for election in Liverpool in 1820, reported in Memoirs of the life of the Right Honourable George Canning (1828), p. 293
Nero fiddled while Rome burned ... say this in public nowadays, and you'll have a horde of angry purists clamouring at your gates to tell you how wrong you are. (Actually, based on past experience, it's more likely to be a hoard.)

By the way, the sentiment is a lot older than 1820. It's just that this appears to be the earliest occurrence of the exact phrasing, 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned'. Earlier writers came up with similar ideas, just not the same wording --
                                   and like thee, Nero,
(I'll) play on the lute, beholding the towns burn:
wretched shall France be only in my name.
-- Marlowe and others,1 Henry VI part 1 (ca. 1591-1595), Act 1 Scene 4
I have a fiddler heard him (i.e. Nero), let me not
see him a player ...
-- Anon., The tragedy of Nero (1624), Act 3 Scene 3
1 Yes, really. No, it's not a conspiracy theory. Shakespearean scholars have long suspected that the Henry VI plays were collaborations, but three stylometric analyses now point independently to Marlowe, specifically, as responsible for most of Part 1 -- perhaps along with others. See Craig's chapter in Shakespeare, computers, and the mystery of authorship (2012); Segarra et al. in Shakespeare quarterly 67 (2016) 232-56 (subscription needed); and The new Oxford Shakespeare: authorship companion (2017), pp. 513-17. The work of Arefin et al. in PLoS ONE 9.10 (2014) suggests that Marlowe may have been involved in a wide range of plays, maybe more active as a collaborator than as an independent writer. The new Oxford Shakespeare takes a more radical line, assigning Henry VI part 1 to Nashe (Act 1), Marlowe (most of Acts 3 and 5), and an anonymous other, with Shakespeare's role reduced to adapting their play in the mid-1590s. I won't stick my neck out that far, but Marlowe's role appears to be beyond doubt.

These and other earlier references were gathered by Mary Francis Gyles in an excellent article, '"Nero fiddled while Rome burned"', which appeared in 1947 (here's an open-access copy).

So, is it completely mythical, as the modern-day purists will insist? Well, in a sense, yes. But there are also senses in which it is most definitely not a mere myth. A true answer has to be more nuanced. Here's mine:
  • In the letter, it is of course trivially false: the Romans didn't have fiddles. (They did have a thing called a fidicula, 'a small lyre', but Gyles shows that there's no evidence linking that specific word to Nero.)
  • In spirit, though, 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned' is precisely what the surviving evidence tells us.
  • However, that evidence is almost certainly flawed.
So it's not literally true, it's probably not metaphorically true either, but there is a kind of truth to it. The thing that is true is that it is a very ancient myth: a form of it existed within a few years of Nero's death, maybe even during his lifetime.

'But I am aware that I must compete with those who sang at the burning of Troy. My song must be greater, just as Rome is greater than Troy!' Peter Ustinov as Nero (Quo vadis, 1951; YouTube link).

Wait, what? '"Nero fiddled while Rome burned" is what the evidence tells us'? -- but ... surely there are loads of popular accounts telling us that there's no evidence of this! Surely no one on the internet would lie?

Well, yes, in fact there is plenty of evidence. Provided that we forget about literal fiddles, and pay attention to the underlying idea: being frivolous when a desperately urgent problem is at hand.

Here is that evidence, warts and all. There are three pieces of testimony: they are Tacitus (writing ca. 110-120 CE), Suetonius (ca. 120-140 CE?), and Cassius Dio (ca. 211-229 CE).
Though these measures [Nero's response to the fire] were populist in nature, they proved ineffectual, because the rumour had got around that at the very time when the city was in flames, he had gone onto the stage in his home and sung the Destruction of Troy, representing the evils of the present with a disaster of antiquity.
Viewing this conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, he rejoiced in 'the beauty of the fire', as he put it. He sang the Sack of Ilion in his usual stage costume.
While everyone else was in this state, and many were even leaping into the fire itself because of their suffering, Nero climbed up to the top of his palace where the best view of the burning was, put on his gear for kithara performances, and sang the Sack of Ilion -- or so he called it; obviously it was really a 'sack of Rome'.
There's good agreement here, though Cassius Dio can't be regarded as independent of the earlier two. We have to substitute an ancient concert kithara for the modern violin, but that should have been obvious all along. (For that matter, Gyles' article suggests that the proverbial 'fiddling' doesn't come from the musical instrument, but from the fact that he was 'fiddling' in the sense of lollygagging.)

The upshot is this: the story is strongly supported by ancient testimony.

You won't get this impression from a lot of recent accounts of the 'myth'. Most of them aren't even aware of Suetonius and Cassius Dio. And when they bother to mention Tacitus, they often misrepresent him.
The myth is busted, however, when one realizes that the violin wasn't invented for another 1,500 years after the fire... In other words, it's impossible that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. ... To the contrary, Nero actually did take immediate and expansive measures to provide relief for his citizens.
If Nero played anything, it would probably have been the cithara, a heavy wooden instrument with four to seven strings2 -- but there is still no solid evidence that he played one during the Great Fire. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Nero was rumored to have sung about the destruction of Troy while watching the city burn; however, he stated clearly that this was unconfirmed by eyewitness accounts.
The closest instrument to the violin available at the time was the cithara but there is no concrete evidence that Nero was idle during the fire or that he started it. In fact, ancient historians agree that he reacted in a manner befitting an emperor ...
'No solid evidence', my eye. To be clear: Tacitus calls the story rumor, which can mean 'report, word heard on the grapevine' as well as 'a rumour'; but he certainly doesn't take the trouble to dismiss it, nor does he 'state clearly' that it was unconfirmed. Ancient historians do not 'agree that (Nero) reacted in a manner befitting an emperor'. Instead, these 'mythbusters' selectively focus on the bit of Tacitus immediately before the relevant passage, and ignore the relevant passage as though it meant nothing.

(By the way, Nero's kithara certainly wouldn't have had 'four to seven strings'. Think a dozen or more. It's questionable whether any real kithara ever had only four strings; if they ever did, it was at least 800 years before Nero's time.)

'So the Senate wouldn't pass my plans, eh? Wouldn't let me build my New Rome? But if the old one is burnt, if it goes up in flames, they will have no choice! Rome will be rebuilt to my design! Brilliant! Brilliant!' The Doctor sets fire to Nero's plans for New Rome ... and accidentally gives the emperor an alternative idea. (Doctor Who, 'The Romans', 1965; YouTube link)

The catch, as a select few of the cleverer mythbusters realise, is that Tacitus tells another story about Nero's actions during the fire, separately from the fiddling story, which is inconsistent with parts of the story as told by Suetonius and Cassius Dio. Tacitus mentions earlier in Annals 15.39 that Nero was out of town at the start of the fire; that he returned to Rome once it was already well under way; and that, once there, he started relief efforts for the people who had suddenly become homeless. And that's when he tells us that these relief efforts didn't do him any favours because of the fiddling story.

That doesn't mean that there's no evidence of the myth. As we've just seen, there is evidence to support the myth.

As it happens, though, there is good reason to doubt the evidence. In the first place, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are not reliable writers at the best of times: Suetonius was basically a gossip columnist, and Dio was happy to accept the word of gossips. Both of them insist that Nero was personally responsible for the fire. In Dio's case, he just wanted to watch the world burn --
After this, (Nero) desired what must always have been his prayer: to destroy the entire city and realm during his lifetime. For example, he had called Priam wonderfully blessed in that respect, since he had witnessed his homeland and empire being destroyed.
Now, when someone only ever reports insanely evil stories about a ruler's misdeeds, you can bet there's an agenda. That by itself gives loads of reason for doubt.

Tacitus is more reliable, and also more cautious. He repeats that there was a report of Nero staging a performance of the Sack of Ilion, but he doesn't go so far as to say it actually happened. In addition, Tacitus' claim that Nero was out of town at the start of the fire is inconsistent with Suetonius' and Cassius Dio's claims that he was personally responsible for starting the fire.

Really what it looks like is that Nero got really, really unlucky in the PR game. He was known for performing live concerts; he did compose a poem that Juvenal calls a Troica, or story of Troy (Satires 8.221); it may well be that this was remembered after the fire. Moreover, Nero used the occasion of the fire to claim an enormous amount of land in the middle of the city for a very large imperial palace. This made it easy for conspiracy theorists to imagine that he had wanted the fire to happen.

By choosing facts selectively -- rather like the modern accounts I've quoted above -- it was perfectly possible for enemies to concoct a story where Nero himself started the fire, and where he revelled in the destruction by performing a lyre concert, something that he was already known for.

For us, the fact that we can clearly see how the story may have come about allows us to be very sceptical of Suetonius' and Cassius Dio's ridiculous story of a man who just wants to watch the world burn. But at the same time, it is entirely legitimate and true to state that the story that 'Nero fiddled (or rather played the lyre) while Rome burned' is an ancient one, and one that was widely believed even at the time of the fire.

I'll just close with an extract from Henryk Sienkiewicz' novel Quo vadis (1895; English translation 1897), which helped cement this 'myth' in the modern mind -- perhaps most memorably in the 1951 film, in which Peter Ustinov sings about Rome's destruction so abysmally badly.
Somewhere, below there in the darkness, the people murmured and grumbled. Let them murmur. Ages would pass, thousands of years would go by, and men would remember and glorify the poet who in such a night sang the fall and burning of Troy. What was Homer, yea, what was Apollo, with his lute? None could be compared to him. Here he raised his hands and striking the strings he quoted the words of Priam:
'Oh nest of my fathers, Oh precious cradle!'
His voice in the open air, against the roar of the flames and the distant murmur of the multitude, seemed week, abrupt, and feeble. The sound of the accompanying instruments was like the buzzing of flies. But senators, officers, and Augustales gathered together on the aqueduct, bowed their heads and listened in rapturous silence. ... In reality he was not moved by the destruction of his Capitol, but his delight over his own words caused his eyes to fill with tears. He dropped the lute with a clatter at his feet, and wrapping himself in his robe stood as if petrified, like one of those statues of Niobe which adorn the court of the Palatine. A storm of applause succeeded. But the multitude in the distance answered it by howling.
- H. Sienkiewicz, Quo vadis (Philadelphia, 1897) part 3 ch. 4

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Off limits: these theories aren't for debunking (not here, anyway)

Initiation scene at Eleusinian Mysteries. Left: Demeter is shown sitting on the sacred kistē (basket) containing secret initiation paraphernalia. The basket is wound about by a snake. Demeter looks back at Persephone, who is holding a burning torch. Right: thronōsis scene. An initiate, veiled, sits on a ramskin; a priestess, approaching from behind, holds a burning torch close to his hand. (Relief on a Roman-era sarcophagus from Torre Nova; composite image)

Not all modern myths about antiquity come from misunderstandings. People at the centre of the academic discipline, too, sometimes come up with theories that I for one regard as 'myths', in the popular sense of theories that are widely believed but untrue. Some of these people are tenured professors in university departments, surrounded by eminent colleagues.

Sometimes these theories go unrefuted by their peers, in spite of or maybe because of their idiosyncrasies. In these cases, I won't be doing any kind of debunking. This is partly out of professional respect, but mainly because of the limitations of blogs. Even if I am dead sure that these theories are untrue, this isn't the right place to do so -- unless I'm just supporting an existing published refutation. The right place is in the pages of an academic journal. The catch is that writing an academic article is generally a tad harder than debunking myths in a blog, even if some blog posts involve nearly as much work and research.

A debunking in an academic journal requires, or should require, an absolutely masterful command of both the primary evidence and the modern scholarship. Now, for some topics, that's actually achievable in a blog format. For example, I think this post on irrational numbers covers all the relevant testimony in existence, and there won't be any real controversy among specialists in the field. For some topics I have to settle for a lower goal: I can cite ancient testimony about broad beans as well as anyone, but that doesn't mean my coverage of the epidemiology of G6PD deficiency is good enough for a journal. Yet here, again, I don't think there'll be any controversy among scholars of ancient religions.

And then there are topics that are controversial, and which have no dedicated counter-arguments in scholarly journals. (Or at least, not yet.) These are the ones I've decided not to touch.

This policy decision came about after I had already done a fair amount of work on one of the topics I'll mention below. I think I have the broad outline of a compelling debunking of it. But
  • the principal living proponent deserves some professional respect;
  • there is no dedicated debunking of the idea in any academic publication;
  • what would be the point of doing the one and only debunking, if it's in a place that can't realistically be cited by any future studies?
So I won't offer any comment on the following theories. But I will offer them up in their authors' own words. I think they don't have enough support to stand up. You judge them on their own terms, and see what you think:
  • Do you get a sense of what evidence they are relying on? If so, do they deal with that evidence in a balanced fashion, or selectively?
  • What competing theories can you think of? How would you expect the authors to deal with those competing theories?

Drugs at Eleusis

The ancient testimony about Eleusis is unanimous. Eleusis was the supreme experience in an initiate's life. It was both physical and mystical: trembling, vertigo, cold sweat, and then a sight that made all previous seeing seem like blindness, a sense of awe and wonder at a brilliance that caused a profound silence since what had just been seen and felt could never be communicated: words are unequal to the task. Those symptoms are unmistakably the experience induced by an entheogen ...
-- Carl Ruck, Sacred mushrooms of the goddess. Secrets of Eleusis (Berkeley, 2006) p. 14
(Note: the above is rephrased from Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck, The road to Eleusis: unveiling the secret of the Mysteries (1978), chapter 3, also by Ruck.)

Suggested bibliography:
  • Burkert, W. 1983. Homo necans. The anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth. U. of California Press. (Orig. publ. in German as Homo necans, 1972.) pp. 265-293.
  • Richardson, N. J. 1974. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 344-348.
  • Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 2003. 'Festival and Mysteries: aspects of the Eleusinian cult.' In: Cosmopoulos, M. B. (ed.). Greek mysteries. The archaeology and ritual of ancient Greek secret cults. London: Routledge. pp. 25-49.
  • Walcot, P. 1979. Review of Wasson et al., The road to Eleusis. Greece & Rome 26: 104.

Fossils and mythical monsters

Herakles (left) fights the monster Kētos (right) to rescue Hesione (centre). (Corinthian black-figure kratēr, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Monsters of Greek myth were perceived in the popular imagination and portrayed by artists either as huge beasts or as giant humans. The artist of the Copenhagen vase has opted for the latter. The Perseus vase and the Copenhagen vase therefore illustrate the two branches of mythical interpretation of monsters. But the unparalleled depiction of the Monster of Troy as a large fossil animal skull on the Boston vase points to a natural basis for the two branches of monster and giant images in art and literature. Here is powerful evidence that fossil remains of prehistoric animals influenced ancient ideas about primeval monsters!
-- Adrienne Mayor, The first fossil hunters. Paleontology in Greek and Roman times (Princeton, 2001) p. 163
Suggested bibliography: I know of none, other than Mayor's own book.

Herakles and Kētos: here, Kētos is depicted as he usually is, as a giant snake's head attached to a fish's body. (Caeretan black-figure vase, Stavros S. Niarchos collection)

The alphabet was invented in order to write down the Iliad

Homer's floruit falls within the first half of the eighth century [BCE]. He is pehaps an exact contemporary of the adapter [of the Phoenician alphabet]. At the very least, he lived within fifty years of the invention of an idiosyncratic writing that cocks the ear to fine distinctions of sound and is used in its earliest remains to record hexametric verse. If the alphabet was fashioned to record the poet Homer and no other, we can account for the coincidence in time. If we believe that the adapter restructured Phoenician writing not in order to record Homer specifically, but in order to record 'hexametric verse in general,' meaning a poet or poets of whose existence and achievement all memory has been lost, we must admit that at the same time, or within a generation and a half at most, the new writing was also used to write down Homer.
-- Barry Powell, Homer and the origin of the Greek alphabet (Cambridge, 1991) p. 221
Suggested bibliography:
  • Graziosi, B. 2002. Inventing Homer. The early reception of epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 90-98.
  • Svenbro, J. 1993. Phrasikleia. An anthropology of reading in ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Orig. publ. in French as Phrasikleia, 1988.) pp. 26-43.
  • Van Wees, H. 1994. 'The Homeric way of war: the Iliad and the hoplite phalanx.' Greece & Rome 41: 1-18 and 131-155, at pp. 138-146.

You too can own a 'Nestor's cup' coffee mug! Only NZD$27.85 plus shipping from Zazzle. Just be aware that line 1 contains a very doubtful supplement.

The Mahābhārata was based on the Iliad

I have, in effect, been attempting to prove that the author(s) of the Mahābhārata, based on their fervor for the Homeric epics and interest in other mythological figures such as Heracles, utilize very diverse Greek sources and put them into play in very versatile and creative ways all throughout their story built around the massacre of the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas. ... We are not talking about minor details, motifs, or loose elements. The creative genius behind the work is articulated from within an extensive blueprint inspired by the one which underlies the Iliad. Accordingly, those chronological frameworks, situations and characters are changed or inverted at will, and, amongst numerous other possibilities, some stories are embedded in larger, more central ones or components of all sorts are mixed to form fascinating amalgamations.
-- Ferdinand Wulff Alonso, The Mahābhārata and Greek mythology (Delhi, 2014) pp. 446-447
Suggested bibliography:
  • Watkins, C. 1995. How to kill a dragon. Aspects of Indo-European poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Entire book, but esp. pp. 12-27.
  • West, M. L. 2007. Indo-European poetry and myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Entire book, but especially pp. 19-24.
Heroes take part in bow contests to win a bride. Left: Arjuna shoots at a fish's eye to win Draupadi (source: a 19th century edition of the Mahābhārata). Right: Odysseus shoots through twelve axes to win Penelope (source: Ulysses (1954), starring Kirk Douglas).

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Pi Day

I'm a bit late for Pi Day, but hey, research takes time. It has become trendy to celebrate the 14th of March as 'Pi Day', because in American notation the date looks like '3/14'. These are the first three digits of the mathematical constant π, or pi, the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter. (Assuming we're talking about Euclidean geometry. Which we are.)

Outside the US, some people like to celebrate the 22nd of July instead -- because in everyone else's notation, that looks like '22/7', and 22/7 is a very good approximation for π.

A few incidental bits of trivia about π:
  • π is an irrational number. This means it cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Put another way: the circumference and diameter of a circle are incommensurable. Or put yet another way: if you write out π in decimal notation, it will never ever repeat.
  • π is also a transcendental number. This means that it cannot be expressed as the solution to a polynomial equation with integer coefficients. That is: given an equation axn + bxn-1 + cxn-2 ... + zx0= 0, where a, b, c ... are integers, a transcendental number is any number that x cannot be.
  • π is widely suspected to be a normal number. This is not known for sure. A normal number is, roughly, one whose decimal expansion shows no patterns, where every digit is equally likely, and every finite sequence of digits is equally likely. This sounds pretty limiting; at present no one really has any idea how to prove that a given number is normal with 100% certainty. But if you look at it statistically, almost all real numbers are irrational; almost all irrational numbers are transcendental; and almost all transcendental numbers are normal. If you randomly pick a number on the real number line, the probability that it will be normal is 1. So, pretty good odds that π is normal, then.
  • If you know π to 39 decimal places -- 3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288 4197 -- then you know it precisely enough to measure a circle the size of the observable universe to a precision finer than the width of an atom.
So much for interesting trivia of the day. What about myths? Give me modern myths about antiquity!

OK, here's one myth.
The first recorded algorithm for rigorously calculating the value of π was a geometrical approach using polygons, devised around 250 BC by the Greek mathematician Archimedes.
-- Wikipedia, 'Pi'
It is true that Archimedes used this method to calculate π. But it is not true that he devised the method. He just did it with a bit more precision than anyone had done previously. He made an advance, but it was an incremental advance, not something revolutionary. You can find Archimedes' full exposition in a surviving work, the Measurement of the circle.

The 'exhaustion method'. If you draw regular polygons inside and outside the circle, then the more sides the polygons have, the more closely they approximate the actual circumference of the circle. (source:

The illustration shows how the exhaustion method works. Using 96-sided polygons, Archimedes narrowed down the value of π to between 3 10/71 and 3 10/70 -- that is, he found that π is somewhere between 3.1408... and 3.1429...

But the method was already in use 200 years earlier. Antiphon of Athens (ca. 480-411 BCE), Bryson of Heraclea Pontica (ca. 400 to after 340 BCE), and Eudoxus of Cnidus (ca. 391-338 BCE) had all used a similar method to calculate π long before Archimedes came along.

Antiphon, the earliest of the bunch, only used inscribed polygons -- that is, he only drew one shape, inside the circle, but not outside. As a result he only had one bound for the value of π. We don't know much about Eudoxus' effort. We do know that Bryson guessed (wrongly) that π would be given by the arithmetic mean of the inner and outer perimeters; and that Antiphon and Bryson were working on the area of the circle, not its perimeter. It was Eudoxus who showed that the area and perimeter were linked by the square of the radius.

The New Pauly encyclopaedia reports (subscription needed) that it was Eudoxus, not Archimedes, whose influence led to the widespread use of exhaustion for all problems involving infinitesimals. Archimedes' work on π was just a refinement of Eudoxus.

Here's another myth, from a Time article published on 'Pi Day' this year.
However, not too many generations after [Archimedes'] lifetime, the world experienced a "real decline in math," according to John Conway, mathematics professor emeritus at Princeton University who once won the school's Pi Day pie-eating contest. "Math and science in general went into a great decline from roughly the year zero to the year 1,000, and then the Arabs developed lots of math after that, like trigonometry."
Oooh, do I detect a note of a renowned world expert saying something a little bit silly about another field? I think I do!

What, no love for all those Alexandrian mathematicians of the Roman era? No love for Heron, whose Metrica has recently been published in a new French translation? Or Menelaus, whose work on spherical geometry was foundational for Arabic, Hebrew, and western astronomers for over a thousand years? Not to mention Diophantus, whose work laid down the parameters for the modern study of polynomials, and whose notation foreshadowed the development of algebra?

And then there are many other figures who are, admittedly, lesser, but still made important contributions: Sporus of Poros, who demolished earlier mathematicians' reliance on a curve called the 'quadratrix' in problems to do with squaring the circle; Ptolemy, who in the early 100s CE gained the world record for closest approximation of π (3 + 8/60 + 30/3600, = 3.141666...); and commentators like Pappus, Theon, Hypatia, Proclus, and Eutocius, whose work on Euclid, Ptolemy, and Archimedes were colossally useful in helping later mathematicians to understand the impenetrable language of their predecessors.

I guess it is fair to speak of a decline in Greek mathematics -- but Archimedes was not the be-all and end-all. If there was a decline, it was after the time of Diophantus. Archimedes has a curiously inflated reputation. I suppose that's because there are lots of good stories about him: the story of his death ray; the dramatic story of his death that we find in Plutarch and Valerius Maximus; the story of the bathtub and the running around naked shouting 'Hēurēka!'; and the story of the Cattle Problem, whose solution involves a number with over 200,000 digits (ca. 7.76 × 10206544). Everything about him sounds tremendously exciting. But hey, let's not forget later giants like Hipparchus, Menelaus, and Diophantus, all right?

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The library of Alexandria: vox populi

You may think I've already spent too much effort on the 'loss' of 'the library' of Alexandria. I make no apology: there is an obsession with the topic in popular culture.

This post isn't meant as a critique but as a sampler. I think it's worth having an awareness of what kinds of things people believe about the Alexandrian libraries. There is a gaping discontinuity between what a trained classicist is likely to think about this topic, and what your average viewer of Cosmos is likely to assume. I think it is salutary to have a reminder of that gap: improved communication of realities about antiquity can only be a good thing.

Relief from Neumagen, Germany, now lost, showing a slave at work in a 2nd century CE bookshop or library (source: Brower and Masen, Antiquitatum et annalium Trevirensium libri XXV [1670] vol. 1 p. 105)

Still, for the sake of clarity, I'd better be explicit about some points that are not popular knowledge.
  1. Libraries existed in the hundreds, maybe thousands, around the ancient Mediterranean. Any book whose survival depended on one specific library was already as good as lost. Books didn't disappear because of a single library, but because of the collapse of a whole system of knowledge exchange. (And, I believe, a format shift.)
  2. The royal archive at Alexandria was indeed burned in the Alexandrian War of 48/7 BCE. But other similar incidents are at best poorly attested, at worst illusions. (The supposed destruction in 389 or 391 CE was invented by Gibbon; the supposed destruction in 642 is a 13th century morality fable inspired by the Letter of Aristeas.)
  3. Libraries don't need calamitous tragedies to destroy them: time will do that all by itself. If you don't believe me, go visit Pergamon and see how many books are still on the shelves.
  4. The fetishisation of the Alexandrian libraries is driven by Gibbon, Carl Sagan, and (probably) Sid Meier's Civilization games. None of them is reliable, and the second and third are actively misleading. To get a more balanced picture, read an actual book about ancient libraries. Try especially Lionel Casson's Libraries in the ancient world (2001), and Yun Lee Too's The idea of the library in the ancient world (2010).
And now, for the sake of grasping how present-day people think about antiquity, I present a list of suggestions of what was lost in the 'destruction' of the libraries. The list is taken from a recent social media discussion; I've done a bit of categorisation to make things easier. I offer relatively little comment, meant more for clarification than as criticism.

Question: 'What books and knowledge did we definitely (and likely) lose in the library of Alexandria?'

Answers #1: non-Greek books

  • the works of emperor Claudius ('an Etruscan history and eight volumes on Carthaginian history, as well as an Etruscan dictionary and a book on dice playing') (1)
  • 'how to make Roman concrete and Greek fire' (2)
  • 'Carthage advances in science', especially their death ray (3)
  • 'the complete works of Julius Caesar' (4)
  • history of Carthage (5)
  • Egyptian music and hymns (6)
Some notes:
  1. We have one piece of testimony, the Letter of Aristeas, that the library acquired some non-Greek material. We have no indication of how much, why, or from which languages, other than Hebrew. (The Letter is about the creation of the Septuagint, which is why it picks out Hebrew.) If you want to speculate on which other source languages were represented in the Alexandrian library, native Egyptian material isn't a terrible candidate. But there's no reason to suspect that would include poetic material like hymns: according to the Letter, these acquisitions were all in Greek translations. Roman texts would be a terrible guess. A stronger candidate would be astronomical and mathematical texts from Achaemenid Persia.
  2. Julius Caesar and Claudius lived later than the destruction of the Ptolemaic royal archive.
  3. The 'Etruscan dictionary and book on dice playing' attributed to Claudius are fictional. Robert Graves made them up.
  4. The 'death ray' is presumably the legendary one associated with Archimedes, a Sicilian, not with the Carthaginians.
  5. We have most of Julius Caesar's historiographical output. The stuff we're missing is rhetoric and rhetorical theory (the De analogia, the Anticato, some legal speeches).

Answers #2: things from long after the library ceased to exist

  • how to make Greek Fire (Byzantine, not Egyptian) (7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)
  • how to make Damascus steel (introduced westward from India to Syria at some point after the 12th century) (13, 14)
  • the Key of Solomon (14th/15th century; it is extant) (15)
  • the maps that Piri Reis used as a source (early 16th century) (16)
Little comment needed on these, except to note the extraordinary popularity of Greek fire.

Answers #3: 'hidden knowledge'

  • blueprints of the pyramids (17)
  • the location of Atlantis (18)
  • a 'history of man going back 25,000 years' (19)
These contributors appear to be dead serious. I don't think it's worth engaging with them though.

Is this vision from Disney's Atlantis: the lost empire (2001) a real one? What secrets did Disney steal from Alexandria in their time-travelling black helicopters?

Answers #4: things that actually sound sensible ...

... until you pause to think that of course nothing here can possibly have existed in only one copy in only one library.
  • 'most of' Democritus' books (20)
  • history (21, 22)
  • lost plays by Euripides and Aeschylus (23)
  • Sappho (24)
  • the six lost poems of the Epic Cycle (25, 26, 27, 28, 29)
  • 'romances, musics, poem and so on' (30)
  • book 2 of Aristotle's Poetics (31, 32)
  • Heron's work on steam engines (33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38)
  • Hellenistic tactical manuals and the works of Alexander's successors (39)
  • 'all of the world's knowledge on magic' (40, 41)
  • how the Colossus of Rhodes was built (42)
  • Archimedes (43)
  • works of Galen and Hippocrates (44, 45)
  • works of Plato (1)
  • the majority of Aristotle (46)
  • history prior to Herodotus (47)
  • Chrysippus and Cleanthes (48)
  • commentaries on the Iliad (49)
Some notes:
  1. Best to start by repeating that the destruction of one library didn't suddenly obligate every other copy of its books to cease to exist.
  2. All of Democritus is lost.
  3. Sappho still survived in the 7th century CE as a school text (p. Berol. 5006).
  4. On the Epic Cycle: the last indication we have of anyone having personally read intact copies of these poems dates to the late 2nd century CE, in Athenaeus and Pausanias. That's more than 200 years after the destruction of the royal archive at Alexandria, and 200 years before Gibbon's supposed destruction under Theodosius. The heyday of the Cycle was in the 3rd-1st centuries BCE. Some poems (AethiopisTelegony) may have disappeared as early as the 1st century CE; the last remaining pieces of the Cycle probably disappeared in the 200s CE.
  5. Poetics book 2 is never cited by any ancient source other than Aristotle himself. It may well have been lost before it ever left Athens, within decades of being written. (There are those who disagree: notably Richard Janko, in his work on the Tractatus Coislinianus.)
  6. We do, actually, have quite a lot of Galen, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and commentaries on Homer. And Galen spent most of his career in Rome, so that'd be the place to expect copies to be preserved.

Answers #5: and to finish off with ...

  • 'prior era philosophy, science, religious, mathematics, and historical texts that went against the then current era ideologies' (50)
  • 'about everything we ever had as human collective' (51)
  • 'They probably all still exist in the vatican archives' (52)
On the last one, I should perhaps mention that the Vatican Apostolic Library is entirely open to visiting scholars, so feel free to go pay a visit or at least browse the online catalogue. As so often, the confusion here is to do with the Secret Archive, which is (a) mostly open access; (b) for documents relating to the papacy, the Curia, and various religious institutions; (c) its oldest document is a collection of ecclesiastical formulae dating to the 8th/9th century.

A reading room at the Secret Archive, Vatican City (source:

There are depressingly few joke responses. One person suggests a book about the origins of Cthulhu; books on why aliens helped humans build the pyramids; an autobiography by Jesus. Aside from these, they all take the subject terribly terribly seriously. (I'd like to categorise the Atlantis one here too, but I'm very much afraid that one isn't a joke.)

Multiple respondents also pause to genuflect at the altar of Carl Sagan (53). If you want proof that Sagan is key to the fetishisation of the library, hey presto.

There isn't much point making fun of any of this. I'll admit it's sorely tempting in a number of cases: you can certainly say that it's making fun of them for me to write this post at all.

But ignorance is just a matter of not having done the right research yet. What's really worrying, because they have an impact on present-day society, are the ones espousing heavily teleological views of the history of knowledge, where knowledge is a quantity that changes as a function of time, as though it were a score that humanity has achieved --
  • 'It's impossible to say what subsequent research would have occurred had the library not been burned. Maybe we would have seen the microscope invented centuries earlier.' (54)
  • 'I like to compare knowledge to compound interest. The more knowledge you accrue, the more it returns.' (55)
These are the ones to worry about. Opinions like these have a potential impact on things like research funding and school curricula. They also affect how people think about, and interact with, societies that aren't as wedded as western elite culture is to post-Enlightenment ideas of cultural teleology.

Ignorance, in and of itself, is no problem. I have no quarrel with the other people posting their suggestions on what was lost. We can never expect to fix the misapprehensions of every layperson, and it's unreasonable to expect perfection. However, specialists can realistically aim to be accessible to the people that popularise ancient history -- the Carl Sagans, the QIs, the Wikipedias, the Snopeses. If they can be reached, there's a chance they can teach their readers and viewers to put a high value on accurate facts ... and avoid the alternative ones that we've seen here.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Getting the Iliad right

There are so many misconceptions and myths about antiquity in mainstream culture that it's a refreshing pleasure to see someone with a really solid grasp of their subject. (Especially when I've criticised the same author on a previous occasion for spouting absolute nonsense ...)

Lindybeige, a.k.a. Nikolas Lloyd, talks about the Homeric Iliad in a video published to YouTube almost exactly a year ago today. No nonsense this time. Instead, we have a discussion that is well-informed, accurate, and also, apparently, interesting -- at least to the 400,000-odd people who have watched it. So let's take a moment to celebrate popular media getting antiquity more or less right!
I think that a lot of people buying this [holds up a copy of the Iliad], buy it, start reading, get a little bit confused, and realise, 'Oh! We're already deep into the war when this starts,' and they go alllll the way to the end, they slog through it, and are so disappointed! No wooden horse! That's right! It ends before Achilles dies, so we don't get him being shot in the heel or any of that, and it ends before anyone even has the idea of making a wooden horse.
-- Lindybeige, 'The Iliad' 0:40-1:07

Alexander Ivanov, Priam asking Achilles to return Hector's body, 1824 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Lindybeige's mini-lecture spends its first 5 minutes (1) dispelling a popular misconception about the Iliad (see quotation above), and (2) giving some basic information about the epic and its historical context. The remaining 9 minutes are literary criticism, highlighting two ideas: (3) that the poem walks a tightrope between celebrating warfare, and celebrating the human tragedy caused by war; and (4) the resolution to Achilles' personal narrative in the final third of the epic.

His points are well chosen, and there are no major inaccuracies or misrepresentations. Sure, there's room for disagreement on something as subjective as the core meaning(s) of a literary work -- people come up with wild readings sometimes: there are people who actually think characters like Humbert Humbert and Walter White are heroes -- but it's clear that the themes Lindybeige emphasises are important ones.

As fourteen-minute lectures go, you could do a lot worse. Would I be happy for Lindybeige to do a guest lecture in a course I was teaching? Mm, not necessarily. But I would give his essay a decent mark.

Let's look at his account of the historical context of the poem. He highlights the Iliad's importance in antiquity by comparing it to the Bible -- not an exact analogy, but a traditional trope, and one that makes its point -- and mentioning, entirely correctly, that there are stories of Alexander taking his personal copy with him on campaign,* and that at Alexandria scholars spilled a great deal of ink over the Iliad (and here's the main end-product of that scholarship).
* Alexander's copy of the Iliad: see Plutarch Alexander 8 (= Onesikritos BNJ 134 F 38), 26. Cf. Plutarch On the fortune of Alexander i.327f, where he also takes the Odyssey on campaign.

I especially like his comments about modern popular culture's fetishisation of the library of Alexandria:
You can tell how middle-class you are by how aggrieved you are and how much you wince every time someone mentions the fact that the library of Alexandria burnt down. Ahh! Grr! Oh if only it hadn't! Agh!
(I could wish the same about the Palatine library in Rome, the Athenaion at Pergamon, and hundreds and hundreds more. Any of them would involve multiple miracles.)

Anyway, the next bit is what's most likely to raise the hackles of those who have been taught about the Iliad in a certain way. was an epic poem that would be performed over several nights by a poet. Quite often we are told that they would beat a stick to a strict rhythm, as they spoke the rhythmic words. And it would take a few nights for them to get all the way through this. And yes, they wouldn't have a script to work from: they had to memorise the entire lot, a feat that was made possible by an oral tradition and the fact that there are a lot of standard phrases and repetitions within the rhyme itself.
-- Lindybeige, 'The Iliad' 2:12-2:43
There are a few things here that some classicists would probably want to see phrased differently, but I'm on Lindybeige's side. The word 'rhyme' is just a trivial slip (rhyme was almost unheard-of in ancient poetry): we'll skip that.

The real qualm I'd expect a classics student to have is with the word 'memorise'. American scholarship on Homer in the last 30 years or so has strongly disliked the idea that Homer was memorised and transmitted. They tend to prefer to talk about recomposition. The idea is that bards supposedly improvised the poem afresh every time they performed it. That idea is common in America, but in the rest of the world it's more common to think of the epic as informed by a sophisticated tradition of recomposition-in-performance, without necessarily being produced directly within that tradition. The archaic language of the Iliad belongs firmly to the first half of the 600s BCE, but the earliest likely date for its transcription is in the second half of the 500s. To bridge that gap, there's a much stronger case for verbatim or very-nearly-verbatim transmission than you'd think if you just read American books. I'm not certain which books or people have shaped Lindybeige's views: but he's English, and I gather he's based in Newcastle, so there's that.

Then imitate the action of the rhapsode; stiffen the sinews, summon up the hexameters! Lindybeige illustrates using a staff to beat time (2:20)

I'm especially pleased to see no reference to singing. Lindybeige describes a performer 'beat[ing] a stick to a strict rhythm'. As an onscreen caption makes clear, he's talking about rhapsodes, who declaimed epic, not about bards who sang with a musical accompaniment. 'Singing' often appears in Homeric epic as a metaphor for performance, but all external evidence points strongly to rhapsodic declamation. This is a position that many professional classicists would contest, but I'm firmly on Lindybeige's side here. One of Homer's rivals, Hesiod, describes performance in their genre as follows:
And [the Muses] gave me a staff, a branch of lovely laurel
that they'd plucked, a marvel: and they inspired me with a voice
divine, so that I would popularise things that will happen and did happen,
and they told me to hymn the race of the blessed ones, who are eternal,
and always sing of themselves both first and last.
-- Theogony 30-4 (ca. 700 BCE)
Rhapsode with staff,
declaiming an epic episode
set at Tiryns; from the cover
of my own book (BM E270,
ca. 490-480 BCE)
Hesiod talks about 'hymning' (hymnein) and 'singing' (aeidein), but the staff shows that he's thinking about rhapsodes. For my money, I'd say 'singing' is a conventional poetic image, not a literal reality. (See also my Early Greek hexameter poetry, 2015, pp. 76-7, with more sources.)

Lindybeige is also nicely cautious about the date of the Iliad: 'somewhere between the 700s and 500s BC', he says. Modern scholarship dates the Iliad anywhere from ca. 800 (Powell) to the mid-500s (Jensen) -- for what it's worth, in my view the most powerful evidence points to ca. 670-650 -- so this is a fair reflection of an open question.

So much for the historical aspects. The rest of the video is occupied with literary exegesis. Lindybeige illustrates how the Iliad simultaneously celebrates war and shows an extraordinary sensibility to the human suffering caused by war. He gives a full reading of Iliad 11.218-247, the death of Iphidamas, killed by Agamemnon, and his touching backstory ending in 'bronze sleep ... far from his wedded wife'. In the last minutes, he turns to Achilles' fury. The very first line of the epic highlights this theme, but Lindybeige confines himself to talking about the last third of the poem, where Achilles is enraged at Patroclus' death, rampages on the battlefield, fights a river-god, kills, captures, and sacrifices Trojans, buries his friend, but cannot find peace anywhere -- until the night-time visit from king Priam in book 24 (also a genuinely powerful moment in Petersen's film Troy (2004), with Peter O'Toole as Priam, as Lindybeige points out).

'Perhaps more than anything, the Iliad is about this scene.' (10:00-11:25)

Do these points give an exhaustive account of the literary merit of the Iliad? Of course not. But they're a very good selection. Lindybeige's discussion of war and humanity neatly encapsulates two divergent modes of interpretation which focus on the Iliad as praise poetry and as tragic, respectively -- the Gregory Nagy school and the Aristotle school, you might say. And his treatment of Achilles' fury, while not the deepest or most thorough, nonetheless draws out an aspect of how the Iliad develops that theme throughout books 17 to 24, and does so without mistakes.

The only real criticisms I can imagine being levelled at Lindybeige are about all the other things going on in the Iliad which he doesn't mention. The rampages of the other Greek heroes; how the poet plays on competing poetic traditions; the narrative of divine withdrawal and return; the humanity and failings of Hector; the use of folkloric themes. And so on. But who has time for all that? This is 14 minutes long. And it's perfectly good for that length. It's a delight to see something this competent in the popular arena. Congratulations.

Postscript: for more multimedia coverage of Homer and the Iliad, try the BBC World Service's programme 'The Iliad: beauty, brutes, and battles' (Dec. 2016), with Bettany Hughes talking to Stathis Livathinos, Antony Makrinos, Folake Onayemi, and Edith Hall. I haven't listened to it yet, and the cast-list makes it sound like it's more about reception than about the Iliad itself, but I'm looking forward to it!