Most recent update:5/1/2004; 5:36:40 AM

 Monday, April 12, 2004

BLOGWATCH: The Virtual Tophet

For ages the only Classics sites mentioned in Crooked Timber's blogroll were rogueclassicism and Curculio. Today (maybe earlier) there popped up therein something called the Virtual Tophet. It's difficult to figure out, but it seems to be run by a woman named Josephine who works for a left-of-centre newspaper somewhere in the U.K.. Amongst recent posts (it's only been up for a week or so), we have a post entitled "Down With Classics", which suggests, inter alia:

Now, I think Classics (and especially the linguistic and historical side of Classics) is a fine subject for higher education, a joy to study and teach, profoundly useful for developing logical and critical thinking, and important too for understanding how the idea of a 'Western Tradition' was continually reinvented in the Middle Ages and Renaissance - and the more clearly the circumstances of that ingenious construction of civilization as increasingly white and European are understood, the better.

But deconstructing the history of ideas, or the idea of history, isn't child's play. And plenty of other subjects would present the same intellectual challenge and delight as Latin and Greek with more universal rewards for both the school student and her community: Arabic or Urdu, for instance - or maths, pitifully poorly served in this country's schools.

She concludes:

My experience of studying and teaching in America suggests to me that starting classical subjects from scratch encourages more rather than fewer people to study it at university, lessens the unfair structural advantages of private education, and often make for better classicists. So why not make it the norm here?

I'm not sure whether this is a fair, or even reasonable, assessment. While I won't hazard a guess as to what "from scratch" means (does it mean no exposure to Classics at all or do we allow the exposure that is included in Social Studies classes in Elementary School or other such courses in high school? Does it just mean no exposure to Latin and Greek?). Whatever the case, the population of the U.K. is almost exactly twice that of Canada. I'd be interested to see some stats about the number of people taking Classics in the two nations -- I'm willing to bet the farm that the U.K. has much, much, much more people in Classics programs and, semi-ironically enough, Canada has exactly the regime Virtual Tophet pines for.

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CHATTER: Greek Tragedy and Political Commentary

As folks no doubt are aware, productions of Greek tragedies these days tends to be done because the political statements they make still resonate. And so, we're treated to an almost constant parade of productions of the Antigone, the Trojan Women, and a few others. In Iran, however, they get Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound:

“Prometheus Bound”, a work of uncertain date, details Zeus’s punishment of the defiant Prometheus, said Sadeqi, adding that the play is full of historical symbols which give a better understanding of the outlook and thoughts of ancient man.

The premise of the play is the transgression of Prometheus, who brought fire to humankind although it did not improve their life. When bound to the rocks, he relates to the chorus all the benefits he had conferred on humanity: from love of mortals, he roused their reason, he taught them how to make dwellings, showed them the stars, taught them numbers and mother of the Muses, writing. He tamed horses and built ships, taught the virtues of healing potions, and the various modes of divination; it was he who taught the mortals all they knew. [more from Mehrnews]

Of course, what's missing from MehrNews is that the message of the PB is embodied in the final dialogue between Hermes and Prometheus, to wit:

Herm.  Nay then, remember ye        
What now I say, nor blame 
Your fortune: never say 
That Zeus hath cast you down 
To evil not foreseen.         
Not so; ye cast yourselves: 
For now with open eyes, 
Not taken unawares, 
In Atè’s endless net        
Ye shall entangled be 
By folly of your own. 

[A pause, and then flashes of lightning and peals of thunder]
Prom.  Yea, now in very deed, 
No more in word alone,        
The earth shakes to and fro, 
And the loud thunder’s voice 
Bellows hard by, and blaze 
The flashing levin-fires;         
And tempests whirl the dust, 
And gusts of all wild winds 
On one another leap, 
In wild conflicting blasts,        
And sky with sea is blent: 
Such is the storm from Zeus 
That comes as working fear, 
In terrors manifest.        
O Mother venerable! 
O Æther! rolling round 
The common light of all, 
Seest thou what wrongs I bear?
... from

I.e., you bring in ideas from the West, you'll pay the price.

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NUNTII: Latin Continues to be Alive and Well in Georgia

From Access North:

Becky Gunn's seventh-graders at First Presbyterian Day School don't know Latin is a dead language _ and Gunn's not telling them.

Instead, she lines the students up at an imaginary line in the center of her classroom. She calls out a word in English, and the students race to the chalkboard to write the Latin equivalent.

She barks, "Wolf!" They run to the board and write, "Lupus."

Gunn's class is an example of Latin and other foreign languages' resurgence in public and private schools.

Richard LaFleur, a classics professor at the University of Georgia, said about 500,000 students in the nation are learning Latin as well as the history and geography of Mediterranean lands.

"Teachers are now focusing more on the rich, multicultural civilization of the entire ancient Mediterranean world," LaFleur said. "Thanks to the almost limitless influences Greco-Roman civilization has exerted upon our own, we have countless lessons to learn from its study."

Clyde Austin, who has taught Latin at Stratford Academy for 10 years, said learning languages helps develop other analytical skills, and studies indicate that Latin and Hebrew students score higher on the SAT than students of any other language.

Some school systems in Georgia aren't able to offer the course because it's difficult to find teachers. [more]

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pridie idus apriles

  • ludi Cereri (day 1) -- games in honour of the grain goddes Ceres, instituted by/before 202 B.C.
  • 250 A.D. -- martyrdom of Vissa (or Vissia) at Fermo
  • 300 A.D. -- martyrdom of Victor in what would become Portugal

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CHATTER: David Soren Recognition

Classicist David Soren has received the University of Arizona's Five Star Faculty Award. Congrats! Here's the coverage from the Wildcat:

It's not uncommon to find David Soren tearing up in the middle of a lecture.

"You have an honor that you get to present this to a group of people. It's very beautiful, and it makes me weep," said Soren, a Classics Regents Professor.

The award is entirely student-based, and the committee chooses from a group of professors nominated by students. Committee members observe the nominees in class and interview the professors to choose the one they find most fitting for the $1,000 award.  [much more]

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CHATTER: The History of Jokes

The New Yorker has a lengthy piece on the history of jokes and, as might be expected (since I'm writing about it, natch), the ancient precedents are duly cited:

Joking is sometimes said to have been invented by Palamedes, the hero of Greek legend who outwitted Odysseus on the eve of the Trojan War. But since this proverbially ingenious fellow is also credited with inventing numbers, the alphabet, lighthouses, dice, and the practice of eating meals at regular intervals, the claim should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. In the Athens of Demosthenes, there was a comedians’ club called the Group of Sixty, which met in the temple of Heracles to trade wisecracks, and it is said that Philip of Macedon paid handsomely to have their jokes written down; but the volume, if it ever existed, has been lost. On the Roman side, Plautus refers to jestbooks in a couple of his plays, while Suetonius tells us that Melissus, a favorite professor of the Emperor Augustus, compiled no fewer than a hundred and fifty joke anthologies. Despite this, only a single jokebook survives from ancient times: the Philogelos, or “Laughter-Lover,” a collection in Greek that was probably put together in the fourth or fifth century A.D. It contains two hundred and sixty-four items, several of which appear twice, in slightly different form. This suggests that the volume is not one jokebook but two combined, a hunch borne out by the fact that it is attributed to two authors, Hierocles and Philagrius, although joint authorship was rare at the time. Virtually nothing is known about either man; there is some scholarly speculation that the Hierocles in question was a fifth-century Alexandrian philosopher of that name who was once publicly flogged in Constantinople for paganism, which, as one classicist has observed, “might have given him a taste for mordant wit.”

The jokes in the Philogelos are spare and pointed. (“‘How shall I cut your hair?’ a talkative barber asked a wag. ‘In silence!’”) They take on a gallery of stock characters: the drunk, the miser, the braggart, the sex-starved woman, and the man with bad breath, as well as a classic type known as the scholastikos, variously translated as “pedant,” “absent-minded professor,” or “egghead.” (“An egghead was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. ‘Don’t cry,’ he consoled them, ‘I have freed you all in my will.’”) Some of the jokes are now more cryptic than funny, perhaps because of lost undertones. A couple of jokes about lettuce, for example, might have struck a Roman audience as hilarious, given their belief that lettuce leaves, variously, promoted or impeded sexual function. But others, like No. 263 (lifted from Plutarch), would not be out of place at a Friars Club meeting: “‘I had your wife for nothing,’ someone sneered at a wag. ‘More fool you. I’m her husband, I have to have the ugly bitch. You don’t.’” The most haunting joke in the Philogelos, however, is No. 114, about a resident of Abdera, a Greek town whose citizens were renowned for their foolishness: “Seeing a eunuch, an Abderite asked him how many children he had. The eunuch replied that he had none, since he lacked the means of reproduction. Retorted the Abderite . . .” The rest is missing from the surviving text, which goes to show the strange potency of unheard punch lines.

The Philogelos was misplaced during the Dark Ages, and with it, seemingly, the art of the joke. Sophisticated humor was kept alive in the Arab world, where the more leisurely folktale was cultivated. During the centuries of Arab conquest, folktales from the Levant, many of them satirical or erotic, made their way through Spain and Italy. An Arab tale about a wife who is pleasured by her lover while her duped husband watches uncomprehendingly from a tree, for instance, is one of several that later show up in Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Once in Europe, the folktale began to cleave in two. On the one hand, with the invention of printing and the rise of literacy, it grew longer, filling out into the chivalric romance and, ultimately, the novel. On the other hand, as the pace of urban life quickened, it got shorter in its oral form, shedding details and growing more formulaic as it condensed into the humorous anecdote. It was in the early Renaissance that the art of the joke was reborn, and the midwife was a man called Poggio.

Folks seeking examples of ancient humour can consult the selection of jokes from John Quinn's translation of the Philogelos provided at the Diotima site, or visit Michael Hendry's Ioci Antiqui pages for jokes from a variety of ancient sources.

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CHATTER: Pakistan as Rome

Since we're used to seeing the U.S. compared to Rome all the time, it's kind of refreshing when someone finds the analogy useful for a different nation. In this case, the Daily Times of Pakistan takes as its point of departure Will Cuppy's The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, focussing on what the latter says about Nero:

Which brings me to this great line in Cuppy’s description of Nero: “In some respects Nero was ahead of his time [they all are, aren’t they]. He boiled his drinking water to remove the impurities and cooled it with unsanitary ice to put them back again.” This seems dangerously close to the way the army operates in this country. It walks into the system on the pretext that it is dysfunctional and then sets down to the task of removing the civilian impurities from the system through a boiling procedure. By the way, it does a pretty good job of it too, so let’s not be bloody-minded on that score. It pays to be fair.

But the problem is not boiling, as even Nero knew. The real test is cooling off. The army casts around for ice which invariably comes in the form of those civilian impurities that had been freezing on the sidelines. Since the army, despite its altruism, needs to run the system, just like Nero had to drink the water after he had boiled it, the army cools the system with the unsanitary ice available and in the process puts in the impurities back again. The cycle goes on. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the recent boiling procedure and the ice that’s been put in to cool off the water. Nero didn’t know it, but we call the boiling-cooling procedure “true democracy”. This only goes to show that Nero after all was not as ahead of his time as Cuppy made him out to be, which is okay with me and won’t put me off either Nero or Cuppy.

But there’s more to Nero’s story. He was also a reformer, we are told. It is utter calumny, as Cuppy rightly observed, to say that he fiddled while Rome burnt. In fact, the violin had not yet been invented so he “played the lyre and sang of the Fall of Troy”, which is hardly something for which he should be faulted. Cuppy’s only objection is that he shouldn’t “have tortured so many Christians to prove that they did it” because “A few would have been plenty”. Isn’t that the essential thing about making a point?

Anyway, as a reformer, Nero “renamed the month of April after himself, calling it Neroneus”. But, as Cuppy reminds the readers, “the idea never caught on because April is not Neroneus and there is no use pretending that it is.” If anyone was still wondering why the idea of ‘Musharrafocracy’ has not caught on, he now knows why. Democracy is not Musharrafocracy and there is no use pretending that it is.

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CHATTER: The Caesarian Section

A piece in Time Magazine on the trend towards elective Caesarian births waxes thusly:

What all these women had are C-sections. Not the emergency caesareans that have been performed for hundreds of years to rescue babies from women in medical crisis. (Legend has it that Julius Caesar was born this way.)

I've often wondered where and when this "legend" got started, so I poked around a bit only to find the "legend" repeated in such reputable online sources as MedicineNet, ("We bring doctors' knowledge to you"):

As the name "Caesarian" suggests, this is not exactly a new procedure. It was done in ancient civilizations upon the death of a pregnant woman who was near full term in order to salvage the baby. Julius Caesar (or one of his predecessors) was born by this procedure. Hence, the name "Caesarian."

Then our friend N.S. Gill over at cites a message by another friend, Ling Ouyang with an interesting footnote to Servius' Commentary on the Aeneid, to wit (from Perseus):

 Caesarum etiam familia ideo sacra retinebat Apollinis, quia qui primus de eorum familia fuit, exsecto matris ventre natus est, unde etiam Caesar dictus est: licet varia de etymologia huius nominis dicantur, ut diximus supra.

The Caesarian clan continued to observe the rites of Apollo on account of the one who was first of them, born by being cut from his mother's stomach for which he was called Caesar, although there are various etymologies of this name as we have mentioned above.

Okay, so perhaps it is plausible that the Caesares take their name from one who was born by C-section -- as opposed to another plausible suggestion that it has to do with the 'hairiness' of the clan (although images of Julius Caesar would suggest otherwise). Does it follow, then, that Julius was born in this manner? Further poking brought me to an interesting message from alt.usage-english on the subject ... inter alia:

"The OED gives evidence for the belief that Julius Caesar, the
most famous bearer of the cognomen, was delivered this way that
dates from 1540.  There is no authority for this notion in ancient
sources.  Moreover, Julius Caesar's mother lived long after his
birth -- unlikely if she had undergone such an operation, which few
women would have survived in those days.  In any case, the earliest
record we have for the term 'cesarean section' used in English dates
from 1615.  You can easily see from these dates why we say that the
term came from the belief, and not, to throw in a little more Latin,
vice versa."

For what it's worth, it's well-known that Julius Caesar's mother Aurelia survived until his early twenties or so, so it seems to me unlikely that she had delivered in this manner. Incidentally, my poking around for this stuff reminded me that I had originally started pondering this a few years ago during idle surfing when I came across the home page of the Department of Classics at Trinity University. That led to a discussion on the Classics list, which did not really resolve the issue (scroll down to the thread entitled "Classics Poll").

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CHATTER: Double-Take Headline

Here's the double-take headline du jour:

AEROSMITH covers classics

Of course, what immediately sprang to mind was Achilles' famous pre-Trojan War cross-dressing scene (captured here by Poussin):

                                           Portland Art Museum

In the Classic words of Aerosmith: "Dude looks like a lady"

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CHATTER: Classical Cliches

The Toronto Star waxes on cliches and takes them back to the ancient world:

Some classic clichés still linger, long after their meaning has vanished. Working like a Trojan is as dead as a dodo. But some speakers would pick a bone with anyone who suggested it should fall by the wayside just yet.

In the long and useful history of cliché, all roads lead to Rome — and beyond.

The Greek poet Homer's epics were filled with references to the importance of "fine speech" to anyone with pretension to greatness. Leaning snappy phrases was part of a thinking man's education.

"Your aged father sent me out to teach you to be a fine speaker and a man of action," the aged tutor Phoinix told the disgruntled Achilles, who was sulking in his tent on the plains of Troy in no mood for rhetorical lessons.

By the 5th century B.C., the Athenian city state was not only a symbol of democracy — all 40,000 of its adult male residents automatically belonged to its legislative Assembly — but a vast rhetorical gymnasium, with thousands of citizens turning up for monthly meetings to vie with each other for sound bites.

To fight their way onto the governing 500-member executive council, Athenians had to rely on their oratory in a bid for election. Those who failed the test hired some of the world's first speechwriters, and delivered their lines by memory.

This was the age of the Sophists, masters of cliché, who received a bum rap from Plato. The great philosopher believed that learning rhetoric for political advantage, rather than speaking from philosophical conviction, was no better than prostitution.

His special target was Gorgias, the father of all spin-doctors, who earned a good living from fees for his popular all-occasion speeches, and believed that "words are the vehicles of suggestion, persuasion and belief." Like all good cliché-mongers, Gorgias preferred form to substance, and wasn't afraid to say so.

In spite of Plato's slurs, Gorgias' influence has survived the ages in the courts as well as the parliaments.

The Roman historian and senator Tacitus, in the 2nd century A.D., followed in his footsteps when he pointed out, "the breastplate and the sword are not stronger defence on the battlefield than eloquence is to a man amid the perils of prosecution."

Until the age of mass media, clichés were fewer than they are now because they had a longer route to travel to the popular imagination.

Not sure how the Star is actually connecting cliches to the ancient world ...

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AWOTV: On TV Today

5.00 p.m.|DCIVC| Mary: Mother of Jesus

7.00 p.m.|HINT|The Ancient Gold of Troy
Since WWII, one of the world's most fantastic fortunes was believed
lost--its priceless heirlooms from the time of the Homeric legends a
casualty of war. But when the cache was found in a secret vault in a
Russian museum, an international uproar ensued over who owned the
ancient treasure. Join us as we follow the journey of Troy's gold.
7.00 p.m. |DCIVC| Mystery of the Shroud

8.00 p.m. |DCIVC| Ancient Ancestors: The Princess and The Pauper

Channel Guide

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Click for Athens, Greece Forecast

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