Most recent update:6/1/2004; 5:08:41 AM

 Saturday, May 08, 2004

CHATTER: Seen in Passing

In the Review Appeal:

How did Julius Caesar conquer Gaul without the benefit of rehydrating energy drinks and multi- vitamins?

Or coffee ...

8:51:10 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: What's the Iliad To Us?

The Australian has a column/essay which will probably be cribbed for undergraduate papers for years to come ... you've been warned:

While scholars debate the so-called "Homeric problem" – whether there was one Homer, or two, or none at all – there is another, more fundamental question about the cultural authority of the Homeric epics. How did The Iliad and The Odyssey win their laurels as the inaugurating works of Western Civilisation? No matter where they end up, or how they digress, university survey courses of Western civilisation and literature all begin with these two works. Homer, it's assumed, is us. I have my doubts, at least for large tranches of the story.

Take a look at Achilles. Rebounding into battle after the death of his beloved Patroclus, Achilles is not satisfied with merely killing Lycaon, a son of the Trojan king Priam; he feels moved to sling the lifeless corpse into the river and then savage it further with words: Make your bed with the fishes now, they'll dress your wound and lick it clean of blood _ So much for your last rites! Nor will your mother Lay your corpse on a bier and mourn her darling son _ whirling Scamander will roll you down the sea's broad bosom! And many a fish, leaping up through the waves, breaking the cold ripples shivering dark will dart and bolt Lycaon's glistening fat! Die, Trojans, die _ Till I butcher all the way to sacred Troy _ Run headlong on, I'll hack you from behind! We hold war crimes tribunals for this sort of thing.

The Iliad assaults the reader anticipating a literary expression of classical sublime. With its detailed rendering of extreme violence, its taste for viscera and gore, the poem seems as iron-hearted as Achilles. It glorifies the victor, demeans his victim and turns killing into work.

When Hector the Trojan champion calls for a volunteer, Dolon (lightning-fast and rich in bronze) hungrily accepts. His task is to slip across the battlefield at night and to reconnoitre the Achaean positions. Dolon is quickly spotted by the crafty Odysseus and the warlike Diomedes, who bear down on him like "hounds". Sensing his secrets can be easily prised, Odysseus assuages the trembling prisoner's fears. This must be the first good cop/bad cop duo in literary history. It certainly works. Dolon, offering to ransom himself, blurts out the entire Trojan war plan. But just as he begins to argue the terms of his freedom, Diomedes strikes him: . . . square across the neck _ a flashing hack of the sword – both tendons snapped and the shrieking head went tumbling into the dust.

The Christian mystic Simone Weil, in an influential essay about The Iliad, saw its modernism in the unsentimental vision of man as a thing either conquering or conquered. "The true hero, the real subject, the core of The Iliad, is force," she wrote in 1939. "The force that is wielded by men rules over them, and before it man's flesh cringes. The human soul never ceases to be transformed by its encounter with force – is swept on, blinded by that which it believes itself unable to handle, bowed beneath the power of that which it suffers. Force makes a thing of its victims. There where someone stood a moment ago, stands no one."

Weil's essay makes Homer seem as urgent in the shadow of the Reich as it does in our age of assassins. But it says nothing about the poet's attitude to force. Is there a morality in Homer? I think there is. But you have to read the poem to the end before something like humanism slices through the dust and gore.

First, Achilles submits to entreaties by old Priam to return the corpse of his son Hector (vengeful Achilles has been dragging it about at the back of a chariot). And with this act – even though a ransom is involved – the hero's humanity is restored. A man appears from behind the mask. He counsels Priam: Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts, rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning. What good's to be won from tears that chill the spirit? So the immortals spun our lives so that we, wretched men live on to bear such torments – the gods free of sorrows. At the sight of Hector's body, the Trojan citizenry succumbs to inconsolable grief. Hector's wife, "white-armed" Andromache, gently cradles her husband's head and laments: Oh my husband. . . Cut off from life so young! You leave me a widow, lost in the royal halls – and the boy only a baby, the son we bore together, you and I so doomed.

The effect is to dissolve the imperatives of vengeance into clear-eyed sympathy for both Achilles, whose own death has been foretold, and the Trojan champion: "man-killing Hector". The reader has been spirited from the battlefields behind the Trojan walls to participate in a communal tragedy that is also intensely domestic and private.

The author of The Iliad offers neither a neat nor a triumphant climax. The epic's final words recall the Trojan prince before he became a warrior: "And so they buried Hector breaker of horses." It may be the biggest dud ending in literary history, but in its bitter unsentimentality, The Iliad is profoundly true. For long stretches of this strange work Homer seems as deranged as his blood-lusting warrior-heroes. Only at its close do we see him as one of us. [more]

8:47:24 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: Pitt as Achilles

From a review in the New Zealand Herald:

Pitt looked every inch the way Achilles has been described. Says Pitt, "We all had to work out a hell of a lot. But as actors, that's our job, so physical preparation is nothing out of the ordinary. Although, I have to say, with Troy it really did have huge physical demands. I took the physicality very seriously." The conflicted feelings and psychological dilemmas that Achilles faced are evident from the first frame. You can read it in his troubled face. You feel his pain.

"I think there are various messages the audience can take away after watching Troy, but the big picture, I think, is that ultimately war is tragedy. Period."

Achilles is portrayed faithfully, according to Homer's poem. In The Iliad he was an arrogant, unsympathetic killing machine, plagued by inner demons. To his credit, Petersen didn't feel the need to make Achilles come across as some kind of misunderstood Hollywood hero.

Says Pitt, "Achilles was a very isolated character with great frustrations and deep rage, which verged on insanity. Achilles said, 'I want what all men want - I just want it more'." [more]

8:42:48 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: Why Classics?

A quotation from context untimely ripped, but it works:

The classics are the classics because they speak to us, regardless of the era in which they were written. [New York Times]

8:39:25 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: Rome Miniseries

Scenes from a set:

An old-time epic feel has hit Rome (the modern one) with the return of swords and sandals in two big-budget TV series shooting here, one a joint HBO/BBC production and the other for ABC.

Shrieks for "the 40 Roman soldiers!" ricocheted around the set of HBO's "Rome" during a recent visit. "Turn off your cell phones!" production assistants bellowed. "Don't stand in the shot with that bottled water!"

Until recently, the Roman Empire had fallen, as far as Hollywood was concerned. Producers were skittish about sinking cash into classical epics when the public didn't seem terribly interested. [more]

8:37:05 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: Alexander Flick -- Robin Lane Fox Speaks Out

Just t'other day we mentioned that RLF was the historical advisor for Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great flick. Today, in the Times, RLF pens a lengthy column about the experience. Excerpts:

Big movies are notorious for trampling on history; I have just given the year’s biggest movie the chance of trampling on a historian. In November, Oliver Stone’s film about Alexander the Great will burst on the world. I have been the film’s historical adviser and in September last year I galloped on my stallion across the Moroccan desert at the head of Oliver’s cavalry charge. We were filming the battle of Gaugamela, Alexander’s greatest victory over the Persians.

Both advising and acting roles came as a result of my book about Alexander and my lifelong study of him. Charging across the desert gave me a unique opportunity for some first-hand historical research. Can we really understand the horse-bound charges which were essential to Alexander’s famous victories if we have never tried to carry one out? It was also a fantasy and spectacularly good fun.
Alexander’s appeal lies in his youth, his feat of overthrowing an ancient empire and the mystery of aims and ideals which were never finally expressed before his death, aged 32. He was the most powerful man in his world at an age when most of us are still being sat on by our elders. He had a strong sense of his close relationship to the gods, encouraging the idea that he was the begotten son of Zeus.

In my view, he set out to reach the eastern edge of the inhabited world. Like his great tutor, Aristotle, he had seriously underestimated its extent. Tutorials back in Greek Macedonia had persuaded him that the world ran out in northwest India. His men refused to go on, but he returned to visit a supposed southern edge of the world at the mouth of the River Indus and probably to aim for a western edge beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. If he had lived, we would have been spared the ghastliness of the next global power, the Romans. The late André Malraux, that beacon of French educated culture, once told me that he admired young Alexander because at least he had the courage to die of his vices.


By 2001 three major projects were said to be in the air, but I was half relieved that none of them had given me a workout again. The huge television company HBO was rumoured to be budgeting up to $200 million for a series on Alexander, directed by Mel Gibson, who would play King Philip himself and preside over a script which was believed to be full of sodomy and filthy language. Instead, he filmed Jesus on the Cross with violence and in Aramaic. The elderly Dino Di Laurentiis was talking expansively about his plans for the big movie, casting the effete Leonardo DiCaprio as Alexander. The press were full of him, with only a few allusions to the parallel plans of the controversial Stone.


When Stone invited me to London two years ago to discuss Alexander with him, perhaps I should have asked for millions of dollars and a film credit for my book. No doubt he would have found somebody else to advise him among the dozens of more prudent historians who also engage with this subject around the world. Before our meeting, however, I had arranged my priorities in case the relationship went well. I decided to ask for two rewards: a place in the first 15 of every major cavalry charge to be filmed in Alexander’s company and the words “and introducing” in front of my name in the credits.

Even Stone was taken aback by this request. He pointed out that “and introducing” would be impossible because there is a professional hierarchy in such matters. My request to ride in the cavalry charge caused him consternation too, until I assured him that I have ridden for 45 years and risked every bone, still unbroken, in my body in the yearly pursuit of English foxes. There would be health and safety problems, he hardly needed to tell me, but, “OK, I’ll tell them to do it, if I possibly can . . . we’ll have a rebel on horseback . . . you’re mad; you’re a cross between Peter Sellers and Ian Fleming.”


Did Alexander’s men ever eat melons? What did Aristotle really think about the ancient myths? What did the main god of Babylon look like? Alexander’s Macedonia was Greek, but what would his Greek language sound like to other educated ears further south in Athens? Should his star, Colin Farrell, have blond highlights in his hair? Alexander had a sexual nature, but as the film, correctly, was not going to turn him in to a “gay” from a counter-culture, how should his passionate life be handled? My colleagues told me that for historians, Stone was supposed to be like Satan, perhaps because they had seen his film of Nixon and I had not. Like the poet John Milton, I have to say I quickly became very fond of Satan. Anyway, the claim that Stone has no historical sense is completely untrue.


Through clouds of dust, out there in the desert, I solved old scholarly questions: whether Alexander’s cavalrymen had shields (they did not), whether they could lance an unprotected enemy through the chest (I experimented and proved it with the willing Ibrahim) and whether they could pull out a lance from a body after death (they could, if they lanced a man in the shoulder, as I lanced a major star who spoke French).


I have to say that I would have died for Colin Farrell by the end, a loyalty which was widely shared. In Bangkok, in a darkened hotel room, we sat watching uncut dailies of the final emotional scenes of Stone’s film-to-be; the company were all male and muscular, but I could not stop myself from sobbing in the closing moments. Fortunately, another man could be seen in combat trousers sitting on the floor and doing the same and when the lights came on I saw that it was Farrell, equally transported by the evocation of the great Alexander whom he had had to bring to life. [the whole thing]



8:34:44 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: The Leeds Unitediad

I suspect we'll see much more of this sort of thing in the near future, for obvious reasons:

A word of advice for supporters of Leeds United: steer clear of the new movie Troy. "Based on an original story by Homer" the credits boast at the start, and indeed there are still a few remnants of the Iliad in among the lingering shots of Brad Pitt in a leather skirt.

But why Leeds followers should worry is because of the uncanny parallels between the tale of the fall of the greatest walled city in civilisation and their own sorry predicament. In fact, there is a diverting five minutes to be spent re-casting the epic to accommodate the Elland Road struggles.

There's Alan Smith as Hector, the honourable, noble warrior who goes down fighting defending his cause; there's Peter Ridsdale as Paris, whose ambitious attempt to snatch the greatest prize on earth brings nothing but disaster; and there's Eddie Gray as King Priam, blindly holding on to the hope that the old ways will save them. Plus, as the wooden horse, bringing the whole edifice down about him from within, who is better cast than Mark Viduka? Or should that be wooden donkey? [Telegraph]

8:24:26 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: Religious Tolerance in Modern Greece

From the Telegraph:

Before an altar bearing wreaths of olive branches, flowers, and statues of Athena, Dionysus and Hermes, a crowd of initiates wearing brightly coloured ribbons around their heads raise their right hands and intone: "Hail Zeus."
Incense fills the tightly packed, candlelit room, and the windows give on to a balcony with a magnificent view of the floodlit Acropolis. To millions of visitors every year, the Parthenon is a beautiful fragment of history. To the devotees wrapping their tongues around hymns in ancient Greek, it is a living place of worship.

"It is a temple of Athena, whom we worship," said Panayiotis Kakkavas, a long-time believer. "We should be allowed to hold our ceremonies there."

But according to Mr Kakkavas and his fellow believers, Greece's Olympian heritage, from temples to the Games themselves, have been promoted across the world to turn a profit, while the snappily titled Greek Society of the Friends of the Ancient and Followers of the Religion of the 12 Gods, is forced to meet in secret.

"Greece makes so much money out of our gods," he said. "But we are not allowed to pray to them even for free."

Unlicensed and unloved in a country which thrives on its Olympian heritage but whose population is officially 98 per cent Orthodox Christian, those who continue to celebrate the gods of old are nervous about their religious profession.

"We estimate we number about 100,000 across Greece, but many people are scared to declare their beliefs," said Panayiotis Marinis, who leads the prayers but is called a teacher rather than a priest. "We have been leading a campaign to have our religion legalised for eight years."


Across Greece worshippers meet every full moon and for events marking seasonal changes. But for special occasions the illicit ceremonies are not always as hidden as this one.

"Sometimes we have small ceremonies when a group of us will meet and go and perform on the ancient sites which are our temples," said Ms Marselou. "There we leave these clothes and dress properly in togas."

Gee ... maybe they'd take you more seriously if you donned a chlamys ...

8:21:34 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: Caligula's Horse Redux

From the Guardian:

For a government allegedly obsessed with presentation, appointing John Scarlett as head of MI6 is such terrible politics (making the job for Caligula's horse look like crowd-pleasing meritocracy) that it encourages conspiracy theories.

See our previous post on Caligula as Equine Opportunity Employer  (in a post about Oliver Stone)

8:16:16 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

REVIEW: A.S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories

The above-named tome is a collection of short stories reviewed in the New York Times this week. Inter alia, we read of one of the stories which might be of interest to readers of rogueclassicism:

In every story, Byatt takes a different approach to spiritual or artistic faith and to the burden -- or freedom -- of interpreting what we see in the world around us. Penny and Primrose cannot quite bear to acknowledge each other because their vision has been shared: each makes that experience too undeniably real for the other. In a similar vein, James Ennis, in the collection's final story, ''The Pink Ribbon,'' fears a mysterious woman called Dido, who appears on his doorstep and knows all too intimately the secrets of his senile wife's past.

James wills Dido to be a phantasm, yet she is palpably present, even as his wife, Mado, is now merely ''the presence of absence.'' We are given blunt clues as to Dido's provenance -- James is reading Book 6 of the ''Aeneid,'' about Aeneas' visit to the underworld, when his visitor comes calling -- but the story's overriding concern is not to determine whether Dido has blood or air in her veins. Rather, what is at stake is the matter of who James Ennis is -- how this visitation relates to the person he has been and the person he will choose to be in the future. (As we read this chilling story, in which a beleaguered husband tends the shell of his once highly intelligent wife by subduing her with the Teletubbies, it is impossible not to think of John Bayley and his memoirs of life with Iris Murdoch, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease.)


8:07:12 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

REVIEW: From Scholia

Jon D. Mikalson, Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars

7:56:56 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.


Craig A. Williams, Martial Epigrams Book Two, edited with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary.

Martin Jacobsson (ed.), Aurelius Augustinus. De musica liber VI.

Jacques A. Bailly, Plato's Euthyphro and Clitophon.

Hamilton on Lingenberg on Spentzou.

Luba Freedman, The Revival of the Olympian Gods in Renaissance Art.

P. J. Davis, Seneca: Thyestes. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy.

7:55:44 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

non-drowsy antihistamines ... yeah right
7:51:46 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

AWOTV: On TV Today

11.00 p.m. |HINT| Foot Soldier: The Romans
Host Richard Karn looks at the Roman legionnaires, who conquered and
dominated most of the known world for 500 years, and left behind a
legacy of language, culture, architecture, and government.

HINT = History International

7:51:16 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

Click for Athens, Greece Forecast

Click for Rome, Italy Forecast

Site Meter