Friday, June 04, 2004
THIS DAY IN ANCIENT HISTORY
pridie nonas junias
468 B.C. -- birth of Socrates (I have not confirmed this date)
218 B.C. (?) -- dedication of the Temple of the Hercules Custos Magnus in the Circus Flaminius (and associated rites thereafter)
105 A.D. -- The emperor Trajan departs on his second campaign against the Dacians
204 A.D. -- ludi Latini et Graeci honorarii (day 1)
308 A.D. -- martyrdom of Quirinus, in what would become Croatia
CHATTER: Dashing to Dido
From the Daily Star (Lebanon):
The myth of Princess Elissa goes something like this: At some point during the ninth century BC, King Pygmalion of Tyre made a contract killing on his sister Elissa's husband. Aggrieved as she was, Elissa responded by hoodwinking her brother out of a fleet of ships and absconding with the family jewels. She fled from her native kingdom and hit the high seas, sailing westward for seven years until she landed in North Africa. There, she struck a deal with the local king. He offered her a plot of land but told her it couldn't exceed the size of a cow's hide. She agreed, and in a fine bit of feminine ingenuity, pinpointed the loophole in the agreement, ripped the cowhide into thin strips, and outlined a vast stretch of coastal land for herself called Qart Hadasht, now known as Carthage in Tunisia. With that accomplished, she became Queen Dido (meaning the wanderer or the virgin, depending on your source), a pacifist princess who braved the Mediterranean and conquered a kingdom without a single act of violence.
This little legend is now getting a new lease on life, as a premier sailing race is set to retrace Elissa's course from Tyre to Carthage in late August.
"La Route d'Elissa," as the race is called, is a first on many fronts. It is the first major, international sailing race to cross the Mediterranean. It is also the first to do so with United Nations support, part of a resolution aimed at championing sport as a viable cultural exchange between developing countries. And finally, it is the first race of its kind ever to mandate that a woman head every crew that competes. [more]
NUNTII: The Iliad the the Ages
Al-Ahram has an article on a conference which looked at the Iliad through Arabic eyes:
Never mind that Ahmed Etman's new translation of The Iliad is unaffordably priced at LE250. Its appearance on the eve of the Supreme Council of Culture's conference on Translation and Cultural Interaction (29 May-1 June) lends credibility to the event's high-profile round table, " The Iliad through the Ages". With the Arab world the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, the Iliad colloquium provided a safe haven for scholars like Mostafa El-Abbadi and Ahmed Abu Zeid from the urgent issue of Arab cultural representation, allowing them to hold forth in a relatively airtight environment.
And hold forth they did, with Etman's "Suggestions for Dialogue" illuminating the framework in which he worked and, to a lesser extent, encompassing the proceedings. Etman, whose busy presence in the corridors allowed for little conversation, asked about the role of Egypt and other civilisations of the near and Middle East in the creation of The Iliad and The Odyssey, a question that figures in, among other papers, El-Abbaddi's "The Myth of the Island of Pharos in Homer's Odyssey and its Echoes in Ancient Greek Literature."
Pharos being the god Proteus's resting place of choice, its mention in The Odyssey paved the way for authors like Herodotus, and eventually Euripides, not only to interpret Helena's stay under the protection of Egypt's Pharaoh (an aspect of the story with which Homer does not explicitly deal), but to form a view of Egypt and comment on the peculiarities of Egyptians.
"Finally the island of Pharos is mentioned in the biography of Alexander the Great," El- Abbadi writes, "in the folds of the story about the god Amon's revelation to him in Siwa -- that it was the god who inspired him to found Alexandria near that island -- a scene that was forced on the biography of Alexander and drawn from the religious and political heritage of ancient Egypt."
Mohamed El-Sayed Abdel-Ghani's "Egypt in Homer" also tackles Homer's own references to Egypt, evaluating the statements and their implications against historical fact.
Abdel-Hamid Hawwas picks up a somewhat more interesting strand of Etman's discourse, concerning the oral sources of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Complaining of the scholar's painful obsession with "grammar, syntax and metre", the latter compares reading a static text in an ancient language with the more intense pleasure of listening to wandering bards who, singing of the Greeks' victory at Troy, provided Homer with his material. Even those who read the epics in the original are so far removed from the dynamic spirit in which they were conceived, Etman implies, that the pleasures they provide are considerably lessened -- something that affects those reading them in translation, he says, even more.
In line with this argument, Hawwas proceeds from the claim that, in common with The Iliad and The Odyssey and other epics of the world, the major Arab epics should be approached as dynamic oral traditions rather than unvarying tomes. Of the six that survive, he adds, the famous epic of Beni Hilal continues to be presented orally to the accompaniment of music. And it is in the mechanisms of its presentation as performance that a paradigm for all epics should be sought. The implication is that, aside from the importance of textual and literary analysis, Homer will never be fully understood until such a paradigm is applied to his work.
Of all of Etman's propositions, however, it is the history of Homer in Arabic and the problems of translation that remain most relevant. Accompanying the new translation, the Supreme Council of Culture has published a paperback edition of the most popular translation of the two epics to date, Soliman El-Bostani's 1904 verse rendition.
It was this book, Etman points out, that lay the foundations of Greek and Latin studies in the Arab world, appearing some 21 years before Taha Hussein established the first classics department within an Egyptian university. "It is the right of these pioneering generations that we should resume their journey," Etman writes, "even transcending their achievement, without failing to acknowledge them." The most significant factor in translating, he explains, is lack of familiarity with the context in which the text was produced -- the society and culture of the ancient Greeks. The task is complicated even further by Homer's own references to events and figures of the past as if they were of the present.
"And the strange thing about Homer," Etman concludes, "is that any modern person reading the two epics [in the original] feels as if their author was addressing him and dealing with his issues," so universal and penetrating is their appeal. [more]
Wow ... dare we suggest that Homer becomes a bridge between a couple of modern cultures? Or perhaps *should*?
CHATTER: Troy and Aristotle's Poetics
Daniel Mendelsohn has a review of Troy in the New York Review of Books which (eventually) judges it by Aristotle's standards ... here's the incipit:
Who, contemplating the vast catalog of vanished works of literature from the ancient world, really regrets the lost epics about the Trojan War known as the Cypria and the Little Iliad? To have just one more complete poem by Sappho (bringing the grand total to two); to have any of the seventy-five lost plays of Aeschylus, the 116 by Sophocles, the seventy by Euripides; to recover Ovid's lost Medea, or even a single one of the much-admired love elegies of Vergil's friend Cornelius Gallus, which once comprised four whole books and of which a single line now survives; to have the crucial missing books of Tacitus' Annals—for any one of these, there is very little that even the most upstanding classicist wouldn't do. Any one of them, after all, would add immeasurably to our understanding of classical civilization; any one of them would, indeed, add unimaginably to the treasure house of world literature.
But for the Cypria and the Little Iliad, I suspect, no one apart from the most scrupulous philologue sheds a secret tear. These were just two of what was once a grand cycle of eight epic narratives in verse, composed at some point in the pre-classical Greek past, which together comprised many tens of thousands of lines and at least seventy-seven "books," or papyrus scrolls, and narrated pretty much everything having to do with the Trojan War, from its remotest prehistory (the wedding of Achilles' parents) to the final bizarre ramification of its most attenuated plotline (the murder of Odysseus, in his old age, by his son Telegonus, his child by the witch Circe). Of these eight, of course, only two survive: the Iliad and the Odyssey. But later summaries, paraphrases, and even quotations in learned commentaries on classical works that have survived give details about the other six. We know that the eleven books of the Cypria, for instance, made for rather an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink affair, covering all the action from the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis to the Judgment of Paris to the abduction of Helen, all the way through to the first nine years of the war up until the moment when Homer's Iliad begins.
And we know that at some point after the Iliad came the so-called Little Iliad—also something of a laundry list of a poem, from the sound of it, narrating as it did much of the action after the death of Achilles, from the suicide of Ajax and the mission to fetch Philoctetes to the construction of the Trojan Horse, the deceitful embassy to the Trojans of the Greek soldier Sinon (who convinced the Trojans to take the wooden horse, saying that the Greeks, fearing plague, had returned home), and the Achaeans' terrible entry into Troy. Various other poems filled in the blanks: the Aethiopis narrated the deaths of various ancillary characters like the Amazon queen Penthesilea and Memnon, an Ethiopian ally of the Trojans; another, called the Nostoi, or "Returns," narrated the arduous homecomings of the Greek heroes after the war, particularly that of Agamemnon. It was presumably adjacent to the Nostoi in the epic cycle that the Odyssey once stood.
One reason that we don't hugely regret the absence of most of the lost epics is, in fact, the greatness of the two surviving Homeric epics: each a masterpiece that stands easily on its own, neither needing a prequel or a sequel. Another reason is that much of the content of the lost epics was recapitulated in later Greek tragedies, to say nothing of Vergil's Aeneid, the second book of which provides as harrowing and satisfying an account of the Fall of Troy as anyone could want. But there is still another reason that we shouldn't mind too much the loss of poems like the Cypria or the Little Iliad. Apparently, they weren't all that good.
In the twenty-third chapter of his Poetics, Aristotle suggests why. In this section, he somberly warns about some potential pitfalls in constructing the plots of epic poems; as examples of what can go wrong, he uses, as it happens, both the Cypria and the Little Iliad. "With respect to narrative mimesis in verse," he writes (by which he means epic poems),
it is clear that the plots, as in the tragedies, ought be made dramatic—that is, concerning one whole and complete action having a beginning, middle, and end; clear, too, that its structures should not be similar to histories, which require the exposition not of one action, but rather of one period and all the events that happened during it to one person or more; and how each and every one of those things that transpired relates to every other.... But most of the poets, more or less, do just this. Which is why (as I have already said) in this, too, Homer may be said to appear "divinely inspired" above the rest, since he did not attempt to treat the [Trojan] war as a whole, although it had a beginning and an end; for the plot was bound to be too extensive and impossible to grasp all at once—or, if kept to a reasonable size, far too knotty in its complexity. Instead, taking up just one section, he used many others as episodes, such as the "catalogue of ships" and other episodes with which he gives his composition diversity. But the others construct one composite action about a single man or period, as for instance the poet of the Cypria and the Little Iliad.
For those who think that "epic" merely means "big" or "long," it's worth emphasizing that by "action" Aristotle clearly does not mean a long string of events—such as, for example, the suicide of Ajax, the Greeks' attempt to lure Philoctetes and his magic bow back to Troy, the construction of the wooden horse, Sinon's ruse, and the penetration of the Trojan walls by means of the hollow ambush, all of which, as we know, went into the Little Iliad. Such events are, in Aristotelian terms, merely linked together but do not form what he thinks of as a "plot," a single action, what he calls a praxis, a word derived from the Greek verb prattein, "to do." For Aristotle, a poem consisting of lots of little doings nominally linked by chronology ("everything leading up to the Trojan War," say, or "everything that happened after Achilles died") was one that, as even a brief summary of the Cypria or the Little Iliad suggests, was little more than a boring catalog.
A plot, by contrast, is what the Iliad has. For all its great length, the poem is precisely about what is proposed, in its famous opening line, as its subject matter: the wrath of Achilles, its origins, its enactment, its consequences. (So too the Odyssey, whose concomitant episodes all refract what it, in its famous opening line, purports to be about: the "man of many turnings who wandered wide": no part of the poem does not illuminate his cleverness, his yearning for home, his humanity.) To be sure, Achilles' rage, as it plays itself out through the poem's twenty-four books, sheds light on a vast host of issues: the meaning of heroism, the nature of war and of peace, the sweetness and bitterness of human life. But the Iliad is able to illuminate so much precisely because of its searing focus on one praxis, which is what gives it its awesome weight and terrible grandeur. Which is to say, what makes it truly big, truly "epic."
We do not, of course, possess either the Cypria or the Little Iliad, but what we know about them suggests that they have much in common with another failed epic: this summer's big blockbuster movie, Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, a film that falters hopelessly for precisely the same reasons that those lost, bad poems did. Troy claims, in a closing credit sequence, to have been "inspired" by the Iliad, but however much it thinks it's doing Homer, the text it best illuminates is Aristotle's. [more]
AWOTV: On TV Today
3.00 p.m. |DCIVC| Rome: Power and Glory: The Cult of Order
5.00 p.m. |DCIVC| Meet The Ancestors: A Roman Plot
5.30 p.m. |DCIVC| Meet The Ancestors: Princess of the City
7.00 p.m. |HINT|Attila: Scourge of God
Bloodthirsty barbarian or benevolent ruler? Our profile portrays
Attila the Hun as he really was: shrewd, tough, and at times even
thoughtful. A man who, through intelligence and sheer force of
character, forged a loose confederation of nomadic tribes into the
most fearsome military machine of its time.
7.00 p.m.|DTC|Age of Gold
By lavishing himself in gold, the pharaoh was assured eternal life.
Evidence suggests that the tombs of ancient pharaohs were
systematically robbed in order to finance the burials of future kings.
8.00 p.m.|DTC|Forever and Ever
Witness Byzantium's end and a cast of characters ranging from Tsars
to Sultans. Observe the continued influence and survival of Byzantium-
-among the most influential cultures in world history.
9.00 p.m.|DTC|Building the Dream
Travel from Rome to Byzantium and listen to the stories of
Byzantium's beginnings--the change from the classical pagan world to
a Christian one--the people, architecture and sculpture.
10.00 p.m.|DTC|Envy of the World
Visit the marvelous material culture of medieval Byzantium--
including everything from ivory and silk to blue fish sauce and
golden bezants. Also, discover how this fabulously rich city was