Category Archives: Classics

Any of my posts that relate in sufficient degree to the Classical World and my study thereof.

Review: The Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1 (3rd ed.)

Greek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: HippolytusGreek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: Hippolytus by David Grene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(This review is of the third edition.) I assigned this anthology for students in my Greek and Roman mythology class. My review will be in three parts: 1. The translation and paratextual apparatus. 2. The selection of texts. 3. The plays themselves.

1. The translation and paratextual apparatus

Like the series from which these translations come, The Complete Greek Tragedies, these are readable, poetic renderings by translator-poets. The original editors of the volume, David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, translated four out of the five themselves (Grene: Prometheus Bound, Oedipus the King, and Hippolytus; Lattimore: Agamemnon) and Elizabeth Wyckoff translated the fifth play, Sophocles’ Antigone. These translations are both poetic and smooth, and they avoid the awkwardness of, for example, Fagles putting ‘Aieee!’ into people’s mouths to translate ‘Aiai!‘.

My one concern is that in this third edition, the new editors, Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, have taken it upon themselves not only to update the introductions and notes, but the translations as well. They claim that they have made the translations more accurate. I do not have time to sit down with the second and third editions and the Greek texts, but I am skeptical about this claim, solely on the grounds that poetic meaning and poetic diction are not always properly separable, and one Greek word or phrase may have multiple English renderings (of which I’m sure Griffith and Most are aware). I fear that this is more of the humanities slipping towards a false certainty of ‘accuracy’ derived from the sciences.

Paratextually, I am not fond of endnotes in the first place. Endnotes that are marked by a symbol in the main text that requires you to hunt and hunt I like less. This, however, is the name of the game for popular level translations of the classics, as seen in Penguin and Oxford World’s Classics as well. I found the introductions just what an undergrad needs — basic information, quick, snappy not too long. Finally, I am not so fond of rendering the sung parts of the plays in italics. A fourth edition should think of something else, although I think the rubrics should be enough.

2. The selection of texts

This is a good volume for someone who wants to try out Greek tragedies or for a class like mine that is giving a taster of classical literature — Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ most famous plays are here, Agamemnon and Prometheus Bound for the former, and Oedipus the King and Antigone for the latter. I would have expected Medea or Bacchae from Euripides rather than Hippolytus. In fact, one weakness of the selection is the fact that we get only five plays; two from each playwright would have made sense. Euripides, who exists in larger quantity, gets short shrift. The only problem with selection is endemic to anthologies — we get Agamemnon but not the rest of the Oresteia, for example; but at least that’s the best play of the three.

3. The plays themselves

Agamemnon by Aeschylus begins the volume. Here you meet straight up the fact that all the action happens off-stage in a Greek tragedy. This is the story of the homecoming of the Greek general from Troy to an unjoyous reunion with his wife, Clytemnestra, and his cousin, Aegisthus. Machinations are afoot, and vengeance is found. Clytemnestra has the reputation of being the most evil woman in Greek literature, but if your husband sacrificed your daughter to a goddess before going off to war for ten years, then came home with a concubine, I think you’d be a bit ticked off as well. Hubris and inescapable necessity (anangke) are the themes here.

Then Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. This play opens with Prometheus getting chained to a rock and then having conversations with passersby, explaining why he was chained there and what it will take to unchain him. The main theme is the power of Zeus. The confrontation between Prometheus and Zeus, it must be remembered, is between two gods. So, unlike the Romantics’ reading of the play, there is no railing against divine (in)justice here. Rather, since we are beholding ontological equals in conflict, the question of ancient Greek tyranny is much more germane than whether Olympian Zeus was a tyrant in relation to humans. Along the way, the myth of Io is also told; I’d hate to see a film version of this with a CG cow delivering Io’s lines.

Oedipus the King is Sophocles’ famous rendering of the myth of Oedipus, a story known to most of us because of Sigmund Freud. The play is a masterpiece, as demonstrated by Aristotle’s Poetics. The confrontations with Oedipus from the beginning of the play to when he blinds himself demonstrate his own unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of his knowledge. Relentlessly, he pursues the truth, drawing the circle around himself as the murderer of Laius tighter and tighter until the moment of recognition (anagnorisis) comes, bringing the main character’s fall.

After the events of Oedipus, there is a civil war between his sons (recounted in its own way in Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes, which is in Aeschylus II). When the civil war is over, the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices lie dead on the battlefield before Thebes. Creon, their uncle and Oedipus’ brother-in-law/uncle, is now king. He decrees that Polynieces is not to be buried since he waged war against his own fatherland.

Here begins Sophocles’ Antigone. I have a soft spot for this play, since it was the first piece of classical literature I read, back in high school (the second, in the summer before Grade 12, was the translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Robert Fagles). Here we see the conflict between natural/divine law on the one hand and man-made law on the other. Even though the play was written before Oedipus, Sophocles is consistent in his characterisation of Creon — a man who did not want to become king because of the worries it would create. In this play, he grows in paranoia until he breaks and relents too late to stop a triple suicide. Powerful in its portrayal of female confrontation with authority.

The volume closes with Euripides’ Hippolytus. Here the theme is love, and love gone wrong. Hippolytus rejects Aphrodite, so she makes his step-mother, Phaedra, fall in love with him. Contrary to the positive portrayal of romantic love in pop songs and Hollywood, Euripides presents us with an elemental, amoral, at times immoral force that brings destruction all around it.

All five plays are masterpieces of Greek literature.

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Can you spot a persecution when you see one?

Ignatius of Antioch, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000)

Reading the introduction to Robin Whelan’s Being Christian in Vandal Africa: The Politics of Orthodoxy in the Post-Imperial West, I was reminded of a joke a friend once told.

A man dies and goes to heaven. While he’s there, he meets one of the ancient Christian martyrs (I like to imagine the Apostolic Father Ignatius of Antioch, myself). Ignatius asks our modern fellow what life is like for Christians in the 21st century.

“Well,” he says, “let me tell you. If you say grace before a meal in public, people look at you as though you have three heads. And at work, people made fun of me for being a churchgoer. Christians are the butt of so many jokes! Christians get tirades launched against them whenever they speak about the faith in public. They really throw us to the lions!”

Responds Ignatius, “Ah, they still use lions?”

In the introduction to Being Christian in Vandal North Africa, Whelan says that the term “persecution” is problematic. Certainly in the context of the above joke it is. There is a huge difference between being made to feel socially awkward and what the Sri Lankan martyrs suffered on Easter Sunday this year. In a late antique context, there is also a big difference between the Emperor Julian banning Christians from teaching rhetoric and the Emperor Diocletian killing Christians.

However, the reason given for persecution being problematic in the context of the book is that it is used by groups who think of themselves as the exclusive, true, catholic, real Christian church when they meet with sanctions against them by the secular government. I don’t see how this fact has any bearing at all on whether a person is being persecuted.

Now, we can question whether the activities carried out by the Vandal kings were or were not on religious grounds, or whether they targeted religious people, or whether they were as bad as Victor of Vita says in the History of the Vandal Persecutions, or whether there was quite as much as he says, or that it was unremitting as he makes it seem. All well and good. But Whelan acknowledges the legal sanctions against Nicene Christians and those who were sent into exile. Even if the Vandals did not persecute all Nicenes all the time, by any definition of persecution that I know, they seem to have persecuted some of them some of the time.

That is to say, the orthodoxy or otherwise of the persecuted party is immaterial when the question of whether or not they are being persecuted. Late antique persecution of (to use labels everyone knows) Donatists or ‘Arians’ or Manichaeans or pagans does not cease to be persecution if the persecutor is ‘catholic’ or ‘orthodox’, nor does the persecution of ‘catholic’ and ‘orthodox’ Christians by ‘heretics’ cease to be persecution because the catholics succeed at being catholic in the long run.

But this brings me into other, related territory — the contested space of ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretic’ in Late Antiquity, on which, more anon.

Notre Dame and ‘Western Civilization’

My first view of Notre Dame, 2012

In the days following the fire that consumed Notre-Dame de Paris’s roof and a certain amount of the cathedral’s west end, people have been making commentary, some of which, I understand, is to the effect that Notre Dame is a symbol of ‘western civilization’. Some of these people, I am given to understand by the outraged on Twitter, are right-wing, racist fanatics. I seem to miss the fanatics themselves but only see the outrage, so I sometimes wonder if the outrage is worth it?

Anyway, some of this outrage is fuelled not simply against racist leveraging of ‘western civilization’ but of the idea itself. Before I get rolling, I’d like to say up front that, although I believe that ‘western civilization’ is a Thing, I do not think it superior other civilizations or cultures. All civilizations and cultures are flawed and fallen, mixing good and bad.

One argument against Notre Dame as a symbol for ‘western civilization’ that I observed was that Gothic architecture owes much to Islamic architecture. Whether or not pointy arches were a moment of independent genius on the part of Suger’s architects and of the Islamic world I cannot say. Nonetheless, for the purposes of my ensuing argument, I will take it as given that pointy arches were first noted by Europeans in Spain when folk were going on pilgrimages and then adopted by architects in northern France.

This, and any other piece of detail, engineering, mathematics, etc., that was borrowed from the Islamic world does not suddenly nullify the fact that Gothic architecture is a thing from western Europe, and pretty much everywhere else it has gone, western Europeans or their descendants brought it with them, such as Gothic Cyprus.

In fact, if we accept the argument that the pointed arch is a direct borrowing into Gothic architecture from Islamic architecture, this in no way impinges on the idea of western civilization. I suspect that many people who object to ‘western civilization’ these days are more worried about Gibbon and the Enlightenment than what came before. If we acknowledge what came before, we see that Latin Christendom is a Thing.

When I say that Latin Christendom is a Thing, I mean that loosely connected group of polities that includes bishoprics that acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as their supreme head, use the Latin language in liturgy, law, theology, philosophy, sometimes poetry, and who think of themselves as somehow being part of the Same Thing, a Thing that is not the Greek-speaking Roman Thing to the East or the Arabic-speaking Islamic Thing to the South.

An example of the fact that Latin Christendom, internally, is a Thing can be found in the careers of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia. He went on to be schoolmaster at Bec, in Normandy, then prior, then abbot at Caen. In 1070, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The next Archbishop was Anselm, from Aosta before becoming a monk of Bec, then prior, then abbot of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent a considerable portion of his episcopate in exile in Italy. These men crossed boundaries in an age before passports because there was a common cultural framework that united Pavia, Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury.

Through evangelization and conquest, Latin Christendom expanded itself in various directions.

But whatever Latin Christendom was — and the western European world that was to succeed it in the age of the nation-state — it was not hermetically sealed. Part of what makes Latin Christendom itself is its interaction with the non-Latin civilizations that surround it. Scholastic Aristotelianism needs Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes); the study of Aristotle needs, chronologically first, the translations out of Arabic and then out of Greek; Palermo’s glorious art and architecture are clearly indebted to east Roman (‘Byzantine’) and Islamic influences; an early medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was from Syria; the Latin liturgy in Rome was forever changed by Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the seventh century; I suspect Maximus the Confessor, himself a Palestinian, had a greater impact on Latin thought than often suspected; ‘western’ medicine relies heavily on Arabic learning; various strands of math come to the West out of the House of Islam.

It could go on.

This, of course, focusses Latin Christendom, but only because Latin Christendom provides us with the boundaries usually imagined by those who discuss it. Nonetheless, the world of the Byzantine commonwealth would also be an interesting starting place as well.

Whatever is meant by western civilization, when I talk about it, I do not imagine it to be either superior or hermetically sealed. In my field, many people are wary of suggesting you should study the Classics because they are the foundation of western civilization. Nevertheless, in saying that, I don’t think anyone imagines that Homer imagined himself part of a culture that included Britain. And it certainly not true that the inheritance of Rome is found only in ‘western civilization’ — a colleague who studies Islamic law says that there is new research arguing for the importance of Roman law in Islamic law. And the Great Mosque of Damascus is essentially a Roman basilica. We could go on — the interchanges and inheritances between cultures are numerous.

All of this to say — if Notre Dame is somehow a symbol, or even a triumph, of western civilization (the house is on fire!), this doesn’t mean that there is no cultural exchange that brings into play the greatness of others, nor does it mean that other cultures have no triumphs of their own (consider the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and are inferior. This is certainly never how I have viewed the world, and I believe that western civilization is a Thing.

What makes Leo Great?

Me at Leo’s tomb, St Peter’s

Today is the feast of Pope Leo the Great. Since his letters and the transmission are the major concern of my research, it is worth taking a moment to explain why he is Leo ‘the Great’ (and not just because he’s the first bishop of Rome named ‘Leo’).

There may be a temptation to weigh Leo’s greatness by our own scales — what is truly, timelessly, great about Leo? His rhetoric? His theology? His historical impact? His rulings in canon law? His preaching? A grand mixture of all of the above? While interesting, this would certainly not tell us why he is Leo ‘the Great’, since the only other pope universally called ‘the Great’ is Gregory I (590-604) — not everyone thinks of Nicholas I (858-867) in this regard, so I am unsure whether we have three ‘Great’ popes or only two.

Susan Wessel rightly rejected this approach in Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome. Unfortunately, she still answered the question in terms of what Leo’s intrinsic greatness may have been — only situating this greatness as people in his own era would have perceived it. The argument still has to do with seeking a unified answer in his corpus of writings and actions.

Neither of these approaches actually tells us why Leo is ‘the Great’.

Leo is one of the first — if not the first — articulate theologians of papal primacy. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo wrote more letters destined to be sources for canon law in the succeeding generations than any predecessor. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo wrote more surviving letters than any bishop of Rome before Gregory the Great. This is not why he is  ‘the Great’.

Leo helped dissuade Attila the Hun from passing down into central Italy. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo left behind the first surviving corpus of sermons preached by a bishop of Rome. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo was the first bishop of Rome buried at St Peter’s. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo was very heavily involved in the geo-ecclesiology of his day, East and West, and he he helped organise the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This, too, is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Chalcedon gets us close, though.

Pope Leo I is called Leo Magnus, Leo the Great, because of his two-nature Christology as outlined in his letter to Flavian of Constantinople of 448 (the ‘Tome’, epistle 28 in the 1753 edition of the Ballerini, repr. Patrologia Latina vol. 54). In 451, Leo succeeded in having this Christology enshrined as the official dogma of the imperial church at the Council of Chalcedon, of which he was a chief player (although the Emperor Marcian was even more so), and he did his best after Marcian’s death, from 457 to his own in 461, to see that it was approved throughout the Empire and that various bishoprics were filled with Chalcedonian bishops.

He expounded it more carefully and more fully in his 124th letter to the monks of Palestine, which he re-used in his 165th letter to the Emperor Leo. This Christology was essentially the traditional Christology of the Latin West, with roots in Augustine of Hippo (who died in 430) and Hilary of Poitiers (who died in 368), and people had schisms over it in the decades after Leo died.

A lot could be said about what Leo’s contribution to theology was and how that contribution was interpreted and received by the imperial church in the century to come — and what would be said would be interesting, and it would highlight why those who loved Leo loved him greatly.

And this is why Leo is ‘the Great’ — theology.

(And how do I know this? Our earliest references to him as magnus, as cited in a 1911 article of C H Turner, are in relation to his status as a theologian of the person of Christ.)

Poetry

The death of Pentheus on an Attic red figure kylix, c. 480 BC

This year, I taught pretty much nothing but poetry. In first semester, Latin class was the Latin verse epistle — Horace, Ovid, Ausonius, Sidonius. In English translation was Latin epic — Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Claudian. In second semester, Greek class was Theocritus’ Idylls. In English translation was classical mythology — Hesiod’s Theogony and selections from his Works and Days; Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and Agamemnon; Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Antigone; Euripides’ Hippolytus; some Pindar; selections from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; some of Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid; some of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides; several Homeric Hymns; a bit of Prudentius and Nonnus — the prose was largely from Apollodorus and Livy.

This is a lot of poetry. And teaching ancient poetry draws you not only to a given poet’s wider corpus (that is, those poems of Horace, Theocritus, Ovid, et al. not covered in class) but to the intertexts, one way and the other. Theocritus makes you cast you eye back to Homer but also forward to Moschus, Bion, and especially Virgil’s Eclogues. Teaching the story of Pentheus, whether from Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Apollodorus’ Library, brings the mind circling back to Euripides’ Bacchae. Reading about Polyphemus in Theocritus, Idylls 6 and 11, brings you not only to Homer but to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Euripides’ Cyclops. Herakles and Hylas in Idyll 13 drives you inevitably to Apollonius’ Argonautica. Any reference to Peleus or Thetis makes me think of Catullus 64.

And on it goes.

Teaching epic makes me want to read more epic — not just, say, Statius’ Thebaid but the Mahabharata or Ramayana as well, besides rereading all of Homer.

So on it will continue to go.

Teaching poetry and reading poetry — there is no end.

And my mind now moves to research. I am currently examining two of Leo’s letters as sources for post-Roman social history. It is an interesting topic and has its own appeal. But all this poetry filling up my mind and heart — it makes me want to write about poetry! Maybe a study of Statius? Or perhaps start somewhere smaller — Ambrosian hymns? Rutilius?

Whatever the poetry is, it will have to be late antique. And, although Rutilius is great, probably Christian, since the intersection of later Latin literature and ancient Christianity is where my research strengths currently lie. Venantius Fortunatus, maybe? Arator? I could bring both philology and theology to bear on these texts, hopefully in a fruitful way.

But for now — Vandals in Africa.

The Numinous

Poussin: Apollo and the Muses

Today I gave my final lecture of Greek and Roman Mythology, ‘Myth Today’. I spent a lot of it talking about the use of classical mythology in popular culture — Wonder WomanStar Trek, Eric Shanowar’s Age of Bronze, the work of Neil Gaiman — and how harnessing a mythological framework enables one to tell a story with wide consequences that broaden the audience’s vision and challenge their assumptions, much as science fiction and fantasy do.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons we keep going back to classical mythology, whether it’s the retelling and reshaping them for our own era (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) or drawing inspiration from them (possibly Battlestar Galactica, T S Eliot, The Wasteland).

Towards the end of the lecture, I moved into different territory about why the classical myths continue to draw us in — myths are bigger than true, to quote my friend Emily. To quote Northrop Frye (whom I badly paraphrased in class):

my general critical position … revolves around the identity of myth, along with those of folk tale, legend, and related genres, continue to form the structures of literature.

….

every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted, and diversified by literature. –Words with Power, xii, xiii

Classical mythology, to an anglophone who grew up reading literature and watching TV and film and reading comic books that are part of an artistic heritage that constantly negotiates that past, is, along with the Bible, the basic grammar of story in the West.

Frye, of course, is pushing us farther than this, pushing us up into the transcendent.

This is certainly where Joseph Campbell wants us to go with The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. Certain classical myths, as noted by C S Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism, hold a power beyond the poetry that clothes them — stories like Orpheus and Eurydice. These stories are the kind that people like Campbell see recurring throughout world cultures…

According to Frye, then, all literature is mythological — so all language is, perhaps, mystical? Owen Barfield (so I’m told) lays out the argument in Poetic Diction that in the poetic mode words come laden with meaning, more than just the simple diction of that given moment but all of their meanings. This is polysemy. The polysemous nature of poetic language drives us to symbol, turning words — mere utterations of vocal noise or squiggles on a page — into windows into other worlds. (Thus Coleridge, whom both Frye and Barfield read.)

And so in poetry, and in mythology, we find ourselves drawn further up and further in to something different and bigger than a simple materialistic world where A always = A, but can also = alpha or even be transmuted into something completely different.

Is this, therefore, a means by which the very act of storytelling, or the labour of versification, is itself a means of communicating with the numinous?

The numinous is where I find myself at the end of my myth course. What did the Greeks and Romans get out of their common stock of stories, from Homer through Ovid to Nonnus of Panopolis and Fulgentius the Mythographer? What is it that is intrinsic to these stories that drives us to them again and again, compelling us to read them? Is it because they give us a brush with Something Bigger?

I had two minutes, so these were things that were left unsaid. But I do still want to push these boundaries.

Edinburgh or Ancyra?

Here’s a little gem, slightly edited for effect:

Once [there], our traveller could … feel safe in a proper metropolis, with its ancient fort standing proud on a rugged crag, its old town crowding down the hill’s gentler back, and its regular, properly-planned new town spread out below, with its imposing architecture and grand monuments to distant monarchs.

Immediately, this reads like a description of Edinburgh, doesn’t it? But, in fact, it is a description of late antique Ancyra — but written by Sara Parvis in Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy 325-345.

Sara (one of my Ph.D. supervisors) is Senior Lecturer in Patristics at the University of Edinburgh, where she had already been living for several years at the time her book about Marcellus was published.

This is the kind of little gem one writes into one’s book for those who know. I love it.