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Can drinking ever be a virtue?

by July 22, 2021

We, here, at Classical Wisdom like to address the important stuff. We strive to tackle big issues, philosophical inquiries and historical investigations.
We also like to have a good time.
That’s why wine exists (in moderation, of course).
But it’s not just something to do… or consume… it’s been literally interwoven into innumerable cultures and histories… for thousands of years!
In fact, the earliest evidence of wine is from ancient China (7000 BC), Georgia (6000 BC), Iran (5000 BC)… and Sicily (4000 BC).

Pottery showing Dionysus drinking Wine

So it’s not like we are the first -or last- ones to enjoy a wee tipple… but as always, just because we have done something for a long time doesn’t mean we should continue to do so. Indeed, we should question the whys, wheres and hows of every major ritual. 
Which brings us to our philosophical inquiry of the day:
Is there an art to drinking alcohol? Can drinking ever be a virtue?
In turns out, the Renaissance humanist and neoclassical poet Vincent Obsopoeus (ca. 1498–1539) thought so.
Let me explain… In the winelands of sixteenth-century Germany, he witnessed the birth of a poisonous new culture of bingeing, hazing, peer pressure, and competitive drinking (actions that would make a frat boy blush!)
Alarmed, and inspired by the Roman poet Ovid’s Art of Love, he wrote The Art of Drinking (De Arte Bibendi) (1536), a how-to manual for drinking with pleasure and discrimination.
It’s a fantastic read – one that illuminates both the history of drinking as well as an important way to think about your favorite go-to drink. 
But don’t worry, you don’t have to find a rare book store or brush up on your Latin to enjoy this gem.
Fortunately for you, Michael Fontaine, Professor of Classics at Cornell University and one our Symposium’s Keynote speakers, has done all the hard work.
In How to Drink, Michael Fontaine offers the first proper English translation of Obsopoeus’s text, rendering his poetry into spirited, contemporary prose and uncorking a forgotten classic that will appeal to drinkers of all kinds and (legal) ages.
Arguing that moderation, not abstinence, is the key to lasting sobriety, and that drinking can be a virtue if it is done with rules and limits, Obsopoeus teaches us how to manage our drinking, how to win friends at social gatherings, and how to give a proper toast.
But he also says that drinking to excess on occasion is okay―and he even tells us how to win drinking games, citing extensive personal experience.
But wait! There’s More!
All Classical Wisdom Symposium Attendees will get an additional 30% OFF “How to Drink” as well as free shipping!

Book Review: “How to Tell a Joke,” By Michael Fontaine

by July 21, 2021

Written by Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

As Michael Fontaine’s latest book How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor comes hot on the heels of his fascinating How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing, one might reasonably expect the Cornell professor’s next installment to be something along the lines of How to Play the Lyre to make up a student-friendly compendium entitled How to Throw an Amazing Party!

However, much like How to Drink was not a ‘how to’ guide to drunkenness (quite the opposite, in fact), How to Tell a Joke is not a step-by-step manual on the construction of clever puns nor on how to maximize your comic timing. Instead, and similarly to How to Drink, it is a guide to what sort of jokes are appropriate and, crucially, what sort of jokes are not. For ‘appropriate’ we could easily substitute the word ‘effective’ as the two treatises that make up this book, from Cicero and Quintilian, are excerpts from longer works both about how to be a top quality orator: On the Ideal Orator and The Education of the Orator, respectively.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen, copy of Roman original, Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen

Both men also break down the different types of jokes, why different reasons jokes are funny, and even the different consequences of humour in different scenarios. That this is all of those things and not a ‘how to’ guide on making people laugh is stressed within the closing lines of Cicero’s dialogue:

“…those who want to master jokes for public speaking need to be imbued with a certain – almost innate – sense of humour.”

In other words, no matter how much you try, some people are just not cut out to be funny!

And so, while the importance of humour is stressed in winning over an audience/jury, brushing off accusations, or generally showing everyone what a clever and witty sort of person you are, the most difficult thing for a natural funnyman is resisting telling a joke if it would be inappropriate – something Cicero seems to have had trouble doing, and something that may, in part, have cost him his life. This is perhaps why Quntillian is particularly clear on the matter of what is off-limits:

“…if someone is dangerous to offend, you’d best tease them in a way that doesn’t lead to either real hatred or to you having to issue a grovelling apology. Generalizations are another bad idea, where you attack whole groups based on ethnic identity, class, status or activities the masses enjoy. A gentleman will say what he will contingent on maintaining his dignity and self-respect. A laugh is overpriced if it comes at the cost of integrity.”

Not that Cicero was blind to the etiquette of such things:

“…comebacks are indicative of good manners, since they suggest we never would’ve said anything if we hadn’t been attacked.”

That said, one is left with the feeling that Cicero’s rules of engagement are more practical than ethical.   

Though Quintilian wrote his piece some 150 years later, it is clear that he was heavily impressed and influenced by Cicero and his work. Reading both treatises back-to-back, it is surprising that it does not feel as if Quintilian is merely regurgitating what Cicero has already given us, but instead that he is making interesting commentary and expanding on the other’s ideas. This lack of deja vu is probably helped by the differing style of the two writers: Cicero writes a dialogue – what Professor Fontaine, in his introduction, compares to a film script – whilst Quintilian presents his ideas in the first person via essay.


So, I hear you say, this is all very fascinating, no doubt, but can a treatise on ‘how to be funny’ be… well, funny? Well, as E.B. White famously said: “explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process” (the quote is, inevitably, often accredited to Mark Twain). It’s almost as though Cicero and Quintilian had pre-empted this potential flaw – just in case anyone should have thumbed through their work, skipping over the bits on practice, pronunciation and getting your facts straight, in order to get straight to the comic part. To keep things fresh, both men feed us a steady supply of example jokes: so many, in fact, that it feels like there’s one on almost every page.

Some feel like they’ve come straight out of the mouth of Graucho Marx:

“That guy has it all – except money and redeeming qualities.”

Some titillate with a bit of light innuendo:

[A.] In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto?

[B.] A slow one.


“You’re about as oversexed as a eunuch.”

Dark humour rears its divisive head when someone quips, on receiving news that someone with terrible body odour has died:

“Finally! He won’t smell anymore.”

And there are even personal barbs questioning a man’s bravery. For example, when a soldier was showing off his battle wound he was mocked with:

“You should never look back when running away.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

These quips, and the smooth confidence with which they are delivered, are perfect examples of what makes Fontaine’s translation so engaging and so satisfying. What immediately strikes you about this excellent book is not its cut and thrust into the essence of mirth-making, nor its ability to make the impossible – finding humour in analysing jokes – possible, nor even its ability to effortlessly transcend two periods of Roman history. No, the chief triumph of Fontaine’s rendering is not for any of the above admirable reasons, but that the translation is so very, very contemporary.

Okay… ‘contemporary’ might not seem the most fashionable word for anyone with one eye cocked towards Greece and Rome, but the study of the Classics is one that has much more of a reputation for stuffy, seriousness than it perhaps deserves. There may be a feeling that academics would prefer to keep Aristophanes and Plautus pure rather than stress their humour, but many in the trade would dispute this. Speaking from personal experience, I remember sitting in a freshman tutorial when a well-respected professor shared his favourite joke from the Iliad:   

“In his wrath sat beside his swift-faring ships, the Zeus-sprung son of Peleus, swift-footed Achilles.”

Okay, not exactly a leg-slapper! But the point is that every attendee of that tutorial seemed to think the idea that something as sophisticated, as elevated, as… sacred as the Iliad could have a joke in it was totally unimaginable.

Regardless, the way in which Fontaine translates the Latin in this text is extremely satisfying. In his own words:

Michael Fontaine
“Styles of translations vary. Some are literal, other go for the gist. This one goes for the jest… I’ve wracked my brains to find equivalent words, names, puns, phrasings, and cultural counterparts to make the jokes as funny in English as they are in Latin.”

And this is done with great success. The jokes are rendered such that no specific knowledge of Latin, nor of Roman culture, society and politics is necessary to appreciate them; however, if you do possess some of the above (or are suitably curious about such things) then Fontaine’s clear and concise endnotes illuminate how and why he’s departed from the Latin to make the joke work in English.

But the translation has not merely made light work of some complex wordplay in the jokes, but has fittingly used (Cicero’s excerpt is a dialogue, remember) language that sounds natural, contemporary and wholly appropriate. Indeed, what could be more appropriate in a conversation about comedy than to use terms such as ‘zinger’, ‘chutzpah’, ‘shtick’, and ‘the whole shebang’… at times it feels like you’re reading a conversation between Mel Brooks and Jackie Mason.

Whilst at other times the vocabulary successfully treads that fine line between being modern, but not trying to be ‘down with the kids’. The use of words such as ‘trigger’ and ‘sick burn’ scud along very nicely, neatly avoiding the cringe-worthy equivalent of an uncle saying ‘rad’ around teenagers.

In short, this is an excellent and enjoyable rendering of two important social and historical documents which can be enjoyed by anyone with even a passing interest, but not necessarily any specialised knowledge, in Classics.

How to Tell a Joke might not actually make you any funnier, but it will make you happier, it will make you better read, and, I’m pretty confident, it will make you laugh. And, if not, then there’s always frog soup for dinner.

You can buy “How to Tell a Joke” by Michael Fontaine here.

The Lost City of Thebes

by July 19, 2021

By Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
I’m sure like many of you, I’m a huge fan of Greek tragedy. For many people Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex can be their first exposure to the world of Ancient Greek literature, and the Classical world in general. More than two and a half millennia since its first performance, the play itself and its reputation endure undiminished. More than a masterpiece, the play can be an entry point into one of the most compelling branches of Greek myth: the Theban cycle. 
These stories tell the tale of Oedipus and the Riddle of the Sphinx, his warring sons locked in bloody civil war and, of course, his headstrong, rebellious daughter (and half-sister!) Antigone. All these myths center around the ancient city of Thebes, one of the most prominent and important in Greek myth. The city itself was a real place. One of power and might too: the city defeated Sparta, founded cities, and was a key player in ancient politics. 
Yet, the city vanished. What happened? How can a city so important simply disappear? Like the Riddle of the Sphinx, perhaps we can untie this mystery… 
Fortunately for us, acclaimed classicist and historian Paul Cartledge has delved into this fantastic tale in his most recent book –Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece. This sensational work brings the city vividly to life and argues that it is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ achievements—whether politically or culturally—and thus to the wider politico-cultural traditions of western Europe, the Americas, and indeed the world.
From its role as an ancient political power, to its destruction at the hands of Alexander the Great as punishment for a failed revolt, to its eventual restoration by Alexander’s successor, Cartledge deftly chronicles the rise and fall of the ancient city. He recounts the history with deep clarity and mastery for the subject and makes clear both the differences and the interconnections between the Thebes of myth and the Thebes of history. Written in clear prose and illustrated with images in two color inserts, Thebes is a gripping read for students of ancient history and those looking to experience the real city behind the myths of Cadmus, Hercules, and Oedipus.
Make sure to get your own fantastic edition of Paul’s book, Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, HERE.
You can also catch Professor Cartledge LIVE at our Symposium 2021: The End of Empires and the Fall of Nations.
One of the world’s foremost Classicists and the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of more than 30 books, Professor Cartledge illuminates the truth about the Forgotten City of Thebes. This is your opportunity to see Paul Cartledge LIVE – and join in on the Q&A – as he tells us how a city can be outlived by its myths…. 
We hope to see you in August!

‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Ozymandias and Us

by July 14, 2021

You probably know that quote, don’t you? Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias featured prominently in both promotion for the ultra-popular TV show Breaking Bad, and also in the acclaimed comic series Watchmen. Did you know it was written in response to the Ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus? His account of an inscription he read beneath a colossal statue group in an Egyptian temple directly inspired Shelley, who in turn has inspired countless others, leading to his poem popping up in all sorts of unexpected places.

It is a great contemporary example of how the Classical world comes down to us today. The perception can be that the Classics are sequestered away at elite universities, inaccessible to the world at large. Yet that’s not the truth; the Classics surround us, all the time, often in ways we don’t even realise.

Edith Hall, one of the UK’s foremost Classicists, details this in her new book with Henry Stead, A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939. Her book focuses on the ways that the Classics have intersected with the daily lives of ordinary, working class people through the centuries. Although the title indicates a focus on Britain and Ireland, Hall’s real subject is Class, and how average, working class life has always been bound up with the Classics.
Buy ‘A People’s History of Classics’ HERE
If that piques your interest, Edith Hall will also be speaking live at our online Symposium this August. A major voice for the importance and relevance of the Classics, Edith will be giving her lecture ‘Ozymandias Since the Cold War’, as part of our theme, End of Empires and Fall of Nations. Edith is joined by a legitimate all-star line up of some of the world’s most celebrated Classicists. In keeping with the theme of Edith’s book, this talk is accessible to EVERYONE. The ticket price is entirely your choice! Find out more below…
We hope to see you in August!

Sparta and… Scotland? Laconic wit through the centuries

by July 13, 2021

By Andrew Rattray
When you think of Sparta, what’s the first thing that jumps to mind? I’m willing to wager that you’re picturing immoveable, impenetrable warriors, the infamous black broth, or perhaps the often-brutal agoge. These things are certainly what first come to mind for me. After all, modern day depictions of Spartan culture portray a hard people who pride martial prowess above all else. Just look to the impossibly chiselled abs in the heavily stylised cinematic retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, ‘300’.
This isn’t just a modern view either. Even at the height of their power the Spartans were seen more as miserable brutes than philosophical thinkers. However, while this reputation isn’t totally unearned, I’m not so sure it’s perfectly accurate. I think the Spartans were less grim realists, and more sarcastic humourists. I should know, I’m Scottish. Let me explain.
We in Scotland have for a long time suffered under a similar reputation of being grumpy, miserable, hard-heads, much like the Spartans. I think this is, in part, due to each nation sharing a neighbour typified by a more refined and well-to-do reputation. Scotland has England, Sparta had Athens. The contrast, and the cultural exports of our neighbours, has painted both Scotland and Sparta with a mischaracterisation that doesn’t necessarily represent our true nature.
The two most powerful city states of Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, were often at odds with one another
If you’ll indulge me, I will recount two quotes on the Spartans and the Scots that demonstrate this similarity even further.  Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, describes the hidden cunning of the Spartans: “…they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle…This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”
Now consider this extract from Chapter One of André Mourois’ biography; The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming: Discoverer of Penicillin. “The English laughed, too, at the absence of humour with which (so they said) these northern immigrants were afflicted. It took hours of hard work, they maintained, to drive a joke into a Scotsman’s head…This picture was very inaccurate. The Scots have their own sense of humour, which is utterly unlike that of the English, who love long stories full of mockery and sentiment. The Scots, on the other hand, delight in a humour which is laconic, dry, vigorous and expressed with a perfectly straight face.”
These two extracts, from two authors over two thousand years distant, perfectly encapsulate the hidden wit of these two cultures which were (and are) so often painted as boorish and ignorant. I consider the Spartans great humourists because I recognise in Spartan discourse this same sense of humour that pervades Scottish culture.
You see, the Spartans were known for what we now call ‘Laconic wit’, a manner of conveying ideas characterised by short, sharp, pithy aphorisms that deliver truth in a satisfyingly minimalistic way. Those of you familiar with the regions of ancient Greece will be one step ahead of me. Laconic wit is named for Laconia, the home of the Spartans. They didn’t just adopt the idea, they pioneered it.
The lambda on the Spartan shields stood for Lacedaemon, from which we also get the word ‘laconic’
However, where most consider the terseness of the Spartans an extension of their hard, hand-to-mouth style existence, I believe it displays a silly, care free sense of humour. After all, Shakespeare teaches us that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’.
One of the most famous examples of this Laconic wit is found in the Spartan response to Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great). Philip, after invading Southern Greece and forcing the submission of some of the other prominent City States, wrote to the Spartans asking whether he should come to them as friend or foe. The Spartans reply? “Neither”. This incensed Philip who then wrote, “If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out.”. Again, the Spartans reply with one word. “If”. In the end, Philip never did conquer the Spartans.
Spartan history is dotted with examples of this sort of sharp, direct, retort but I feel these come across more as ironic, self-aware jibes than true, grim, arrogance. When I think of the Spartan exchange with Philip the first thing that comes to mind is the Scots phrase “Did ye, aye?” an extremely sarcastic way of saying you don’t believe someone, but easy for non-Scots to miss. In the same way, I think the humour of the Spartans has been missed here.
In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus recounts another quintessential example of Laconic wit at play. Herodotus describes how a group of Samians, unseated from their homes, petitioned the Spartans for their aid. The Samians, in audience of the Spartans, spoke at length of their troubles to ensure that the greatness of their need was well understood. To this the Spartans replied that the speech had been so long that they had forgotten the beginning and thus could make no sense of the end! The next day the Samians returned to the audience of the Spartans once more with nothing but an empty sack. Holding it out before them the Samians said simply; “The sack wants flour.”. The Spartan response? “You didn’t have to say ‘the sack’”. I find it impossible to picture that final line without imagining its speaker with a well-deserved smirk. This isn’t hard headedness, it’s tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s almost silly.
Let’s compare with a Scottish example. Robert Burns, the most famous of all Scottish poets, and figure of the ‘Scottish enlightenment’ of the 18th century, was once at the Greenock quay when a wealthy merchant fell into the harbour. The merchant couldn’t swim and floundered in the water as a crowd gathered. Before long, a sailor dove in, risking his own life, to pull the merchant out and save him from drowning. By way of thanks, the merchant reached into his pocket and produced a single shilling (a meagre sum) much to the dismay of the crowd who found such a small reward to be contemptible. Burns stepped forward to calm the tensions and with a broad smile shouted over the clamour “Please, the gentleman is of course the best judge of the value of his own life!”.
The poet Robert Burns
This is what I mean when I say I recognise this same humour in these Spartan stories. Burns’ response couches truth in humour in a way that cuts to the core of the issue. The sarcastic humour of the Scots might be a little more direct, a little more obvious, but to an accustomed ear, one can find the same elements with the Spartans.
So far, history has been kinder to the wit and humour of the Scots than of the Spartans, but in our modern age, full of resurgence of interest in the ancient world, now is the perfect time to deepen our appreciation of Spartan culture for more than just their warrior mentality and stoic resolve. When an Argonian visitor remarked to the Spartan King Eudamidas I that foreign travel risked corrupting Spartan citizens, Eudamidas replied simply; But you, when you come to Sparta, do not become worse, but better.
Perhaps we all can become better if we were to open our mind to new perspectives a little more often.   

Patriotism in the Ancient World

by July 2, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
While patriotism is associated with the modern world, scholars now believe that it was very common in the Classical world. Patriotism—which can be defined as a love of one’s country that conditions one’s behaviors and beliefs—played a major role in both Roman and Greek society. There, it was promoted through rituals and traditions—just as it is in modern nations, such as the United States on the 4th of July.
Fireworks over the Parthenon, source: ABC
Patriotism in Ancient Greece
The ancient Greek world understood patriotism in a way similar to the modern world. For the Greeks, patriotism meant a willingness to serve and support the state—and if necessary, fight and die for one’s native land. Citizens who lost their lives in war were honored, as is evident in Pericles’ oration for those who fell in the early days of the Second Peloponnesian War.
But for the ancient Greeks, there were actually two types of patriotism. The first was patriotism focused on a shared Hellenic identity. The Greeks took a great pride in being Hellenes. In fact, they believed that they were much superior to non-Greeks, whom they referred to as barbarians. Hellenic patriotism was celebrated in rituals and practices. A good example of this was the various Pan-Hellenic institutions, especially of a religious nature, such as the Oracle of Delphi.
Ruins of Delphi
Ruins of the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi, overlooking the valley of Phocis
Then there was the unique Hellenic expression of patriotism expressed in the Olympic Games. Only Hellenes could participate in the Games, which were a celebration of a common identity and values. Hellenic patriotism inspired Greeks to cooperate in Leagues, such as that formed when Persian invaded the Greek mainland in 492 BC.
The second form of patriotism in ancient Greece took a more localized form: pride in one’s city-state. A good example of this is the patriotism of Sparta. The Spartans took a great pride in their native land and identity. The vast majority of Greeks owed their first allegiance to their city-state, such as Thebes. The male citizen-body was a privileged group in the polis, and they were very loyal to the city-state. Typically, the citizen took an oath of loyalty to the state and was expected to devote himself to the good of the state.
The downside of this form of patriotism was that the citizens of city-states such as Athens felt that they could enslave and massacre those from a different polis. This civic patriotism was enforced by the citizen community in the form of military training. Religious festivals were often appropriated by the Civic Magistrates to enforce a sense of patriotism among the citizenship and the wider population.
The Panathenaea, for example, was a festival that celebrated the goddess Athena, the patron-deity of the city. This involved a procession and feasting, and it sought to demonstrate the uniqueness of Athens and it taught the citizens and others to take pride in their city.  Many leading citizens would celebrate liturgies demonstrating their patriotism in which wealthy citizens would contribute to the public good, such as staging a tragedy in Athens.  
Athena Statue
Statue of Athena
Roman Patriotism
The word patriotism has its roots in the Latin word for patria, which means homeland or fatherland. Roman patriotism was thus tied to a strong sense of loyalty to the father (pater) and family. Romans were totally devoted to their family and the head of the household was the undisputed authority. This loyalty to the family was gradually took on a more collective form and was transferred to the early Roman Republic. Roman patriotism became dedication and pride in the Fatherland. Rome was seen as a family of families.
This intense patriotism was one of the reasons for the success of Rome. Like the Greeks, the Romans had two forms of patriotism, one specific to the Roman Republic (and later Empire), and one to their native city or region. Romans were often both citizens of the Republic or Empire and their own city or area. They swore to serve the state and put it before their own interests.
Panorama of the Coliseum at dusk
Roman patriotism was enforced in a variety of rituals and ceremonies, such as those dedicated to Mars. All citizens served in the army during the early Republic, and this helped enforce patriotism. During the Imperial period, the emperor came to embody the state. Increasingly, patriotism centered on the emperor. The imperial cult was used to promote loyalty to the emperor and a common Roman identity throughout the provinces. Triumphs which celebrated some victory in battle were also used to inspire a pride and love of the Fatherland.  
Aeneas by Titian
As in Greece, wealthy citizens would demonstrate their patriotism by building public works or providing entertainment for their fellow citizens in return for increased prestige. A good example of this was the staging of gladiatorial games. Roman history and literature often celebrated ancient heroes like Aeneas who were praised for their pietas, or love of family and fatherland. This inspired many Romans to serve their country and even to die for its sakes. A number of Romans, especially writers such Virgil, were patriotic in the sense that they believed that the empire had a divine mission to civilize the world.
Patriotism was common in the ancient world, where it was both a force for good—in that it promoted social cohesion and public service—but it also had its dark side, as it encouraged conflict and even xenophobia. Patriotism was essential to military strength and considered necessary for the public good. This helped the Greek and Roman civilizations to survive and to flourish for many centuries.
Kapust D. (2017) Roman Patriotism. In: Sardoc M. (eds) Handbook of Patriotism. Springer, Cham.
Crowley J. (2017) Patriotism in Ancient Greece. In: Sardoc M. (eds) Handbook of Patriotism. Springer, Cham.