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Aristophanes: Utopia and Human Nature

by July 22, 2020

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ever since there were people and places, there has been a desire for other, different people, and ideal, perfect places. This concept is called utopia, a word that has its origin in ancient Greek, as a compound of the word οὐ (ou, ”not”) and τόπος (topos, ”place”). Even though unmistakably Greek, this word was developed much later, in 1516 to be exact, by Thomas More.
In the same manner that the dreaming of a better world is almost as old as the world itself, puns are almost as old as the words themselves. Thus, when coming up with this concept of no-place, Sir More was playing with the word eu-topos, which meant ”a good place”. Coincidence? Let’s see.
Even though the concept of utopia, or utopian literature, was not invented by the Greeks as such, it was present in Greek thought and literature starting as early as in Homer’s works. (the land of Phaeacians in the Odyssey).

Claude Lorrain, Port Scene with the Departure of Odysseus from the Land of the Phaeacians (oil on canvas, 1646; Louvre, Paris)

The main characteristics of utopia are the lack of existential worries that occupy our minds every day, the lack of corruption and injustice, and, most importantly, its location that is remote either in the sense of space or time.
Thus, we have the so-called nostalgic utopia, such as the one found in Hesiod’s didactic poem Works and Days, where the distant past is referred to as golden and considered perfect and irretrievable. There are also completely fictional utopias, in invented lands with invented people (as the one in the Odyssey).
Another distinction, and the more important one if you ask me, is that of the utopias of reconstruction, and the utopias of escape. In the latter, a protagonist is sick of the actual world, and his only wish is to escape to another, typically, non-existent one. This kind of utopia does not have a goal to change the world or come up with a new one.
Mosaic of Hesiod

Portrait of the Greek poet Hesiod (ESIODVS) on the Monnus mosaic from Augusta Treverorum (Trier), end of the 3rd century CE.

In the former, on the other hand, as the name itself indicates, the author intends to reconstruct, or reinvent the world. The most well-known example of this is Plato’s ideal state in the Republic. Plato comes up with a whole new system of government and distribution of goods, where he implements a radical change of everything in favor of equality. However, as it turns out, ”all the animals are equal, but some are more equal than the others”. Thus, Plato gives the advantage to philosophers, who should be rulers, because they are wise and, as such, capable of governing the state perfectly.
So far, I have mentioned the main types of utopia that can be found in ancient Greek literature. However, we encounter complications when trying to classify all the utopias of one specific author into these categories. There were, and still are, many disputes regarding the goal of constructing the utopias of this author. As you’ve probably guessed, I am talking about Aristophanes, in whose works we can identify traces of the utopian concept.
These utopias tell us a lot about the problems that the Athens of Aristophanes’ time was facing, and there was quite a lot of them. For example, it was obvious that in Peace, where the main plot is a great desire for peace in Athens devastated by constant war and conflict, Aristophanes was trying to point out the pointlessness of wars and its disastrous effects. Similarly, in the Clouds, the criticism of sophistic teaching and the dangers of its popularity is fairly obvious.
Theatre of Dionysus

Theatre of Dionysus, Athens — in Aristophanes’ time, the audience probably sat on wooden benches with earth foundations.

However, what I think is far more important, and far more profound is the implicit criticism that Aristophanes carefully implemented in his comedies, step by step as the plot advances.
Assembly Women (Ecclesiazusae)
In this comedy, the protagonists are women sick of men not governing the state properly and deciding to take matters into their own hands. Their leader is a woman named Praxagora, who introduces the idea of completely reversing the established order. She introduces the communism of property, where all the property was to be shared, and everyone was to be absolutely equal. All this sounds great in the beginning, but in the second part of the play, Praxagora mysteriously disappears, and human nature begins to take its toll.
Therefore, as soon as the new order is established, we can see that the only people willing to share are the ones who have nothing or very little to share and that even the ones who were against the new system are rushing to get their part of the cake.
Muse reading

Muse reading, Louvre.

Moreover, not only did Praxagora dictate that property was to be held in common, but that sex and family would be communal matters as well. This meant that the family was to be abandoned as the principal unit of society, and the children would belong to the state.
As for sex, the right to choose was to be given to the old and ugly to the detriment of the young and beautiful. Thus, we have a scene where a young couple wants to be together, but they are not able to do so, because a few old women are fighting over the young man. It soon becomes clear that the sexual desire needed for intercourse with a young person will be gone after all the desires of old people are fulfilled.
In Birds, we have two Athenian men fed up with life in Athens degraded in every sense by war and other problems. They are in search of Tereus, an old king who was transformed into a bird, to help them find a better place to live.

Vase with scene from Aristophanes’ Birds.

After some difficulties, they manage to form a city in the sky, along with other birds, and along with promises of everything opposite to Athenian customs, including the walls around the city. However, the first thing that is done in the new city is raising the walls. One of the Athenians goes outside of the city to guard it, while the other one, Pisthetaerus, stays and turns into a dictator who deems himself greater than Zeus.
The Ultimate Protagonist: Human Nature
Both of these comedies start as classic utopias with protagonists having strong desires to change the order of things in pursuit of establishing firm moral values. However, when they actually start doing it, human nature comes in as the most important protagonist and reverses the affairs either to their previous state, or an even worse one. Even though Aristophanes new that the world is far from ideal, he managed to show that the ideal is usually unreachable and that we have no choice but to operate inside of what we already have.

Not Your Virgil’s Sinon: The Greeks and the Man Who Tricked the Trojans

by July 15, 2020

Written by Cynthia C. Polsley, Ph.D., Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
And I said to him: ‘Who are those two poor sinners
who give off smoke like wet hands in the winter
and lie so close to you upon the right?’
‘I found them here,’ he answered, ‘when I rained
down to this rocky slope; they’ve not stirred since
and will not move, I think, eternally.
One is the lying woman who blamed Joseph;
the other, lying Sinon, Greek from Troy . . .’
Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXX. 91-98
So Dante characterizes Sinon, painting a picture not incompatible with Virgil’s depiction of the Greek deceiver in the Aeneid. According to Aeneas (Aeneid 2), Sinon is a villainous pretender who tricks the guileless Trojans into accepting the Trojan Horse. Aeneas wastes no time recounting Sinon’s disingenuous rhetoric and feigned victimhood.
Yet, Virgil’s Sinon hints at complexity to the character. In a host of voices telling his story, Sinon is more than a simple deceiver. What is he, really? Who is relaying his words, and what does each speaker believe of him? These questions are not just important to Sinon’s legacy but help to define his identity at any given moment.

Dante, poised between the mountain of purgatory and the city of Florence, displays the incipit Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (“Midway upon the journey of our life”) in a detail of Domenico di Michelino’s painting, Florence, 1465.

Virgil’s account suggests such intricacy.  Aeneas’s hindsight inevitably affects his representation of Sinon. In 142 lines (Aen. 2. 57-198), mostly Sinon’s own words, Aeneas remembers the Greek man’s duplicity.  The details of his recollection are influenced by later knowledge, including a fuller recognition of the Trojans’ credulity.
We simultaneously receive multiple, conflicting claims and viewpoints, including those of 1) the scheming Sinon, a “desperate captive;” 2) the true Sinon, with motivations clarified by Aeneas; 3) Priam and the Trojans, merciful and innocent; and 4) Aeneas himself, agonizingly reflecting on the past.  Although it is difficult to untangle truths from embellishments, Sinon’s ethics and methods are undebatable.  As far as Aeneas is concerned, the Greeks took Troy by subterfuge.
Before Virgil, There Was . . .
Seeing through Trojan eyes, Aeneas offers an account of Sinon that is no more flattering than Dante’s.  But what of the Greeks’ view?  Surely their portrait of the man would have been more positive, especially in light of surviving literature. After all, Sinon was an important player in Troy’s defeat.

Sinon as a captive in front of the walls of Troy, in the Vergilius Romanus, 5th century AD

Or was he?  Sources differ.  In Book 4 of Homer’s Odyssey, Menelaus omits Sinon altogether from the Trojan Horse story (Od. 4. 271-274).  The Little Iliad, summarized by the obscure author Proclus, similarly neglects Sinon’s role in convincing the Trojans to accept the Horse.  While his specific agency is ambiguous, Sinon acts as a spy from within Troy and secretly signals the Greeks (Little Iliad 11).
The Sack of Ilium is likewise short on detail, albeit evincing the bare outline of Virgilian mythology.  The Trojans decided to dedicate the Horse to Athena and to feast in celebration.  However, after two serpents appear as an ill omen and kill the priest Laocoön and one of his sons, Aeneas and his people anxiously withdraw to Ida.  Sinon, who earlier entered the city “by pretense” (προσποιητός, Sack of Ilium 1), lights his beacons to begin the Greek invasion.
Beyond Epic Cycle summaries and fragments, Greek tragedy puts Sinon front and center.  Sophocles made Sinon the main character of an entire play called Sinon.  Unfortunately, only four disjointed words survive.  Since virtually nothing of the play is extant, the Sophoclean Sinon remains mysterious.
Still, certain readers have detected something of the stage in the Virgilian Sinon and his speech — not only in its style, but also its contents, such as the mention of Sinon’s supposed relative Palamedes, treacherously slain by Odysseus, or the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia.

Depiction of Virgil

Fast Forward from Virgil
Long after Virgil, another Greek retelling imagines Sinon as a resolute hero. Quintus of Smyrna, writing his Fall of Troy in the third or fourth century A.D., interprets Sinon as a respectable figure. When Odysseus calls for a brave man to fool the Trojans, Sinon is the only Greek willing to undertake the mission.  He proclaims that he will either succeed or die trying (12.250-251).
Praising his newfound courage, the overjoyed Greeks deem him divinely appointed to end the war (12.253-258).  Whereas the Aeneid focuses on his shrewd rhetoric, Sinon here is a valiant volunteer, identified by the narrator as the man fated to accomplish the “great deed” (12.244).
Not that words are absent from Quintus’s Sinon.  In fact, his speech’s content is not dissimilar from that of the Aeneid.  Yet he speaks more briefly, and to listeners who cruelly threaten, mutilate, and beat him.  As in the Aeneid, Sinon declares that he has barely eluded Odysseus’s deadly designs — not by physical escape, as in Aeneid 2.132-144, but by clinging to the sacred Horse for safety (12.379-386).

Quintus Smyrnaeus (Kointou Kalabrou paraleipomenōn Omērou) from 1505, printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice with handwritten notes by Conrad Gesner. Source: Luwian Studies.

Hadjittofi remarks that this Sinon’s “fundamental strength is endurance,” and that “the virtue by which Sinon wins the war for the Greeks is essentially, and ironically, Roman (firmitas, or constantia).” Remarkably, “Sinon of the Aeneid becomes here a real hero since he is willing to risk life and limb in the hands of the barbaric Trojans for the glory of Greece. . . . The slander against Greeks, that they are typically deceitful and manipulative, is erased . . . , and the ancestors of the Romans are, instead, depicted as brutal and uncivilized.”
The different treatments by Virgil and Quintus are instructive.  Aeneas paints a picture of the Trojans as pious and genteel, suitable Roman ancestors. This image is in opposition to the presentation of the Trojans by Quintus, who is less concerned with honoring Roman heritage.
Sinon’s forceful rhetoric in the Aeneid allows Virgil to demonstrate oratorical prowess and to accentuate Trojan kindness. Conversely, handling the Sinon episode from a more Greek view, Quintus’s shows how heroic Sinon can appear when an author rejects Trojan/Roman interpretation.

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Art Institute of Chicago

A milder, comparatively middle-ground account is found in the Fall of Troy by the native Egyptian Tryphiodorus, Quintus’s contemporary.  Also writing in Greek, Tryphiodorus seems to rely more heavily on the Aeneid’s tale.  On the one hand, unlike Virgil’s, his Sinon is heroic and brave.  Sinon readily undergoes physical beating by the Greeks so that he may appear more credible.  When the time comes, the “wily hero” (ἀπατήλιος ἥρως, 220) staggers into view, bloodied and beaten, and kneels before Priam to deliver a stirring supplication (258-282).
On the other hand, like those of Virgil, Tryphiodorus’s Trojans are generous and caring.  Priam treats Sinon gently and clothes him (283, 304-305). Overall, this version and its characters exhibit the Aeneid‘s enduring influence.  At the same time, they display a blended opinion of Sinon’s behavior and ethics.  The Trojan perspective of Sinon is not always as primary as in the Aeneid.  And even there, once upon a time, the Trojans viewed Sinon differently than Aeneas does later.
A Slippery Character
What do we make of Sinon, then?  Wheedler, warrior; cajoling, courageous?  Ultimately, it depends on who is doing the talking — not Sinon himself, speaking without another interpreter, but Sinon as a speaker presented by others, interpreted by those who suffered or succeeded due to his words and actions.
Fall of Troy

The Fall of Troy, by Johann Georg Trautmann (1713–1769). From the collections of the Grand Dukes of Baden, Karlsruhe.

Furthermore, the perceived distance from Sinon as a historical figure or a story character affects a narrator’s portrayal.  For the most part, Virgil’s Sinon leaves the greatest impression on the mythological tradition: for Aeneas, Sinon’s legacy is a significant reminder of how easily reality can be distorted.  Throughout the Aeneid, always haunted by dark memories of events at Troy, Aeneas lives under the shadow of Sinon’s treachery.
But Sinon is not always a grim embodiment of past defeat.  To some, he is a powerful orator to be admired; to others, a heroic martyr, ready to sacrifice everything for a common cause.  The subtle multiplicity of perspectives captured in the Aeneid 2 episode turns out to be a testament to Sinon’s complexity.  Whatever the case, it seems that Dante’s “lying Sinon, Greek from Troy,” “not stirred since” discovery and who, it is thought, “will not move . . . eternally,” may not have been so eternally unmoved after all.
  • Alighieri, Dante.  The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: The Inferno.  Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
  • Balsdon, J. P. V. D.  Romans and Aliens. London: Duckworth, 1979.
  • Campbell, Celia.  “Sinon and the Hatred of Odysseus.  Vergilius, Vol. 63 (2017): 3-20.
  • Hadjittofi, Fotini.  “Res Romanae: Cultural Politics in Quintus and Nonnus.”  In Quintus Smyrnaeus: Transforming Homer in Second Sophistic epic.  Baumbach, Manuel, Silvio Bär, and Nicola Dümmler, eds. New York: Walter De Gruyter, 2007.
  • Hardie, Philip R.  The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Horsfall, Nicholas.  Virgil, Aeneid 2: A Commentary.  Mnemosyne, Supp. 299.  Leiden: Brill, 2008.
  • Keith, Arthur L.  “The Sinon Episode in Vergil.”  The Classical Weekly, Vol. 15, No. 18 (Mar. 1922): 140-42.
  • Lloyd-Jones, Hugh.  Sophocles.  Fragments.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  • Lynch, John P.  “Laocoön and Sinon: Virgil, ‘Aeneid’ 2.40-198.”  Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Oct. 1980): 170-79.
  • Sutton, Dana F.  The Lost Sophocles.  Lanham: University Press of America, 1984.
  • ter Vrugt-Lentz, J.  “Sinon und Zopyros.”  Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 20, Fasc. 2 (1967): 168-71.
  • [viii] Hadjittofi 2007: 368.  For an idea of Roman consideration of the Greeks, compare Balsdon 1979: “With the Greeks the Romans had a love-hate relationship.  For the broad mass of contemporary Greeks, the majority of Romans at all times in their history felt unbridled contempt. . . Greeks were (crooks and) sycophants who could never be trusted on oath to tell the truth, for they regarded the giving of evidence on oath as ‘a great game'” (ibid.: 30, 31-32).

The Passion of Christ-ian Poetry

by July 26, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is difficult to know definitively when the ‘Ancient World’ came to an end. In all likelihood, the demise of Rome and the beginning of the Dark Ages was far more a transition than any single event. But even if we’re on flimsy ground regarding the moment of metamorphosis, we can certainly say that the soundtrack to the transition was provided by one of the most neglected groups of ancient artists; Latin, Christian poets.
They were revered in the middle-ages, but since then the Christian poets who wrote from 4th – 6th centuries have been maligned as shallow imitations of their pagan predecessors, concerned more with proselytism than prosody.
And perhaps there is an undeniable truth in this statement. Latin, Christian poetry is passionate, often bordering on the fanatical, but there are, as Carolinne White states in her wonderfully approachable work on the topic, Early Christian Latin Poets, “further delights and complexities of this unjustly neglected corpus”.
However, before we sup the flesh and blood of the works of the holy scribblers, one glaring and vital question must be asked: ‘What about the Latin, Christian poetry before the 4th century’?
Quite simply, there are no extant Latin, Christian poems from the first three centuries.
The knee-jerk reasoning is to cite the Roman persecutions of the Christians, but this doesn’t quite cut it. Severity of persecution oscillated enough to allow some work to blossom, and the holy texts themselves obviously pre-dated the poetry they inspired.
The persecution of Christians

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero used Christians as human torches

So has this work been lost? Well… possibly, but the crux of the issue lies in the fact that the early church was more influenced by Greek and Hebrew. Not surprisingly then, most early hymns were composed in either Greek or Syriac (a western dialect of Aramaic).
The early Christians considered Latin too pagan or, if you prefer, not Christian enough – a delicious irony as fanatics like Mel Gibson and his ilk consider the dropping of the Latin mass to be the zenith of impiety.
So the dearth of early, Christian, Latin poetry is no mystery.
The 4th-6th centuries, then, was a time of biblical re-education. Many religious texts were translated into Latin, and biblical and apostolic study became as much a part of the assumed curriculum for literate men as Virgil or Homer had been for their forefathers.
Sculpture of Homer

Bust of Homer

Paradoxically, detractors have accused the early Christian poets of being both too similar to, and not distinct enough from, their pagan forebears.
Here it appears we have some muddled thinking. Nobody could make a convincing argument that the style and meter of the Christians were not either heavily influenced by, or directly copied from the likes of Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Propertius. What makes them distinct, therefore, is the tone and content of their work:
“The abundance of sins tends to throw Christians into confusion. As a result of this our Lord wanted to give us a warning, comparing the kingdom of heaven to a net cast into the sea which catches up many fishes of every kind from different places. When they have been pulled to the shore, the fishermen separate them, placing the good ones in barrels, the bad they put back in the sea”. – Augustine
Painting of Augustine

Gerard Seghers (attr) – The Four Doctors of the Western Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

This is even more true for non-Latinists as poetical rhythm is often, inevitably, lost in translation. So we are left with content – and in this respect there was a tectonic, or perhaps divine, shift from the time of the pagan writers.
Overnight poetry became more serious, cerebral and spiritual. What was once a distracting folly for the educated elite became an exercise of the utmost reverence and piety.
Though despite these lofty intentions, the actual language used is often derived from Vulgar Latin – the language of the gutter, the downtrodden and the oppressed.
St. Paulinus of Nola

Linz Cathedral ( Upper Austria ). Gothic revival stained glass window showing Saint Paulinus of Nola.

A possible explanation for this is the vulgarity of the original scriptures themselves which, if Paulinus of Nola is to be believed, could not be further from the rarefied eloquence of the King James’ Bible:
“Let not the simplicity of scripture nor the poverty of its vocabulary offend you, for these are due either to the faults of translators or else to a deliberate purpose, for in its way it is better fitted for the instruction of the unlettered congregation as the educated person can take one meaning and the uneducated another from one and the same sentence.”
Though whatever the lexical shortcomings, this was made up for in spades by the fervent belief that these were not pagan word-games, but Christian truths. The problem with writing about the truth, however, was that there was often some meddlesome schismatic throwing spanners into the works.
Thus, a good deal of the time and energy spent by the early Christian poets went not into proselytizing, exalting, or composing perfect verse, but into denouncing other heretical sects. This seemed especially true of Augustine, who was determined to ensure a singularity of exegesis in a time when there were many dogmatic pretenders, all jostling for supremacy.
Several poets made pains to condemn the apostate tendencies of the Pelagians, Arians, Donatists, Priscillians and Manichees. Between them, they believed wild and dangerous things such as: We don’t inherit sin from Adam and Eve, God is superior to Jesus, Jesus is not eternal (though was created before time began) and other such insidious heresy.
St. Augustine

The Saint Augustine Taken to School by Saint Monica. by Niccolò di Pietro 1413–15

This gives us another clear and unambiguous way in which the Christian and pagan poets differed; the polytheists were far more laissez-faire and ad hoc when it came to the malleable details of their gods’ lives, attributes and even morality.
So it is not just because the subject matter is more familiar to us that the words of the Christian poets resonate with such vigor. It seems the pride and passion they put into their work was done so without affect:
“From the wound of Christ flowed the sacraments of the Church” – Augustine
The fire and brimstone were as burning and acrid on the page as off it. And so, even if one can make a solid case to state that the likes of Ovid and Horace were finer practitioners of their art, whatever Christian poetry lacked in style or objective beauty, it more than made up for in pride, passion, piety and, of course being Christian, a heavy dose of pathos:
“The holy one went out after being handed over for punishment…his magnificent head was encircled with a crown woven of thorns, because in his mercy he took upon himself all the thorns of our misfortunes…he was hung high on the spreading cross, transforming the anger of the crisis by means of loving devotion…suddenly a horrendous darkness fell, taking possession of the whole sky, covering the shadowy daylight with gloomy mourning; the sun buried…just as for three hours the darkened stars hid…so for three days the Lord endured imprisonment in the cave that was his tomb” – Sedulius

Troy: Fall of a City or Fall of Accuracy?

by October 31, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Once upon a time there was an epic 10-year war between austere and grandiose powers of the Mediterranean. There’s the wrath and favor of gods and goddesses, love and heartbreak, hope and despair, victors and losers, and, of course, the horse.
Trojan Horse Painting

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid

We can only be talking about one story – The Trojan War. Traversing languages and lands, the author (or more likely, authors and groups of creators over generations) that created the Iliad and the Odyssey wove a tale that spoke so loudly to the psyche that it is still pervasive in many aspects of today’s popular culture.
Once an epic spoken to the tune of music and recited from memory by bards, the Iliad and the Odyssey were committed to writing sometime between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. In the ancient Greek world, scenes of the Trojan War were already a popular subject among artists. Vase paintings, wall decorations, and other works of literature that stemmed from the premise of Homer abounded. Scenes of the war appeared on clay kraters, a type of vase that was intended for use at a symposium. Here, the men in attendance would lounge around, look at the scenes on the krater, and it would spark discussions on topics such as bravery, war, religion, and whatever else is alluded to on the vase.
Krater with Troy scene

Mixing bowl with scenes from the fall of Troy. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But let’s fast-forward a few millennia. We know that the Iliad and the Odyssey have been incredibly popular topics throughout time, or else our fascination with them today might not be as deep. Permeating the crust of our own day and age, we have the Trojan War represented very clearly in films titled (unambiguously) Troy (2004), Helen of Troy (1956), and The Trojan Women (1971), to name a few. We see representations of the epic in video games and comics, the most recent sweeping the United States being the Assasin’s Creed: Odyssey.
And, of course, in our era of television studios churning out material like the medium will die tomorrow, we have many adaptations visible on TV, from the Disney Channel cartoon, Phineas and Ferb to dramatic retellings like Netflix and BBC’s Troy: Fall of a City.
Promo image of the show

Troy: Fall of a city

So, we know that the Homeric epics are popular springboards for creative fodder, but how have the representations outside the texts transformed and altered our common understanding of the Trojan War itself?
I am by no means a “classical purist,” and my bias may show in that I enjoy a good adaptation and creative twist to a classic – something also seen in antiquity several times over. While some in our field may look at representations like Troy: Fall of a City as preposterous misconstructions of the beloved Homer, I choose to appreciate them for the medium they are created in, knowing full well that a direct adaption is a ridiculous notion and that the epics themselves faced “personal spins” in antiquity, depending on the audience.
Sculpture of Homer

Bust of Homer

For those that are well acquainted with Homer, they may be quick to jump on the inaccuracies of pop culture adaptations. In Troy: Fall of a City, for example, there are many.
For starters, the level of interference played by the gods illustrates a strong difference between the film and the text. From central and imperative to all but dismissed, Troy: Fall of a City begins well enough with the divine characters, but soon loses track of them amongst the hubbub of other plots.
This is, of course, in stark contrast to the involvement we read in the texts themselves, where the gods are central and meddle, even when instructed not to be involved. While we certainly might have wished to see more of the gods throughout the series, they did seem to fade away naturally in favor of mortal plot lines. It was a decision that seems to align with viewers’ desires, to identify and see the people of the story, to make the heroic epic seem more like a historical event rather than, well, an epic.
Painting of the Gods in the Iliad

Athena counseling Achilles in “Achilles’ Wrath” by Michel Martin Drolling

Another common discrepancy we see, and as many reviewers have pointed out, is the scene where Achilles stands outside the Trojan walls and screams for Hector, who is inside. Very much a focal point in Troy: Fall of a City (and a bit of a tearjerker, if I do say so myself), this soul filled wail is not what was written in our source material.
Instead, Homer writes that Hector was the only soldier of Troy to remain outside, with old King Priam begging him to come inside the safety of the walls. Hector, however, remained and met Achilles face-to-face. So, while the screaming for Hector is an aspect of our adaptations we see repeatedly, and for good cinematic reason and reception, it is not one based in Homeric truth, whatever that may be in the first place.
Vase painting of the war

Achilles and Hector

This brings us to the classic icon of the Trojan War, one you probably learned about in the 4th grade with quaint cartoons mapping it out: the infamous Trojan Horse.
We have come to know the Trojan Horse as a symbol of trickery, deceit, war, and both victory and crushing defeat. Pop culture representations of the horse’s entry may vary from work to work, but, at least here, the pretense remains the same; the Trojans are taken off guard by the Greeks hiding inside the horse, who are able to deliver a deafening end to the war once they are secretly brought inside the gates. This symbol of the war stands out far above the rest, with the term “Trojan horse” coming to mean things in our modern world of technology, coding, war, and general social commentary. The attack represented a myriad of things then, as it does now.
Replica of the Trojan Horse

Replica of Trojan Horse – Canakkale Waterfront – Dardanelles – Turkey

It is easy to look at a piece of pop culture and be overtly critical of its blind eye to what we may consider glaring inaccuracies. The Trojan War is ubiquitous with antiquity, war, and the Greek world. The literature, archaeology, and history have been mused over since before it was even committed to writing. Because of this prolonged obsession, modern culture is filled with examples of the Trojan War, including the glowing successes and of course, inevitable missteps. Nonetheless, the Trojan War and its accompanying themes of bravery, struggle, love, and fate all persist today, in just about any adaptation you pick up. I think Homer (whoever he or they were) would tilt a symposium glass to that indeed.

The Holy Ass

by July 3, 2014

By Ben Potter
Regular readers might recall that from time to time we investigate the origins of the novel. So far we’ve looked at the bucolic innocence of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe as well as Petronius’ quasi-pornographic romp The Satyricon.

Hot on such esteemed heels we now come to the only Latin novel that is extant in its entirety.

Not only that, but it is probably the only substantial piece of prose from the ancient world that can hold its own in the modern sense. It does not largely (or solely) rely on being ‘of interest’ or ‘historical importance’, but is instead that most elusive and wonderful of things: a elegant piece of literature and entertainment in its own right.

Golden Ass
The recipient of this rather obsequious eulogizing is Lucius Apuleius and the text in question is the exemplary Metamorphoses, commonly referred to as The Golden Ass.
A quick internet search of the book will often regurgitate adjectives such as ‘bawdy’ or ‘picaresque’ and, whilst both are certainly justifiable, they do not quite do this peculiar (perhaps unique) work due service.
We could also call it a semi-autobiography, a cautionary guide for a young nobleman, or a set of Milesian Tales (so influential to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).
Far ore than anything else, The Golden Ass is a work of religious devotion – and a proselytizing one at that.
To fully appreciate this, we need to understand a little about Apuleius himself.

At this point regular readers will be expecting the almost stock-phrase: ‘Unfortunately we have almost no biographical information about [inset name] and what we do have is highly dubious’.

Well surprisingly, and unlike many other noteworthy characters from antiquity, not only do we have a decent amount of information to go on, but it also paints a picture of an extremely colorful life.
Born in the North African town of Madaurus, Apuleius was a true man of the world. Studying first at Carthage, then Athens, he eventually made his way to Rome where he studied Latin oratory and took a place at the bar.
However, this was not before he managed to flit away the small fortune bequeathed to him by his father through drinking and whoring his way around Greece, during a trip to the Olympic Games.
His later taste for the law may well have germinated from the necessity to defend himself against accusations of black magic when, shortly after marrying his friend’s mother, said friend promptly died.

The fact that the bride was enormously wealthy, as well as significantly advanced in years, convinced the family he had bewitched her and poisoned him.

Apuleius’ tongue-in-cheek (and victorious) legal defense, A Discourse on Magic, is his other, significant, surviving work.

In fact, all this sin and scandal does not diminish, but accentuates, the most important feature of Apuleius’ life; his devotion to the gods.
Goddess Isis
Not to the whole ancient pantheon mind you, but primarily to Isis, Osiris and then later, Asclepius.
But it is to Isis that The Golden Ass is foremost devoted.
The vehicle Apuleius uses to exalt his goddess is a broad plot almost completely lifted from either Lician of Samosata or Lucius of Patras, whose efforts, Ass and The Ass respectively, follow the same basic thread:
  • A nobleman engages in activities not worthy of his station
  • He dabbles in the dark arts
  • He is accidentally transformed into a donkey
  • This incarnation allows him to spy on private conversations and see all sorts of ribald behavior
  • He suffers greatly before regaining human form
The first two steps set up the precautionary tale, not exactly against impiety, but ‘mis-piety’. Classics legend Robert Graves explains:

“A nobleman should not play with black magic: he should satisfy his spiritual needs by being initiated into a respectable mystery cult along with men of his own station”.

However, it is the last step to which Apuleius gives his most serious attention.

Golden Ass
His transformation comes about through the kindness of the goddess Isis and he, in turn, devotes his life to her.
The religious allegory is not a subtle one; when a man behaves badly, when he dishonors or disregards the gods, he must go through the trials and tribulations of bestial servitude and suffering. Only upon accepting Isis into his heart will he be truly humanized and given the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the hereafter.
One suspects that Apuleius would have been rather pleased at learning some considered his work to be no more than a series of foolhardy and lubricious frolics. This seems exactly the point of the work – to not be considered overtly religious, but to charm, compel and covertly convert.
Though that’s not to say that he was entirely dismissed as an indecorous interloper into the world of tasteful literature.

It seems the black magic accusations against him caused some to see The Golden Ass as a literal memoir rather than an amusing recruitment tool… or indeed a work solely of wit and whimsy.

The Christian community, or at least its intelligentsia, were apparently genuinely troubled that Apuleius’ miraculous exploits were perceived as even more wonderful than those of Christ. Indeed, several centuries later, the Inquisition did their utmost to transform The Golden Ass once and for all into ashes.

St Augustine
Apuleius’ countryman, St Augustine, stated that his pagan predecessor “either reported or invented his transformation into asinal shape”.
In fact, the lives of these two devout Africans run along parallel lines, i.e. Carthage university, debauchery, residence at Rome, salvation. The key difference being that Apuleius chronicles his transformation with a sense of humor, a little less vitriol, and far less pomposity.
Unlike Augustine who wallowed in the blissful guilt of his youthful transgressions until he was old and grey, Apuleius saw his debaucheries as pleasurable pit stops on the road to enlightenment.
He appreciated what many of us know, though don’t always like to admit: that the follies of youth are what maketh the man.
He doesn’t quite go as far as to say that fornication and degradation are necessary rites of passage… but if he does speak of regretting them, then he does so with a suppressed smirk and a twinkle in his eye.
After all, a young man cannot remain a crude beast forever, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t enjoy his asinine desires while they last.

The Bible of Ancient Greece

by May 28, 2014

By Ben Potter
Much time and care is taken to bring the ancients to life; to imbue modern society with the idea that they were just like us in all their goodness and evil, their intoxication and sobriety, their love and lust, as well as their hate and chastity.
To downplay this would be both false and feckless, as well as an insult to a common humanity, evidenced by timeless art, extraordinary literature and the evocative tales found therein.
Nevertheless, there appears to be a sizeable exception, one in which the madness may be the same, but the method is barely recognisable… and that is religion.
Greek Pantheon
The polytheistic panoply atop Mount Olympus and in the heaving halls of Hades have great range and romance, but, almost inevitably, very little for citizens of secular or traditionally monotheistic societies to empathize with.
True, there are familiar elements: virgin births, resurrections, fratricide, patricide and capricious cruelty. However, such moments merely serve to punctuate, and therefore reinforce, the strangeness.

One explanation for the disconnect lies not in innate practical differences, but in the lack of a codified text. In other words, there’s no Ancient Greek bible.

Or is there?

Well… No, there isn’t.
But at any rate, if one wished to make a case for such a thing then there is really only one contender; Hesiod’s Theogony.
Hesiod, from Boeotia on the Greek mainland, was a contemporary of the Near Eastern Homer – dating him to the 8th century BC.
Homer’s epic and upper-class material far outstretched the pious, practical and homespun efforts of Hesiod, but despite their stylistic differences, their fame grew in parallel.
Gustave's Painting of Hesiod
(That’s not to say Hesiod was a down to earth poet of the people, the language he used was still elevated and rarefied.)
A near-contemporary myth, discredited even in antiquity, stated that Hesiod beat Homer in a singing contest. Although palpably untrue, the fact that the two men were mentioned in the same breath says something about Hesiod’s stature.
Additional ‘biographical’ information reports that he adulterously impregnated his host’s sister and fathered with her the Locrian poet Stesichorus. In revenge, he was thrown from a boat into the sea, only to be rescued and brought back to shore by a pod of philanthropic dolphins.
Such pleasant nonsense is first seen in the writings of Thucydides, three centuries after the fact. And, whilst telling us nothing of his life, such resonance does confirm that his legacy was almost as important as Homer’s.

So what of Hesiod’s epic piece, the Theogony? Is there any case to make for a polytheistic bible?

Triumph of the Bacchus

Well, not quite. It does not lay down doctrinal law, give advice on genital grooming, recommend who and how to love, or tut-tut at your choice of pizza topping. It does, however, give a pretty comprehensive list of gods, how they came to be, some of their key attributes, with whom they fought and with whom they… ahem… loved.
So if your definition of a holy book is one that outlines the origin and nature of gods, then the Theogony certainly qualifies.
However, we aren’t exactly dealing with a text of unalloyed veneration. Theogony is a warts-and-all account. There is no sugar-coating of the incest, murder, back-stabbing, cannibalism and madness that the Gods indulged in. Homer, to a far, far greater extent either humanizes, condones or simply ignores Divine guilt.
Something else which lends weight to the holy text debate is the fact that the various wars, affairs, births and castrations of the Theogony are almost certainly not a product of Hesiod’s fertile imagination. He, like Homer, was either chronicling or playing with established stories and themes.
Pandora's Box
It’s been suggested that Hesiod’s material can be traced back to the mythology and pantheon of the Babylonians, however, any similarities here could be purely coincidental. After all, the Incas had a story unerringly similar to that of Pandora’s box!
But what does Hesiod teach us?
For starters, we are supplied with the origins of the ancient sacraments, which were an offshoot of Prometheus deceitfully serving some rather bony beef to Zeus:
“[Zeus] took the fatted portion in his hands and raged within, and anger seized his heart to see the trick, the white bones of the ox. And from this time the tribes of men on earth burn, on the smoking altars, white ox-bones”.

Moreover, we are precisely told our distance away from our Divine keepers, provided we know how big an anvil is and have a working knowledge of physics (which, alas, I don’t – write in if you do!):

“An anvil made of bronze, falling from heaven, would fall nine nights and days, and on the tenth would reach the earth; and if the anvil fell from earth, would fall again nine nights and days and come to Tartarus upon the tenth”.

In addition to the origins of creation, sacrifice, the wars that shaped the universe and a travel guide to heaven, Hesiod’s work supplies us with some charming etymological snippets – some thought to have been coined by the poet himself.

For instance, Cyclops is round-eyed, not one-eyed, as it comes from the Greek, kuklos (circle). Aphros (foam) refers to the birth of Aphrodite, who was issued from the foam congealing around the discarded testicles of the castrated Uranus. Most pleasantly of all, Hesiod tell us the Titans are called so because of the teino (strain) of their insolence. This makes phrases like ‘a titanic struggle’ or ‘a clash of the titans’ near-tautologies.
Indeed, there is much to be learnt about Greek, polytheistic culture from the pages of Hesiod. However, anybody who seriously makes the ‘bible’ argument is most probably guilty of retrospectively interpolating our current societal fundamentals into Ancient Greece…

Hesiod (and even more so Homer) is far more akin to Dante or Milton i.e. (presumably) pious, with a god-given talent and a god-thirsty audience.

However you wish to view Hesiod, as prophet, poet, public servant, or even some combination of the three, his work has stood the test of so much time that it almost boggles belief.

And why is this? Well.. I’ll leave it to the man himself to explain:
“When a man has sorrow newly on his mind and grieves until his heart is parched within, if a bard, the servant of the Muses, sings the glorious deeds the men of old performed, and hymns the blessed ones, Olympian gods, at once that man forgets his heavy heart, and has no memory of any grief, so quick the Muses’ gift diverts his mind.”