Quick Links for the Start of the Semester

A number of interesting articles have come over my transom in the last few days. Enjoy!

  • “Do as the Romans did, then overdo it again”: inspired by the release of Centurion (has anyone seen it?), the Boston Globe looks at some classic Roman films and other projects on the horizon (CORIOLANUS directed by Ralph Fiennes sounds promising).
  • “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?”: this feature in the New York Times provides an accessible and balanced look at recent research on how different languages shape our perception of our lives. You’ll learn why a German is more likely to describe a bridge as graceful and elegant while a Spanish-speaker will describe it as strong and powerful (hint: grammatical gender), and encounter languages like Guugu Yimithirr, which lacks words for front, back, left and right and gives all directions using the cardinal points on the compass. Fascinating stuff and useful for anyone taking Latin or Greek–or any other language–this semester.
  • And, oh yeah, Odysseus’ palace was discovered on Ithaka: Greeks ‘discover Odysseus’ palace in Ithaca, proving Homer’s hero was real’ | Telegraph. Gold stars to all who can identify the questionable assumptions and logical leaps in this article, or head over to Rogueclassicism for the untold backstory.

Have a wonderful start to the semester!

Summer Reading: If Rome Never Fell…

Rogueclassicism notes several items of Classic-Con at io9.com, including this list of alternate histories (or speculative fiction) that take as their premise the survival of the Roman Empire.

Great moments in alternate history: the non-fall of the Roman empireFor example, there’s Jacek Inglot’s Quietus in which a Roman Empire that has rejected Christianity has steamships by the 8th century and goes to war with a Christianized Japan. Or James White’s The Silent Stars Go By, where the plans for the Aeolipile survive the fall of Rome and result in a starship launch in the 15th century.

Another great example is Frederick Pohl’s The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass. Conceived as a response to L. Sprague de Camp’s classic Lest Darkness Fall, (making, I believe, its third appearance in this column) Pohl’s story concerns a time-traveler who brings modern medicine to the Roman Empire, thus creating a population explosion and forcing a second time-traveler to relieve the overpopulation by going back and assassinating the titular Snodgrass.

Thomas Harlan’s The Oath of Empire series concerns an alternate Roman Empire protected by magic since the time of Augustus. The world’s magic is elemental in nature, and Rome — in addition to surviving past its original expiration date — creates its own peculiar culture and habits based around that magic.

Great moments in alternate history: the non-fall of the Roman empirePerhaps the most depressing possibility is that a world with an extended Roman Empire would end up as a world-spanning dystopia with no real advantages over our timeline. A prime recent example of this idea is Sophia McDougall’s Rominitas trilogy. In this series, the Roman Empire controls almost the entire world and has still not abandoned slavery in the present day. The world of Robert Reed’s Hexagons isn’t explicitly dystopian — however, his modern Roman Empire seems to be largely in decline and to has fallen behind against the still relatively simple technology of China and Japan.

A final, less depressing, and much more exotic divergence comes from Scot[t] MacKay’s Orbis, which is set in a world where the entire world fell to an alien invasion force 2000 years ago. The Romans, canny thinkers that they were, managed to steal some of the alien ships and escape off planet. In the book’s present, a rebellion arises on Earth and humanity needs the help of the Romans who created an intergalactic empire.

Send an email to David Daw, the author of this post, at davidd@io9.com.

If You Study Classics, You May Become the…

h/t rogueclassicism.com

Comic Classics & Podcasts

Professor Roberts notes:

The “Zits” this morning actually includes a reference to podcasts on a classical topic!

Copyright 2010 ZITS Partnership. Distributed by King Features Syndicate.

If your tastes are more Mr. D than slacker teen, here’s a selection of some of the Classically-themed Podcasts to which I subscribe:

  • Prof. Francese of Dickinson College runs the Latin Poetry Podcast, in which he reads and interprets short excerpts of Latin poetry.
  • Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers surveys Byzantine history though the biographies of 12 of its most important rulers.
  • In Hardcore History, Dan Carlin takes an in-depth look at crucial historical moments. Past episodes have addressed Alexander and the Diodochoi, and the Punic Wars.
  • Every week, the BBC’s In Our Times with Melyyn Bragg discusses a work, thinker, or event with a panel of experts. Topics are always compelling and occasionally Classical.

Socrates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

In 1963 Martin Luther King brought his campaign of non-violent resistance to segregation to Birmingham, Alabama. At the time Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the South and had earned the macabre epithet “Bombingham” after years of unsolved attacks on African-American homes and churches. When King was arrested on Good Friday for violating an ordinance that prohibited demonstrations, he took the opportunity to respond to Birmingham’s white clergy, who while claiming to support desegregation had advised against the protests, sit-ins, and boycotts advocated by King. The result is a classic document of the struggle for civil rights, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail“.

Given his message and audience, King frequently seeks inspiration from Biblical sources, as well as from philosophers and theologians Christian (Aquinas, Augustine, Niehbur) and Jewish (Buber). At three points in the “Letter”, however, he invokes Socrates, both for his activist brand of philosophy and his practice of a just form of civil disobedience.

King deploys his first reference to Socrates in response to the imagined question, “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

This image of Socrates is familiar from Plato’s Apology: the gadfly of the polis, who is constantly “arousing and persuading and reproaching” citizens to perceive truth and justice. Athenians, of course, responded to the stings of the gadfly by executing Socrates. But King rejects the illogical notion that an unjust response to an act taints the precipitating act,

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?

In King’s final reference to Socrates, the philosopher takes his place in a list of historical figures who engaged in civil disobedience,

[Civil disobedience] was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

Sappho: the great poet of the personal

Over at The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins ponders introducing her poetry group to the pleasures and challenges of reading the fragmentary poems of Sappho, the most famous woman poet of Classical antiquity:

What will I be saying about her? Well, to me one of the most interesting things about Sappho is the way she’s been read: the transmission of her works, and her reception. She was massively admired in antiquity, and her works were edited into nine books (ie papyrus rolls) in the great library at Alexandria. She was known variously as “the tenth muse” and “the female Homer”. She was a huge influence on Roman lyric poets: Catullus famously translated a poem of hers, Horace wrote in her distinctive “Sapphic” stanzas, and Ovid in his Heroides (a collection of poems purporting to be love letters by jilted lovers to their ex-boyfriends) has one by Sappho to her certainly apocryphal lover, Phaon, on account of whom she was legendarily supposed to have killed herself.

Now, hardly any of Sappho’s work remains.

There’s the rub. Yet, the careful work of papyrologists continues to bring more Sappho to light, as in 2004 when a new, perhaps complete, poem emerged:

In 2004, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel announced the identification of a papyrus in the University of Cologne as part of a roll containing poems of Sappho. This text, recovered from Egyptian mummy cartonnage, is the earliest manuscript of her work so far known. It was copied early in the third century bc, not much more than 300 years after she wrote (M.W. West. “A New Sappho Poem” TLS 6/21/2005).

Click here for more on the “New Sappho”.

The World’s Most Difficult Languages

A recent article in The Economist (“Tongue Twisters,” Dec 17 2009) recently tackled the question, “what is the world’s most difficult language?” English, despite its admittedly insane orthography, is quickly dismissed as “pretty simple: verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add “s”, mostly) and there are no genders to remember… English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled.” The complexity of Latin and Greek, although possessing more challenging morphology than English, likewise pale in comparison to other languages.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563). Wikipedia.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563). Wikipedia.

What follows is a whirlwind tour of the complexity and diversity of human speech: the tonal system of Chinese, the sonic complexity of !Xóõ, a “click” language spoken in Botswana, Estonian’s 14 (!) cases, or the 50-140 declensions (!!) of Tuyuca, a language spoken in the eastern Amazon basin.

All these delicious linguistic details, however, point to a more fundamental question: does one’s language shape and constrict one’s thought, or are the observable complexities simply superficial variance over deep structural similarity? I lean strongly towards the former, but read the rest of the article and decide for yourself.

A Random Latin Factoid

Latin could still function as the language of international diplomacy into the late Seventeenth Century. In 1689, Russian and Manchu diplomats signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which for a time demarcated the boundary between Russian and China. Because the Manchu forces had had two Jesuit advisors, the authoritative version of the treaty was drafted in Latin and then translated into Russian and Manchu.

Interpretation of Catullus 16 at Issue in English Lawsuit

The notorious first (and last) line of Catullus 16, inscribed in a sidewalk near UPENN

The notorious first (and last) line of Catullus 16, inscribed in a sidewalk near UPENN


If you’ve taken LATN101, Catullus 16 needs no further introduction. The vulgar yet clever poem is now part of a high-profile lawsuit:

In London, a poem by the first century B.C. poet Catullus has been the focus for lawyers trying to prove that investment banker Mark Lowe illegally dismissed one of his female employees. Mary Beard, the eminent professor of classics at Cambridge University, discusses the story with host Guy Raz.

Check out the NPR story or Mary Beard’s further comments on the poem.

Classics on the Big (and Small) Screen

After the success of “300” it was only a matter of time before more sword-and-sandal picts graced the silver (and small) screen.

First up, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightening Thief, based on the first of the popular series of fantasy books authored by Rick Riordan. The title is a bit of a tongue-twister, but the story seems promising–“Percy”‘s short from Perseus, don’t you know.

Speaking of Perseus… the remake of Clash of the Titans, with Sam Worthington as our intrepid hero and Liam Neeson as Zeus. If you aren’t already familiar with the myth, this effects-heaver trailer does little to enlighten you. That, along with the hackneyed tagline and what I think is a vague reference to the God of War video game franchise in the clip’s only dialogue, provides little to cause to be optimistic.

Then again, even if this movie is bad…it could, like its predecessor the Ray Harryhausen extravaganza, be oh. so. good:

Finally, on the small screen is a new series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

Betrayed by the Romans. Forced into slavery. Reborn as a Gladiator. The classic tale of the Republic’s most infamous rebel comes alive in the graphic and visceral new series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Torn from his homeland and the woman he loves, Spartacus is condemned to the brutal world of the arena where blood and death are primetime entertainment. But not all battles are fought upon the sands. Treachery, corruption, and the allure of sensual pleasures will constantly test Spartacus. To survive, he must become more than a man. More than a gladiator. He must become a legend.

Quick take on the trailer: Spartacus, cool. Lucy Lawless, good. Involvement of Sam Raimi, promising. The brother from the Mummy movies, um… good why not. The “300”-style cinematography, score, sex and gore? I wonder how the gimmick will wear over the course of a whole series. Will this be “Caligula” with better visuals (not a good thing), or “Rome” turned up to 11 (a great thing)? Since the show has already been renewed for a second season, I hope the slave revolt will factor in the story.

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