Friday, August 17, 2012

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Aristophanes Epiphany

In the first year of my Greek studies I ran into some difficulty with the university bureaucracy (as befalls the just and the unjust), and during this time I vented my frustration to my professor as follows:

I am distinctly suppressing a desire to shout Greek obscenities. It is fortunate I don't know any ... A close acquaintance of mine has told me one of Kafka's books were written as a direct result of trying to deal with university administration. That no longer seems implausible.

 Responding with his characteristic calm wit, the professor replied:

For Greek obscenities, I can in the meantime refer you to the comedies of Aristophanes, although the Greek at this stage might still be a little advanced.

I recall that at the time I thought he was perhaps slightly overstating the case, the way many a fervent half-lettered Greek scholar has declared that St. Paul was swearing when he used the word σκύβαλον in Philippians 3:8 (As tempted as one might be, ‘dung’ is the only four letter word to be used for translation there).

I would encounter the great comedian only much later and much more informally, and my professor, bless my arrogant youth, was not overstating in the least. Yet even for his warning, my encounter with plays filled with scatological scenes, lewd humour, and raunchy wit, produced in me a particular experience which I have since termed The Aristophanes Epiphany in honour of the playwright.

The epiphany is this: that the Greeks and Romans were not a uniform picture of pristine sobriety, and cultured dignity. They certainly had such elements, but this picture of Greco-Roman thought and literature wore only the weathered white of their ruined sculptures and buildings, not the vibrancy of their lives and societies. No, they were as human as we are, and the difference between us and them is a matter of accidentals, not substance. The Aristophanes Epiphany is the realization that Greco-Roman culture is directly relevant to modern life because they interacted with the very same realities that we do.

Even dirty jokes and political jabs.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Two Lectures at UNISA this weekend

UNISA's Department of Classics & World Languages is hosting two popular lectures on the Saturday of this coming weekend (15/10/2011), to be delivered by Mr. Michael Lambert (of UKZN), who currently holds the chair of the Classics Association of South Africa.

The program will start at 09h30 and the two lectures are entitled 'Greek & Roman Myth in some Renaissance Art' and 'Why Homer Matters'. There will also be the opportunity for some student-lecturer interaction afterwards, as well as a lunch.

The event will be held in the Bamboo Room on third floor of the Kgorong building at UNISA's Muckleneuk campus. For more information or to R.S.V.P. contact Prof. Philip Bosman on or before the 13th.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Illusion of Democracy

“Arbitrary government offended the Greek in his very soul” – H.D.F. Kitto[1]

So the inimitable Kitto poignantly summarizes a point concerning the Greeks which is rarely understood by most moderns. It is often assumed that we have “democracy” which was invented by the Greeks, yet even the most cursory of readings of Classical literature reveals that the form of krateia (“power, rule”) which the dêmos (“people, mob”) had is not comparable to our own.

Our dêmoi are not the same: universal suffrage would strike the Greek as something to be derided. We may cast aspersion on what we perceive to be a patriarchal and elitist bigotry, and rightly so, but to do so without further reflection is also a mark of prejudice. The Greek restricted participation in the polis, because the civic life was a fragile and sacred thing, not because the participant was unwanted. Put in other words: political participation was considered a responsibility and an honour[2], not a right.

How this can be considered a responsibility sufficient to deny what is, in this age, a right it would seem madness to deny is the root of incomparability between the ancient and modern krateia. For political power in a modern democracy would not be considered power at all for the Greek. In the democratic polis, the politês (“citizen”) has a direct and measurable ability to influence the decisions of the polis – in every matter from war to economics. He would also be called upon to serve in what would be called today “the executive arm of government” in a rotating system of service (leiturgia). The “state” or “government” is therefore not an abstract entity superimposed upon private life. What we would term “civic life” was government for the Greeks. Compare this to modern life, where virtually all democracies are essentially no more than the election of an oligarchy which then determines polity. The Greek had a reasonably direct control over polity; the modern democrat can only elect from an (invariably small) selection of groups which then act independently and without an immediate accountability.

While the idealist[3] may be set aflame with fervour at the possibility of implementing such a form of “executive immediacy”, the pragmatic deserves a rejoinder. The context in which such dêmokrateia could function is illustrated in another passage by Kitto[4]:

The modern reader picks up a translation of Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics; he finds Plato ordaining that his ideal city shall have 5,000 citizens, and Aristotle that each citizen should be able to know all others by sight; and he smiles, perhaps, at such philosophic fantasies. But Plato and Aristotle are not fantasts. Plato is imagining a polis on the normal Hellenic scale; indeed he implies that many existing Greek poleis are too small – for many had less than 5,000 citizens. Aristotle says, in his amusing way – Aristotle sometimes sounds very like a don – that a polis of ten citizens would be impossible, because it could not be self-sufficient, and that a polis of a hundred thousand would be absurd, because it could not govern itself properly.

With such comparatively small numbers, it was possible to have assemblies with vivid participation on the part of the polites. The modern equivalent would be monthly referenda. Imagine the logistical difficulties! Yet if politics is the art of the possible, it is entirely possible that in the decades and centuries to come, we may yet arrive at democracies more worthy of the name.

[1] The Greeks, Kitto, H.D.F., (revised ed.) Penguin Books, 1979: p. 9
[2] Arêtê (“excellence”), like the Roman virtus (etymologically the root of “virtue”), is impossible to conceive of as a purely private affair. Of necessity it was public, and in the Greek context this meant ‘political’ also.
[3] No Platonic pun intended.
[4] Ibid., pp. 65-66

Monday, August 22, 2011

Civilization V

Sid Meier’s Civilization series crossed the path of every computer strategy game player of the nineties. I still remember vividly the first time I discovered it on holiday while my parents were house-sitting for friends in the Cape; A memory now recorded for posterity by virtue of the family camcorder, which immortalized my childish fit of annoyance at being interrupted during the building of the Greatest-Civilization-Known-To-Man-Yea-Its-Glory-Reaches-Unto-The-Heavens-Egads-I-Am-Not-Worthy-To-Gaze-On-Its-Brilliance-And-Mother-Put-Away-That-Damnable-Contraption.

In the years to come I played the successor to that first Civilization, and also briefly played the third in the series; I was only substantially to pick up the series once more with its fourth instalment, which I enjoyed. The fifth was released some time back, and I have the last while greatly enjoyed playing it. To my surprise, while I was playing as a particularly militant Gandhi (I confess a wicked joy in executing such an irony), I was suddenly met by this image[1] as my scouts encountered the borders of an unknown state:

The aloof, purple-clad figure announced in crisp Latin:

Augustum sum, imperator et pontifex maximus Romae. Si tu es Romae amicus, es gratus.

Being quite simple (even the conditional is an open Type I with two indicatives), the translation ran through my head immediately: I am Augustus, emperor and high priest of Rome. If you are a friend of Rome, you are welcome. I was pleased at the effort to which the producers must have gone to obtain not only the Latin but also a voice actor with appropriate pronunciation; He had a flawless traditional pronunciation, with no vowel being reduced to a schwa or ‘r’ rhoticized in English fashion. Long vowels were also correctly distinguished. I was impressed, but still expected this an introductory flash. My smile broadened when I turned the discussion towards a diplomatic deal (Open Borders, to be precise), and as I clicked the Discuss button Augustus shifted in his seat and murmured: Incipe – “Go ahead”, and indeed with a solid, hard c. No Italicized tsh here!

In that, and future, games I discovered that all the phrases were as well executed. When I advanced sufficiently to be able to conclude research agreements, I was spontaneously offered one by Augustus, whose voice popped up:

Hoc proferro a te considerandum              
I present this for your consideration.

The use of the gerundive is apt, quite literally: “This I-present by you to-be-considered”. Of course, my pugnacious Mahatma was soon to dash across Roman borders to crush their pitiful cities, and as I did so a sneering Augustus greeted me with the following:

Tam fortis! Tamen ... tam stupidus! Utinam habeas cerebrum simile fortitudine!     
How brave! And yet ... how stupid! Would that you had understanding like (you have) bravery!

which proved that subjunctives, too, were in the ambit of the writer’s competency. The use of stupidus instead of stultus is perhaps odd, but it does make sense that the author of these phrases would want a slight similarity to the English so as to have tantalizing hints of intelligibility amidst the imposing cadences. When my legions finally razed all the other cities and seized Rome, Augustus with an exasperated sigh moaned:

Dei favorem Romae revocaverunt ... superatis sumus.   
 The gods have withdrawn Rome’s favour ... we are overcome!

In other games, however, I was not so lucky. Hamstrung between expansion troubles and a nasty altercation with the Persians, I was summarily asked for several resources by an imperious Augustus:

Da nobis quod volumus aut consecutiones patere           
Give us what we want or suffer the consequences

The use of consecutiones rings, like stupidus, a little odd. I would perhaps have expected eventus. Yet the euphonic similarity with “consequences” is apt. The pronunciation was also interesting: As with the previous sentence, the v was correctly pronounced as a semivowel (“w”) and not a consonant, yet what was also noticeable was the crisp palatalization of the –tio- in consecutiones. A full double vowel pronunciation is older, of course, but it is obvious that palatalization must have gradually come to the fore so as to produce the later –tsio- pronunciation now current in ecclesiastical Latin. Whether this palatalization is, in fact, more accurate, would have to be a matter for more concerted study; A quick perusal through the splendid Vox Latina: The Pronunciation of Classical Latin by W. Sidney Allen (1965, Cambridge University Press) did not particularly assist.

Two final sentences to complete the collection which I did not discover in-game but found in the accompanying files: One, a cordial greeting if one is allied with Rome (for myself, things turned nasty far too quickly to try diplomatic channels):

Milites tui bene pugnaverunt. Te gratulor propter victoriam tuam.          
Your soldiers have fought well. I congratulate you on your victory.

And two, a smug gloat of a greeting when Augustus’ empire is in the ascendancy:

Deus Mars nobis iterum subrisit ... Ita omnes hostes Romae comprimentur         
The god Mars has smiled on us again ... Yes, all the enemies of Rome are held in check.

One also encounters the Greeks as a civilization, and I am happy to report that the crispness of language continues apace. When my wandering scout encountered some hoplites, a bright-eyed youth on a horse strolled up and said off-handedly:

χαῑρέ κε δὲ, Ἀλεξάνδρος εἰμί, υἷος τῶν ἀνακτῶν καὶ ἔκγονος τῶν θεῶν.              
khaire ke de, Alexandros eimi, huios tôn anaktôn kai ekgonos tôn theôn              
Well then, greetings. I am Alexander, son of kings and offspring of the gods.

 An interesting part of this greeting was that the chi and theta were both pronounced as aspirates. This is peculiar; While certainly true that they were aspirates in Classical and pre-Classical Greek (a fact which the Latin loan words substantiate – these were pronounced as aspirates), by the Hellenistic period they likely had already started the shift towards fricatives which have remained so into Modern Greek. It seems here the authenticity of pronunciation was too authentic for its own good! Other sentences spoken by the young conqueror show the same aspiration. When cordially acknowledging one’s armies, he says:

καὶ ἀδίδαξας τὴν ἀρητήν τοὺς ἰσχύρους  Ἐλληνικούς    
kai adidaxas tên arêtên tus iskhyrus Hellênikus    
You have taught excellence even to the strong Greeks.

The chi is aspirated; When presenting a trade request he mutters with an aspirate on the theta:

ἵλη δοκῆ σοί ταυτ' ἀγαθά           
hilê dokêi soi taut’ agatha      
May these good matters seems gracious to you.

All in all, the Civilization series shows a respect for Latin and Greek which must surely warm every Classicist’s heart.

[1] All images in this post are copyright of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. Civilization V, Sid Meier's Civilization and all similar phrases are registered trademarks of Take-Two-interactive Software Inc..

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

CASA Conference 2011

The twenty-ninth CASA Conference will be held this year at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, from 28 to 30 June, with the topic "Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World". The organisers have set up a website ( with more information (incl. the keynote speakers: Prof. Martin Winkler and Dr. Zinon Papakonstantinou, as well an online registration form). If it is at possible for you to attend, do so! Anything that furthers Classical study must be celebrated.

A final note: due to the proximity with the National Arts & Culture Festival which starts on the last day of the conference, it would be wise to organize accommodation early. Furthermore, early registrations (there is a discount) ends the 29th of April; Late registrations on the 27th of May.