This week On the Reading Rest I have a volume of Jean Jacques Rousseau, his dialogues, written in the 1770s. The reason is straightforward. I listened to a presentation of an ongoing project aiming at publish a Swedish translation of the dialogues that has been lying dormant in the archives of the Bonnier media group in Stockholm for almost a century. Both the translator and his foundered translation were intriguing, but since I, and the vast majority of the audience, new nothing whatsoever of the dialogues, they caught my interest because they themselves stood out as a foundered project overshadowing the translator and the translation they triggered (1).

bookmarksOn the web I bought an English copy, which turned out to be a present from one of the three translators of Dialogues to his brother. It showed in the bookmarks. The first was a package slip from the university press between page xxvi and xxvii (Conclusion in the introduction), the second, a folded ‘compliments of …’-card between page 54 and 55 in the later part of the first dialogue and the flawless jeremiads of its conversation. I began wondering whether oddities worthy a smily has had a special link to the dialogues in which Rousseau attempted to judge his career and oeuvre as if he was not himself the public person and writer of his own works.

OmslagRousseau, J-J. (1990). Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues. Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly (eds). Judith R. Bush, Christopher Kelly and Roger D. Masters (trans.) Hanover & London. University Press of New England. Acronym: RouDia

The quote from Ovid is central to Rousseau and translating it can be done more or less literally to capture its balance between meaning and metre. Written by Ovid when, exiled to Tomis – today’s Constanta in Romania by the Black Sea – he was as close to the Babarians, surrounded by them culturally and linguistically, as a Roman could be without leaving the empire. Translating the line: ‘I am the barbarian, understood by nobody out here’ imitates some of the rhythm. However, a literal translation: ‘Here I am the barbarian, because by them I am not understood’ captures more of the ridiculous situation in which some bearers of civilisation, Ovid among the Getae and Rousseau among the French, experience the self-sufficient barbarians – not least while speaking to them.

A pre-condition for reading Rousseau or Ovid is to accept the existence of barbarians as a cultural phenomenon and that is difficult. Alternatively, we disregard their use of the concept – considering it a metaphor for their deeply felt alienation and frustration, that is patronizing them from our postcolonial high grounds.

Bild 01In addition to the epigraph, each dialogue has a title: On the system of conduct with respect to J. J. adopted by the administration with the probation of the public; On the nature of J. J. and his habitus; On the spirits of his books and conclusions. It seems, therefore, that the saddening experience of the epigraph results in a systematic civilizational and educational defence project. This project was a failure.

Similar to Ovid who never returned to Rome, Rousseau as Rousseau in the dialogues is stuck with his interlocutor The Frenchmen – that is a representative of the ‘barbarians’ and the middleman between Rousseau and J.[ean] J.[acques]. The reasons why Ovid was exiled are obscure and kept so despite and because of the poet’s hints, and so are the wrongs of Jean Jacques as they are treated in the dialogues. To no avail Ovid sent off poems to Rome and the Emperor. Rousseau read aloud parts of his dialogues to influential persons, and imagined a Royal intervention that would restore his reputation – to no avail.

Since the dialogues between The Frenchman and Rousseau concerns, J.[ean] J.[acques], i.e., real life Rousseau, the author has divided himself into two: Rousseau and the non-present alter ego Jean-Jacques. Ovid in Epistulae Heroidum (Letters of Heroines) splits himself between the exiled poet, real life Ovid, and his alter ego, the heroines separated from their lovers (read: Ovid from the civilized Romans), but his touch is vastly more sophisticated than Rousseau’s rough systematic grip. In fact the parallels between the two are extremely simplistic. Ovid is unbelievably enjoyable compared to the 250 pages of an often rambling Rousseau – arguing, and assessing J. J. There is such a wealth of Absicht in the dialogues that any reader is repeatedly verstimmt (1). Leaving the last bookmark between page 54 and 55 intending to read the following 200 by swooping down on arbitrary pages, is not a bad idea. Not surprisingly, readers acting in this way were anticipated by the ever suspicious Rousseau, who was convinced that this kind of behaviour betrayed a member of the circle of conspiracy that surrounded him.

There is little doubt that Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis, must be translated literally ‘Here I am the barbarian, because by them I am not understood’.

The inability to see that one’s own thinking and conduct illustrates a flaw precisely in one’s thinking, springs to the reader’s mind when studying the prologue (On the subject and form of this writing) and epilogue (History of the preceding writing). They frame the dialogues. Although ‘the individual’ and one’s individual identity was cardinal to Rousseau he nevertheless believed that good individuals, in their capacity as citizen, shouldn’t put their private ambitions first. Yet it would seem that Rousseau himself demonstrates a patent lack of this virtue. The whole idea of the dialogue project was to compel others correctly to acquit J. J. – that is Jean-Jacques Rousseau – considering him to be innocent and virtuous, precisely as he himself had correctly judged himself after having put himself on trial in the dialogues. The point was not that the French should accept him with his qualities and faults, they should pronounce him ‘not guilty’ after a fair hearing. They should in other words follow in the footsteps of the The Frenhman who in the last dialogue, after he has been in the country to meet and talk to J. J., says: As for myself, I want to make my straightforward confession to you at this point. I believe that J. J. is innocent and virtuous, and this belief is such, deep in my soul, that it has no need for some other confirmation (RouDia:221).

From a modern point of view, Rousseau’s inability to be a good or ideal citizen, in effect his ability to put his private ambitions first, was partly caused by his mental state which might well have been diagnosed as paranoia. In the epilogue to the dialogues, History of the preceding writings, his description of the intricate circle of conspiracy building up around him is indeed paranoiac. He tries to break the vicious circle in different ways that he finds in concord with his social contract, and fails. In the end, therefore, he breaks the circle the only possible way he can, i.e. by believing himself to escape into complete solitude. He breaks the social contract in order to survive. In the epilogue Rousseau come close to understanding his own paranoiac perceptions of the world around him as a delusion.

In the prologue On the subject and form of this writing written during or after Rousseau had produced the transcription and fair copy of the manuscript, he writes about his lack of time which makes it impossible for him to edit or rewrite the manuscript although he sees its shortcomings: What I had to say was so clear and I felt it so deeply that I am amazed by the tediousness, repetitiousness, verbiage, and disorder of this writing RouDia:5. Before the reader can agree or disagree, Rousseau continues, elegantly turning his clear-sightedness upside down: What would have made it lively and vehement coming from another’s pen is precisely what has made it dull and slack coming from mine RouDia:5.

His self-defensive role is humiliating. Had he been a respected person the tediousness etc. would have been understandable, but now it stems from the method he must employ: I engaged in [writing] it for brief moments only, writing each idea as it came to my and then stopping, writing the same thing ten times if it came to me ten times, without ever recalling what I wrote previously and becoming aware of it only when reading the whole thing too late to make corrections as I shall explain shortly RouDia:5. In the given situation, he tells us that he must write the way he does because under the circumstances he cannot do otherwise – he cannot revise a sentence or compare two. Although Rousseau doesn’t say it, the sympathetic reader shall have to conclude that honesty is all that matters writing down what he feels and thinks as he thinks and feels it, unable ever to correct himself: In the excessive length of these dialogues, he has said nearly all there is to say although it is drowned in a chaos of disorder and repetition however it is there! And good minds will be able to find it RouDia:6. These good minds, to be sure, are the individuals who do not put their private ambitions first.

In the epilogue History of the preceding writings it turns out that Rousseau’s first reader, a learned and trusted man of letters, having actually read the manuscript, tries to suggest some improvements of the text. In so doing he betrays himself to Rousseau as a member of the all-encompassing conspiracy. If by now it hasn’t occurred to the modern reader that she or he belong to the same category, then it is high time to understand that reading the dialogues the way Rousseau wants his readers to read and understand, would deprive them of their individual identity.

Bild 02In the end, therefore, one can argue that the central theme in Rousseau’s work, the tension between the individual and society – in his case the ‘barbaric’ French – allows him to save himself into solitude as soon as he has convinced himself that the conspiracy is a fact. The key scene is the authors experience in Notre Dame, which convinces him that following God’s command, the church has mysteriously changed and produced a grill that prevents him from reaching the altar where he had intended to put his manuscript. By placing it there he thought Providence and the King (Louis XVI, sic!) would have taken care of it and saved from Rousseau from his conspiring enemies. This is such a pointless suggestion that Rousseau has added an explanatory note, which, by the way, shows that his inability to correct himself has ceased. In the note he explains: This idea (R wanted to entrust the manuscript to the above-mentioned man of letters) and that of the deposit on the altar (in order for the manuscript to reach the King) had occurred to me during the life of Louis XV, at which time it was a bit less ridiculous RouDia:249. Indeed, but nevertheless ridiculous. Louis XV died May 10 1774 and consequently Rousseau thought of the reception of the dialogues well before he had completed them. In other words, being humiliated didn’t prevent him from being strategic. Moreover, he tested extract from the dialogues on selected audiences during the years he wrote them.

History of the preceding writings was been written after he completed the manuscript and after a number of paranoiac experiences. The one with the grill preventing him from reaching the altar resulted in the following: At the moment I perceived that grill, I was overcome by dizziness like a man with apoplexy, and this dizziness was followed by an upheaval of my whole being such that I cannot recall suffering anything like this RouDia:248. This experience, which testifies to self-observation if not explicit self-analysis, made him flee the church and never come back. And why should he? It would have been as horrible to come back and find the grille missing, or it gates opened, as it would be to find it still there preventing people from entering. And, if the grill was still locked when he came back wouldn’t somebody slam the church gate, Porte Rouge, behind him trapping him in a cage? Using the main gates was obviously not an option for the haunted philosopher.


Given his paranoiac disposition thinking in the tension between the individual and society enabled Rousseau to think in radically new ways, but it didn’t help him cope with the tension in a coherent way – he was himself the flaw of his own philosophical system. In this way – thinking in new ways and being himself the flaw of his overarching understanding he reminds one of Heidegger whose personal life, double standards and anti-Semitism didn’t chime in with his systematic approach to philosophy. It didn’t bother Heidegger as it didn’t bother Rousseau, since they both subscribed to Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis. And they both maintained that they were unjustly persecuted. In their lifetime they were in all likelihood appalling, but having died we can agree with Hannah Arendt who pointed out that what Heidegger did with his social contract was not really important anymore in 1969 when he turned 80 because: Heidegger denkt nicht ‘über’ etwas; er denkt was—Heidegger doesn’t think ‘about’ something; he thinks something (Arendt 1969:894)(3). One suspects that to Arendt, whose relation to Heidegger should have made him acutely aware of the ‘Jewish question’ that he continuously refused to acknowledge — to Hannah Arendt, Heidegger was history and a philosopher unable completely to understand his own identity. Rousseau died 1778, Heidegger two hundred years later 1976, in each their period of transition. The centuries have made it easy to cope with Rousseau and the gap between the man and his thinking considering his oeuvre a historical source material. Probably the publication of the of Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks’, in which his anti-Semitism becomes apparent in the late 1930s (4), is a step in the same direction making his obfuscations easy to see through.

Making Heidegger history on par with Rousseau makes them similar instead of different – this similarity is almost a joke and had they known each other they probably wouldn’t have liked the comparison. But who cares? It is one of the great strengths of history to deconstruct difference, uncover irony, force parallels upon the past — not passing judgement.

(1) Jan Stolpe presented David M Sprengler and his project on , Sprengler’s translation and its background in “Rousseau, Judge of Jean Jacques” . scroll to 6. Other works and click c. Rousseau: Judge of Jean Jacques

(2) This is a quote from Goethe: Man merkt die Absicht, und ist verstimmt—‘Cognizing the intention, one feels disconcerted’

(3)This is a quote from Arendt, H. 1969. Martin Heidegger ist achtzig Jahre alt. Merkur 23:893-902.

(4) On Google, the phrase “Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks'”, returns 5,300 hits “heideggers schwarzen hefte” 659 and “les cahiers noirs de Heidegger” 250.


This week On the Reading Rest I have the collected textual fragments and quotations of a movement of philosophical thought. It wasn’t a school and none of its members, if they can be called so, stand out as great individual thinkers. They were and have continued to be important because they were the prime philosophical target of Plato and Aristotle (P&A). Since they were first criticized some of their fundamental ideas have reoccurred again and again – Cover01not least since the Enlightenment. Next to this collection I have an article by Richard Mulgan.

Sprague, Rosamond Kent. 1972. The Older Sophists. Hackett Publishing Company Acronym: TOS

cover 02 Mulgan, Richard G. 1979. Lycophron and Greek Theories of Social Contract. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1979), pp. 121-128.

Stable URL: Acronym: RiMul


To P&A the sophists of the 400s BCE who very partly contemporary with Socrates, in effect older than P&A themselves and almost dead, were examples of intellectuals, who were fundamentally wrong and dangerous. P&A on the other hand were right and Plato constructed TOS as a fixed historical situation, in effect a background rather than a time span, prior to his own lifetime. Against this fond and partly entangled in it Socrates was depicted as the beginning of Plato’s critique of TOS. As exempla of a failed course, the members of this movement as well as Socrates were not historical persons, but mouthpieces of the past. Socrates, the forerunner of the present was a de facto victim of the past. If one feels the need to build a philosophical system, then this is a way of depicting the past as a two-dimensional background, is model. It implies that since the past is a backdrop of differing meanings, in essence confusion, we may safely put it behind us.

Lycophron was one of TOS and we know almost nothing about him – a very common sophist fate indicating that they were many more than we will ever know. Formally RiMul is a critique of W. K. C. Guthrie, who in A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 3 The Sophists, Cambridge, Chapter 5:140 1971 wrote that Lycophron: would have agreed with J[ohn] S[tuart] Mill that the only purpose for which law could rightly be enforced against a member of a community was to prevent harm to others; his own good, physical or moral, was not sufficient warrant. If this is true, then Lycophron applied a very specific meaning to the concept ‘social contract’.

About Lycophron and indirectly social contract, Aristotle, Politics III 5, said: … ‘the community becomes an alliance, differing only in location from the other sorts of alliance where the members live at a distance. And the laws become a convention and, as Lycophron said: a guarantor of mutual rights, but not such as to make the citizen good or just.’ (TOS:69)

To begin with RiMul sums up what 5th and 4th century BCE Greeks thought about political contract theory. This allows him convincingly to show that neither Lycophron, nor any other older sophist, inasmuch as they were not 19th c CE. liberals, thought so narrowly about the significance of law in relation to social contracts. Convincingly RiMul argues that Aristotle was not at all interested in discussing what Lycophron actually meant because his exact words, a striking preamble, yet void of specific intention – law is the guarantor of mutual rights – were enough to disqualify him. As far as Aristotle was concerned, law was a means in the hands of the virtuous intended to ‘make the citizens good and just’. Lycophron didn’t think so.

The Journal of the History of Ideas in its turn thought that this unobjectionable critique of Guthrie’s casual name dropping, used by Mulgan as a hook baited with “social contract”, to say something interesting, couldn’t be printed without a reply from Guthrie. Because of the attached reply, and unintendedly, RiMul became a post-structural critique of an older school of researchers. Today, wise in the event, the arrogant and arrogantly short reply from Guthrie stand out as typical of the way an older generation of researchers thought they could rely on their own authority, and the straightforward unquestionable authority they ascribed to giants such as Aristotle, to snub a new generation of researchers. Together, article and comment make up a snapshot of the 1970s turned yellow.

Looking up Lycophron in TOS it would seem that he took an interest in concepts such as communion or reciprosity. Again, according to Aristotle, Metaphysics VIII 6, Lycophron is supposed to have said that ‘knowledge is a communion of knowing and of soul’. Seemingly fond of playing with words Lycophron, when asked, at least according to a comment by Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 200 CE), what was the cause of the unity of knowledge [sic! not ‘of knowing’] and the soul he replied: ‘the communion.’ Knowledge obviously wasn’t something Lycophron thought was caused, in an Aristotelian sense. Instead his answer indicates that when it comes to knowledge, complementarity is what matters – knowledge is a state of communion in any conscious human being. Neither Knowing nor soul alone qualify as knowledge.

In the individual, knowledge is a condition or simply part of one’s identity and awareness of oneself. But if people live in a community, then we must ask ourselves: how can our individuality, which among other things, according to Lycophron, comprises knowing and soul make knowledge part of their mutual identity? I.e., how does social knowledge come about when people must experience mutual communion?

Since it is an academic sport to guess what Lycophron would have said had he not been prevented by Aristotle, one may suggest that Lycophron, in a fit of modesty, would not have had an answer to this question. He would, nevertheless, have said that a precondition for finding an answer depended on laws that guarantee mutual, that is, communal rights – e.g. the right within a community to be knowledgeable. To a sophist such as Lycophron the knowledgeable: possessing or showing knowledge; well-informed, well-read; sagacious, wise, educated (according to OED), would have been virtue he would have loved to hold up to Aristotle – if only to irritate him.

Lycophron was probably good at that. For instance, Aristotle, who else, illustrates one of four types of insipid expression by quoting Lycophron: ‘the narrow-passaged promontory’ or ‘the many-visaged sky of the mighty-peaked earth’ (Rhetoric III 3). Perhaps playing with words wasn’t Aristotle’s thing.


Of six quotations referring to Lycophron (TOS:68-9) five are by Aristotle. In the outstanding one Lycophron managed to express himself in a most subtle way when pointing at nobility he said: ‘Now the nobility of good birth is obscure, and its grandeur a matter of words’. This may first be seen as audacious, but given that Lycophron’s grandeur too was a matter of words it simply confirms the importance of words for those who want grandeur – the Lycophrons as well as royal tutors such as Aristotle. It may be significant that Aristotle didn’t offer a comment.

Judging from what he was remembered for, Lycophron’s most successful contribution was his ability to coin phrases. There is no point of accusing him of having constructed a philosophical system. Like many sophists his point of departure was contextual, understanding context to change significantly with time and space. We might have called him a post-structuralist except for the fact that, historically speaking, he and other older sophists were pre-structuralists. Post- or pre-, his legacy rested with his ability to irritate Aristotle enough to be quoted so often that the quotes can be read as a critique of Aristotle.

This week On the Reading Rest I have a Festschrift:

Hellström fig 00ΛΑΒΡΥΖ. Studies presented to Pontus Hellström. Lars Karlsson, Susanne Carlsson and Jesper Blid Kullberg (eds). Boreas. Uppsala Studies in Ancient Mediterranean and Near East Civilizations 35, Uppsala 2014. 533 pp. with 231 ills. ISBN 978-91-554-8831-4

It is typical inasmuch as it is not a Festschrift, but a studies-presented-to and it might as well have been a “vänbok”, which sounds much more relaxed that its Latin original liber amicorum—“book of friends”, had it been in Swedish. It is also an essays-in-honour-of book.

Hellström fig 01Labrys in the title refers to the site Labranda in the southeastern corner of modern Turkey. Labranda is a prominent place in an impressive landscape and the site was held sacred, and at times constructed as a sanctuary, from nobody knows when until Byzantine times, but Ottoman coins from the late 14th c. CE have also been unearth during excavations. As a sanctuary signified by the name Labraunda the place was understood to be connected to the double bladed axe – the labrys.

Pontus Hellström has devouted a large part of his research to Labraunda and more than half the contributions to Labrys concerns Labraunda and surrounding sites in Caria, i.e., the region in which Labranda is situated. Since the contributions are many this means that there is room for a large and varied smorgasbord stacked with ancient Greece, Etruscans and Rome.

There are many good reasons for reading a Festschrift. For instance, being sufficiently old, one may compare the contributions one reads to one’s own papers in different Festschrifts. This kind of comparison makes it apparent that Labrys, like many other studies-presented-to, represents a typical research career spread out among several researchers at different points in their career, rather than collected in the end of the individual career. One would perhaps have thought that the outcome and structure of the individual career would differ from the cross section of the collective, but given that disciplines and their research themes vary the classification of the two sets are most similar: your student approach writing about an interesting detail; your serious post doc contributions when your demonstrated depth and breadth within new and old fields (there are several of those); your joint contribution which actually point to something new; your contribution to a friend, and the then the contributions you wrote because you thought they would interest your colleague too – some probably did. Trying to recall your contributions you will discover the last category, the one or ones you have forgotten.

The contents and composition of a Festschrift therefore looks very much like a cross section of a discipline, or a sub discipline, or a school, or a research group. Labrys is no exception and although not everyone in Swedish classical archaeology and studies took part in the volume many did and the result has quite a lot to do with the character of the discipline which is marked by disciplinary interaction between departments and research institutes. When this kind of cross section becomes visible it is one of the great advantages of the Festschrift, because it is not filtered by the academic publishing market, the policy of journals or anonymous peer reviewers, but primarily by the more or less open invitation sent out by the editors and secondarily by that which researchers felt they wanted to write about given the circumstances, that is, given their affiliation with the discipline.

Although many contributions stand out in Labrys I have chosen to comment upon one that I think stands out in a significant way. I read:

Siapkas, Johannes. 2014. Karian theories: seeking the origins of ancient Greece. In: L. Karlsson, S. Carlsson and J. Blid Kullberg (eds). ΛΑΒΡΥΖ. Studies presented to Pontus Hellström. Boreas. Uppsala Studies in Ancient Mediterranean and Near East Civilizations 35, Uppsala 2014. Pp. 301-314.

And refer to author and contribution as JoSiKa.

Karians were one of the great number of prehistoric peoples that were thought to populate the past. Mentioned by Classical authors, such a people may be employed in different ancient and modern and discourses. Needless to say many may have felt that they were Carian. JoSiKa gives us the background in ancient sources and place names to this relatively nondescript people which could nevertheless be employed to describe the origin of different cultural phenomena, when archaeology in the late 1800s started to produce a source material completely unmarked by classical authors, with few of the qualities later recognized in Greek culture. Although researcher debated the importance of Karians in Bronze and Iron Age in and around the Aegean Sea, they did not question that there was once a people called Karian and that such a people, as indeed a specific people, could be the origin of Mycenean civilization or not; could be inferior as a people or not; could be a migrating people or not; could be the same people as the Leleges or not. As JoSiKa points out it was the need to find a specific origin for what was called the Mycenean civilization, which, being a civilization and specific, needed a specific origin, that gave the Karians a historic identity. In the end of the 19th century there were three competing models of Mycenean origins: 1) the Mycenean civilization had northern origins, c. 1890 and onwards. 2) the Myenean civilization was indigenous c. 1900 and onwards . 3) the Mycenean civilization had eastern origins, c. 1880 and onwards (JoSiKa:310). The Karians fitted all scenarios, actively 1 and 3, or passively 2.

JoSiKa concludes that
1) the Karian theory was employed in a discourse trying to establish the rank of aesthetical and historical explanations, in the struggle for ideal or contextualized analysis. Aesthetic ideal analysis ranked higher than the contextualized historical analysis (JoSiKA:308).
2) The Karian fitted the two-race model in which researchers agreed that one people was more civilized than the other, which accordingly was the more primitive. Karians were primitive because their art was not refined.
3) In (Karian) theory therefore the Karians were a perfect origin.

It is one of the great advantages of archaeology that when excavations start to produce a source material, classical analyses of the past as well as interpretations based on classical authors or aesthetic ideals cannot survive. To begin with archaeology is disappointing because it doesn’t support prevailing explanation, later on this inability to support becomes a critical asset forcing some kind of historical contextualization upon ideals and aesthetics.

Labraunda is a case in point. When JoSiKa discusses the beginning of the Swedish excavations in Labraunda, the fact that the place is situated in Caria was though to make exvacations at the site promising as a means to solve problems of the Karian theory. It didn’t and there may be several reasons for that such as 1) there is nothing to prove when it comes to the Karian theory. 2) Archaeology revealed a complexity that had nothing to do with the simplified explanations that the Karia theory was meant to support. 3) Right after WW2, the excavations started 1948, two-race theories and ethnic groups keeping up a superior culture among primitive or decadent groups, may have been difficult to argue for, except privately.

The contributions on Labraunda and the surroundings suggests that the research has become thoroughly explorative, however, with a preparedness once again for combining material culture with ancient people, such as the Leleges, who were once perhaps Karian (cf. Benoit, Labrys:467:note2 with references).

In my opinion, the importance of JoSiKa:s discussion links-in with the development of humanistic research disciplines, laying bare the roots of the concept of ethnicity and pointing out its methodological shortcomings. There is nothing wrong studying ethnicity, since it was a common enough analysis in the past, as it was common in 19th and 20th century history and archaeology. The problem in humanistic research rests with the belief that ethnicity, emphasizing a cultural simplicity that enables researchers to point out a homogenous people of the same race or nationality who share a distinctive culture, is indeed the correct way of looking at complex cultural phenomena where heterogeneity seems always to accompany homogeneity. There are strong norms in any culture, but they continue to exist and to change not because they define an ethnic society, but because they are regularly questioned. Ethnicity as an explanation is the outcome of a flawed historical analysis. Nevertheless, studying prehistoric norms is rewarding.

Tacitean Ethnography

28 October, 2013

Today On the Reading Rest I have a book which is interesting because it is so full of arguments and argued passages.

Writing and empireDylan Sailor. 2008.  Writing and Empire in Tacitus. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Some reviewers of Dylan Sailor’s (DS’s) book Writing and Empire in Tacitus (WAIET) have already referred to concepts such as ‘interpretation’ and one of its methodologies ‘close reading’ trying to sort the book into a convenient genre, but I prefer to read the arguments partly because I am convinced by them, partly because I read the book as a backdrop for something that isn’t central to the author, i.e. ethnography and Germania, which happens not to ‘form part of that arc of narrative works that imagine themselves as a sequence: Agricola by its promise of a future … … ‘ WAEIT p. 5.

DS is right because he writes about Tacitus as history, historiography and the historian situated in society as well as in his own life. None the less, perhaps because DS is so fond of arguments and very good at reading Tacitus, he does touch upon ethnography in passing e.g. on pp. 86-7.

True Tacitean ethnographyThe point in ethnography is the past in the present: go see for yourself a living past characterized by a series of stable habits and institutions in a system that may either prevail infinitely reproducing the present or disappear in the toils of interaction with others. Future bothers ethnography only because constant ethnographical presence or resilience in static, cyclic or looped systemic models may be dissolved in future’s unfriendly solution despite their stability. The point in history on the other hand is change and transformation – ‘the narrative arc’ – which in Tacitus case comes to an unsettled end when Annals breaks off by circumstance, intention or design in the middle of a period: ‘as the slowness of his [Thrasea’s]death was bringing terrible suffering, turning to Demetrium … ‘[the Cynic philosopher] (WAEIT:315, Ann. 16.35.2). The quest for understanding change is the reason why history is about a series of events shaping a future, and about a present as a stage that has to change, and about a past that produced a heritage in the process of consuming itself.

In his conclusion DS argues, again convincingly, that Ronald Syme in Tacitus (1958) read Tacitus not just as ‘the subject matter of his book’, but also as a role model for the historian by referring to the parallel character of totalitarian states in the 20th century and Domitian’s principate, and the way Tacitus and the modern historian alike should relate to times such as these (WAEIT:319-20). Syme’s affinities with Tacitus as Latin heritage, writing about him with a clear eye to modern totalitarian states, would seem to accompany Curtius’ contemporary model way of looking at the literary heritage of Latin literature as a uniting European heritage above the nationalism that devastated Europe in the 20th c. (cf. On the Reading Rest 19 Aug, 2013).

Since the Enlightenment, the relation between systemic and historic culture or civilization has been a central theme in the analysis of the European and we may trace this thematic relation in many different texts, but I chose a passage by Kant from his letter, printed in Berlinische Monatsschrift. Dezember-Heft 1784. S. 481-494,  Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?:

On the other hand, the private use of reason may frequently be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment. By “public use of one’s reason” I mean that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call “private use” that use which a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him. In some affairs affecting the interest of the community a certain [governmental] mechanism is necessary in which some members of the community remain passive. This creates an artificial unanimity which will serve the fulfillment of public objectives, or at least keep these objectives from being destroyed. Here arguing is not permitted: one must obey. Insofar as a part of this machine considers himself at the same time a member of a universal community – a world society of citizens – (let us say that he thinks of himself as a scholar rationally addressing his public through his writings) he may indeed argue, and the affairs with which he is associated in part as a passive member will not suffer. Thus it would be very unfortunate if an officer on duty and under orders from his superiors should want to criticize the appropriateness or utility of his orders. He must obey. But as a scholar he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment. The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes levied upon him; indeed, impertinent censure of such taxes could be punished as a scandal that might cause general disobedience. Nevertheless, this man does not violate the duties of a citizen if, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his objections to the impropriety or possible injustice of such levies. A pastor, too, is bound to preach to his congregation in accord with the doctrines of the church which he serves, for he was ordained on that condition. But as a scholar he has full freedom, indeed the obligation, to communicate to his public all his carefully examined and constructive thoughts concerning errors in that doctrine and his proposals concerning improvement of religious dogma and church institutions.

Although Tacitus might well have been suspicious of benevolent despotism, Kant’s enlightened society, whose front man must not necessarily be Frederick the Great, would seem to possess some of the qualities that Tacitus (and perhaps even Kant) would have recognized in the Republic. To support this opinion we may refer to DS, who concludes – having has read the preface to Histories and quoted the passage about the Saturnalia: ‘I do not at all mean that Tacitus presents his work [i.e. Histories] as a revel, only that the preface parallels a basic Roman model for constructing a brief period of time when the ordinary rules of servitude that suppress speech do not apply’ (WAEIT:176-77).

Saturnalia, Enlightenment or the Republic will not come back, but ethnography or any of its modern varieties such as systemic resilience in cultures will occur again and must be analyzed and understood within a historical analysis of society and civilization, even if ethnography is alien to history. Alien or not there is little hope of writing a history of change in civilization without taking into account ethnography and the institutions of the primitive, which it points out. Primordial and primitive ethnographic institutions become a backdrop for historical change and one may argue that ‘the Roman’ in Tacitus’ narrative of complex change must be reflected in’ the non-historic’. This becomes all the more important because ‘the ethnographic’ highlights the predicament that arises from the need of the Kantian ‘scholar’ or the Tacitean ‘historian’ to be loyal as well as disloyal to social institutions. In short: DS argues his case so convincingly that one ought to fit Tacitus ethnography into the arc of his historical project. I would argue therefore that ethnography in Tacitus is there to make sure that the reader understands that Tacitus’ history is concerned also with civilization.

There are three examples of ethnography in Tacitus work Agricola (Chap 10-13), Germania (all of it) and Histories (Book 5.2-8). This means that when his historical project reaches Histories and Annals most of the ethnographic scene has been covered because the greater part of the Roman civilization project concerns northern Europe. In the eastern part of the Empire wars are political. A modern reader would probably have been interested in an ethnography of the Parthian society in connection with Tacitus description of the Parthian was 58-63 CE, but Tacitus sees no need for this because the reason for the wars were political and strategic with no bearing on civilizing the Parthians. Only in Histories was it necessary to comment from an ethnographic point of view since without such as comment Jews cannot be understood.

Writing about ethnography makes it possible for Tacitus to stand aside describing and judging the primitive as an institution and a backdrop for Roman civilization pointing to the negative and positive sides of the stable primitive institutions – to shortcomings and strengths. His ethnographies point to the peoples, their customs and their characteristic as well as to the partly alien topographies and geographies of their habitats. His texts imply that the peoples are smitten by their environment. Tacitus does so with a view to defending the success of the Roman civilization project.

Civilization 01The Britons are model because they are a mixed population characterized by immigration. This has led to a situation in which what was once in a distant past a generic kingdom has been split up in small chiefdoms easy to subdue. Given this social pattern and their inability to unite, as well as their mixed geographical conditions – humid but not horrid – they are happy to accept Roman civilization and taxes on one condition, whose significance the reader will have guessed:

The Britons themselves bear cheerfully the conscription, the taxes, and the other burdens imposed on them by the Empire, if there be no oppression. Of this they are impatient; they are reduced to subjection, not as yet to slavery. (Agr. 13)

This means that their traditional autonomy – that is, a certain measure of freedom in the small societies once situated within chiefdoms – is an ideal that may be transformed into Romanization, thus bringing the Britons out of ethnography.

Civilization 02When readers of Tacitus, who began by reading Agricola, read Germania they found out that Tacitus’ descriptions of Britain and Britons was designed in advance to contrast his description of Germany and Germans. Nevertheless he purposefully he added a small element of German immigrants in the Britons:

Their physical characteristics are various, and from these conclusions may be drawn. The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a German origin. (Agr. 13)

Since the Romans knew that Germans resisted the Roman civilization project, successfully (in effect stupidly) defending their liberty not least because they could unite, albeit only in imminent danger of being suppressed, they are different from the Britons. Tacitus, therefore, points to a significant difference between Britons and Germans, and Britain and Germany, when he tells us that Germans, contrary to Britons, are indigenous and unmixed because honestly who would consider living in that part of the world:

The Germans themselves appear to be indigenous and rarely mixed with other people either immigrants or guests. For, in former times, it was not by land, but by sea that those arrived, who sought to move their residence; and that immense, if I may say so, ultra-hostile ocean is rarely navigated by ships from our world. And, in addition to the danger of a horrid and unknown sea, who would leave Asia, or Africa, or Italy trying to reach Germany, its shapeless land, its cruel skies, cheerless to its beholder and cultivator, unless it were his homeland? (Germ. 2)

Cunningly Tacitus allows his readers to draw the conclusion that a little German in a mixed people like the Britons, in humid albeit not horrid Britain, may be a virtue, while being outright German in Germany is a gloomy aspect inasmuch as Germans are the uncivilized slaves of an ethnography forever checked by race, environment and, as Germania goes on to show, by its institutions. Germans, nevertheless, are genuine and loyal to these institutions, while Britons are transformed and cheerful taxpayers. Civilization as it happens comes with a price and so does indigenousness.

Germans and Britons illustrate inclusion and exclusion in the historical and geographical perspective of an expanding civilization. Tacitus, true to his understanding of himself as a historian, is forced to point out the success as well as the limits of civilization. He uses ethnography to illustrate his point.

Civilization 03Tacitus’ readers knew that Jews, despite the fall of Jerusalem, continued to exist even though in principle they ‘accepted conscription, taxes, and other burdens imposed on them by the Empire’. Contrary to Germans, they were integrated into the Roman society, but evidently not like Britons. None the less the reason he writes about the Jews – i.e. the end of a historical phenomenon similar to the end of the free Britons, parallels what he has already pointed out:

The geography and inhabitants of Britain, [… …] I will speak of [… ….] because the country was then for the first time thoroughly subdued. (Agr. 10)

As I am about to relate the last days of a famous city, it seems appropriate to throw some light on its origin. (Hist. 5.2)

And that turns out to be the Jews. As I read Tacitus book 5.2-8 he is as usual critical to backward ethnographical cultures, but from an analytical point of view he gives us an example of a society which is decidedly diasporic,

Some say that the Jews were fugitives from the island of Crete [… …]. Others assert that in the reign of Isis the overflowing population of Egypt [… …]. Many, again, say that they were a race of Ethiopian origin [… …]. Others describe them as an Assyrian horde [… …]. Others, again, assign a very distinguished origin to the Jews, alleging that they were the Solymi, a nation celebrated in the poems of Homer [… … ]. Most writers, however, agree [… …] that once a disease [… …] broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods. (Hist. 5.2)

Prone or forced to diaspora, coming from all kinds of directions, their seemingly appalling institutions and customs (difficult to explain) has none the less been successful granting them strong networks and resilience:

This worship, however introduced, is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. (Hist. 5.5)

Although the land of the Jews is in many ways similar to Roman lands there are also oddities on par with the people:

[… …] of the Jordan. This river does not discharge itself into the sea, but flow entire through two lakes, and is lost in the third. This is a lake of vast circumference; it resembles the sea, but is more nauseous in taste; it breeds pestilence among those who live near by its noisome odour; it cannot be moved by the wind, and it affords no home either to fish or water-birds. These strange waters [… ….] (Hist. 5.6)


When the civilized society meets the primitive ethnographic society, this meeting highlights the value of stubbornly defended stable institutions and casts a shadow on progress and intellectual freedom. Tacitean Jews and Germans cannot be bend to civilization. Nevertheless, Tacitus demonstrates that ethnographic societies are primitive and his methods when characterizing them are based on (1) the mixed/unmixed character of a people. (2) Its inability/ability to unite itself around its institutions, even in diaspora, i.e. its systemic resilience, and (3) the degree to which primitive culture is a reflection of its environment.

An ethnographic culture may survive or be subdued. It aims at surviving, i.e. conservation, and although it is most often unsuccessful it may nevertheless succeed by means of forceful resistance defending itself and fending off civilization at its geographical borders. The goal being isolation and the preservation of its institutions, the ethnographic society may also succeed because it creates a society that evades civilization by diaspora or inner exile.

There is little doubt that Tacitus describes the ethnographic society airing his ‘colonial’ views. But he wouldn’t be Tacitus if these views were not accompanied (thereby tacitly becoming prejudice) by his model of civilization: the Republic, i.e. a society whose institutions are well worth defending against the corruption and terror of the Principate to which, strangely enough, it gave way. Why, his readers ask themselves, must the enlightened, model, best-of-all-possible-worlds, liberal Republic, be defended against the dark primitivity of the Principate by methods comparable to those of the ethnographic societies? Why, if not because elements of the ethnographic and the civilized society alike are bilateral rather than oppositional? Tacitus himself thrived during the Principate, and survived Domitian, because he kept a low profile.

Civilization 04

I think that this sketch of the role of ‘the ethnographic’ in Tacitus is in line with DS analysis of how Tacitus the historian, true to history, his scholarship and historiography must incorporate ethnography into his history making it the base of that arc of narrative works that imagine themselves as a sequence. In my view, this sequence consists of Agricola/Germania, Histories and Annals. Ethnography is an important foundation for Tacitus’ history project because civilization is important. And if you don’t believe that he set a standard you can read a book on how the West – i.e. the West that beat the Rest – is now losing it. Or, if you are into analysis, you may employ Tacitean ethnography to analyze the Republican Party.

This week On the Reading Rest I have a kindle edition of a book by David Brewer:

Greece-Hidden-CentBrewer, David. 2011. Greece, the Hidden Centuries: Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to Greek Independence. I. B. Tauris. ISBN: 9781780762388.

The hidden centuries of Greek history are hidden because the source material is scanty and not easy to access for non-Turkish researchers, but more so because it is in the interest of nationalistic history to hide, distort or indeed invent essential and emblematic bits and pieces befitting the past. If, today, we believe that history came about because of the development of national identity and nation states in opposition to the Other and other communities, we will have something to learn from modern scholars, such as David Brewer, who respect and tell us what actually happened, thus  making it easier to redeem the future. This point is successfully proved, and in its setting: the history of Greece and its historiography, this view upon past, present and future is still a radical one. Having read the book, the common reader, to whom the hidden centuries were probably well hidden before reading the book, will profit from David Brewer’s history lesson because it is easy to follow, novel, informative and mind-broadening.

That the common reader is expected to be British can be inferred from a number of passages, e.g. when Enoch Powell (location 2705) is referred to and we are told that he was ‘professor of Greek as well as a controversial politician’ the latter in this case irrelevant information is there only to satisfy a reader whose curiosity has been evoked by the name – most probably a British reader.

In the 24th and last chapter, or song, of this Greek history, or epic told from a distance, ‘Some Conclusions’, the book comes to an end having proved its point about past, present and future. Nevertheless, the critical reader is tempted to contextualize the book putting it into a post-colonial colonial setting, arguing the following: Since we in Northwest Europe have been able to maintain some sort of political power without always playing the nation card in the game about ‘us’ and ‘them’, as we used to do, we are now telling those, e.g. the Greeks, once taught by us to build their state on heritage, national pride; uniting identity, language and hardship; binary confrontation, etc. to stop doing so, because we have stopped, having understood that we were wrong.

Try, for example, to solve the climate crisis on the basis of national heritage or pride, uniting identity, language, hardship warfare etc., if you can! It cannot be done; we are right as always – today also about having been wrong.

This is unfair criticism of the book, but it allows us to look for the construction of the Greeks as an indigenous people – exactly because David Brewer is not looking for it. The reason for doing so is the tendencies in the present economic crisis to blame the Greeks (1). They are worthy of blame, because having been irresponsible they betray their heritage – anybody can find quotations from Aristotle or Plato that will tell the responsible citizen how to behave. Criticizing the indigenous for not being indigenous enough is a classical post-colonial colonial argument. And in the Greek case teaching the Greeks a lesson is all the more important because their heritage is our heritage too. ‘Pote, touche pas à mon héritage’!

Fig 04 place names

In Greece the construction of the indigenous probably started already in the Middle Ages, but under Turkish rule the first systematic step was taken. There can be no colonial or indeed post-colonial understanding of the situation in a country without creating, or in the post-colonial case pointing out, the go-between and the in-between. They are needed for a lot of practical purposes but also to create the indigenous. Sometimes these go- or in-between succeed in defining themselves as significant others and an entity in social, cultural, religious or political terms, i.e. whatever terms accepted in society, i.e. accepted by the colonial power. In Bhabha’s post-colonial terms they have succeeded in ‘enunciating a third space’ for themselves and from this space they interact and take part in the definition of the rulers as well as the ruled, i.e. the colonized progeny of the original population. Conquering a Greek Island, the Turks would almost automatically upgrade, create or transform an existing group of individuals, such as a nobility, to fill a space between themselves and the majority, whom they would see as individuated – elements in a subset called ‘tax payers’ (cf. Chapter 13 Turkish rule in Cyprus and Crete). There were several groups among the ‘tax payers’, but the Greeks as indeed Greeks and ‘indigenous’ were always there inasmuch as they were stigmatized. Because we are Happy to take part in the definition of the indigenous as ‘the suppressed’ we tend to be critical of the middlemen, who per definition serve the oppressors.

In the Greek case of the hidden centuries the Orthodox Greek Church (Chapter 10) is the formidable example, because it was understood by the Turks as a political entity controlling religion, education and part of the jurisdiction. In effect, therefore, the Church controlled the common written language of the Greek. Because of the Orthodox Church there were no ‘Old Greeks’ to liberate when it became obvious to the enlightened Europeans that the Greeks, enslaved by Turks and Church, had been detached from their true identity. This is a crucial point: before the original population can be termed indigenous they must have been almost extinct in cultural terms.

Fig 03 Arcadia

But this is not enough. We cannot just pity them for becoming extinct. Before they become indigenous they must be criticized and patronized with open, opaque or silent references made to their loss of virtue as we understand it.

Arcadia (location 1085 ff), is an early example. In the late Renaissance 1502 the myth of Arcadia was spelled out by the Italian poet Jacopo Sannazaro and during a century it developed into the idea of rural landscape and setting. The ever-present delightful nature populated by shepherds – an original life quality belonging to the Greeks in as much as Arcadia was a region in the Peloponnese. To begin with some, but not all, travelers saw the landscape and the progeny of the shepherds that must once have been Arcadia. But gradually, beginning in the 17th century when a rude and frank Scotsman toured Arcadia and ridiculed the falseness of the myth, the impression faded away and travelers found no resemblance between the mythic and the actual Arcadia. The myth was a falsification. This meant that in the 17th century travelers to Greece (Chapter 17) went from denouncing the Greeks as raw and uncivilized, pointing out their detachment from classical culture, to eventually seeing some faint signs of an affinity with the ancient Greece.

In the 17th and 18th century, therefore, the western European travelers had seen the corruption of ancient Greek values and the false myths, but also the genuine valor of the Greeks, i.e. something to support as genuinely indigenous almost lost in slavery and historical phantasies. What the Greeks themselves were unable to turn to their advantage, the Europeans knew how to restore. This is a decisive step towards creating the indigenous as indeed truth.

Since the indigenous by definition and construction equals the suppressed it ought to be liberated as a way of restoring dignity of the enslaved people. This, nevertheless, is a political decision which means that before an indigenous population can be assigned political rights they must at some stage have been betrayed or deceived by those who have detected their valor. This betrayal must be admitted by those in power as self-criticism forcing them to take active part in redeeming the appalling situation.

In the early 19th century, the feeling that Europeans did too little for the Greeks became widespread guiding Byron and many others. David Brewer relates a piece of dubious historical discourse which may nevertheless be seen as an early indigenous and intellectual way of opening up a discussion along the lines that will give an indigenous people political rights accepted by those who have defined them as indigenous. The example comes from a work that claimed to be The Chronicle of the Galaxídhi written 1703 and commenting upon a situation supposed to have been a reality 130 years earlier c. 1570 when a Venetian fleet captured a Turkish fortress somewhere on the southern tip of the Peloponnese in the Mani province. The Venetians left again losing the opportunity to make this bridgehead the start of driving out the Turks from the Peloponnese. The chronicler’s argument runs as follows: The Holy League called upon everyone to take up arms against the Turks. On the Mani peninsula the Greeks did exactly this (parallel to the Holy League at Lepanto 1571). But when the Venetians captured the fort and the Greeks offered their help and asked for weapons, their proposal came to nothing. Instead the Venetians under their admiral Marco Quirini just left. So much for solidarity and the greater cause of the 1570s. Ergo says the alleged chronicler in 1703, you cannot trust the Venetians and the Franks (i.e. any Catholic or Protestant European).

In 1703, moreover, the chronicler knew from the Venetian wars on Peloponnese since the 1680s (location 2900ff), that starting liberation in the Mani was prolific. This was proved again during the War of Independence in the 1820s.

The chronicler expressed 18th century sentiments, which he considered equal to those of the 16th century. He didn’t prove that his sources expressed 16th century opinion. Although his discourse was probably based on fabrication, his argument eventually convinced western powers of their guilt and of their duty to remedy the situation. The last element in the construction of the indigenous is thus to admit to the political rights of people already defined as culturally indigenous. It comes with a price to be accepted as indigenous.

Enlightenment liberated North Americans, but not the Greeks. It couldn’t. As a true indigenous people and thus under colonial rule the destiny of the Greeks in the late 18th century was backwardness and fruitless rebellion. Europe was ruled by wars and the Greeks by the Ottoman state and their politically subaltern Church. It took a post-war Europe and a measure of Late Romantic ideas about national character, right and destiny, as well as historical heritage and religion, before the ideas of enlightenment could become part of the political foundation for the liberation of the Greeks. Since liberation was impossible without nationalism, the young state, like many former colonies, had to live with nationalism and in the Greek case, the obligation to preserve Ancient Greece, Ancient Greek and the Greek Church – its heritage.

There is a strong heritage management side to staying indigenous and true to ideals. That is why those who have constructed the indigenous are saddened when a people defined as indigenous shows signs of drifting away from its ‘true’ heritage becoming masters of their past using it to redeem the future.

As noted in the very the beginning of this text commenting on of the indigenous, echoes of the colonial attitude to the indigenous are surprising and prolonged.


When Byron was in Athens on his Grand Tour in 1811 and Elgin was there to dig up graves and steal the marbles on Parthenon, Byron wrote the poem The Curse of Minerva strongly condemning this theft, because it robbed the Greeks of their heritage. Athena was eloquent:

“Mortal!”—’twas thus she spake—“that blush of shame
Proclaims thee Briton, once a noble name;
First of the mighty, foremost of the free,
Now honour’d less by all, and least by me;
Chief of thy foes shall Pallas still be found.
Seek’st thou the cause of loathing?—look around.
Lo! here, despite of war and wasting fire,
I saw successive tyrannies expire.
’Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth,
Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both.
Survey this vacant, violated fane;
Recount the relics torn that yet remain:
These Cecrops placed, this Pericles adorn’d,
That Adrian rear’d when drooping Science mourn’d.
What more I owe let gratitude attest—
Know, Alaric and Elgin did the rest.
That all may learn from whence the plunderer came,
The insulted wall sustains his hated name:
For Elgin’s fame thus grateful Pallas pleads,
Below, his name—above, behold his deeds!
Be ever hailed with equal honour here
The Gothic monarch and the Pictish peer:
arms gave the first his right, the last had none,
But basely stole what less barbarians won.

When Lord Byron died some of his books and belongings were catalogued and sold, among them an antique funerary urn of silver, weighing no less than 186 ounces, i.e. c. 5 kg, which Byron had come across at a cemetery in Athens 1811. He may not have had a team of diggers like Elgin, but robbing the Greeks of their heritage both lords took part in constructing the indigenous. True to the colonial perspective when constructing the indigenous, we stress that heritage must be protected, because it is the heritage of the indigenous people, who, although they cannot protect themselves, must have access to their heritage, because they are supposed to learn from it. But at the same time, in the colonial reality, that is not the point. Instead heritage is a matter of who has the power to own it. That is why stealing from people we have just declared and accepted as indigenous is so stigmatizing.

When we want to neutralize the indigenous rather than stigmatize it, there is a point in anchoring it firmly in the past not least by means of dressing it up in newly invented traditional dresses, i.e. ‘folklorizing’ it. In the late 19th and early 20th century when it became possible to take photographs of indigenous people in more or less everyday situations plainly dressed, their finery was soon enhanced to become emblematic of the indigenous – adding a showcase identity to their daily life. All kinds of indigenous people: Greek brigands, reindeer herders in Sweden (Sámi) or transhumant shepherds in Greece (Sarakatsani) may therefore be imaged as replicas of themselves.

Fig 01

When the idea of the indigenous has almost disappeared and culture and civilization stand out as a diverse as well as an amalgamated flow of human life with no specific beginning, Anthropology can be relied on to revive the indigenous – the Sarakatsani being a case in point even in anthropometric terms. As late as the 1950s, by means not least of the anthropology of the Sarakatsani, the roots of (the primitive) Greek folk medicine were (respectfully) traced back to ancient Greek traditions (location 3500ff.).

Accepting the indigenous as primitive and conservative is the only way to respect it. Emancipation, the Enlightenment way –‘man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’, is the only way to come to terms of the indigenous.

(1)    A more thorough discussion of the construction of the indigenous can be found in Hillerdal, Charlotta. 2009. People in Between: Ethnicity and Material Identity, a New Approach to Deconstructed Concepts. Occasional papers in archaeology 50. Uppsala.

This week On the Reading Rest I have my memory of a British Museum Object in Focus. In the British Museum nevertheless one may buy the booklet:

Williams, Dyfri. 2006. The Warren Cup. British Museum Object in Focus. British Museum Press. London. Pp 64—

but be careful, it may contain illustrations that under law at least in Sweden are held to be pornographic pictures of a child, illegal to possess and disseminate, perhaps even to look at – at least if doing so is your habit. It may not help to argue that the drinking cup in question is a 2000 year old work of art and its embossed silver decoration thus artistic fiction belonging to our cultural heritage rather than a picture of a child. As I write the Supreme Court in Stockholm is considering an unfortunately not so similar case concerning pictures harvested from Manga Series – we hope for a precedent. While we do so, I think that one of the scenes is child pornography [0].

With their growing wealth around the beginning of the Common Era, Romans explored different qualities in silver tableware. In fact they laid the foundation for the use of silver tableware also in Post Medieval and Modern Europe and in the process they firmly established the notion of good and bad. Since they hadn’t yet coined the phrase de gustibus non disputandum est they were aware of the difference.

The Warren Cup belongs to the first century BCE/CE and its vogue in silver tableware and drinking cups. Materially speaking, this vogue is quite well-known because of a number of find contexts reflecting more or less traumatic situations in the first century CE: the Hildesheim hoard is related to spoils from the battle in the Teutoburger Forest 9 CE when Varus’ legions were annihilated. The pair of cups from the grave in Danish Hoby indirectly links-in with the military activities in Northwest Germany during the first decades of the Common Era. Two hoards, Boscoreale and Casa del Menandro, were lost 79 CE when Pompeii, Casa del Menandro, and its surroundings, Boscoreale, were covered in pumice and ashes. There are many more finds out there, but for my purpose the drinking cups from these four contexts are enough to inform me. In the second century CE this drinking cup vogue came to an end.

Embossed tableware featuring everything from olives and birds to sleaze and myth was an integral part of an extravagant 1st century BCE/CE table culture detested by a number of conservative intellectuals in the late 1st century CE Rome – Tacitus to name but one. To begin with, in the late first century BCE, luxurious silverware bridged the gap between wealth and Bildung. As it happened, collectors in the highest echelons of society, among them Julius Caesar, invested in decorated silver – embossed and partly gilded. Often Greek civilization was in focus and silver smiths in vogue. Ageing Horace, albeit a man of modest means pointed out that ridet argento domus—the house is laughing with silver—to make a favorable impression on Phyllis (after he spotted vanity in the beautiful boy Ligurinus). ‘Silver laughter’ has continued to ring [1].

In the 1st century CE, society changed when the nouveau-riche entered the scene. Contrary to the middle classes, who could afford nothing but education to gain status, the upstarts  down-graded classical and formal education and up-graded wealth. Wealth formed their links with the upper classes. Consequently, the possibilities to gain status and recognition by means of education and learning tended to diminish. Hence the intellectual critique. Social change echoed all the way down to dinner parties and drinking cups and there were two extremes to relate to: (1) The educated classes, versed in everything Greek, who knew how to read the scenes of the decorated cups and indulged themselves in lengthy comments. (2) The ignorant parvenus, who knowing nothing bought whatever they fancied in their endeavor to demonstrate and proud themselves of their economic success and lack of culture, taste, civilization, education and modesty. Trimalchio, the wealthy freedman who figures in the Roman novel Satyricon, was a model first century CE parvenu, but from what we read in today’s tabloids – since once again the intellectuals aren’t invited – we gather that the parties thrown by Berlusconi are modeled on the ones thrown by Trimalchio. Luckily, Petronius who created Trimalchio – and thus indirectly Berlusconi – has given us more complete insights into the combined efforts of wealth and ignorance that squeezed the educated classes. Decorated silver drinking cups were lost in the process, but the two backdrops: silver cups and satire will make it possible to write about the missing Warren Cup.

Decorated cups fit an art form—a performance: two human beings drink together forming a dyad. Aided and confined by the dyadic pair of cups and their structure, the performers are invited to analyse and comment upon the scenes in relation to the dyadic and themselves as human beings – getting wasted. In some of the decorated cups, the dyadic qualities are subtle, not least why they involve turning the cups in order to structure performance and interpretation. Obviously the interpretation may involve only oneself, but also part of a conversation—within the dyad or in front of an audience. Besides being brilliant, one might easily make a fool of oneself knowing to little or too much; misunderstanding this or that; protesting too much, protesting too little; being too modest or not modest enough. Everything depends on your capability to handle yourself, your company and your state of intoxication. Writing about these cups today, exposes us to the difficulties of understanding them, and 2000 years ago our interpretations might well have been labelled stupid, commonplace or uninformed in Pompeii, Borscoreale, Hildesheim or Hoby. Whatever the latter knew about the Trojan War illustrated on his cups, it would have been worth listening to.

I will look at three narrative compositions before trying to describe the missing Warren cup.

In Casa del Menandro the labouring Hercules figures on two drinking cups in a big hoard of table plate [2]. This hoard represents an almost complete set for at most 8 persons and its composition is based on subsets of 16, 8, 4, and 2 items. There are 15 drinking cups, seven pairs and one singleton, which probably lost its partner.

The silver was stored in a robust wooden chest, 1.2×0.8xc.0.7m, which stood in a low vaulted cellar, Room B, below the bath-suite. Sometime before the eruption 79 CE, work on the rebuilding of the bath was started and the rooms C and D were sealed off by means of the walls w-w1 and x1-x2, and abandoned . Simultaneously a breach was made in the wall between room A and B making A-B a cellar with an outer and an inner room. In room B there were two chests, a and b, and they were placed as far west as possible considering that the lids of the chests were supposed to clear the low vault. Similarly the amphorae that would have prevented the lid of Chest a to lean against the wall, were placed to the right of the chest. Likewise the big tiles standing next to Chest a between the chest and the wall towards Room A, would seem to have filled up a space created when Chest a was fitted into the cellar. It stands to reason therefore that when Room B was walled off from Room C and the breach between Room A and B was made, Chest b was placed in Room B along the new wall. Chest a may have been there already considering the tiles and amphorae stored around it.

Three facts are worth mentioning when it comes to the find context.
(1) Some fragile items, such as the figured drinking cups, were placed at the bottom of the chest below the rest of the silver, as if they were among the first things one thought of saving. The weight of this silver did them no good.
(2) Since their feet and handles were separately wrapped up in cloth and wool next to the cups, someone took off the feet and handles – breaking the solder that kept them in place – before everything was wrapped up. This procedure is common when storing drinking cups in chests [3]. It also indicates that the missing cup was never in the chest. The preparation of the cups before putting them into the chest seems to have been done rationally with an eye to protecting them and in no great hurry, but putting the most fragile objects at the bottom rather than on the top signals lack of time. The cups were not as well preserved as the majority of the pieces and two fragile shell-shaped bowls, similarly placed, were completely crushed by the heavy ware above them.
(3) Outside the chest, next to tiles and amphorae, there was a silver tray and below it two or three silver vessels. It has been suggested that the tray was too large for the chest, but that is true only if the chest was already filled-up. Putting the tray at the bottom of the chest with the rest of the items above it would have been natural, trays being what they are, and had not time been an issue, emptying the chest wrapping up the vessels that didn’t fit into it after having packed it the first time, would have been sensible.

For three reasons, therefore, we should conclude that getting the silver down into the cellar and packing it was done under some kind of stress. The context points to a controlled situation somewhere else in the house when the table ware was wrapped up, and a stressed one – caused by the eruption? – when pieces and parcels were stored in the chest. This again suggests that the table ware was in good order, except for a few pieces, among them the missing ‘Cup no. 16’, a modiolus with floral/faunal decoration.

This means that if we had been invited to a convivium (‘living together’ – a get-together more or less) at Casa del Menandro 78 CE, we might have formed a cup dyad drinking from the Hercules cups (M3 or M4) with another guest. This pair alludes to twelve Herculean labours. On M3 Hercules meets opponents or antagonists – three male and three female. On M4 he is in control of his tasks – three non-domestic ones concerning boars, centaurs and birds and three domestic ones concerning mares, apples and a dog . In the latter situations he is not attacked. If we want to follow the chronology of the labours during a dinner conversation, each guest nursing a cup must be aware of ‘his’ pictures and myths in order to turn the cup and fall-in correctly. The labours start with the first scene on the A-side of the third Menander cup (M3, A-side) and they come to an end in the last scene on the B-side of the fourth cup (M4, B-side). The twelve labours are obviously not the twelve usual ones. The cleansing of Augias’ stables for one is not there.

In a dinner conversation there are several points to make when drinking from the cups and certainly many opportunities to show-off commenting upon Greek mythology and what it means to be Heracles, i.e. ‘The Glory of Hera’. Aging too is an issue.

The option to turn and jump between the cups is a choice when drinking from the Hercules cups, but in two of the drinking cups from Hildesheim turning becomes much more important [4]. The Hildesheim hoard represents what Roman officers brought with them into the field and also what they lost when they lost the battle in 9 CE and their silver became the spoils of the barbarian victors. In the first half of the first century CE, it is typical of the area south of the Elbe, where Varus lost his legions and Gemanicus conducted his punitive expeditions up and until 16 CE, that there are no luxury Roman artefacts in the graves, but well in a hoard like the one from Hildesheim. This is easy to understand given the brutality and the ideological overtones of the wars – Rome and its artefacts were simply not popular and nothing to exhibit at funerals. There was in other words a point in burying the silver spoils because they were ostentatiously Roman. In the area north of the Elbe, on the other hand, Roman luxury goods, not least drinking cups, were popular in prominent graves. This indicates that the Romans had successfully turned Germans against Germans, but also that prestigious drinking cups had a role to play because they paired officers – Roman-Roman; German-German and Roman-German.

On two of the cups from Hildesheim, the panels take us in and out of a sanctuary when we turn them. In the scenes there are a number of allusions to Dionysus, Heracles and others, to dramatic action and masks—to tragedy as well as satire. In formal ways the two cups are similar, but the masks are different and so are the positions of the symbolic artefacts. It’s the turning of the cups that determines the narratives, which are parallel but slightly different as dyads are. In the beginning of the narrative two masks are staring at something that is not in front of the cup, but somewhere next to it. In the first cup this field of view is somewhere up to the left. In the second it is somewhere down to the right.

What are they staring at? They are staring at you when you are about to begin your performance!

Holding the first cup in your hands, this cup is to the right and your face is somewhere above the cup, holding the second one, you have lifted or placed the cup somewhere above your eyes to the left. As you are about to drink form the cup you turn it anticlockwise and the masks keep looking at you eventually from somewhere below your eyes. Then you turn it again, lifting it, and when you start to drink from it, you look straight into the central and horrified (tragic) mask. When you have finished, you turn the cup 90 degrees the last time and look into four comic masks making faces at you from a scene in front of you. And you may ask yourself whether you have had too much to drink. One of the things implied in the wry faces of the cups is that you steal or behave badly when you drink from them. In effect that means that you have become part of the context of the cup by drinking from it. In short, you are yourself a mask responding to the others. In the Hildesheim cups an essential way of understanding them has nothing to do with learning, the situation itself is complex enough to beg a comment. Perception, more or less, is all it takes to understand what’s happening in the panels and the scenes are humorous. Their mock criticism embedded in the composition befits drinking between officers in the camp.

The two drinking cups from Hoby on Lolland, belong to a lavish drinking set [5]. The pair is the piece de resistance of an inhumation grave belonging to the first part of the first century CE. The grave is remarkable in itself, but it is even more astonishing that an inscription at the bottom of the cups shows their Roman owner to have been Silius, the prefect of Upper Germania, known for his good contacts with Germanic chieftains during the punitive wars. The reason why ‘Silius’ is Silius the prefect, rests with the fact that the cups belong to the very best of the Augustan drinking cups and thus in all probability to someone from the Roman aristocracy. Moreover, presenting a German chieftain with such a pair can only be contemplated by a member of the Roman military elite. And doing it in the beginning of the first century CE limits the donors to the prefect.

The artistic quality of the Hoby cups is striking and was so already when they were made, since Cheirisophos, i.e. (he who is) ‘skilled-with-hands’, made them. The themes illustrated on the cups are also befitting inasmuch as one must keep in mind that the decade around 10 CE was one of war, a ten-year war of Trojan length, between Romans and Germans. In this conflict the Romans adopted a principle of divide et impera—divide and rule, which makes it sensible to give away a pair of posh drinking cups referring to the Trojan War befriending a German chieftain living north of the tribes that confronted the Romans. When we turn the cups clockwise, they illustrate two stories from the wars. One from Homers and one from a lost play by Euripides. One cup depicts Priam who begs Achilles to grant him Hector’s corps, the other one shows us how Ulysses, helped by Diomedes, steals Philoctetes’ bow (which he inherited from Heracles). Ten years earlier Ulysses had left Philoctetes on the deserted island Lemnos because a horrible wound in the man’s right foot, he was bitten by a snake, smelled so badly that nobody could stand the stench. Now, ten years later the Greeks have learned that only if they have the bow can they win the war. This forces Ulysses to go back to Lemnos in order to get hold of the bow despite the fact that Philoctetes hates him bitterly. Cunning and deceitful, Ulysses steals it.

The tales are about enemies who meet during the war as individuals in odd situations without killing each other – the bereaved old father and the young hero; the cunning middle-aged hero and the old handicapped man. The central scenes are puzzling and poke the question what the pair drinking from the cups would have done had such roles fallen to them. It is easy to imagine that similar situations may have occurred among the leaders of the long first century wars.

Perhaps Chief Hoby understood nothing of tales that the cups told, and Prefect Silius commented upon, but we must not forget that contemporary young Germanic princes such as Arminius, who was a Roman officer and citizen, could make a carrier in the Roman army, speak Latin and access classical education. And the Trojan War has obvious didactic qualities when it comes to educating generals and war lords alike.

The structure of the dyadic tales in Hoby may be described in several ways, but none the less the hook is a situation in which something odd that we are not quite sure of seems to take place. Curiosity drives us to take a look at what happens, and when it has prompted us to turn the cup clockwise a scene comes into focus with clues enough for us to recognize the situation. When we continue to turn the cup we enter into a pause when Priam leaves his charioteer among the sleeping Greeks and enters Achilles’s quarters. On the other cup Philoctetes’ bow hangs in the tree for ten years after he got his wound. When we break the pause barrier and turn to the central scene we see the negotiation between the two couples. We may contemplate this situation, but eventually we turn the cups into the domestic domain where the slaves work and the exceptional tales end in commonplace daily life in the field [6].

With these three pairs in mind what then can we say about the missing Warren cup? We start by analysing the existing one. Owing to Swedish legislation this not-missing Warren Cup must be shown severely damaged.

However, bearing Satyricon in mind and what is on display in British Museum, we can compare the damaged couple to Ascyltus and Giton engaged in an adult-boy situation. The cup can be read by turning it anticlockwise. Similar to the attraction created by the outstanding masks on the Hildesheim cups, we start by following the slave boy’s gaze from his observation point peeping out behind the door (to the right). He sees the first couple, man-adult, in the draped room. By turning the cup we look through the first part of a room and its curtains into the next and the pederastic adult-boy scene. Turning the cup once again we look through this part too and follow the slave boy out of the room. This cyclic structure is a trick with perception – we follow the slave’s gaze although we look directly at the cup and eventually at the slave when he leaves. The slave boy looks at no one and no one looks him in the eye. The scenes are impassionate, textiles are abundant, a flute and a lyre hang on the walls and there are some indications of furniture too. Similar to Hildesheim and contrary to Hoby, there is no time depth in the scenes. Dyfri Williams (DW) points to the instruments, the garments, disinterested looks, especially characterizing the passive participants, and goes on to haircuts and the man’s non-Roman beard. He concludes, convincingly, that the persons on the cup are Greeks. In Roman scenes of intercourse the bed is central, but not in Greek images. The lack of actual beds may thus be yet another indication of the non-Roman character of the scenes. That first century Roman cups depict Greek ways is to be expected.

As DW points out the setting is non-brothel. Consequently, owing to his Greek experience Encolpius, who is Petronius’ protagonist, would have recognized himself as one of the guests in a private house.

With all this in mind we can turn to the reconstruction of the missing Warren Cup and expect it to illustrate a narrative with the same structure as the one we know, i.e. a slave looks into a room, sees what goes on between two Greek couples, one in each part of the room, and leaves again. Similar to two of the cups from Casa del Menandro, depicting Mars and Venus with a serving Cupid in two different capacities: either holding Mars’ weapons or Venus’ perfume flask, we expect a small variation also between the Warren cups. A slave girl suggests herself as a slave in the house and an outsider. The room would be more or less the same perhaps with other instruments displayed on the walls. The essential variation nevertheless must be related to the couples. It seems probable that the couples were composed differently and that sex positions differed too. It is reasonable, therefore, that the reconstructed pairs are male-boy and adult-adult respectively. Falling back on the juxtaposed male-female pairs on wall paintings from Pompeii, we can expect the first scene to show the male kneeling behind the boy, and the second to depict the two adults facing each other, one of them lifting his arm above his head [7].

Taken together, this would mean that we are in a private Greek house where the owner of the house, probably the male, entertains two adults and a boy. They are looked after by the slaves of the household. The scenes on the missing cup may have been the more passionate, but I don’t think so! Foreign ways, distance, alienation and impassion are prominent themes on the existing cup and that indicates that foreign ways, distance, alienation and impassion is the reason why the cups fitted a convivium in a private house belonging to the educated and well-to-do. Irrespective of the drinking dyad being unisexual or not, discussing criminal offence and child pornography would have been pointless, but the talkative bowl and its ambiguous cue line: receive me thirsting, perhaps I will reconcile you, might just strike up a conversation between the two who made up the Warren cup dyad. Obviously, the first answer is: ‘I don’t think so!’ but that will be followed up by new questions. Owing to the impassionate air of the boy it is not impossible that a Phyllis, drinking from one of the missing cup, will recite a line of two from Horace, Ode 4.10, to her. Horace points to the ievitable cruel vanity and insolence of beautiful boys.

As it happens, this convivium is all about testing each other the Socratic way.


[0] On June 16, the Supreme Court ruled not guilty in the Manga case, but the court referred to the pictures being phantasy rather than true to life, except for one. The Warren cup scenes are obviously realistic and the ruling thus not a precedent applicable to a ‘Warren Case’. Actually, in picture (g24.jpg) according to the Supreme Court, the drawing of the child stands out as real. The drawing as a whole must be considered realistic and pornographic . This description fits the realism of the Warren cup. If a drawing is true to life then the protective interests (of children) are applicable. This leaves us with the divide, the divide as it were is the very point, between g24.jpg and the other pictures. Nevertheless, we are unable to see the divide because we cannot see picture g.24.jpg. None the less we are left with a strong suspicion that one of the scenes on the Warren cup is indeed child pornography.

[1] Usually, this quotation from Horace, Odes Book 4: Ode 11 to Phyllis, it is translated ‘the house is smiling with silver’ or ‘the house gleams with silver’. However, given the fact that Horace, before mentioning the silver, has told Phyllis of his splendid wine and envisaged her shining with ivy in her hair (reminding us of a Maenad) and given the fact that he proceeds to describe the busy preparations for their meeting, the (characteristic) sound of silverware ought not to be excluded. After all, what point is there in telling someone that you silver is polished. It is putting it out in the house that matters. Ligurinus, by the way, is dealt with in Ode 4.10.

[2] Facts an interpretations on the Menander hoard can be found in:
Maiuri, Amadeo. 1933. La casa del Menendro e il suo tesoro de argenteria. Vol 1+2. La libreria dello stato. Roma.
Painter, Kenneth S. 2001. The Silver Treasure. The Casa del Menandro at Pompeii. Vol iv. Calderon press. Oxford.

[3] See Maiuri, Amadeo. 1933. La casa del Menendro e il suo tesoro de argenteria. Vol 1+2. La libreria dello stato. Roma. Page 246 and notes.

[4] On the Hildesheim hoard see:
Pernice, Erich & Winter, Frantz. 1901. Der Hildesheimer Silberfund. Verlag W Spemann. Berlin.
On the cups see pp.37-40.

[5] The cups from Hoby were published by:
Friis Johansen, Knud. 1923. Hobyfundet. Nordiske fortidsminder. Vol 2:3 Pp. 119-164. København.

[6] The general structural approach in the Hoby cups has affinities with the two propagandistic cups from Boscoreale – the Augustus and the Tiberius cup:
Héron de Villefosse, Antoine M. 1899. Le tésor de Boscoreale. Monuments et mémoires publiés par l’académie des inscriptions et des belle-lettres. Vol 5. Pp. 1-290. Ernest Leroux. Paris. See pp. 134-148.

[7] Roman ways of looking at sexuality can be understood in:
Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at lovemaking. Constructions of sexualities in Roman art 100 B.C.—A.D. 250. University of California Press. Berkeley.

This week on the reading rest I have an article by Dominic O’Meara, again from Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources, edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou.

O’Meara, D. 2002. The Justinian Dialogue on Political Science and its Neoplatonic Sources. In: Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed) Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources.
But today—
Dominic O’Meara’s book Platonopolis. Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity. Calderon Press Oxford 2003
—must be added as well as
Peter N Bell (Trans, Notes and Intro) Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian. Agapetus, ‘Advice to the Emperor’. Dialogue on Political Science. Paul the Silentiary, ‘Description of Hagia Sophia’. (Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 52) Liverpool University Press 2009.

Santorum quotes from the www state that ‘if faith is true and reason right you’ll end up in the same place’—indeed, ‘end up’ in places such as Santorum’s or Ahmadinejad’s or Netanyahu’s. When looking through the three texts listed above bearing in mind this quote on faith and reason, anyone, except perhaps those to whom the equation faith true = reason right rings true, will agree that when it comes to faith, reason and politics Roman or Byzantine problems are still with us.

The Christian concept of God as applying in mid-first millennium Rome and Byzantium posed a growing problem for Neoplatonists trying to nourish and develop their idea of the divine in forced opposition to Christian ideas. As late as 529 AD these intellectuals fell victim when Justinian, beefed up his anti-pagan legislation, purged Pagans and closed the Neoplatonic school of Athens.

In this general perspective the fragmentary anonymous Dialogue on Political Science (DoPS) can be seen as an attempt – one, two or three decades after the 530s – to revive and develop Neoplatonic ways of thinking – niching them while addressing the field of political science. In the 550s Justinian was already Mubarak-old if not exactly in years and surgery sessions in Germany. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that when a Neoplatonist writer turns to this field of practical rather than metaphysical or esoteric thinking, he seeks to demonstrate something uncommon among Neoplatonists. In effect he argues that a Platonic foundation will support the better government of any two Christian or non-Christian rulers, and he thinks that political leaders ought to step down at 57 or 60. Given that old age came early in the 6th c. this is not a bad idea.

Ultimately, the reason why this argument can at all be developed is the commonly agreed Late Antique dogma that kingship was an imitation of God or Platonically speaking, the Divine. In the chapter Kingly science as an imitation of the divine Dominic O’Meara (DO’M) discusses this notion in relation to the DoPS (DO’M pp 55 ff, ). Since kings or emperors cannot escape old age, old leaders should resign because growing old they tend to lose their grip and capability of imitating the Divine. That’s why they send in a son imitating the divine as it were. If Justinian wasn’t old and weakened when the dialogue was penned, the old-age argument would have been most dangerous. But then again Justinian probably felt that his capacity was exceptionally supreme. Notwithstanding, a pretext would have been found. And since it wasn’t, the dialogue was probably written in the last years of Justinian’s reign c. 560 CE.

The dialogue is intellectual and learned, but not outright Pagan. Its composition is difficult and far from straightforward when it comes to politics. Its rhetorical style is manneristic or as O’Meara puts it: ‘the fiction of the Platonic dialogue is pushed very far in the fragments’ (p.51). In my opinion and to a majority of their reviewers, O’Meara, followed by Bell, has convincingly argued the Neoplatonic case and pointed to consciously wide-ranging references to classical authors emphasizing Plato, Cicero and a host of others from Homer and onwards. Given their analyses it is worth pointing out that in the 9th century when Photius catalogued and labeled DoPS he stressed its novel ideas on political science, its criticism of Plato and its affinities with Dicaearchon views. It’s by way of Cicero that DoPS points out the once influential 3 c. BCE philosopher Dicaearchus as the father of these views, which in the 6th c. carried little ideological ballast. Judging from Photius, it would seem that in the mid 9th c. is was difficult immediately to denounce DoPS as Pagan and non-Christian. The Neoplatonic case wasn’t straightforward in modern times either.

The dialogue is fragmentary. Books I-III and VI are lost.

The extant part of Book IV is concerned with a rather unsophisticated, now and then inexperienced dialogue of military science and virtue – there is a nice and typical paragraph on the use of horn signals too – leading up to the much better preserved Book V. This book takes up a theoretical and central discussion that gives rise to a new political science. The composition would seem to indicate that the didactics of the dialogue proceed from pressing or at least everyday problems to general, markedly intellectual, solutions able to guide any rulership.

The author of the DoPS has found a field full of practical problems in which essentially Neoplatonic solutions and sound guidance stand out as worthwhile—not least in the Queen of Cities, i.e. Constantinopel, i.e. Rome, i.e The Empire.

In our day and age, when once again fundamentalist scripture-based political sciences have their advocates DoPS is not without its points: ‘Instead he (i.e. the emperor) will accept the imperial authority offered to him by the citizens as if it were an imposition, thinking it to be in itself a personal burden and a public obligation for which he will not be unaccountable to God’s judgement and perhaps that of men also.’ (DoPS book 5.47; Bell 2009 p.155)

It’s the bit about ‘men also’ that counts.

Nevertheless, if we ask any of the recently disqualified Egyptian presidential candidates, however dangerous, corrupt and popular they may be, they will tell us that personal burden and public obligation make up a foundation for their commitment to power.

The outlook of the dialogue reveals it as open to barbarian skills and the possibility to interact with barbarians. In book IV, e.g., the military skill of the Franks is considered model and speaking about the optimates of the state, those who should be chosen because of natural qualities and education/culture, Menas (the central speaker) points out to Thomas that able barbarians too must be among the optimates. Rhetorically, echoing 6th c. problems in sustaining urban populations, Menas concludes: ‘If they say it’s the most important thing of all to secure a good management for a private estate, how much more necessary would it be for the state.’ (book 5.31-32) Indirectly DoPS advocates government by common sense in a system where the King is imitating the divine and the optimates, whether Roman or foreign, Christian or Pagan, are chosen with a view to their personal qualities.

This attitude of the DoPS can be compared to the central role of the political model of the King, the King’s men and government expressed in poems echoing contemporary Pagan/Barbarian society. This model surfaces in poems by Venantius Fortunatus, The Finnsburg Fragment, Beowulf, Hêliand, Ludwigslied, Eddaic poems or Ynglingatal, i.e genealogies, epics and lyrical poems alluding to or reflecting upon government and politics.

Late Iron Age Germanic royalty is related to the divine. These ties are most often mythical and thus plentiful and rhetorical in poems where kings and queens are referred to as descendants of gods, the offsprings of holy weddings (Man + Goddess = True), God’s foster children, or clairvoyantly existing in the visible as well as the (seemingly) invisible world at the same time. This capacity for foresight, i.e. the Divine, runs in families as it does in Rome.

Thus Athalaric (10 years old) when he was made King in Italy in 526, was first of all of the right kind of royal family. This is confirmed by the fact pointed out by himself that he was designated by Theoderic the Great, his maternal grandfather. In Rome/Byzantium of course, bishops and patriarchs were needed to guarantee divine consent. Then Athalaric was elected/accepted by the elite among the Goths and acclaimed by an assembly of citizens. This series: designation by a King with divine qualities; election by the elite; and public acclaim is a pattern found in all Germanic societies. Athalaric’s case shows that this model procedure was conventional, the real ruler was his mother Amalasuntha and she inherited the throne when Athalaric happened to die in 534 (Procopius, who else, gives us a hunch that it happened for a reason) [1].

Nevertheless, this model procedure parallels the one prescribed in DoPS. In the dialogue the imperial or royal power legislates for itself how legitimate proclamation should be brought about, so that he who is about to receive power receives it when it is given to him by God and offered to him by the citizens (Book 5.17). Because the divinely royal is already there, in the Pagan and early Christian Germanic society, kingship is given by God or gods—the method is designation by a King in his divine capacity—and offered by the citizens by means of election and acclaim. Similarly, in Book 5.50, DoPS describes how the optimates go about electing the emperor, and in principle the Roman optimates and the Gothic elite play the same part—in practice in Ravenna 526 CE and in theory in DoPS. Germanic kings, whether Pagan or Christian, imitate the Roman emperor and the DoPS link-in with the democratic and secular perspectives of Pagan succession. Naturally, the DoPS involves the Church in its much more regulated and balanced model procedure. The point, nevertheless, is the affinities: Pagan or Christian, Kingdom or Empire alike are all societies organized either around a semi divine King , an executive elite and a certain popular involvement, or around Emperor, optimates and a certain involvement of the citizens. In the dialogue, the system is constructed with an eye to neutralizing the Church.

Since Hêliand and more so Beowulf are poems comparable to mirrors of princes they have some affinities with DoPS.

Beowulf is of the right kind of family. He is reluctant to become king as long young prince Headared lives, but he is designated by the widowed Queen. The elite, ‘the helpless’ in the poem have elected him (inasmuch as they urge him to receive kingship) and since he helps Headared among the people we are given to understand that they approve of him too. Everything is stuffed into vv 2369-2377. Of course Headared is killed and Beowulf becomes King and Beowulf therefore ‘accepted the authority offered to him as if it were an imposition, thinking it to be in itself a personal burden and a public obligation’ to use the words from DoPS book 5.47.  Beowulf’s supernatural swimming capacity is evident and as a king he ‘lived rather for those he ruled than for himself’. In fact the whole passage Book 5.157 seems tailored for Beowulf:

For me, Thomas, the man who had reached such a height of virtue and power would lack something of imperial perfection if he did not himself persuade us by his actions, similar though he be to God amongst men, that he lived rather for those he ruled than for himself – for this is the true and sufficient of the man who really is worthy of imperial rule. (DoPS, Book 5.157)

When Beowulf, vv 2417 ff, fights the Dagon he knows that he will die, but sacrifices himself for the common good. In so doing, he takes kingship to the kind of perfection recommended by DoPS, when Menas points out: ‘Put simply, he lives not for himself or in his own interest. And, if it is necessary, he will lay down his life for them as has often happened with some rulers, as Codrus died for the Athenians’. (Book 5.133)

Menas recommends this practice when it comes to emperors, but when he says: ‘has often happened with some rulers’, he is hardly referring to Roman emperors who weren’t in the habit of sacrificing themselves. Instead Menas has to refer to barbarian myth or reality.

Being good is important in the dialogue (DO’M p. 57) inasmuch as God/the divine is good and the king imitating the divine. In Book 5.118  we are told that ‘[authority is] inserting the power of doing good in things through his own providence – just as radii extend from the centre of the circle to the circumference’. The Platonic essence of this argument is developed up and until 5.122 where we understand authority also to be the emperor/king. This general standpoint is followed up in sections 5.123-71 in which DoPS concerns itself with the practices of being a ruler in terms of characteristic virtues such as goodness, wisdom, power, justice and foresight. Already in Book 5.130 ‘it is fitting, therefore, for the emperor who wishes to make himself like him (i.e. God), first of all to be himself good, to do good to those he rules’.

In Beowulf being good in character and practice is of paramount importance. In the first part of the poem, King Hrothgar is already as good as it gets and Beowulf is growing in goodness with each of his engagements with the evil. The actual word ‘good’ is used by the author to designate Beowulf and King Hrothgar. The word is also used to bracket episodes in the poem in such a way that before anything happens ‘good’ is emphasized, so that we know what is coming to us. Afterwards ‘good’ is used to close the episode making us aware of what happened in it.

Wealhtheow’s speech after the story about Finnsburg has come to an end is typical—the politically good are stressed in the frame of the episode and ‘good’ is used as a keyword in the end of the speech. The frame is circumstantial with longs lines in the beginning. Old Hrothgar and young Hrothulf are both good, but Unferth is not because he is not a flawless optimate. If we were to use the two ways in which the DoPS judges optimates, Unferth is an optimate by nature, i.e. birth, but not by education. Wealhtheow’s speech proceeds smoothly into concluding the Good and in the frame ‘good’ is mentioned once again. Since Beowulf is such an ominous poem the audience knows and doubts that if Hrothgar dies the two remaining good ones Hrothulf and Beowulf will look after Wealhtheow’s two young sons Hrethric and Hrothmund, while the widowed Queen engages herself in dialogue on political science with her new friend Menas [2].

There are affinities between Beowulf and other Germanic poems when it comes to understanding what a king must be. Needless to say there is were little in the poems of the elaborate model society discussed in the dialogue, but still the kingly barbarian matches the Neoplatonic emperor. The dialogue shows knowledge of the contemporary barbarian world and acknowledges its qualities. Correspondingly the use of ‘good’ in Beowulf is so structurally organized that it echoes the Neoplatonic practice discussed in the dialogue.

The point in this exercise is not to argue for a conscious exchange of Pagan ideas, but to emphasize a preparedness to add, mirror, transform or echo cultural elements between European elites in the 6th century. Among the barbarians ideals lived on in myth and poems. The practice suggested in the DoPS did not take on although Dominic O’Meara has shown that part of the philosophical model behind the DoPS can be traced in Islamic political philosophy. Adding one or two barbarians thinking along lines with an affinity to Neoplatonic political philosophy, seems to support Dominic O’Meara’s conclusion that such a philosophy existed.

In periods favouring ideological streamlining it is good to know that there’s always some Greek thinking to counter it.


[1] These and other characteristics of Continental and Scandinavian first millennium CE aspects of kingship are discussed by Svante Norr in To Rede and to Rown.Espressions of Early Scandinavian Kingship in Written Sources. Occasional Papers in Archaeology 17. Uppsala University 1998. If you google    To rede and to rown Norr       you can download the book as a pdf file

[2] A translation:

Then Wealhtheow came forth,
walking in a golden neck-ring to where the good pair
sat, uncle and nephew; then their kinship was still together,
each to the other true; Unferth the þyle was also there
sitting at the feet of the Scylding lord; each of them trusted his spirit,
and that he had great courage, though he to his kin was not
honourable in clash of blades; the Scylding lady then spoke:
‘Receive this full cup, my noble lord,
dispenser of treasure; you–be joyful, gold-friend of men, and to the Geats speak
with gentle words so ought a man to do;
be gracious with the Geats, mindful of gifts
which from near and far you now have;
it has been said to me that you wish for a son,
to have this leader of armies; Heorot is cleansed,
the bright ring-hall; enjoy, while you may,
many rewards, and leave to your kinsmen
folk and kingdom when you must go forth
to meet what is fated; I know my
gracious Hrothulf, that he the youths wishes
to hold in honour, if you earlier than he,
friend of the Scyldings, leave behind the world,
I think that he with good will repay
our children, if he that at all remembers,
what we for his sake and for his worldly renown,
before, in his youth, bestowed our favours.
She turned then by the bench, where her boys were,
Hrethric and Hrothmund, and heroes’ sons,
the young company all together; there sat the good
Beowulf of the Geats by the two brothers.

Is That a Proper Name?

2 April, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have an anthology: Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources, edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou. Since chronology is its ordering principle and since I bought it some years ago in the AUC bookstore in Cairo, because I am interested in Scandinavian Iron Age, I tend to become less interested after the third article. Actually, the third article is the one I ought to be most interested in, and I am, but I read the second one first.

It seems there’s a lot of ‘I’ in this entry.

Artistotle as he looked in the 16th century in the Monastry of Philanthropinon. Ioanninon/Aksiotheata_Ioanninon/ english_version/monh_fil.htm

Kalligas, Paul. 2002. Basil of Caesarea on the semantics of proper names. In: Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed.) Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Pp 31-48.

In Luke chapter 1 vv 57-61 we are told that:
on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto her, there is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.

For different reasons the name was to be John, but we understand why Elisabeth’s neighbours and cousins suggested Zacharias and wondered, why John?

Having been told to read the whole chapter faithfully or resolved on accepting it as we accept a piece of jigsaw puzzle, we take it that ‘Em Yochanan’, Mother John, an 80-year-old primigravida, has a reason to call the child John = Yochanan = ‘God [is] gracious’, and faith enough to refer to God. Moreover, God, who in this early part of Luke is still in his Old Testament mood, is teaching Zacharias a lesson, and there is quite a bullying touch in forcing the old man to accept that God is gracious.

Centre right: the elderly parents and the healthy child, haloed. Left: Mary unmarried and three month pregnant; everybody surrounded by midwives. The feeble Zacharias writes 'Yochanan'; able Elisabeth supervising his doing it corretly.

In Northwest Europe in the beginning of the 9th century AD instruction wasn’t yet that successful. In fact the story was so strange, the gap between faith and reason so wide, that the Saxon poet, who translated and rewrote the Gospels to bridge Pagan and Christian ways in newly conquered (Carolingian) Saxony, felt the need to clarify what he thought was obscured by Luke:

‘Then spoke there a skillful man, who knew so many wise words, had much sense. He eagerly asked what his (the child’s) name would be in this world: “It seems to me from his looks as well as his behavior that he is better than us and so I find that obviously God himself has sent him from Heaven”. Then at once the child’s mother, who had him, her son, that child on her lap said: “Hither came last year God’s command, the foremost of words, saying that according to God’s instruction he should be called John. Whatever I may think, I cannot change this even if I wanted to”. Then spoke an arrogant man, who was her kinsmen: “Never were any of the nobles or any of our clan called so. Let us choose another name, an agreeable name, which he may like”. Then spoke a wise man, who had much to say: “I wouldn’t advise any young warrior to start changing God’s words …”.’ Hêliand vv 208-227.[1]

When it comes to 9th c. Germanic naming traditions rather than 1st c. Jewish, we can identify two positions: (1) An old Pagan tradition seeking a name that links in with social stratification and socially acceptable qualities, which clan and family can accept and the child (grow up to) like. The point is to create a match between being and life, and naming is the start of that process. (2) A modern Christian tradition, which also seeks sociably acceptable names, however, leaving it to God (i.e. the father) to decide what a proper name is.

Cunningly, as always, the Hêliand author, whose task it was to drive home new Christian values, chose to let the young and foolishly arrogant represent old-fashioned views while the old, wise, sharp, sensible, eloquent and eager advocate the modern ones.

We tend to sympathize with the modern 9th c. view because we take a great interest in neutrally referring to unique objects, and it so happens that we don’t mind seeing any human being, be it father or son or whatever, as indeed unique. Taking this interest in ‘unique’ and ‘human’ one step further we find a reason for inventing proper names. Names, one might suggest, are ‘proper’ inasmuch as they designate an individual being. Although this sounds quite straightforward, proper names are nevertheless difficult to handle. Someone called Peter may be one of many called Peter. Individuals called Peter have for a long time been contextualized in a number of ways, e.g. in Christian societies. This means that someone called John may be ‘a Peter’. As it happens, the sentence ‘Peter is dead’ bothers noboby, despite the fact that there is no more any Peter to designate, now that he has ceased to exist. Moreover, the problems with the concept ‘being’ in relation to ‘unique’ and ‘human’ are so great that it makes sense to say: ‘Peter is dead! Long live Peter!’

Our latent interest in the individual and the unique sparks the eternal in mortals – a contradiction in terms.

Authorities, as well as parents giving their children a series of names, have tried to come up with solutions to the need for unique references, but we may still ask ourselves whether the uniquely defined 3001 1996 1126 2065-M, listening to the name Peter, is indeed the person in front of us. Immigration authorities wonder every day, at least a little, before they come up with a conclusion similar to this: ‘If your language contains some elements of the dialects of northern Somalia, then whatever you say, you cannot be designate “3001 1996 1126 2065-M, Peter from Mogadishu” because Mogadishu is southern Somalia, isn’t it? So, we send you back to Northern Somalia where you belong – and by the way, who is called Peter in Mogadishu these days?’ Like most of us, immigration officers equate designation with contextualization although it cannot always be done. Some of us understand the problem others do as they are told.

In some contexts Peter is no doubt Peter, in others he (or whoever it is) is not. ‘Peter’ may mean and means a lot, but it is only a proper name – nobody corresponds to the meaning of the name.

These are the kind of problems addressed by Paul Kalligas (PK)  in his article on Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379 AD). PK writes in a genuinely analytical way, well-anchored in the history of philosophy. Since his is a philosophical approach it’s worth mentioning that philosophers, although they are interested in discussing proper names in order to define them, are also willing to take part in language games that go against any simple realtion with names.

Porphyry, the 3rd century AD philosopher born in Tyre of Phoenician parents, was given the name Malchus, i.e. a variety of the Semitic maliki, ‘My king’. When he moved to Athens to study philosophy, his teacher called him Porphyry, i.e. ‘of the purple colour’ of the Royal toga or the rock used, e.g. in busts, to depict this toga. His teacher showed his appreciation and used the pun to point out Malchus’ outstanding qualities and intellectual class travel: in these Neoplatonic circles hinting that someone was a Philosopher King was flattering. Porphyry later went on to Rome and became a leading philosopher writing textbooks that would be studied a thousand years or more. ‘Malchus’ therefore, disappeared and ceased to exist c. 260 AD, but lived on in ‘Porphyry’: a Peter of philosophy? – well not exactly. His most famous work was Against the Christians. In Rome ‘Porphyry Peter’ is odd or irony and thus a meaningful proper name. In the fourth gospel, ‘John’ tells us that the man whose ear Peter cut off was called Malchus – a third century fact?

And what might possibly be the reason why anyone interested in Scandinavian Iron Age will read about Basil, let alone Basil himself? The answer rests with the fact that Basil, amidst predictable tradition, happened to express an interesting and uncommon opinion.

Basil was engaged in a religious discussion with his contemporary Eunomius, who happened in passing to express an extreme position when it came to names. He pointed out that the nature of things corresponds to the names that God himself has given things in an appropriate way when they were born, i.e. created. Eunomius goes on to say that this, the true nature of things, can be known to man only through some kind of prophetic or apocalyptic revelation. Predictably Eunomius would argue that names and proper names are ‘in accordance with truth’ (PK p:41). Against this Basil offers the following:

It is easy to see that the name John = Yochanan = ‘God (is) gracious’ and the reasons for choosing it comes very close to Eunomius’ ideas, and if, as in this blog, we don’t understand the meaning of God’s grace when it comes to St John’s life and its gruesome end, then that is just a lack of relavation.

‘John’ was given by God and to the best of our knowledge it is in accordance with (Christian) truth. It is a proper name in the Eunomic sense. Not surprisingly we can pin the modern 9th c. understanding on Eunomius, surprisingly we can not pin it on Basil! Instead, his point of view reminds us of the young warrior belittled in Hêliand when he suggests a name that the new born will like, i.e. ‘like’ in the future when he is able to look upon himself as a human being living a life.

Basil felt that he lived in an era in which hearing the name we will at once begin to enumerate and grasp some of the peculiarities of the lives lived by one or more persons labeled by this proper name. These peculiarities may of course be indicative also of other beings with other names. As PK points out, proper names, the way Basil sees them, are similar to pronouns because they can refer to an infinite number of contexts and at the same time unite these contexts in one narrative defining any person represented by the name.

This then brings us to a vogue phenomenon concerning early if not the earliest recorded Scandinavian iron-age names and appellations. Now and then they make up a small series of contexts, labeled under a proper name that acts as a pronoun or indeed under a pronoun inasmuch as the series often starts with or incorporates ‘ek’, i.e. ‘I’.

Looking at Early Iron Age Scandinavian names (4-5th c. AD) from a general point of view, there are a number that a child may grow up to like whatever his career. They are names such as Bear—bera ; Hawk—haukz ; Nimble—wagnijo; Black—swarta; Glad—taitaz, Little New—niujila . They are simple proper names and although they are metaphorical or meaningful (and could have been acquired during adult life) they will act like ‘Peter’ in Basil’s example. This is true also of some names that refer more clearly to acquired skills, mostly martial, such as Fighter—wigaz or Little Weapon—sarula. Without knowing for sure, these could be names we grew to like rather than appellations. Conventional proper names such as these are nevertheless few in comparison with those clearly referring to a lived context. These latter names are often composite indicating a social role such as guest, servant, protector, counsellor or warden, but also simple ones referring to an acquired physical status such as Limping—lamo or Maimed—hnabdas or Bent—hakuþo; or names indicating that a community refers someone to foreign lands or a places such Finn—fina (the runestone stands in South Eastern Sweden), or (from) Holt—holtijaz. Some names may perhaps have been used as appellatives, but even complex names such as Fino Saligastiz—Finn Hallguest seems to be no more than a proper name.

It is typical of the rune names that they may all, albeit metaphorically, refer to a lived contextuality, and they can all be referred to contexts such as social roles, individual roles, warrior mentality, personal appearance, non-humans (name metaphors) and geographical origin.

If these are general characteristics there are inscriptions which make up quite elaborate collections of names referring to the contexts and peculiarities to which the person in question was related. I have chosen five examples. They all include the word erilaz, which refers to an institution and/or man, often working as a title. That is not surprising inasmuch as it is the origin of the word earl [2]:

The distribution of the inscriptions mentioned in the text

(1) ek erafaz ek naudigastiz kelbaþewas.—I (am) Wolverine I (am) Kelbaþewa’s [i.e. ewe lamb servant’s] Needguest [i.e. guest in/from/of Need].

(2) ek erilaz asugisalas muha haiteI (am) Asugisala’s erilaz [i.e. ‘the erilaz of “god’s arrow shaft”’] I am called Muha [i.e. ‘retainer/warrior’].

(3) ek erilaz saiwilagaz hateka—I erilaz I am called Sawilagaz [i.e. ‘the seaman giving oath’ or ‘the cunning man (, who is) from the sea’].

(4) ek irilaz liubaz hite, harabanaz haite runaz wraitu— I erilaz I am called balmy*, I was called raven I wrote the runes**.
* This in NOT slang! **This runestone stands in Järsberg in Värmland

(5) Fahiðu wil-ald wigaz ek erilazI painted (the runes on) the crafty-work, wigaz I erilaz [i.e.’ (I am) warrior I (am) erilaz’]*
*’Crafty work’ refers to the gold brecteate carrying the inscription. ‘ek’ is moved to a position between wigaz and erilaz making it unstressed to befit the meter fornyrðislag: fahiðu wil-ald – wigaz ek erilaz – two half lines each with two stressed syllables, 5+6 syllables, assonances on w. Dropping the ‘ek’ and putting it back again one hears the rhymnic qualities of the unstressed ‘ek’ and why it is needed to make the half line and the names a suitable conclusion.


The point in this kind of naming is to build up the ‘ek’ with one or more names and appellatives linked to a pronoun. Even names referring to other persons come in handy inasmuch as they contextualize the I of the proper name. Typically, the noun erilaz drifts towards appellative and proper name because of the way nouns are used to describe men. Originally, erilaz was probably an occupation, the forerunner of ‘earl’ in the sense of being ‘someone’s erilaz’, however informally. But in (5) Fahiðu wil-ald wigaz ek erilaz—I painted the artefact–Wigaz I Earl, in which wigaz means’ warrior’ and erilaz ‘earl’, we can’t know the precise status of the nouns, they may be proper names, appellatives or even nouns. The inscription nevertheless describes the man as (rune) painter, warrior and earl. The proper name need not be there at all because the pronoun (‘ek’) is there to harbour all the other appellations. The inscriptions are similar to Basil’s peculiarities because they link name and pronoun.

Most series are tied to a moment in the present, but in (4) ‘I erilaz, I am (called) delightful, I was (called) hawk I wrote the runes’, there seems to be a timeline including the actual writing in order to describe a man with a past, who as erilaz is eternal presence. Since there are no more runes on this stone the inscription is all about contextualizing erilaz or Erilaz.

The rune inscriptions link in with a common tendency during the Late Roman Iron Age and the early Pre Carolingian Iron Age to exhibit individuality, e.g. in graves (cf. On the Reading Rest: Roland of Ellekilde, 6 February 2012). In the graves as well as in ‘name narratives’, the ‘I contextualized’ is all that matters, even in case the man’s original proper name, such as Muha or Erafaz, is involved. As Basil suggests, … the appellations of Peter and Paul and all persons in general are distinct, yet the substance of all is one. The way contemporary Scandinavians looked upon the naming of men seems thus to equal Basil’s point of view: the essential thing is keeping the appellations together by means of a proper name functioning as a label and enhanced pronoun. In Scandinavian literacy as we know it, the pronoun ‘I’ tend to squeeze out the proper name.

This means that in the 4th century AD what rang a bell in Basil rings in Scandinavian writers too. Basil as well as the barbarians fell back on the same in the Mediterranean area non-traditional understanding of names. In Neoplatonic or Christian Late Antiquity it was an intellectual eye opener to Basil. Among barbarians in the 4th c. AD it was a simple practice, a vogue seeking to contextualize outstanding individuality, and easy to explain with reference to a society rapidly stratifying itself. This is not a question of diffusion, but rather a matter of latent ways of acting and thinking triggered by cultural intercourse, such as enrolling barbarians in the Roman army.

In the end therefore, we may add Erilaz to Basil’s Peter and Paul and rewrite his conclusion: So that the name, on the one hand demarcates for us the character of Peter, but, on the other hand, it in no way represents the substance itself. Again hearing ‘Paul’ we grasped a concurrence of other peculiarities: ‘the one from Tarsus, ‘the Jew, ‘the Pharisee according to law, ‘the student of Gamaliel’ … … all these are encompassed by the single sound ‘Paul’. And hearing ‘Erilaz’ we proceed to grasp ‘the balmy man’, ‘he who was called Raven’, ‘the writer of runes in Järsberg’.

What is important to Basil as well as the Scandinavians is saying ‘Peter, he who is … …’, ‘Paul, he who is … … ‘ and ‘Erliaz, he who is … … ‘.It turned out that in the long run the Scandinavian heroes, contrary to the heroes of Christianity, lacked supporters and we can only rely on Erilaz telling us: ‘Erilaz, I who am … … .’


[1] If you want the whole story, there are several translations of Hêliand. G. Ronald Murphy’s The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (1992) New York: Oxford University Press, is very readable.

[2] There is a lot on the net about erilaz, but one might as well read Mees, Bernhard. 2003. Runic “erilaR’. NOWELE, 42:41-68.

Albeit in Swedish all names can be checked in Lena Peterson’s dictionary at:

One can find the runetexts on Samnordisk runtextdatabas at:

This week On the Reading Rest I have a collection of  scholarly essays:

Classics and translation. Essays by D. S. Carne–Ross. Edited by Kenneth Haynes. Lewisburg. Bucknell University Press.ISBN 978-0-8387-5766-6.

And I read the first: Jocasta’s Divine Head: English with a Foreign Accent. (first published in Arion 1990, 3rd series Vol. 1 No. 1 Winter) Accessible also through JSTOR A fair and favourable review of the whole collection, by Peter Green, can be found in Times Literary Supplement Sep 2, 2011.

At there is a short description of Donald Carne-Ross’ life and academic career by Katie Kock. In the event, exporting DSC-R to the United States in 1959 stands out as a result of the post-war draining of the academic fields of Europe.

In 1964 I came to Athens by bus from Corinth. There were three of us on a tour and we had avoided Athens for well over a month. Among the very first things we did was going to the National Archaeological Museum directly to look at Cycladic and Archaic sculpture – to indulge in Pre-Classical Greece. One point in doing so was a wish to stand eye to eye with the inspiration behind a very disciplined form of Pre-World-War II modernism in Danish sculpture still alive in mid-20th century Denmark. Since we were Danes on an educational tour, more provincial Scandinavians than you would believe, this interest (and our avoiding Athens) wasn’t as odd as it may seem today. We wanted to see the foundation, the Greek mainland before past Acropolis and present Syntagma. As we had hoped and expected, there were subtle paragons of the modern in the Archaic and less subtle ones in the Cycladic, Proto-Cycladic being the most fascinating. In those days the construction of the term itself, ’Proto-Cycladic’, signified the abstract and modernistic essence of evolution. But even so, the subtle feeling of renaissance and modernity didn’t help; because here in Athens, instead of echoes of the past, it was the Henry Moore exhibition at Louisiana, north of Copenhagen, a couple of years earlier that stood out as modernism: radical sculpture forcing the voluptuous modern to expand and absorb the Proto-Cycladic as well as the past. In the early 60s this was mo(o)re and very ok!

The Danish sculptures are in the centre at the top is Jörgen Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Stående mand from 1957, and at the bottom Gottfred Eickhoff's Siddende pige, der ordner sit hår, from 1961. The poster is from the Louisiana exhibition in the early 60s

It was easy to see the difference between the strength of Moore’s modernism and the faithful Danish sculptures. Although they were, once upon a time, at the roots of modern 20th century Europe, they were also sculptural translations of Archaic Greek into unobtrousive modern Danish. Nevertheless, they still have a calm insistence on the past and the artists knew that their chisels (in Eickhoff’s sculpture) marked out the foreign teeth in their mixture of creation and translations. They were sculptures of a renaissance when the end of History, post-war modernity, had just been announced.

The power-pointed charioteer and the ‘dead’ or slightly astonished original.

It was easy to see that the sculptural expressions of Ancient Greece had also come to an end. Once intended to look both dead as a mask and alive in the super-human sense of the eternally present posture, and the intense gaze of his inlaid eyes, the elevated Charioteer in the Delphi museum lost his controlled divine agency when he lost his eyes, arm, reins, chariot and horses, and became an aesthetic exhibit. And that insight too was the 60s.

There is a tragic beauty to DC-R’s essay because it aims in vain to reinvent the importance of history and Ancient Greek as late as 1990s when the whole defence line, compulsory Classics as the foundation for the Eurocentric super-power civilisation, had long ago vanished into the thin didactic air of modern grammar schools. And then again: when characters die in tragedies they sometimes have something melodramatic, quite a lot in fact, to say for themselves. That goes for DC-R too. But more important, his text is laced with learned references that sometimes stand out as slightly arbitrary or indeed frightfully learned. Meandering rather than coming to the point, the essay reminds one of the lamentations and ‘Bildung’ of a dying actor, acting a dying era already dead. This prolonged stage of learning, crowded with intellectual properties, is perhaps not what we would have expected from an essay with a title so ostentatiously measured: Jocasta’s Divine Head. English with a Foreign Accent rather than the gentle English with a Foreign Accent: Jocasta’s Divine Head. The measured title, but not the essay echoes ‘case closed’.

As it happens, DC-R makes a point of discussing the translation of this specific expression, ‘Jocasta’s divine head’, in Oedipus Rex. In passing he points out the astonishing forcefulness of Hölderlin’s noiminalizing German, (das) Gemeinsamschwesterliches used as an adjective describing Ismene’s head, and the weaknesses of plain modern English in another part of the play. Nonetheless, DC-R thinks that an English poet, e.g. himself had he been one, could have come to terms with the Greek usage of ‘head’.

There are nevertheless several head problems: (1) the head as pars pro toto has lost its power in English; (2) one must not let the rhyme ‘dead’ – ‘head’ be heard; (3) DC-R has difficulties accepting that the divine can die. Such problems/quasi problems undermine translation as well as the announcement of its death, p. 25f.. In the end, having argued all the way up to Ezra Pound, and not a step beyond into the modernism of a Henry Moore, DC-R acknowledges that Jocasta is probably dead. Still, he is not completely without hopes that she will ‘recover’ her divine head, p. 47. The scholar doth protest too much, methinks.

To less sensible and educated souls such as mine DC-R’s case is simple: Jocasta, a symbol of Ancient Greek poetry, having grasped the width, and seen the offspring, of her incestuous relation and intercourse with her son-lover-husband Oedipus (the English Poetry), i.e. seen some of the English she gave birth to in translated poems mixing Ancient Greek and Modern English, kills herself. This is tragic, but we all agree that among the ‘children’ – recalling Antigone, Eteocles, Polynices and Ismene – the result of mixing Ancient Greek poetry and English couldn’t always have been successful.

In the tragedy, Jocasta’s suicide must be announced and it is the task of the 2nd messenger to do so. He thinks this fact can be expressed and understood by means of a series of just four words:  τέθνηκε θειον Іοκάστης κάρα, drawing attention to the facts that: Jocasta has a head, Jocasta’s head is divine and Jocasta ‘s dead; or as the messenger, who has seems to have an archaeologist’s interest in facts and material remains of the past, could have put in English:

2nd messenger: dead divine Jocasta’s head.

If this pile or words is too staccato, pointless and close to the ‘dead-head’ rhyme, i.e. if it’s not ‘poesy’[1] enough, then we may add a little extra for meter’s sake:

2nd messenger: Dead lies divine, Jocasta’s head.

This is a reasonably divided line, a syllable short, a word too long. And too iambic and anapaestic! But that, as Hopkins and Swinburne have long ago observed, is English for you [2]. The points, nevertheless, are there: (1) there’s no pars pro toto, if we don’t want it, just the head as a metaphor. (2) You need not hear the ‘dead’-‘head’ rhyme, if you don’t want to. (3) Obviously the divine may linger in the looks of someone dead, if you want it to.

The head of one of the Early Iron Age bog people, the Tollundmand

Once a useful creation, lost heritage is lost, and the line between creativity and translation always a fine one. Notwithstanding, translations without creativity tend to be sadly educational and creativity without translation nothing but original. There is no essence in today’s past.

In the Marvel universe,  on the other hand, they seem to know that somehow translation must always complement creativity. At least they never tire of recovering, reconstructing, aiding, transferring, keeping, restoring, duplicating, returning, sabotaging, re-retrieving and resurrecting – Jocasta’s head, bless ‘er:

Seeking inside information about the Avengers, the High Evolutionary recovered Jocasta’s parts and reconstructed her. She sent an emergency signal to the Avengers, who came to her aid. Again, Jocasta sacrificed her body to destroy the foe, this time preventing the detonation of a genetic bomb which would have altered mankind. However, Jocasta’s head survived the explosion, and her memories and personality remained intact, though dormant. The head was recovered by the Avengers who, unable to do anything with it, transferred her to the keeping of her friend, Machine Man. Working on restoring her, he was interrupted by one of the metal-devouring Termini and fled with Jocasta’s head. Both Machine Man and Jocasta were taken to a nearby factory belonging to Sunset Bain (Madam Menace), where Bain covertly duplicated Jocasta’s head and returned a sabotaged copy to Machine Man. The head was later stolen by Mechadoom and re-retrieved by Machine Man, who, unaware of Bain’s interference, was unable to resurrect Jocasta.

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[1] It is a well-known fact that Water Rat, i.e. the Victorian poet in the Wind in the Willows, and a contemporary of one of DC-R’s favourites, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who despite his Archaic preferences had to confess the unpleasant feeling of an affinity of the mind with the ‘very great scoundrel’ Walt Whitman, a sentiment similar to Water Rat’s when he feels attached to Sea Rat — it is a well-known fact that Water Rat abhorred the way Toad, that most prolific writer of English verse in iambic and anapaestic meter, used the verb ‘to learn’:

The Toad, having finished his breakfast, picked up a stout stick and swung it vigorously, belabouring imaginary animals. `I’ll learn ’em to steal my house!’ he cried. `I’ll learn ’em, I’ll learn ’em!’
`Don’t say “learn ’em,” Toad,’ said the Rat, greatly shocked. `It’s not good English.’
`What are you always nagging at Toad for?’ inquired the Badger, rather peevishly. `What’s the matter with his English? It’s the same what I use myself, and if it’s good enough for me, it ought to be good enough for you!’
`I’m very sorry,’ said the Rat humbly. `Only I THINK it ought to be “teach ’em,” not “learn ’em.”‘
`But we don’t WANT to teach ’em,’ replied the Badger. `We want to LEARN ’em–learn ’em, learn ’em! And what’s more, we’re going to DO it, too! 

So, you simply can’t use ‘poesy’, and don’t pronounce it like ‘cosy’, as an adjective. DC-R doesn’t like Victorian translations either.

 [2] DC-R quotes Swinburne, p. 38, but also a letter from Gerard Manley Hopkins, p.37, to Robert Bridges where iambic and anapaestic are similarly discussed, cf. Letters to Robert Bridges, (Letter XC 18 October 1882, see p. 156 f.).