Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Mighty Dead - Homer Matters for sure...but why?

We take a departure from our usual interacting with the original texts (or at least translations of them) to delve into Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters (published by William Collins 2014/15). I have to say that I am not normally a fan of general books about Classics or for that matter other ancient historical subjects. The result of most of them tends to be a bit like fast food, quite enjoyable at the time but soon after digesting them one comes away with the feeling of ‘What was that about? I still don’t know’. Or to add a further analogy, a book about the making of a film or the background history to a novel rather than the novel itself. For me it has to be something really special, a complete departure the kind one finds in W.G.Sebold, or Durrell. It has to be pure poetical flight of fancy or serious in-depth crunchy analysis. The Mighty Dead steers a middle course between the two, at times fascinating and at others almost contrived and irrelevant. A hit and miss affair.
With Nicholson we get bits of both but never quite enough to sustain the book as a whole and therefore in the final analysis a failure for me. I get the fact that Homer really matters according the writer, he mentions it enough in as many contexts as he can, but I still don’t really know why. I am not sure if he has made a convincing case – and by a convincing case I mean a well thought out, sustained, and coherent argument which has the strong possibility of swaying the naysayers such as the Goncourts of this world. There are flashes of it and he says some really perceptive and surprising things about Homer and the world to which he might have belonged and the ones which he (or she or even they depending on which scholarship you go for personally) evoked in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
As I came across these brief flashes of insight my appetite was whetted and I thought he was going to take off but the Sopwith Camel left the chocks and taxied down the fairway but then veered off into the bushes, containing a fascinating anecdote about one thing or another, loosely connected to the Homeric world. A bizarre case in point is the authors harrowing experience in Syria at the hands of a knife wielding chancer during an evening stroll. Nicholson describes even this event as ‘Homeric’ likening it to the women and children as victims of violence during Illiadic conflict. I have an issue with this in the sense that if it’s possible to ‘homercize’ these kinds of things then it’s difficult to see what cannot be made so . Will we find ourselves holding a roasted chicken aloft on the end of our umbrella during a visit to M&S and declaring at top of our voices that this is a Homeric act! This leads me back to why I am not a big fan of these kinds of books – the conclusion of most them being that everything is simply fascinating and interconnected. It’s something we instinctively know and don’t need to be instructed in, however many anecdotes are strung together to illustrate it.
I have issues as a Classicist and as an Ancient Historian with the work as well. I don’t wholly agree with his ideas of northern Steppes mobile warrior culture meets sedate city dweller but sophisticated southern Mediterranean cultures to fuse into the Homeric synthesis – it smacks too much of the dualistic conceit that many lightweight analyses fall into. It’s really difficult to avoid this and requires a stronger grip on the facts and theory to be able to create something truly perceptive, especially about a period about which so little is known.
I am troubled by his chronology, and some of his offhand references. Anyone who refers to ‘shogunal Japan (whatever that means) could be accused of a lazy historical shorthand – dangerous when dealing with well documented periods, utterly lethal where the evidence is scanty.
Having said all this negative stuff, I do like a lot of what he says about Homer. His love and passion for the subject is clear and very endearing and he does have some genuinely good ideas about the work. I particularly liked his comparison between the Iliad and the Odyssey as the worlds of fate and fixed paths versus anything could happen, despair and doom versus the possibility of something good around the corner, that the future can be made in the Odyssey where it is written in the Iliad and can never be avoided. I found a lot of what he has to say about the works and what they might mean very rewarding and stimulating reading. In a way the book might have been better as a long essay with all of these imaginative theoretical speculations compressed and sustained. As it is, the book does meander and tie some very tenuous links to places where they shouldn’t really go – Spanish mining locations for the House of Hades, or the Tale of Sinuhe for examples.
So there were some things I liked about this book but I was reminded why I tend not to read these sorts of things! I would prefer to stick to the texts or read something more scholarly I guess but that it is my personal bias. The key peeve remains that a general reader probably still wouldn’t know why on earth Homer matters and therefore the title is a misnomer surely. I also think that he was unlucky with his Greek teacher, being unable to make anything of Homer as a young student. That was not my experience at all – but then I was fortunate enough to start my study of Greek at a slightly older age, although still at school and have a teacher who was able to convey the magic and power of the language to us, especially with Homers Iliad and Odyssey. There was also nothing about the teaching of Homer or how it could be relevant and matter to future generations…on this Nicholson seems to have little to say. Another strange thing is the inclusion of Greek words in transliteration and describing their meaning. I can’t see that this much use to the non-Greek reader and to those who do its faintly annoying that the original script (with bracketed transcription) isn’t included. Perhaps this is unfair since it may be a printing issue or following a convention of many non-specialist books on ancient/classical matters.
I look forward to discussing these issues with you at the next Legendum

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Socrates in Love - the Symposium


Plato's Symposium marks a departure in both theme and structure from the exploration of the Socratic method of dialectics common to the previous dialogues. It comes as a particular surprise, albeit a very pleasant one, that Plato should write so extensively on the theme of love, such an unusual work coming from someone who would strictly limit or do away with poetry in his ideal image of a utopian Republic.

But perhaps its purpose is dual, not only to showcase some of the ideas and attitudes towards sexual love, male and otherwise in 5th Century Athens and in the process provide a vehicle to introduce a beginners module as it were to his pet Theory of Forms,  with the ever brilliant and engaging Socrates as posthumous spokesman, but also to create a personal and impassioned yet gentle homage to his greatest hero and to offer much by way of apology for one of the greatest thinkers the west has ever produced.  

I feel compelled to say this because, more than any other work of his, the Symposium is replete with warmth, wit and humour as well as very touching scenes of loving friendship between males in company that make for a very endearing poignant and inspiring work, one that is still resonating with us today as a work of so many facets for so short a piece of writing. In this short work we go on a journey from bland and flat rhetoric to the very sublime heights of the purpose of life itself...against a backdrop of very human and life-like characters drinking and enjoying an evening of stimulating sublime conversation as well as some fine teasing and ribaldry in true Athenian, even Aristophanian fashion. There is much of the sublime and ridiculous in the work, both quite admirable qualities when expertly mixed in the wine bowl!

I was going to write in some detail about each of the speeches but I have decided in the interests of time and the approaching end of the year to refer in passing to our very stimulating discussion of them when we last met. The thing that strikes me in particular about this work is that it comes across strongly as Plato’s attempt to leave both an homage and an apology for Socrates and give the lie to his accusers picture of him as a corrupter of youth and one who was impious and worshipped other gods. Perhaps it was this endearing love of his hero that caused Plato to embark on such an unusually dramatic and vivid piece of writing in the first place. I can also recommend Benjamin Jowett’s (Master of Balliol and translator of the Dialogues of Plato in five volumes for the Oxford University Press 3rd Edition 1892) analysis and introduction to the Symposium, which although dated, is remarkable for its very even handed and almost prescient treatment of the issues throughout the dialogue.

I would also like to mention a couple of the things in the text itself that struck me as particularly interesting. One of these is the framing narrative at the start of the work where an unknown person has heard of the discourse in praise of love by Socrates at the celebratory dinner held in honour of Agathon and wanting to hear the account more accurately asks Apollodorus to recount it to him.

The story or rather action of the Symposium is buried Russian doll-like inside other times and the accounts and retellings of different voices at different times - it’s almost a precursor of the technique which features heavily in later masterpieces of narrative such as The Thousand and One Nights. Further hints at later Arab literary usage or at least inspiration arise from the concept of the lover and the beloved, in Pausanias’ speech and in Alcibiades speech on the effect of Socrates upon him and by extension all men fortunate enough to really hear what he is saying. I’m thinking of works of Sufi literature such as the Mantiq-ut-Tayr (c. 1177) of Attar of Nishapur in which several concepts of Platonic theory of Forms as applied to love and desire are mirrored and expanded upon. Another is the theme of role reversal, firstly in the passage dealing with Socrates and Diotima, possibly the most mysterious and fascinating of all of the sequences in the Symposium, where Socrates become the pupil who is subjected to his own dialectic method and found to know next to nothing about love and ripe for instruction at the feet of Diotima, seeress, wise woman and teacher of the ways of love.

Secondly where Alcibiades turns from the pursued, supremely confident in his sexual allure, and is transformed into the maddened pursuer, trying everything he can to get Socrates to have sex with him - finally realising that his would-be conquest is entirely on another plane, with a concept of love and the real love of wisdom that will hurl him into a deeper frenzy and eventually blow his mind altogether.

What Socrates offers is the higher love beyond all base or mere physical loves and the key to the mysteries of existence and the soul itself. Its Plato’s theory of Forms for sure, but no dry exegesis, rather a scintillating, radiant and maddening piece of inspiration which has reverberated down the years and across continents, its slim volume containing a bewildering array of ideas, expertly woven with some fine and heart-warming dramatic scenes, as vivid now as when they were first composed. After such an inspiring work where can we possibly go next? Homer must be the only answer!

Euge and Happy Saturnalia 2015

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Aristophanes' Clouds - A nail in Socrates' Coffin or just an Athenian youthquake?


Aristophanes' Clouds, performed in at the City Dionysia in 423 BCE, focusses on taking the rise out of the local intellectual trends in Athens of the day, chiefly the Sophists, the itinerant self-appointed teachers who gave lessons in a wide range of subjects, notoriously for a fee, who had started to attract the young men of the city in search of a quick training in rhetoric and how to manipulate any argument good or bad to their advantage and win over any opponent in the law courts or the agora in debates.

But there are other themes throughout the play that for me take centre stage, the long interchange between Superior Argument and Inferior Argument (or Stronger and Weaker Argument), which, despite gaudy jesters garb, poking fun at the intellectual debates of the day, is really about the generational conflict resulting from a drift of the city youth to the feet of these provocative new, controversial thinkers, sons versus fathers, old ways versus new, the village green preservation society bemoaning the new-fangled threatening changes afoot, cold showers versus wild sex fuelled wine binges (doubtless in the 5th C equivalent of transparent chiffon chitons!)…’you get my drift man’…as a bearded Athenian hipster might have intoned to his fuming parent as he bunked school for the nearest sophists soapbox.  Impiety debates ripple under the surface of the text, breaking forth into extremes such as faux(?) hymns to the gods (l. 533-574 and l.593-613) or at the other end of the spectrum, where Pheidippides, the wayward son proclaims, ‘There is no Zeus, Young Vortex reigns and has kicked Zeus out!’ (l.1471-2), repeating the very phrase his father uses against him in a display of intergenerational verbal cross-dressing (1.811-34); the world gone mad indeed!

But how on earth does Socrates, father of dialectic, almost daemon like in his moral purity, get lumped in with these crazy world inverting ‘charlatans’ suspended in a basket, a ridiculous buffoon posing as a meteorologically obsessed anti-deus ex-machina? He has been mentioned in other plays and must have been at least a known figure if not well known by this time by the theatre going populace at least..he was an associate of the ill-starred Alcibiades and it was more likely to have been that fact which eventually led to his trial and execution rather than any result of Aristophanes play. Moreover, Socrates condemnation took place well after the performance of the Clouds..almost a generation later and so it seems even less likely that a play which came third in the Dionysia of 423 would be preying on the minds of the jurors at his trial in 399 BCE. In short Aristophanes was funny but didn’t really seem to pull that much weight in political circles…he had little to no effect on the political decisions affecting the War (431-404 BC) or in swinging public opinion against the chicanery of Cleon, the corrupt Athenian general and one of the playwright’s favourite targets of his satirical invective.

I have been reading the 1930 Loeb Translation by Benjamin Bickley Rogers, which although quite lively on the whole, is an uneven affair, with much of the biblical radiation through so typical of the era to wade through (Thee, Thou, Thine, quotha get the picture), so invariably the rude bits are glossed over or bowdlerised or just erased altogether, some of the passages don’t make a whole lot of sense, despite being a relatively faithful translation. This doesn’t help a play which in the form we have is already a rehashed and slightly unbalanced work with elements of Old Comedy, Tragedy and what seem to be pure random experimentation with meter and style.  This seems to be the rewrite after the play failed to get a prize, which could explain the Clouds addressing the audience and taking them to task for failing to sufficiently praise and reward the play and recognise the genius of its creator with its hindsight fuelled remonstrations, pleas and finally threats, notably to ruin crops – the former job of the usurped Gods.

For all its uneven outgrowths, the play still has timeless appeal due to its themes of New versus Old, the perennial war of ideas and mores…and some clever interplay between the human and meta-human characters. This is probably why it is one of the easier entry points to the appreciation of Aristophanes, less in-jokes, less localised flavour and a move away from the strictly political to a more free flowing banter between the new and disturbing ideas in the air in Fifth century Athens during a relatively peaceful interlude during the Peloponnesian War – the Peace of Nicias in 421. It’s interesting to note that the play was written and performed when Aristophanes (446-386 BCE) was only he almost definitely had first-hand experience of his generations’ turbulent fascination with the new modes of thought fashion and attitudes whirl-winding through Athens in the wake of the upheaval of interregional conflict. Clouds stands as a mirror to the war of ideas that erupted in the wake of societal breakdown engendered by the horrors of war. Bizarre shades of Vietnam and Haight-Ashbury!

There is a lot more to discuss about this play which I hope to go over with you when we next meet – until then….Gnothe Seauton!



Sunday, 16 August 2015

Medea - Sympathy for the She-Devil?

Euripides' play Medea was first presented at the city Dionysia in 431 as part of a customary set of four including Philoctetes, Dictys and the satyr play The Reapers and was awarded third prize. I have been reading the Loeb version of David Kovacs which as is to be expected with this series, respectable and workmanlike if a little flat upon occasion. It may not be entirely due to the translator who is often having to carve a reasonably straight path on varied and troubled waters, the least of his/her problems being corruptions or lacuna is the extant MSS. But I think that the play itself seems a very perfunctory affair, with its right on cue almost telegraphed moments, Medea wondering where she can go once Creon has announced her exile and Aegeus the aged king of Athens promptly entering by Eisodos A dressed in travellers garb, the NPCs, Nurse and Chorus Leader chivvying things along at an almost painting by numbers pace. The only exceptions to this are some of the long speeches given to Medea which are quite remarkable for their expression of passionate torment and inner turmoil of a woman caught within the cruel and constrictive cage of male social order. The same can be said for the longer and heated exchanges between her and Jason at the centre of the short play. It seems that she has no choice but to be 'mad and bad' and pursue the terrible actions she commits - and that is the curious point of my title here - should we have sympathy with her and how much? Can we have much real sympathy for a mere human agent acting out the squabbling of the gods, Hera and Athena versus Zeus/Themis/Artemis? In short, why would we care? We are witnessing the actions of an instrument - an automaton as messenger of divine vengeance or will - is Medea in there? And if we can salvage some independent will can our sympathy therefore take us with her to the slaying of her own children as an act of feminist defiance?

 If we remember from our last text and Apollonius Rhodius' background, in Book III of The Voyage of Argo, Hera and Aphrodite are wringing their hands over how they might aid Jason to get the Golden Fleece and hit upon the ruse of getting Aphrodite to send Cupid to loose an arrow into Medea and cause her to fall in love with Jason and therefore do anything to aid him in his quest, in some traditions, going as far as fratricide to do so. So already we have Medea acting under the influence as it were and not in control and therefore not wholly responsible for her actions. In Euripides play line 16 of the Nurses speech, 'now all is enmity, and love's bonds are diseased. For Jason, abandoning his own children and my mistress is bedding down in a royal match, having married the daughter of Creon, ruler of this land. Poor Medea, finding herself cast aside, calls loudly on his oaths, invokes the mighty assurance of his sworn right hand, and calls the gods to witness the unjust return she is getting from Jason.' And the Gods? Zeus will be her advocate as the Chorus states (l.148) and might Themis and lady Artemis are enjoined to see what Medea suffers.

We remember that Jason did not cut a particularly consistent figure as hero in the Voyage of Argo and at the expense of making him all too human, Apollonius arouses our slight misgivings about him, there not being something quite right, not 100% hero material about him, a whiff of inconsistency or even as if borne out in Euripides handling of Jason, one of inconstancy - or at the very least brutal male sexual realpolitik. For that reason we are not given to seeing Jason in a particularly warm light either. So where did the sympathies of the ancient audience lie? Is it useful to retrofit the play with such relatively modern confabulations such as feminist critique and paint Medea as a proto or in the words of some the first feminist figure in western literature? Is this the reason for the plays lasting popularity resonance and fascination throughout its modern reception? That may account for us, but I repeat; what on earth did the original audience make of this play? What was Euripides up to? Is Medea an example of the danger of barbarian wives, steeped in the mystery of the east (she is usually depicted in Eastern garb with potion mixing paraphernalia from a very early period) but lethal and prone to magic/poison when her wrath is stirred? Or is Medea, Euripides way of throwing a light on the unfair and constricting social conventions of (male dominated) Athenian society? It did come third after all so if anything there were reasons for it failing to receive first prize. What were they? Was there a great difference in quality between the first second and third prizes? Perhaps it was the shocking violence of the slayings in the play deviously schemed and ruthlessly carried out, albeit with a very momentary flicker of motherly remorse and hesitation. The play end quite as abruptly as it opens and it all feels a bit too slick almost 2 dimensional in plot terms - especially when compared with Sophocles Antigone for example. Much to discuss as usual!


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Sex and violence on the open seas: Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica Books I and II


The first two books of Apollonius are replete with bizarre encounters and sudden extreme acts of violence, the visit to the isle of Lemnos, where the women folk have slain the entire male population, fierce hand to hand fights with outlandish six armed creatures, a freakish night battle in which the Argonauts slay their erstwhile hosts by mistake and a ring-side seat at a beach rumble ending in a nail-biting scene right out of the Fist of the North Star! Its vivid language adds to the excitement with the action carried along by liberal sprinklings of contracted and elided conjunctions.  I am referring to the fight between Amycus the bullying tyrant of the warlike tribe of the Bebryces and Polydeuces – the Rocky Balboa of his age. Here in Book II. 90-95, at the end of a long and drawn out punch drunk grapple with Polydeuces, Amycus meets his end.

‘And now Amycus, rising tiptoe like a man felling an ox, stretched up to his full height and brought his heavy fist down on the other. But Polydeuces dodged the blow by a turn of his head, taking the forearm on the edge of his shoulder. Then, closing warily, he landed him a lightning blow above the ear and smashed the bones inside. Amycus collapsed on his knees in Agony; the Minyan lords raised a shout of triumph; and in a moment the man was dead.’                             (From E.V.Rieu’s Translation)

E.V. Rieu’s spirited and pacy rendering is quite freewheeling and as a result tends to lose some of the verbal richness and echo play of the Iliad and Odyssey, the epic forerunners and inspirational source material for Apollonius. At the end of the excerpt above he renders the Homeric tinged phrasing of the original with a pretty bald ’then he died’ type of bathetic statement. The original quasi-epic Greek has him, ‘pouring out his spirit in a torrent’, vividly combining the loss of his soul and most of his life blood – and without the the ancient Greek we lose the impact of the grisly onomatopoeia of the death punch with the verb at the end of the descriptive phrase, ‘ ostea d’eisou..rexen’. The whole passage is full of the abbreviated chopped off connective/adversative particle  de (d’), giving the impression that the narrator can hardly get his words out due to the breathless excitement and the sheer speed of the action on front of his eyes. It could have come right out of 3rd Century BC sports commentary of a boxing match! To be fair to Rieu, he has followed the path of most modern translators who remove a lot of the conjunctions and particles that would be superfluous or even obstructive to rhythms of English, but in the ancient (faux-epic Alexandrine?) Greek makes so much of the atmosphere and provides vivid and exciting pacing devices, especially in action scenes like the beach rumble with Arch-thug Amycus.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Callimachus and Apollonius - The Short and Long of it


It seems that I have been overdoing the lentus in umbra a bit so I thought I would post a little by way of background to our next text reading of the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes (born 295 BCE). Apollonius was a protege or erstwhile pupil to the Alexandrian scholar-poet Callimachus of Cyrene (born 310 BCE) the former being the younger presumably even though by all scholarly accounts Callimachus outlived his mentee and rival. Yes rivals for it seems that at first the two got on rather well but later became antagonists and even according to some traditions bitter enemies.

There are two strands to this rivalry or perhaps one with two branches, an artistic feud over whether short richly allusive poetic works (the sort we tend to associate the Hellenistic age with) were superior to the longer epic (in the vein of Homeric homage) type works, and a more personal level to and fro-ing based on the fact that Callimachus was passed over for promotion at the library of Alexandria when Ptolemy II Eugertes favoured Apollonius for the position of chief librarian. Its really difficult to judge how much of this is genuine history since our only real source of biographical information for both men apart from the odd snippet deduced from the fragments of poetry themselves (in Callimachus' case especially) comes from the Suda (Greek for Fortress or Stronghold), a 10th Century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient mediterranean world.

The information contained therein is culled from a variety of conflicting sources over a thousand years after the death of both men and so we should be careful not to take the embellishments too much at face value. The argument  for which they have come to symbolize or stand as representative poles, namely the chestnut of long versus short poetical works of the period, had been going on before their birth and continued to rage on through the remainder of the Hellenistic period (323-30 BCE).

I have been reading Callimachus' collected fragments, the Aetia (causes), Iambi, Hecale and others and despite the text coming across as having been through a shredder, peppered with lacunae and untranslatable segments it is often very interesting and makes for fascinating and upon occasion moving reading.The poetical feud seems in evidence from time to time as one reads through the fragmented remains and Callimachus does make the odd barbed comment against longer types of poetical works and by extension their authors.

In Aetia, Against the Telechines l.16-18 he states '...but poems are sweeter for being short (mellikroterai). Begone, you baneful race of jealousy! hereafter judge poetry by (the canons) of art, and not by the Persian chain.' 

It is interesting to note that the Telechines was another name for the inhabitants of Crete, Rhodes, Sicyon, Ceos or Cyprus...all famed for beating out items from copper and for being mischievous sorcerers - Apollonius was known to have self exiled himself to Rhodes following a falling out with Callimachus so this could be a subtle side swipe at the younger poet as a 'hammerer' of his own poetry to form newer mongrel type genres. 

Callimachean poetry is very rich in allusions and is doubly mysterious due to the fragmentary nature and the obscurity of the references. Callimachus loves to allude to myth wherever possible and where it isn't he just shoehorns one in anyway - probably in order to demonstrate his incredibly deep and detail mythological and poetic erudition. The meters add an extra dimension to his work and are highly complex and delicately intricate, bound up very cleverly with the theme of the individual poem - a good example of this would be the stichic archebouleion metre employed in the lyric poem The Deification of ArsinoĆ©, the sister and wife of Ptolemy II Philadelphos who died in 270 BCE. 

Arsinoe and Ptolemy II Philadelphos

A diaresis comes after the third anapest, which is a line division that coincides with the end of a word, so that there is a trailing continuation of an extra couple of words at the end of a particular line, or a false ending feeling with something trailing after - this is used to striking effect in this poem since much of its rolling , flowing and speeding imagery is evocative of the dead queen's spirit flying up into the sky beyond the astral heights as it coils up from within the trailing smoke columns of her funeral pyre. This kind of poetry is so rich and complex on so many levels that it's clear that it could not really be sustained in the context of longer epic works. Perhaps this is why the two genres were considered to be poles apart and hence each had its ardent adherents and aggressive detractors - and also why the two men, for better or worse, came to be crystallised as its representative combatants.

It may also have been the view of many Alexandrian scholar-poets that, since it was impossible to outdo or even emulate the Homeric epics, they should rather seek out other poetic avenues of their own such as the intense and richly allusive lyric poetry of Callimachus. Paradoxically it is just as likely that the same conclusion had driven his pupil Apollonius in the opposite direction in an attempt to do something new with the Homeric epic format, in the process arguably creating one of the literary worlds' earliest quasi-novelistic treatments of mythological subject matter.

By all accounts Apollonius appears to have been the more successful (in some ways) in his poetic and creative reaction to the Homeric literary gauntlet and his epic work the Voyage of the Argo went on in later antiquity to inspire the Roman epic poets, Virgil and Lucan amongst others. Euge!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Virgil's Eclogues - A mixed bag of radical Theocritan riffs

Salve! I have read and reread the Eclogues a few times now and looked at the Latin closely too and I can’t help agreeing in essence with Samuel Johnson (more of him later) and his judgement of the whole work as uneven with flashes of brilliant innovation. Virgil’s Beano Album maybe? Or more possibly his Truth Album to continue the early British rock guitarist (Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck respectively) parallels. I feel that Virgil is more Beck than Clapton but that is a purely anachronistic and personal observation! Besides, I am known to be biased towards Lucan as the great(est) unsung prodigy of Roman epic hexameter. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that with the Eclogues we are in the presence of the master, or at the very least a master even it does smack more of a sweaty guitar work out in the garage than the later Aeneidan Rhaspsody of the next few years of Virgil’s career.
 The Eclogues (literally ‘accounts, records or drafts’) thought to have been composed sometime between 44 and 38 BCE must have made quite an impression at the time. To take an Alexandrian favourite of the Roman poets, the Idylls of Theocritus of Sicily (c. 270 BCE) and use it as a framework or background to reflect political issues of the day (Eclogues I and X which seem to doorframe the Arcadian rustic wordplay of the intervening eclogues) was a truly innovative and radical step – no-one but Virgil could have dared to attempt the chops.

 It’s difficult to know whether or not one can say that the experiment was a success since, how are we to judge something so utterly new in the context of its own time? It’s also difficult to ascertain just exactly what Virgil is doing with the Pastoral genre – a highly mythologised and ideal non-existent rustic paradise – as a backdrop for farm evictions and the not so distant rumbling of war and its devastating and disrupting force to the countryside. Do we therefore judge the Eclogues as reinterpretations or homages to Theocritan idyll for a sophisticated Roman readership/audience? How political are or were they? Is the interchange between Tityrus and Meliboeus in Eclogue I meant to underline the inequity of the land confiscations or its unexpected and welcome munificence? Both perhaps…’deus nobis haec otia fecit’ with Octavian/Augustus obliquely referenced here. There are some subtle sub-narratives going in the texts concerning the role of the poet, and fame in posterity as well as the wider meaning of poetry and its purpose which I think fare better as lightly disguised thought experiments but it is a rocky road kind of trip for sure.

The format/style of the eclogues is amoebaean bucolic hexameter (interlinked exchanges of poetry by two or more voices, each taking up the ending line or theme of the preceding singer singing contests between shepherds singing of thwarted love, the golden age to come, or just singing matches in front of a judge for the best rustic poetaster – all in a landscape positively groaning under the weight of honey dripping bees hives and piles of sweating wool stained with creamy milk. Phew!

 There is not much in terms of technical theatrics that is not present in Theocritus – the difference being Virgil’s polish and flashy word play. There is more emphasis on Eros as love as opposed to the lust, wild abandon and slapstick buggery of the idylls and has been replaced by something more elevated and possibly blander in comparison. And this is where I return to Samuel Johnson (1709-84) who penned a lit crit review of sorts of the Eclogues for issue 92 of the Adventurer issue dated September 22, 1753 – who had it appears similar misgivings to my own about the unevenness of the work despite its flashes of brilliance.

He has this to say in his preamble of Virgil’s use of the Theocritan model:-

 ‘Virgil, however, taking advantage of another language, ventured to copy or to rival the ‘Sicilian bard’: he has written with greater splendour of diction, and elevation of sentiment: but as the magnificence of his performances was more, the simplicity was less; and, perhaps, where he excels Theocritus, he sometimes obtains his superiority by deviating from the pastoral character, and performing what Theocritus never attempted.’

He goes on to express his concerns:-

 ‘But though his general merit has been universally acknowledged, I am far from thinking all the productions of his rural Thalia equally excellent; there is, indeed, in all his pastorals a strain of versification which it is vain to seek in any other poet; but if we except the first and the tenth, they seem liable either wholly or in part to considerable objections.’

He likes the first Eclogue principally on the grounds of its innovation ‘by deviating from the pastoral character, and performing what Theocritus never attempted.’ but here are his comments (in periphrasis with apologies) of the others in brief.

Eclogue II: Corydon and Alexis and their unmentionable if forgivable love…but for Mr. Johnson, soggy lettuce leaves rather than the verdant shoots of desire.

III: The singing contest between two shepherds. Basically not much cop and he considered the invective a bit below the dignity of pastoral. The thought immediately springs to mind; had he actually read the Idylls (in particular see: Idylls V, Comatas [41], [43])?

IV: Poem to Pollio. It is filled with ‘images at once splendid and pleasing, and is elevated with grandeur of language worthy of the first of Roman poets. ’Johnson however finds ridiculous the idea for the return of the golden age to be predicated upon the birth of his son  and is convinced that ‘so wild a fiction’ had another purpose, probably involving Emperors hind quarters and tongue (editors irreverent notes).

V: Daphnis. Thumbs up as pastoral elegies go although he can’t resist having a side swipe with this ‘yet whoever shall read it with impartiality, will find that most of the images are of the mythological kind, and therefore easily invented; and that there few sentiments of rational praise or natural lamentation.’ He seems a tad demanding here since what more could you expect from an artificial paradise such as pastoral pretends to? Perhaps like me he feels that the genre just cannot carry the politics too easily. Perhaps even Virgil realised that after penning Eclogues I and X (possibly composed first) and decided to riff closer to the Theocritan model for the other sections.

VI: Tityrus addresses Varus, a soldier (?) and after starting off with war as a potential theme admits it to be too heavy for the pastoral mode and opts for a drunken and charming tale of a drunken Silenus tangoed while sleeping off the booze by a couple of Arcadian ne’er do wells called Chromis and Mnasyllos. Johnson’s reaction to this eclogue can be summarised as a wtf moment, ‘the fiction of Silenus seems injudicious: nor has any sufficient reason yet been found, to justify his choice of those fables that make the subject of the song.’ It would be like having a death metal band Cradle of Filth for example or Slipknot suddenly change gear into a soulful mandolin rendition of Summer Holiday by Cliff Richard. Wtf indeed.

VIII: Johnson doesn’t even consider this an original piece of work being lifted from Theocritus practically with no changes except to render it bland and pointless, ‘Of the eighth pastoral, so little is properly the work of Virgil, that he has no claim to other praise or blame, than that of a translator.’ The tried and trusted stock pastoral themes of the cruelty of love…the track on this rustic goat path must be well worn.

IX: Samuel is confused again with this one, ‘ is scarce possible to discover design or tendency; it is said, I know not upon what authority, to have been composed from fragments of other poems…..there is nothing that seems appropriated to any time or place, or of which any other use can be discovered than to fill up the poem. In short, Arcadian puffery.

X: See I. ‘the first and tenth pastorals, whatever be determined of the rest, are sufficient to place their author above the reach of rivalry. The complaint of Gallus disappointed in his love, is full of such sentiments a disappointed love naturally produces; his wishes are wild, his resentment is tender, and his purposes are inconstant. In the genuine language of despair, he soothes himself awhile with the pity that shall be paid him after his death.’

Johnson reserves his warmest praise for the first Eclogue, one which he views as the most successful and convincing in tone, ‘I cannot forbear to give preference to the first, which is equally natural and more diversified. The complaint of the shepherd, who saw his old companion at ease in the shade, while himself was driving his flock he knew not whither, is such as, with variation of circumstances, misery always utters at the sight of prosperity;

Nos patriae fines, et dulcia linquimus arra;
Nos patrium fugimus: Tu Tityre, lentus in umbra
Formosam resonare doces Amaryllida sylvas. Ec.i.3.

‘Lentus in umbra’…this summer’s motto!


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Episthenes - elite warrior and lover of boys

Episthenes – Elite Fighter and Lover of Boys


For I moment I thought I was mistaken about the provenance of this intriguing and dramatic vignette, having mentioned it a few weeks to a fellow Legendite. I did get the story slightly wrong. My memory had added a horse for some reason (echoes of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play ‘Equus’), but I got the atmosphere about right. A beautiful boy, his admirer offering his neck to him and the life of both spared. It’s a curious and erotically charged vision on the battle scarred frozen slopes of Thracia, in stark contrast (or perhaps parallel) to the cruelty and wanton blood lust of Seuthes.
I give the text in translation taken from public domain sources. It is relatively unusual to openly cite the soldier as a paederastes and perhaps Xenephon’s reason for including this is to contrast the love between soldiers and youths or close bonds between males based on love with that of the cruel and heartless attitudes common amongst barbarians such as the barbarian leaders the Greeks found themselves fighting with and against.

It’s a peculiar and strangely alluring scene which for me really stuck in the memory – possibly because of the idea of an overriding passion and spontaneous offer of a warrior’s life for the love of a beautiful boy about to be needlessly slain; for the ideal of beauty and the promise of love to lay one’s life on the line. It may well have been merely a dramatic gesture on Episthenes’ part and not so much of a gamble since, after all, as an elite mercenary hoplite he would have been a highly prized and indispensable military unit. If Xenephon’s prize horse could fetch as much as 50 Darics, how much more valuable must the best front line warriors of the age have been.

Here is the excerpt

Xenephon, Anabasis VII/4.7-11
[7]There was a certain Episthenes of Olynthus who was a lover of boys, and upon seeing a handsome boy, just in the bloom of youth and carrying a light shield, on the point of being put to death, he ran up to Xenophon and besought him to come to the rescue of a handsome lad.
[8] So Xenophon went to Seuthes and begged him not to kill the boy, telling him of Episthenes' turn of mind, how he had once assembled a battalion with an eye to nothing else save the question whether a man was handsome, and that with this battalion he proved himself a brave man.
[9] And Seuthes asked: “Would you even be willing, Episthenes, to die for this boy's sake?” Then Episthenes stretched out his neck and said, “Strike, if the lad bids you and will be grateful.”
[10] Seuthes asked the boy whether he should strike Episthenes in his stead. The boy forbade it, and besought him not to slay either. Thereupon Episthenes threw his arms around the boy and said: “It is time, Seuthes, for you to fight it out with me for this boy; for I shall not give him up.”
And Seuthes laughed and let the matter go. He resolved, however, to establish a camp where they were, in order that the people on the mountain should not be supplied with food from these villages, either.

[11] So he himself went quietly down the mountain and encamped upon the plain, while Xenophon with his picked men took quarters in the uppermost village below the summit and the rest of the Greeks close by, among the so-called “mountain” Thracians.

[Sources Used: Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 3. Carleton L. Brownson. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1922

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Good, the bad and the thoroughly disreputable: Xenephon's Anabasis Book II, Chapter 6.

The Good, the bad and the thoroughly disreputable: moral sketches of of Clearchus, Proxenus and Meno in Xenephons Anabasis 2.6

Eheu! We find a remarkable turn of events for the Greek mercenary force accompanying Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to overthrow his brother Atarxerxes and seize the throne. After assembling at Sardis and making their way through the citied plains and low hills of Phrygia (as described in Book 1) the combined Greek and barbarian mercenary force do battle at Cunaxa. Its a very mixed result since although the Greek forces rout all before them, Cyrus is killed in battle following a rash attempt to personally kill Atarxerxes, rendering any victory hollow indeed.

The Greeks including our narrator Xenephon are now leaderless, without allies, surrounded by hostile forces in a strange and inhospitable land. During a truce meeting with the Persian forces set up by the perfidious Tissaphernes, the Greek generals are seized and later executed. Clearchus, the erstwhile leader of the expedition together with Proxenus and Meno are given short moralistic obituaries in chapter 6. It is interesting to look at how Xenephon holds them up to the glass of posterity and contrasts them with each other and by implication his previous account of the death of Cyrus. I looked at this chapter through the eyes of two translators, Edward Spelman (d.1767) and Robin Waterfield (2005) to see how they dealt with Xenephons Attic Greek renowned for its lucidity and elegance. There is a similarity between the two translators in that they are both independent scholars and authors as opposed to institution attached academics. Spelman in particular seemed disdainful of the universty education of his day. But there the similarity ends, Spelman being a gentleman of leisure and of independent means due to his inherited seat and wealth, Waterfield a modern professional writer earning his living by his pen. Edward Gibbon the renowned historian thought Spelmans translations to be the finest available in the English language at the time.

Here are the opening sentences of Book II Chapter 6, first Spelman and then Waterfield.

'The generals, being thus apprehended, were carried off to the king, by whose orders their heads were cut off. One of them, Clearchus, was allowed by all that knew him to have been a man both of a military genius, and one who delighted in war to the last degree; for, as long as the Lacedaemonians were at war with the Athenians, he continued in the service of his country; but after the peace he persuaded his fellow-citizens that the Thracians oppressed the Greeks; and having prevailed on the ephori, by some means or other, he set sail with a design to make war on the Thracians, who inhabit above the Chersonesus and Perinthus.'

(Edward Spelman Expedition of Cyrus p.107, 1742)

'The Greek generals who were captured as described were taken to the king and beheaded. One of them, Clearchus, was universally held by those who knew him to have been not just good at warfare, but absolutely devoted to it. For example, he stayed around while the Spartans were at war with the Athenians, but after the peace treaty he presuaded his fellow citizens that Greeks were suffering at Thracian hands, and once he had managed to get his way with the ephors, he set sail to make war on the Thracians who live beyond the Chersonese and Perinthus.'

(Robin Waterfield The Expedition of Cyrus p.50-51 Oxford World's Classics 2005)

They are pretty close for translations seperated by hundreds of years which is remarkable. Spelman seems to stick quite close to the grammar of the Greek, for example where Clearchus is described in Waterfields translation as 'not just good at warfare but absolutely devoted to it', Spelman keeps the greek kai +adj -kai + adj construction ( aner KAI polemikos KAI philopolemos..') using the expression 'both =noun phrase - and + noun phrase.  Spelmans translation shows how much emphasis was placed on acccuracy or faithfulness to the original Greek. The result is that it sounds as though the text has a starched collar but nevertheless runs quite well. It doesnt come across as a literal translation but one where the underlying greek has a higher visibility. Waterfield has put more work into readability for the modern reader but skillfully making few if any sacrifices to the original sense. Its the lexis, the choice and order of words that depart from the original.
This is further illustrated by Spelmans decision to stay close to the Greek in the following line ' he persuaded his fellow citizens that the Thracians oppressed (Greek : adikousi) the Greeks, where Waterfield has coverted the tense to a past imperfect to emphasize the ongoing oppression and thus a sense of urgency in his appeal to the ephors, ' he persuaded his fellow citizens that the Greeks were suffering at Thracian hands'. Its reads well to the modern eye but there is a resulting slight remove from the Greek original text.

Xenephon had earlier given us a panegyric of Cyrus and the recently killed barbarian would-be king is depicted in on the whole glowing terms. Perhaps then these Greek mercenraries are held up by way of contrast, all the more striking since for each of the Greek (ie non-barbarian) generals, their good points are matched by bad and in the case of Proxenus and Meno the weight is firmly on the bad side of the scales.

A generation ago it would surely have been unthinkable to cast babarians in such a positive and contrasting light, but with Xenephons work we are in a new era, that of the professional mercenary and one in which age old loyalties to ones polis and Greek land have undergone severe strain and rupture due the chaos of the Pelopponesian War (431-404 BCE)

Clearchus is an efficient general but a harsh one, feared rather than loved by his men. This will set up a strong contrast when Xenephon emerges later in the anabasis as leader of the 10,000. The moral elements of a good leader are implied by his description of how the generals fall short of the ideal or go against them completely. Proxenus seemed to be out for fame at any cost and as a paying student of the sophist Gorgias of Leontini, Xenephon as a follower and erstwhile protoge of Socrates, underlines this general as morally challenged in his choice of instructor. As a result he is a general 'incapable of inspiring respect or fear, and stood in greater awe of his men than they of him' (Spelman 110). Menon is beyond the pale, as a man after riches, stooping to perjury, falsehood and deceit to attain them. He seemed to regard affection as foolish and would only feign such friendship as would enable him to deceive another. Almost in the nature of a moral payoff Xenephon informs us that Menon was not beheaded like the others but tortured for a year and then after much agony killed as a common malefactor. Here again Spelman keeps close to the Greek (poneros Greek: person of low worth, evildoer). Waterfield extends the contrast with the other generals and glosses this word as ' a man with no redeeming features' which seems to imply that the Persians considered him of insufficient rank or status to merit a swift and honorable decapitation.

Such is the fate of the generals leading to the crisis that forms the real beginning of the march of the ten thousand.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The Gauntlet of Parmenides and atomic laughter in the dark

Parmenides' Gauntlet and Atomic Laughter in the Dark

In defiance of Heraclitus and his famous maxim, I have the distinct feeling that we have stepped in this neck of the river before...ah of the first blog posts I did way back in 2013 touched upon the Atomists in connection with the poetical masterpiece of the Roman poet Lucretius, the De Rerum Natura. However with Waterfield we get a lot more detail and discussion of the atomists, Leucippus and Democritus (sometimes referred to in some of the fragments as Democrates). It would take me a long time indeed to deal with the detail of the theory in full so I just wanted to make a few points for further discussion which we might touch upon when we meet next time. In particular, how reading the First Philosophers, specifically the previous chapters has enabled us to put the atomists into the wider context of the reaction to Ionian cosmogony, and also to see how Parmenides and his difficult hexameter work  threw down a gauntlet which the later thinkers needed to deal with in order to explain change or matter and its nature at the same time trying not to violate the changeless state approach that Parmenides elaborates in his religiously worded 'Way of Truth'. Remember too that Parmenides is basing his explanation from the realm of pure thought since it is a key claim of his work that the surface changes grasped by the unreliable senses are illusory and not to be trusted. Ultimately change is not possible. This is in distinct contrast with the quasi empirical approach of many of his predecessors.

We are in danger of straying from the core remit of Legendum here in that further discussion of the matters above tend more in the direction of pure ancient philosophy as opposed to literature per se. Its interesting, there is no doubt about that, but I note that we are dealing with Testimonia and Fragments here, often the work of other writers and therefore in the absence of any one writer or body of work we are necessarily reduced to discussing the philosophical concepts themselves. Its a potential distraction I've noticed which could almost lead to the genesis of another blog altogether - that of Ancient or even Pre-Socratic thinkers! One figure looms large in a lot of the testimonia, and that is Aristotle - of whom my knowledge is scanty to say the least. In essence its a caveat we should bear in mind in future when looking at overtly philosophical texts - how deep into the philosophy do we really need or want to go if we are to keep close to the  purpose of Legendum. Of course that is not to say that such works and authors have no place in our investigatory meanderings, and they all have their literary aspects, but nonetheless we should be on our guard not to get too deep into the philosophy, fascinating though it is!

That said I wanted to mention a few points in connection with the atomists. Why and how did they come up with the theory of atoms and void? Did they manage to satisfactorily deal with the Parmenidean challenge and keep inviolate the idea that we can not talk of things which exist, as well as Zeno's important paradox of infinite divisibility? What were the political implications of atomist theories? Did they lead as some scholars have mused to a new scepticism especially about traditional ideas about the formation of the cosmos, the gods and mortals' position and relevance in such a system? How important a feature was atomic theory in the works of Democritus...he was apparently quite a prolific author and although the works themselves are lost, we have via the Testimonia and Fragmenta, many tantalising titles covering a wide variety of fields of enquiry.

I look forward to wrestling with some of these problems with you next time!


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Why read Tibullus?

It’s been a question I have been struggling with for a few weeks. Admittedly I only have the Loeb version of J.P.Postgate and some fresher versions by Jon Corelis available on line to give me a feeling for Tibullus (55-19 BC). Accordingly, my views are naturally given in the rough and could possibly benefit from a closer reading in the future. Although it’s not an overly extensive canon, there was more poetry that I had at first imagined and as a result have spent quite a while wading through classical illusion and word play and obscure antique erudition so beloved of the time-distanced emulators of Callimachus.

There is no doubt that it’s elegant and detailed richly complex and polished elegy but for me I am not sure whether it transcends the genre in as radical a way as Catullus. There is also a lot of what I call Alexandrine puffery, which I am sure was great stuff in its day but for us less mythologically inclined, one gambolling naiad and Pieirian muse upon high, honey dript lyre and all, heavily resembles another and pops up an awful lot. Tibullus is quite influenced by the Alexandrine style and subject matter and never really pulls away from it to create any genre bending thunderclaps. But I can easily imagine that the cognoscenti outside of Maecenas’s circle of overtly pro-Augustan poetasters thought of him as the man for elegy. None other than Quintilian would have it so:-

‘Elegia quoque Graecos provocamus, cuius mihi tersus atque elegans maxime videtur auctor Tibullus; sunt qui Propertium malint; Ovidius utroque lascivior, sicut durior Gallus’.

’In Elegy too we rival the Greeks; of whom I consider the author Tibullus to be the most polished and elegant; there are those who prefer Propertius; Ovid is more wanton than both, just as Gallus is more austere." Inst. x. I, 93

I would have to be honest and say that some of the works are difficult to penetrate and properly assay due to the dense mythic and allusive verbiage. It is always redeemed (just about) by beautiful poetry resplendent with sonic glitter and excellent symmetry (a good example of the striking visual arrangement of lexis would be: Book I.IX Against War,

                     ‘tum brevior dirae mortis aperta via est.’.

It is extremely tasteful and sparkling despite (on occasion because of) the Olympian fluffery, but often where Tibullus is dealing with matters of the heart, Delia his first clandestine romance, Marathus, his boy lover or Nemesis his oddly named last fling before his untimely death in 19 BCE, his mastery of elegy is clear and the intimate and poignant notes of the heart sound out across the chasm of millennia and strike a very deep and genuine chord with us moderns indeed.

Themes we could touch upon when we discuss Tibullus could include his boy love, whether it was an Alexandrine affectation or the real thing, his subversive use of martial imagery to be anti-war or at least not as into the Roman sport of war as his pro-Augustan chums, his use of elegy to contrast the city of Rome with the country where he seemed to locate his personal ideal world as a retreat from the nastiness of existence. Tibullus, Republican or Imperial poet?

I don’t have a particular favourite line or elegy but I am rather fond of the opening lines from Book I,II. (To Delia) so I will leave you with that until we meet again.

‘Adde merum vinoque novos compesce dolores,
occupet ut fessi lumina victa sopor;
neu quisquam multo percussum tempora baccho
excitet, infelix dum requiescit amor.
nam posita est nostrae custodia saeva puellae,
clauditur et dura ianua firma sera.’

‘More wine! Let the drink smother these unwelcome pangs
and may conqueror sleep triumph against my weary eyes
nor, when the copious waves of Bacchus have overrun my brain,
shall anyone wake this unhappy lover while he sleeps.
For a cruel guard has been set upon my darling,
and the door is shut and bolted firm against me.’

Salve atque Vale!

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Thucydides on R4

Check out @rogueclassicist's Tweet:

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Ionian Rhapsody - The Milesians


Welcome to 2015 where we start the year with the group of thinkers known to modernity as the Pre-Socratics and since there are quite a lot of them it would make sense to try to look at them in a series of groupings. One such group which can be gathered together under the twin roofs of geography and time are Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. These three early thinkers were all living in the Ionian city of Miletus at around the early to mid-6th century BCE and although it’s not clear exactly what the relationship between them is, it has long been a convention to call them the Milesians.

 Why Miletus? What was so special about this city that it became the locus for these early thinkers? It could be due to the status of the city as an important stage on the busy and lucrative trading routes between Egypt via Lebanon to the Ionian coast and even as far as the earliest Black Sea colonies. Miletus benefitted from its position and quickly became a prominent and wealthy polis, where merchants would bring not only produce but ideas and news from distant lands, perhaps there may have even been a wise man or two on the run from the Egyptian or Babylonian authorities of the day who, having ended up in Miletus with its increasingly affluent and literate elite citizens, made a home for himself and traded ideas, techniques, science even for a moderate income. It could even be that men such as Thales had themselves travelled to Egypt and Babylon and picked up some knowledge from the temple priests. What is clear is that these men were the among the first individual we know about in Greece who started making statements about the world around them in an altogether different way from what had been the norm - it has been described by scholars as a paradigm shift, that of the move from trying to structure and describe the physical universe and its phenomena in terms of rational thought (logos) instead of anthropomorphised gods (mythos).

 It is important here to make it clear that pre logos systems such as that of Hesiod or Homer, and for that matter earlier thought systems are not irrational but use mythos to build and make sense of the world around them. Hesiod's system of gods has a method to it and is not the product of madness. But there is a clear difference when we come to the Pre-socratics in that they tried to rationalize phenomena without the aid of the gods as it were and to view the world as a single ordered system subject to natural and laws. The gods are removed from the picture and this alone is a major shift in itself considering the kind of Homeric and Hesiodic paradigms that had defined cosmic understanding up until that time. It must have nothing short of revolutionary to have uttered such new and strange ideas in a god built and god structured universe that was taken as a given by so many. It may even have been politically sensitive and quite dangerous. As is often the case great changes in thought systems are accompanied or even catalysed by upheavals in the political and technological sphere. This was a time when Ionia was becoming a loose federation of increasingly affluent and powerful city states - caught between the machinations of great warring empires, Egypt and Assyria, and due to its neutral or multivalent position, at times feared, at others courted for aid in one campaign or another, finally conquered and then the scene of a tumultuous revolt, the playground of tyrants and sinister intrigues. All of this activity must surely had have some role to play in the dissemination of new ideas, political, technological and philosophical.

The testimonia (following the arrangement as set out by Waterfield in his translation OUP 2000) for these three total 41 short pieces by various ancient sources, notable amongst them, Herodotus (for Thales T1-3), Aristotle (T8,9,11) and our old stoic friend, Seneca (T10). These fragments illuminating as they often are tend to be laced with extraneous elements from the ancient sources themselves and so should be read with caution. There is a potential extra layer of confusion in that the earliest thinkers themselves may not have been unambiguously straightforward or consistent in their utterances and the doxographers could be accurately portraying what were on the face of it, quite dogmatic positions or inconclusive musings open to wide interpretation even in their own time.

The reason for this caveat is that we have to rely on the works of these other ancient writers for much of our information on the presocratics, since their work has not survived in anything more substantial than fragments and partial inscriptions. It is not clear even whether these early thinkers wrote much of their ideas down in any ordered way that we can recognise, and we have to rely on the commentaries of the so-called doxographers, writers whose work consisted of summarising and commenting on the ideas of earlier philosophers. While we owe a lot to these later writers, in particular Aristotle and his pupil Theophrastus, we must always be on our guard and be ready with the salt cellar as we read them.

T1-11 deal with Thales, whose floruit can be dated by the story of his prediction of a solar eclipse, in either 585 or 582 BCE. Anaximander and Anaximenes were probably a bit younger than Thales and his junior contemporaries although its not clear whether they knew each other and if they did what kind of interaction they had with each other, pupils? rivals. Perhaps there was an early school of thought, although its unlikely given the variations in their ideas and fields of interests.

The first testimonia for Thales give the picture of a man interested in celestial phenomena but someone also involved with the powers of the day, perhaps as a kind of military or strategic and political advisor. His loose prediction of the eclipse during the battle between the Lydians and the Medes, the diversion of river courses so that they could be forded, and his involvement in Ionian statecraft lend some credence to this. He may have been more like an early sophist in the sense of using the technical knowledge available at the time to advance a career with the powers of the day. He may even have been on a military payroll for his valuable and mysterious services. He comes across as someone who has realised that the observable phenomena are not the divine workings of gods but rather have some kind of rational and potentially discoverable laws underlying them, which, once discovered can be used to human advantage. T8 (Source: Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b6-32 Ross) gives some more details about what we might loosely describe as Thales conclusions about cosmology or the primordial building material of the cosmos. Aristotle reports that for Thales it was water, although whether this is based upon Aristotle's extended speculation is not entirely clear. Thales may have only said that the earth rests upon water and that because the other Milesians are reported as being interested in the primordial element of the universe, Aristotle is ascribing or adducing here.

The most intriguing thing that Aristotle ascribes to Thales is his belief that 'all things were full of gods'. Again, how much of this is the later philosopher is not clear but it seems likely that the early thinkers were still taxed with the position of the consciousness of the universe, especially since they had moved away from mythos but were not able or willing to completely jettison the role of the divine, still mystified as to what powered life itself or what set the elements of the sky in motion or cause man and the beasts to breathe and have motion. The perspective has changed to a human rather than a god interpreted cosmos but the gods or god has not as yet been entirely dethroned by logos.   Even Socrates, who pressed the reset button on a lot of the loose and ambiguous groping in the dark of the early thinkers, still had his divine or spirit advisor and often talked in terms of the god or the divine' - so perhaps it never quite leaves Greek philosophy at all, at least as far as the Classical period is concerned.

Anaximander (T12-28) is attributed with the discovery of the gnomon, the construction and installation of sundials, and the observation of various celestial phenomena. He is also the first to draw a map of the inhabited world on a tablet. Its an incredible idea, even if the map itself was most probably more a highly imaginative sketch based upon navigators experience, hearsay and rumour. Herodotus remarks acidly that it was an amateurish effort drawn with a pair of compasses, noting that Europe and Asia are completely out of proportion.

T15 is where Anaximander is at his most interesting with his idea of the boundless (apeiron in Greek). This seems quite a leap of thought, a boundless not of any element like water or air but of an indeterminate formlessness from which somehow, the opposites and their inter-reactions can develop and lead to the more familiar elements themselves which in turn lead to all other elements and materials as they condense. More interestingly, these elements will decay and fall back into the boundless ' according to necessity; for they give justice and reparation to one another for their injustice in accordance with the ordinance of time'. Its not quite GUT (Grand Unified Theory) but nonetheless is a prime example of the paradigm shift that is taking place in the Greek world at this time, a period in which the gods for the majority were very much alive and the source of all wisdom, flowing down to man on a one way channel. Anaximander is wiping that world away with a rational attempt at explicating the very fabric of the cosmos  and how it leads to the world in which we walk and breathe, all without the aid or inclusion of Zeus. What's more interesting is the mileage this concept has enjoyed through philosophy, theological speculation (its similarity to the Late Hellenistic and Gnostic 'pleroma' is striking) and finally science down the centuries. Heisenberg gives a nod to Anaximander when talking about where quanta might originate - and he thought that is something very akin to the apeiron. The fact that in 2015 we are still not entirely sure renders Anaximander's leap of speculation even more astounding.

Anaximander has some fascinating speculations regarding the physical more local phenomena of the universe such as the earth itself, which is 'cylindrical in shape, and three times wide as it is deep' (T22 Ps.-Plutarch, Miscellanies 2.5-11 Diels), and further in T23 where a kind of proto inertia or gravity theory is hinted at. According to the Anaximandrine view of the immediate cosmos, hot and cold became separated, hot moving out and coalescing to a layer of fire, which grew around the earth like a layer of bark, later breaking off and leading to the formation of the stars as isolated patches of this fire. Finally in T27-28, the origin of human life is tentatively theorized, with humans carried until puberty inside fish like creatures from the sea. Its almost there in terms of the first glimmerings of understanding a linear process of development as opposed to the magical 'just-so' creation stories of mythos.
Anaximenes T29-41, Shares some concepts with Anaximander but decides that the boundless does have a form and that is air and it is the condensation and rarefaction of this element which leads to the creation of everything in the universe. Cicero goes as far to state that Anaximenes identified air as a God. Again its not clear who is speaking here of the two ancients but it could be possible as I have mentioned before that air as 'divine breath' animated all life and movement in the universe as its mysterious motive force. In the absence of anything else, the earliest thinkers may have used the divine as a handy shorthand for filling in what at the time they could not easily theorize upon. It could also be just the milieu and the times that they lived in - it being literally unthinkable to speak or think entirely in de-mythologised terms.

I have only briefly outlined the main ideas of these three thinkers and it would be quite easy to go into a lot more detail - especially since it's clear from a cursory glance at the bibliography that there is a lot more scholarship on them, particularly Thales and Anaximander. I look forward to sharing your thoughts on these curious figures of early cosmology.