Archive for April, 2014

Who is Afraid of Sappho? New Poems of an Ancient Lesbian

In Allgemein by Francesca / 30. April 2014 / 0 Comments

Few ancient Greek poets can capture the imagination of modern pop culture as much as does Sappho, the West’s (probably) first gay poetess. Sappho’s work inadvertently taps into the lesbian imagery fetishised in large pockets of current pop culture, and also, the writings of Sappho have their place in LGBT literary history, which begins its turbulent course in ancient Greece and winds up in the 21st century via Virginia Woolf, feminist critics, and the great detour of emerging bourgeois morals in the 19th century.

Sappho’s writings appear to have begun to suffer from censorship and rejection from the official canon of Greek classics in the early Byzantine era already. According to late ancient rumors – which are quite hard to substantiate, some 1600 years after the event – the church ordered the burning of pagan books in the 4th century A.D., with Sappho’s writings uppermost on the list. But these policies, if they existed, certainly were not easy to implement, as copies of Sappho’s text would have been held in several independent locations. Perhaps, no less, the cultural oblivion of Sappho’s works was somewhat intentional, and the decay of her reputation hastened by the church leaders and grammarians in whose hands, for a long time, fell the charge of preserving the cultural legacy of ancient Greece.

For many centuries before the invention of printing, every piece of ancient text had to be copied by hand, if it was to be preserved to posterity. Only a slim and fragmented collection remains of Sappho’s once several volumes strong poetic opus. As the modern recipients of this material, „we“ are very much at the mercy of the scribes and scholars who came before us, and our appreciation of the texts is in many ways filtered by their selections of, and accidental as well as intentional alterations to, these very ancient documents.

By the 19th century, scholars and poets were casting a new eye on the Sapphic corpus yet again. In the 19th century lies the origin of the synonymity between Lesbian and gay female, as until then, the word Lesbian merely referred to the island Lesbos, from which Sappho came. A great resurgence in interest for Sappho, bordering on obsession in the case of certain poets, and characterized by extreme whitewashing and gross distortion in the case of certain preceptors, threw the text back into the classical canon with an added baggage of the 19th century’s moral complexes and scholarly axioms.

Now that two hitherto unknown poems by Sappho were discovered this spring (a major sensation in classical scholarly circles) here’s a rare chance to have a perfectly fresh look at some of these once banned ancient poems. Strangely enough, they don’t seem scandalous at all. Perhaps, after all, they simply went out of fashion at some point in the middle ages, stopped being copied out by hand, and vanished, being less impressive than others of the same author (at least this is what Martin West seems to think), perhaps the flamboyant censorship hypothesis doesn’t pan out now.
One of the poems appears to be about Sappho’s absent brothers : one absent because he is away, the other absent because he is yet too young to take on the man’s duties in the family. What these duties might have comprised historically is difficult to know, and scholarship on household, kin and community in the ancient world exists in plenty. In the poem, Sappho admonishes another to talk less about the brother’s expected return home with many riches on his ships, and requests a more serious focus on prayer to the gods. It faintly recalls, as I think, the opening of the Oresteia, where Agamemnon’s household awaits him; or, as the editor of the fragments, Dirk Obbink, seems to have concluded, the resemblance here is rather with Odysseus and his return home.

Regardless of particulars, the return home of a man who has been away on some exploits is a popular trope throughout ancient Greek literature and many heroes and illustrious men have not only their great achievements, but also the stages of their homeward journey and return home, recounted in their mythology. Drawing parallels with other texts is helpful in understanding them, but in the case of a writer as unique as Sappho, it might be even more helpful to desist from comparisons, and simply to ponder whether and how the new fragments may help us flesh out just a little bit more the piecemeal idea of her and her work that the decimated transmission of her corpus so far afforded us with.


Article by Dirk Obbink in the Times Literary Supplement:

Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives. By P. DuBois, New York, 2001.

Scribes and Scholars : A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature. By L.D. Reynolds & N.G. Wilson , 3rd ed. Oxford, 2009

Special thanks for the discussion, to all the participants of the Hellenic Studies Colloquium at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

Image: Sappho Pompeiana. Wikimedia Commons.

Call for Submissions : Magical History Travel

In Allgemein by Francesca / 29. April 2014 / 0 Comments

The Via Antiqua blog is inspired by the saying „The more you know, the more you see“. We’re a start-up company run by classical scholars. We organize educational trips to the Mediterranean and Western Europe, and pick out the most special hotels and dining experiences. We also write this blog.

We invite guest blog posts from any field of knowledge : history, archaeology, art history, history of ideas, political or cultural history, biography, film, architecture, fashion, design, trends in hospitality and cuisine, entertainment, etc. In a nutshell, anything that will enrich and deepen someone’s travel experience. We invite you to write about the things you feel comfortable writing about. The best guide to what we’re looking for is a glance at what we publish.

Suggested length is three to four paragraphs, or 400-700 words : the internet reader tends to expect pieces of less than one page. In the case of longer pieces, it might be an idea to split them up into sections. For us it’s always quality over quantity and there is no post too brief. We also welcome photo essays.

Francesca will be more than happy to discuss ideas for topics, answer any questions and will schedule your blog post to appear at a time that suits you. We publish new blog posts every Wednesday.

We don’t offer financial compensation at the moment, but are happy to return favours in kind, for instance by providing similar length content for your blog or website, reviews of your work etc. on request.

Please e-mail if you are interested in taking part. We look forward to hearing from you!

Ulysses Britannicus, the Cyclops, and the Web

In Allgemein by Francesca / 23. April 2014 / 0 Comments

Homer’s Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ return from Troy; it is also an adventure-story of sailing on troubled waters, full of encounters with raring sea-monsters, surreal mythological creatures, strange and unknown lands, and personages that metamorphose themselves or others before the eye of the beholder; it is a journey full of dangers and dark, uncanny magic. Well-received throughout antiquity, the middle ages, the renaissance and modern times, the Odyssey recommended itself particularly to the imagination of the Victorian English gentleman, a keen adventurer himself, in his incarnation as a colonial explorer, a conqueror of stormy seas, and the proud reporter of the customs and climates of places and people located far beyond the wave.
There is more : besides offering adventure-tales about the sea, the Odyssey strongly ties in with a rhetoric of civilization that suited the ideological edifice of a growing colonial Empire. For all his marvellous discoveries and enchanting encounters on his long homebound journey, Odysseus never once quits his firm resolve to return home. The quest for home in the Odyssey is at times so exalted by measure of the journey becoming elongated and freaky, that all the places in the journey are made to appear indiscriminately rugged and uncultured, their inhabitants savage and strange.
„There a monstrous man was wont to sleep“, states an early 20th century translation of Odyssey 9, „who shepherded his flocks alone and afar, and mingled not with others, but lived apart, with his heart set on lawlessness. For he was fashioned a wondrous monster, and was not like a man that lives by bread, but like a wooded peak of lofty mountains, which stands out to view alone, apart from the rest.“
This is, of course, the beginning of Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus, a man-eating, one-eyed giant, who lives in a cave. The translation itself, published in 1919 (presumably begun several years before this date), is taking liberties : Homer’s Greek text doesn’t quite use any word such as „monstrous“ or „monster“ where the translator has supplied these words. The original text uses a Greek word (pelorios) that may be translated as „mighty“ or „awesome“ (in the original sense of that word), a word often used of gods or heroes.
But „monstrous“ it is, for Polyphemus is also a cannibal – a perfect colonial trope. The appellation „monster“ is rooted in Shakespeare’s The Tempest where it is used of Caliban („poor credulous monster“), „the barbarous native just ripe for subjugation“, as Edith Hall writes. Going back to Columbus, Hall writes : „Columbus’ first letter discusses reports of the Carribean people of Caniba, terrible cannibals (said in other sources to have only one eye), the image of whom was to play a vital role in the creation of Caliban– the barbarous native just ripe for subjugation – in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Columbus also noted how native peoples couldn’t handle alchohol, an important element in the presentation of the Cyclops in the Odyssey, and subsequently in the literature of colonial encounters between Europeans and their subjects everywhere. The Cyclops then flourished during the great age of teratology, when malformed individuals were studied and feted. This coincided exactly with the first great wave of European colonial expansion, as numerous fabulously illustrated books attest.“

The encounter with the Cyclops in the Odyssey, it seems, became one of many prototype images from ancient Greek mythology that were converted for all kinds of colonial purposes. How fascinating, in this context, that even the translator of the Greek epic, (Augustus Taber Murray, 1866-1940) by 1919, although he would have had the very same Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon in front of him that I use today (first edition : 1843) , chose to translate dictionary meaning „mighty“ by the connotation „monstrous“, and introduced a few more turns of phrase and word choices slanting the entire passage into a colonial perspective.
Throughout A.T. Murray’s translation, one senses the influence of the Victorian poets (by 1919, there would have been other and more modern poets, indeed avant-garde poets, for a translator to take inspiration from, but this obviously didn’t happen in this instance). For example, Tennyson had written the famous poems Ulysses and The Lotos-Eaters, inspired from the Lotus-Eaters episode in the Odyssey (which directly precedes the Cyclops episode) and described the landscapes that they found :

All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone
Thro’ every hollow cave and alley lone
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.

These descriptions of the landscape are not a million miles away from Murray’s rendering of the land the Cyclops lived in (although, for an even more accurate comparison, one would have to go back to the Lotos-Eaters episode) :

In it are meadows by the shores of the grey sea, well-watered meadows and soft, where vines would never fail, and in it level ploughland, whence they might reap from season to season harvests exceeding deep, so rich is the soil beneath (…)

These landscape descriptions betoken the settler’s gaze even more than the traveler’s or the adventurer’s. Although it can’t quite be known what the historical Odysseus, if ever there was one, was up to, we can at least see how Tennyson’s Ulysses Britannicus amalgamates the exotic imagery so dear to the colonial century together with Odyssean narrative overtones of travels into the uncharted regions beyond the pillars of Hercules.

Today we live very much still in shadow of these victorian and post-victorian renderings of Greek culture. For example, the translation that I have been referring to in this post is the official English translation offered by the digital classical library site, home of the greatest digital classical collection and resources portal (courtesy of Tufts University). No doubt, the chief reason for using such an old translation is copyright law: only publications that are suitably old are permitted to be disseminated freely on the internet. Thus it’s important, in order to get the most out of the study of ancient literature today, to become aware of the structures in which ancient Greek culture is presented, to examine and understand these structures almost as much as the content itself, as we will want to re-discover the ancient Greek epics from a contemporary perspective, and give our very own spin on the cultural significance of an all-new and all-digital „Odysseus and the Cyclops“.

Sources: Martin McKinsey, Hellenism and the Postcolonial Imagination (Oxford, 2010), esp. chapter 2 ‘Ulysses Victorianus’
E. Hall’s essay ‘Survival of culture’ in : Emily Shuckburth, ed., Survival (Cambridge, 2008)
Marie-Denise Shelton, ‘Who is Afraid of the Canon?’, PCP 32.2.136-9 (1997)

picture: W. Dyce, Neptune resigning to Britannia. Wikimedia Commons.

The Lycian Way : Book Review

In Allgemein by Francesca / 17. April 2014 / 0 Comments

The Iliad from the 8th century B.C.E. is thought to be the earliest testimony of ancient Greek literature, and in it already, mention is made of the Lycian people : „And Sarpedon and peerless Glaucus were captains of the Lycians from afar out of Lycia, from the eddying Xanthus“ (Hom.Il.2.876, trans. G. Murray).

In this guide book to Lycia, we can read that as early as the 14th century B.C.E., a ship sank just before the Lycian harbour. What archaeologists found when they excavated it : „six tons of copper bars. Bronze was to be made from this copper, and the required pewter was in another chamber of the ship. The remainder of the freight contained: almonds, olives, figs and pomegranates, which were stored in large amphorae, as well as weapons, gold, ebony, ivory from elephants and the rhinoceros, amber pearls, pistachio resin intended for the production of perfume, and bars of blue glass. The goods came from Cyprus, Persia, Egypt, Assyria and Mycenae and testify the widely spread and flourishing commerce relations of the time“ (p. 86 in Der Lykische Weg : Auf den Spuren der Antike by Melanie Heinle, Phoibos Verlag, Vienna, 2014, translation mine). So the history of the Lycian people and their culture begins far earlier than their first appearance in Homer. But without much understanding of the Lycian language or its alphabet, scholars have found it difficult to study and interpret the findings about this enigmatic ancient folk.

Der Lykische Weg, in English : The Lycian Way is an archaological guide book to, as the title suggests, the Lycian Way, which is a long-distance hiking trail in Turkey. The trail is called „Lycian“, because it crosses through the ancient region of Lycia (situated on the southern coast of Turkey). The 500km trail, made up of part ancient, and part modern footpaths and narrow roads, is studded with sights of ancient ruins that gradually let emerge the culture and history of ancient Lycia and its people, these difficultly accessible, and yet seemingly so prosperous and highly regarded Lycians.

Who were they? Melanie Heinle describes the monuments and testimony of their culture through this archaeological guide offering site photos of theatres, aqueducts, sarcophagi, rock tombs and much more. The book provides practical information about roads, climate and miscellaneous hiking advice for active travelers, helpfully suggesting segments for one-day or two-day trips, as well as offering the sequence of all these suggested trips taken together to piece together the best part of the original Lycian Way.

Photos of Mediterranean landscapes full of resinous pines, cloudless skies and rugged paths complement the stream of enigmatic and forlorn ruins of ancient burial sites that betoken a rich variety of rituals, an Apollonian oracle, a temple to Leto, the remains of an ancient commercial harbor, or inscriptions in the Lycian language (and alphabet).

The author complements her travel reports with short passages from Herodotus, Strabo, and less known ancient authors whose descriptions of Lycia and its people begin to trace lines of a people who were well known and revered in antiquity, and who seem traditionally to have had a special worshipping relationship with Apollo and Leto ; hence the Apollonian oracle, and the great temple of Leto, both of which are explained in detail with attention to their architectural structure and religious significance.

The history of the Lycian people shines through as one of imperial occupation upon imperial occupation, next to recurring periods of cultural and economic efflorescence. Beginning with the Athenian empire of the 5th century B.C.E., followed by Persian, Alexandrian, Ptolemean, and Roman occupation over several hundred years, the Lycian cultural landscape nowadays is particularly noteworthy for its multitude of burial sites.

Along the Lycian Way, the wayfarer is presented with sights of pillar tombs, rock tombs, tumulus tombs, sarcophagi, heroic monuments and various more votive artifacts of often impressive proportions, that raise many questions as to who all these men and women were, who were buried here so long ago. The author’s lucid and erudite approach to travel in the area makes this book much more than it purports to be, so that readers (provided they understand German) can look forward to a well-researched historical and archaeological exploration in addition to finding useful tips on hiking and route planning on the Lycian Way.

What is Ancient, What is Modern?

In Allgemein by Francesca / 9. April 2014 / 0 Comments

When speaking of antiquity and modernity, one tends to define the two with the help of an illustration: the ancient Greeks and Romans are the ancients, and modernity is us, is now. But : what „us“? And how long is now? When did „we“ become modern, and isn’t it true that we’re already past post-modern? So how are we still modern? Where does modernity begin, where does it end?

Questions underwriting a discourse that contrasts ancient with modern bubble up as soon as one puts these notions to scrutiny. For instance, why the contrast between ancient and modern, and not, for instance, between medieval and modern? What exactly is understood by the word modern?

One can easily see that the Chaplin picture Modern Times is modern: it says so, it’s a film, and it thematizes the alienation of factory work. And we know that a Futurist Comic is modern. Though written in 1909, the manifesto vows to walk in step with the progress of the machine, of aircraft, of industry, of trade, of the sciences, of electricity“. It is reported, somewhat apocryphally I’m sure, that the idea of „modernity“ as a cultural era first surfaced in an academic journal in 1886: „the highest ideal of art is now no longer antiquity, but modernity“ writes an anonymous publicist in Thesen zur literarischen Moderne aus der Allg. Dt. Universitaetszeitung.

In Germany, traditionally a hot location for debates on questions of ancient vs. modern, in the period around 1885-1914, modern art and literature truly blossomed in Berlin. The expressionist movement has left a legacy in film, painting, poetry, theatre, opera and beyond, with works like Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet, the opera Lulu, paintings by E.L. Kirchner and the group around him (called die Bruecke)or the poetry of Else Lasker-Schuler and other writers, which have become modern classics of themselves.

Now it gets messy: „modern classics“ ?

It is no coincidence that inquiries seeking to distinguish ancient from modern run parallel to theoretical forays into the question: „What is a classic?“. This formulation will call to mind T.S. Eliot’s essay of that same title, in which, to give only the briefest gist, it is argued that a classic work is one that represents in its subtlety and breadth the most mature point of any culture. But T. S. Eliot is not alone in his preoccupation, quite on the contrary, his contemplations on the issue stand in a tradition of essay-writing and theoretical inquiry that has occupied the likes of Goethe, Hegel, Winckelmann and Humboldt, in short, a most impressive line-up of German 18th century thinkers engaged themselves in a debate that shaped the image of classicism in modern discourse in ways that continue to influence us today.

Riddled with an inherent Eurocentrism, in fact, if we are serious about trying to distinguish ancient from modern, as so often, it is in the odd and distant 18th century that seem buried many threads and leads to the origin of the way we see ourselves, „our“ modernity, and „their“ antiquity.

In France, the battle of the books, also known as „the quarrel between ancients and moderns“, reared its head as early as the 1690s; respondents from Germany, Italy and England followed suit. The theoretical debate on whether it would be better aesthetically to look back and try to imitate the ancients, or to leap forward and embrace newer and modern forms of beauty led to the further definition of classicism as a contrast to modern forms.

But to seek to define „classic“ is only tangentially the same as to define „ancient“, especially not by contrast with „modern“. The chase for the elusive understanding of what a classic is, belongs to the field of theory and the history of ideas. But when it comes to distinguishing ancient and modern, one expects dates, and names, and places. And it is confusing to see that modernity at the outset was rather more a concept than a historic reality that can be dated as clearly as reigns and presidencies. As Kostas Vlassopoulos writes, whose articles I recommend as further reading :

„History, the study of the past, has two sides to it: one is the recent past, contemporary history, what the Germans call Zeitgeschichte. The history of the distant past is a much more demanding task. The big temporal gap between past and present necessitates to a much greater extent the construction of a binary subject: the present of the narration and the past of the narrative; the ‚we‘ of the present narrator and the ‚they‘ of the past subjects of the narrative. The writing of the history of the distant past necessitates therefore the simultaneous construction of a concept of antiquity (the past, our ancestors) and of modernity (we,the present). „

Further reading: Constructing antiquity and modernity in the eighteenth century: distantiation, alterity, proximity, immanency


From Carceri d’Invenzione to Panopticon and Cruciform: Prisons in Illustration

In Allgemein by Francesca / 2. April 2014 / 0 Comments

Besides the dreamful and romantic graphic illustrations showing Roman ruins in peaceful settings that resurrect dreams of an ancient life before modernity and the modern industry, 18th century man Giovanni-Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) is no less known for his darker and more ghoulish graphic works depicting the cruel and murky insides of subterranean prisons. These insights he affords us into a nether world of gigantic vaults and heavy grids, risky parapets and labyrinthine corridor and stair constructions in midst uncanny Triton-faces and other strange architectural decoration, are marked out as ficticious places created entirely in the artist’s imagination and run under the name „Carceri d’Invenzione“ („Prison Inventions“). Although it’s true that Piranesi’s „Carceri“ don’t represent a physically existing place, never the less it stands to reason that they are in some way an imitation of life, perhaps not a very faithful one, but still anchored in realities and visual and architectural sources present to Piranesi’s eye, and upon which he expanded freely in his graphic designs.

William Hogarth’s contemporary, mid-18th century graphic drawings and paintings on moral subjects of the time such as alcoholism, gambling, or undue idleness, portray settings of actual places in London with a similar air of nightmareish confusion and subterranean oppression about them. For instance, the series titled „Beer Street and Gin Lane“ is inhabited by the same inebriated confusion of perspective that also possesses Piranesi’s prisons, and the last plate of „A Rake’s Progress“ (1735), a series of paintings showing the downfall of a young man with a gambling addiction, shows London’s infamous Bethlehem asylum, looking grim and intended as a deterrent to refractory behavior, just like the look of the city’s many prisons and workhouses.

Looking at the pictorial record of English workhouses, parallels soon emerge. Designed as a mixture of infirmary wards for the destitute, operating a prison-like system, half charitable institutions for the homeless, half profit-making industrial schemes where „the able-bodied unemployed“, hunger or poverty-stricken individuals could receive food and shelter in return for work on the workhouse premises, the exact purpose of workhouses never was quite clear. In part, this can be explained by the long history of workhouses since the early 17th century, even going back to the English Poor Law Act of 1388. In part the explanation lies in the multifariousness of the workhouses’ historical incarnations and purposes, in line with the pace of massive social change especially in the 18th and 19th century : from a charitable endeavour of churches and monasteries, to a cheap manufacture scheme of industrial dimensions, via the guise of public health and sanitation measures during times of epidemics in London, and as a general pillar of law enforcement against homelessness, the institution shifted shape many times.

Needless to say, these establishments attracted heated controversy in their own times already and, until their abolishment in the 1930s, continued to be the subject of legal, social and political debates. They underwent innumerable redevelopments and changes, even more so in the 19th century than in the 18th. In fact it is under these auspices that the radical thinker and designer Jeremy Bentham began to sketch plans for his very own „Prison Invention“, the Panopticon (in the 1790s). This prison is known for its conceptual design as a round structure in which every prisoner can be watched at all times by a central watchman, but being never certain whether or not they are being watched, the watching is relegated to the watched themselves. Panoptic prison construction works were started and aborted several times, much to the satisfaction of its early contestants who had been quick to realize and draw attention to the psychological cruelty of such a model, and the destructive view of human life upon which it was based.
An imaginary prison of the calibre of Bentham’s Panopticon seems nearly worse than existing prisons. Somewhere between nightmares and reality, the mental image of prisons is a disturbing one. Even today, it is only difficultly disentangled conceptually from its erstwhile identities, distant and not-so-distant cousins such as the homeless shelter, social rehabilitation space, or unfree labour industry. It’s possible to think that just as Piranesi deliberately marked his prisons out as places of fiction, our own idea of what a prison is or what it is supposed to be, is tied to one’s own view of what society is, or is supposed to be — where to find a common truth upon which everybody can agree, is next to impossible.