Cat people

My family had dogs when I was a kid, two corgis at a time. But it was when we got a dog for our kids, a single very non-pedigree jack russell/chihuahua cross, that I began wondering about the role pets fulfil within families. Our dog had a tangibly calming effect in a family where, with a special-needs child, peace and quiet are not exactly guaranteed. A couple of years ago on this blog I found myself contemplating Aurel Stein’s dog Dash (or rather one of Stein’s dogs called Dash, his favourite), which he gifted to his close friends the Allens in Oxford; through this dog, I tried to suggest, Stein and the Allens found a way to express their mutual affection for one other.

The undigested thoughts that follow are provoked by a rare trip to Wales last week, on the one hand, which had me thinking about my dad, and on the other by this very moving BBC report about Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, who runs a shelter for abandoned cats in the besieged city of Aleppo. Part of me watching it was thinking, “Typical: to get people to care, show them anything but the real human cost.” But one detail of the report clarified that this fluffy animal story was, actually, all about the human tragedy of Syria. Aljaleel explains how a little girl had brought her cat to him before her family fled to Turkey, and how she begs for news about the cat, and Aljaleel sends her photos by phone.

That girl may just be missing her cat. But cats and dogs stand in so easily for family and domestic life, and at some level I’m sure that in her anxiety about her cat, the girl is also expressing the pain and dislocation of having had to leave her home. When she gets her beloved cat back, God willing, she will be back home again, life will be as it was, and she can resume her childhood.

That, combined with my day in Wales, reminded me of a story that my dad used to tell. It is  the early 1920s, and he and his parents (he is only 2) are moving house, from a tenancy at Llanfihangel Aberbythych, near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, to a freehold farm in Newport Pagnell, Bucks. My grandparents were Welsh-speakers, and I’ve always felt that that relocation in the 1920s was not so different, in terms of the experience of the migrants, from more recent immigration from further abroad.

My dad’s story also involved the family cat. When the Morgans relocated to Newport Pagnell, the cat went missing, and turned up months later back in Llanfihangel, 150 miles away.

Now, I’ve no reason to disbelieve that the cat did make that journey back to Carmarthenshire. There are plenty of parallels, both cats and dogs. But aside from the facts of the case, it seems to me that this is a clear-cut piece of mythologising. That sounds intolerably pompous, I know, but if myth is essentially just the expression of beliefs or attitudes in symbolic terms, then this oft-repeated story is the Morgan myth of migration: the cat rejecting the new home in England embodies the deep anxieties its human family felt about leaving that home for a very different kind of place.

It may be more personal than that: my dad remembered being very unhappy indeed about leaving Wales, especially missing Mamgu, his grandmother, who had stayed behind in Llanfihangel. Another story he told was about his own attempt to return to Wales, at the age of three. He didn’t get very far (though far enough to freak out his parents), but again it makes sense that the idea of the cat succeeding in getting home was so important to him because it did what he couldn’t.

The peripatetic pet: a good story, or a proxy for our deepest human feelings about home and family? Pity the jack russell/chihuahua cross owned by an academic.

Horace on living

A rapid post, this, and topical in a way I wouldn’t have chosen.

I love the Latin language. I struggle to explain why. Something to do with its brevity, and the scope an inflected language gives to shift words around for maximum effect.

No Roman poet exploited these inherent characteristics of Latin more effectively than Horace, and a poem like Horace, Odes 3.29 has it all for me, and not just for me: formal beauty allied to profound ethical truths. I like this poem so much that when I fell over an inscription of a line of it at a charity auction once, I parted with rather a lot of money. Latin and stone go so well together.


There is so much that’s great about 3.29: the way Horace expresses the unpredictability of life through an image of a river in spate, his description flowing river-like from stanza to stanza; the image he uses to express a proper indifference to misfortune: “I wrap myself in my virtue,” he says, mea/ uirtute me inuoluo, as if virtue were a warm and waterproof coat.

But my very favourite thing in 3.29 is a single word, uixi, “I have lived,” at line 43. It is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed, and it represents the key principle of the poem’s philosophy.

Here are the two stanzas around it, with a translation much indebted to David West. Horace is explaining that what matters is the present moment, living life in the here and now. We cannot influence what the future will bring, but if we have lived life to the full when we can, what happens in time to come is of no significance.

… ille potens sui                                                  41
laetusque deget, cui licet in diem
dixisse “uixi.” cras uel atra
nube polum pater occupato

uel sole puro. non tamen irritum                     45
quodcumque retro est efficiet neque
diffinget infectumque reddet
quod fugiens semel hora uexit.

A man will be in control of his life
and happy, if he can say at each day’s end
“I have lived.” Tomorrow Jupiter can
fill the sky with black cloud

or with pure sunlight, but he will not cancel
whatever is behind,
nor reshape or unmake
what once the fleeting hour has brought.

Horace’s poem is written in a verse form called alcaics, a metre in four-line stanzas which Horace had inherited from the archaic Greek poet Alcaeus, but given a character all his own. Horatian alcaics have a very clear dynamic: in broad terms, there are two identical lines followed by a third that slows the flow of the poetry, and a much faster fourth. What creates the impression of drag in the third line is mainly its contrast with the previous two. The first two lines normally have a word break, a pause or caesura, after the fifth syllable, but while the third line starts off as if it is going to follow the same pattern, it then pushes on without a break. The second stanza here is typical: uel sole puro//, quodcumque retrost// in the first two lines, but diffinget infectumque in the third, no break until after the seventh syllable.

In slightly more technical terms, here is an alcaic stanza, with _ marking a long syllable, u marking a short, and // marking the normal/expected location of word breaks:

_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _

_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _

_ _ u _ _ _ u _ _

_ u u _ u u _ u _ _

The things to notice are the identical shape of the first two lines, and the way the third line also begins the same way, but has no break after the fifth syllable. Horace has a habit of placing in the middle of the third line a word needing emphasis, or suiting in other ways this expansive position. Here is an example from earlier in Odes 3.29 (ll. 9-12), where Horace urges Maecenas to abandon his obsession with the city of Rome, and join him for drinkies in the country:

fastidiosam// desere copiam et
molem propinquam// nubibus arduis,
omitte mirari beatae
fumum et opes strepitumque Romae.

Leave behind cloying abundance and
that pile that reaches to the high clouds,
stop admiring
the smoke and riches and racket of wealthy Rome.

In the first two lines there are word breaks after the fifth syllable. The word set in that expansive centre of the third line is mirari, “admire,” “wonder at,” and the placement is very effective: we dwell on Maecenas’ obsession with the city as he indulges his obsession. Meanwhile the frantic fourth line well suits the distracting sensory chaos of the big smoke. Given that practically all of Horace’s alcaic stanzas follow this dynamic of expansive third line and skittery fourth, of course, any exception becomes eye-catching.

At l. 43, dixisse uixi. cras uel atra, there is just such an exception to the rule, and it’s gorgeous. What we have in 43 is a third line that doesn’t expand, but stops short just like the first and second line. The word uixi not only introduces a pause after the fifth syllable, where we don’t expect it, but brings a very strong pause: Horace ends a sentence where we were anticipating continuation. The effect on the word uixi is to underline and isolate it.

I’ve suggested that “I have lived” is the essence of this poem. If you can say this to yourself today, Horace tells us, it simply doesn’t matter what happens tomorrow. I find that a beautiful sentiment in itself, but Horace has made it more beautiful, in the subtlest of ways, by detaching it from the rest of the poetic line by means of that unexpected pause. Vixi, “I have lived,” stands alone. Because there is nothing else that needs to be said.

Charlotte Easton died far too young. I only met her once, though we chatted from time to time on Twitter. She lived life to the full, with her love of cycling, her delight in teaching, her passion for Latin and Greek. If I love Latin, its chiselled clarity, the people I rate highest in the world are those who keep the study of this language I love alive, sharing my enthusiasm for it, but possessed of a precious capacity to communicate the joy of it that I can only wish I had.

Charlotte, uixisti.



I’ve had a busy summer composing an annotated bibliography. It’s a bibliography of Roman poetic metre, and I wrote a book tangential to that topic a few years back (how tangential, I now fully appreciate.) Not the most stimulating activity, it’s fair to say, and if there’s anything better gauged to play on academic insecurities, I can’t think what it is. There is so much I don’t know…

What this exercise has reminded me of, though, is what caught my interest all those years ago, the moments when an ancient poem’s metre is absolutely critical to its meaning. Catullus 11 falls into this category, I believe (I wrote about it here), and Statius’ Silvae 4.3, a poem about a road in which the poet makes it increasingly hard to distinguish road-building and versifying, or so I once argued. Then there was an epigram by Martial, 3.29, composed in a metre called “Sotadean”, quite a rare metre, but one of the most fascinating metrical phenomena that ancient poetry had to offer.

Here is Martial 3.29 in its entirety:

Has cum gemina compede dedicat catenas,
Saturne, tibi Zoïlus, anulos priores.

These chains with their twin fetters are dedicated
to you by Zoïlus, Saturn: the rings he used to wear.

Zoilus is a regular butt of Martial’s abuse, and here we are told that a man who now wears the insignia of high status, gold rings, used to be a slave. True to my topic, though, the Sotadean metre has its own contribution to make. I’ll get to that, eventually…

Greco-Roman metre is governed by quantities, the length of syllables, and Martial’s poem follows the structure of a standard version of the Sotadean ( _ is a long syllable, u a short):

_ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _

Just a pattern of long and short syllables, then. But what makes the Sotadean so interesting is how the ancients responded to this particular pattern. Here is the ancient critic Demetrius (Eloc. 189) describing what happens when a poem is turned from another metre into Sotadeans:

“A composition <is described as affected when it is> anapaestic and like the emasculated, undignified metres, especially the Sotadean because of its rather effeminate rhythm, as in … ‘brandishing the ash spear Pelian right over his shoulder’ in place of ‘brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder.’ The line seems to have altered its whole shape, like figures in myth who change from males into females.”

A bit of explanation. Demetrius identifies the Sotadean as an especially “effeminate” metre, then quotes by way of illustration two versions of a line from Homer’s Iliad, 22.133: Homer’s original, in the epic metre of dactylic hexameters, and (before that) a reworking of the same line in Sotadeans. Demetrius then records his feelings about what has happened when a line written in hexameter is converted into Sotadean: it is as if it it has metamorphosed from male to female.

Here are the two versions of the line, Sotadean first, then the Homeric original in hexameter:

σείων μελίην Πηλιάδα δεξιὸν κατ’ ὦμον

σείων Πηλιάδα μελίην κατὰ δεξιὸν ὦμον

Both these lines mean “brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder”, but while the second one scans as a hexameter, _ _ _ u u _ u u _ u u _ u u _ _, the first follows the same scheme as Martial’s poem on Zoïlus, _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _. This may not look like much to you and me, but to Demetrius that reordering of long and short syllables is weird and unsettling.

The Sotadean version of this line was written by Sotades himself, the Greek poet who invented and lent his name to this metrical length. Very few certain fragments of his work survives. That one is Fragment 4 Powell; in a poem that included Fragment 1 he was so rude about the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus, and the king’s marriage to his own sister Arsinoe, that he was sealed in a lead jar and dropped in the sea, allegedly. In our Fragment 4 he seems to be engaged in “translating” Homer’s Iliad from hexameters to Sotadeans, and we need to ask why.

The first thing to say is that converting hexameters into Sotadeans was quite a popular activity in the ancient world. Quintilian (9.4.90) gives us a Latin hexameter, astra tenet caelum, mare classes, area messem (“Heaven holds the stars, the sea the fleets, the threshing floor the harvest”), which, if you read it backwards, messem area, classes mare, caelum tenet astra, turns into a Sotadean. Similarly, (Demetrius 1.516.29-30 Keil) esse bonus qui uis, cole diuos, optime Pansa (hexameter); Pansa optime, diuos cole, si uis bonus esse (Sotadean), “If you want to be respectable, worship the gods, excellent Pansa”. In the fourth century Optatianus Porfyrius, trick poet par excellence (see Sarah Bond on the remarkable poetic creations of Optatianus here), included “reversible” hexameters/Sotadeans in his Poem 15 in praise of Constantine. William Levitan (reference at the bottom) explains how this poem contains every trick in the box, but this one strongly suggests that Romans of Optatian’s day had lost a sense of what the Sotadean had entailed earlier in antiquity.

I say this because, whatever the truth of the story about his death, Sotades’ poetry was seriously subversive stuff. Strabo gives us the clue when he tells us (Geog. 14.1.41, the same forwards as backwards) that ἦρξε δὲ Σωτάδης μὲν πρῶτος τοῦ κιναιδολογεῖν, “Sotades was the first to write as a cinaedus“, in other words that the main concern of his poetry was to describe what the ancients considered his perverse sex life. A κίναιδος/cinaedus was a man who assumed the passive role in a sex act with another man, behaviour which, according to ancient ethics, was reprehensible and shocking enough to exclude him from the category of true men.

This starts to explain Sotades’ interest in dactylic hexameters. If the Sotadean was the metre of the cinaedus, the hexameter represented its polar opposite: it was known as the “heroic” metre (herous in Latin, τὸ ἡρωικόν in Greek), the vehicle for epic and its praise of Great Men, models of normative masculinity. Varro expressed the relationship snappily: ᾿Αχιλλέως ἡρωικός, ἰωνικὸς κιναίδου (Men. Sat. 360 Cèbe), “the heroic hexameter is the metre of Achilles, and the ionic (the class to which the Sotadean belongs) is that of the cinaedus.” When Sotades converted hexameters into Sotadeans, and epic moments into cinaedic, what might seem to us a very intellectual exercise, transposition from one metre to another, amounts to an assault on the sexual mores of the ancient world. And as any Classicist can tell you, from their sexual ethics flowed much that was fundamental to Greco-Roman society.

Perhaps I don’t need to explain that the line of Homer changes more than its shape when it is converted into Sotadeans. Homer is describing the spear of Achilles, the massive ash-hewn weapon that is his defining accessory: when Patroclus dresses in Achilles’ armour in Iliad 16, the spear of Achilles is the one thing he does not (because he cannot) borrow (“Only the spear of the peerless son of Aeacus he did not take,/ the spear heavy and huge and strong; none other of the Achaeans could/ wield it, but Achilles alone was skilled to wield it,/ the Pelian spear of ash, that Cheiron had given to his dear father/ from the peak of Pelion, to be slaughter for heroes,” 16.140-144). This spear defines Achilles, in other words. It is the essence of his heroic character.

Well, what can I say? The long thin appendage in Sotades’ version of the line is not a spear, that’s for certain.

Turning back to Martial, there’s something broadly similar going on. The poem is presented as a dedicatory epigram, and that had a proper form closely related to the hexameter, the elegiac couplet consisting of a dactylic hexameter followed by a dactylic pentameter. Martial’s poem, converting elegiacs into Sotadeans, subverts the respectable act of dedication just as Sotades had the noble arms of Achilles, implying that Zoïlus and his dedication are morally corrupt, that he is sexually perverted, indeed that Zoïlus’ very rise in Roman society proves that society’s decadence (dedicating his fetters to Saturn, the Lord of Misrule, is an telling detail, too).

In so many ways, a deeply unpleasant poem, Martial 3.29, but one that gets much of its force from associating its target  with  _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _ . For the ancients, that was metrical code for utter depravity.

C. Connors, Petronius the poet: verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon (Cambridge, 1998), 30-31;

W. Levitan, “Dancing at the end of the rope: Optatian Porfyry and the field of Roman verse,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 115 (1985), 245-69;

Ll. Morgan, Musa Pedestris (2010), 40-48;

R. Pretagostini, Ricerche sulla poesia alessandrina: Teocrito, Callimaco, Sotade (Rome, 1984), 139-47.


A coin & a coup


In a new departure, a topical blog. In another new departure, a short one.

Here is a BBC article discussing the efforts of the Turkish coup plotters to seize control of the media. In a very contemporary twist, as they tried to secure TV networks and newspapers, etc., President Erdogan used his iPhone to make a critical intervention, phoning (and via FaceTime, physically appearing) on CNN. It’s still a confusing picture: Twitter and Facebook may have been blocked by the government, presumably to prevent the coup leaders from getting their message across, but other social networks, WhatsApp, Periscope, weren’t. All in all, it tells us how very difficult it is in 2016 to secure comprehensive control of information outlets, but also how crucial it remains to try to achieve that control if you have plans to usurp political authority.

In AD 271 there was a military coup somewhere on the Rhine frontier of the Roman Empire, and the evidence we have about it also suggests an attempt to control the media. The effect of the coup was to bring to power an emperor named Domitianus, or rather what our evidence tells us is that Domitianus claimed to be emperor, and as we know from Turkey, claims to be in control do not automatically amount to real control. Our evidence about Domitianus is simply this: there are coins bearing an image of him with the imperial motto around his head “IMP(ERATOR) C DOMITIANUS P(IUS) F(ELIX) AUG(USTUS).

The coins indicating that Domitianus was emperor also intimate that he wasn’t emperor for awfully long. In total only two examples of Domitianus coins have ever been found, one found during agricultural work in a vineyard near Nantes in 1900, and another found by a metal detectorist in 2003 at Chalgrove near Oxford. They are so rare that between the discovery of the first and the second coins, effective efforts were made to prove that the French example was a hoax. By this stage of the third century AD coins were being minted in massive quantities: if ever you find a Roman coin, it is very likely to be from this time. There are also lots of coin hoards from what was a very unstable period. Yet Domitianus features in just two of them. At Mildenhall in Wiltshire in 1978 a hoard of 55,000 “radiates” (as Domitianus’ style of coin is called) was found; at Normanby in Lincolnshire in 1985, 48,000 more of them: not a single Domitianus in sight. Even in the comparatively modest Chalgrove hoard, the Domitianus is one of nearly 5,000 coins in total.

Some historical context. Rome in the second half of the third century AD was in crisis. The emperor Valerian had been captured by the Persians in 260, a huge shock to the Empire. In the same year the Western Empire, Spain, Gaul, Germany and Britain, seceded under a rebel general named Postumus, and remained independent of Rome until 274, although Postumus’ successors ruled over a progressively smaller chunk of territory. Domitianus fits in after Postumus’ third successor Victorinus (269-71): plausibly Domitianus was involved in the putsch that removed Victorinus, seized control for a few days, and was then himself dispatched by Tetricus, who ruled the “Gallic Empire” until defeat by Aurelian in 274. Aurelian was the great reunifier of the Empire, bringing Zenobia’s Palmyra back into the fold as well. I hope that wasn’t too difficult to follow, but imagine living it.

About Domitianus himself we know practically nothing. Aside from the coins, there are scattered references in our sources to a general and a rebel by this name. To repeat, though, only the coins proclaim him emperor. Only the statement read out under pressure by the anchor on State TV TRT claimed the success of the Turkish coup, too. The point of similarity is what it takes in 2016, and what it takes in 271, to control the narrative. In the third century there was no TV, no mass media at all, but there was one medium which in its way did the same job of insinuating a message across the army and wider population. Coinage carrying the emperor’s image, and potentially other information too, could be used to communicate a claim to power. The other side of Domitianus’ coin carries an image of peace and plenty (a female figure carrying a libation bowl and cornucopia) and the legend CONCORDIA MILITUM, “Agreement among the Soldiers”, a more explicit claim of authority over the (crucial) armed forces.

So the equivalent of occupying the CNN offices in the third century was to secure the Royal Mint, and it looks like this was Domitianus’ first, and perhaps his only, act in pursuit of power. The evidence of the coins (the French and English examples are identical) seems to be that, while Domitianus managed to secure control of one of the Gallic Empire’s mints, in Cologne, he never controlled the principal mint in Trier. Trier, Augusta Treverorum, was Domitianus’s nemesis, or maybe his iPhone.

The coin of Domitianus found near Oxford is a rather unimpressive thing in the flesh, small and muddy-green, but it’s beautifully presented in the money gallery of the Ashmolean Museum, which is worth a visit for all kinds of other reasons.


Sylviane Estiot & Gildas Salaün, “L’usurpateur Domitianus”, Revue numismatique 160 (2004), 201-218.

Richard Abdy, “The Domitian II coin from Chalgrove: a Gallic emperor returns to history”, Antiquity 83 (2009), 751-757.



Some thoughts about Virgil, and they bear no relation whatsoever to Brexit. If anyone feels that a blog about traumatic separation betrays deeper preoccupations, they’re wrong. As for the image of a severed hand desperately trying to get back to the body it belongs to, entirely coincidental. This is pure escapism and my id is locked in the cellar.

We’re in Book 10 of the Aeneid, and Virgil gets graphic in a manner more typical of epic successors like Lucan and Statius. Pallas, the young warrior son of Evander and Aeneas’ protégé, is enjoying his aristeia, an extended display of martial prowess characteristic of epic heroes; less technically, Pallas is on the warpath.

At 10.390-6, he comes upon, and promptly dispatches, a pair of Italian warriors, Larides and Thymber. They are in fact identical twins:

uos etiam, gemini, Rutulis cecidistis in aruis,
Daucia, Laride Thymberque, simillima proles,
indiscreta suis gratusque parentibus error;
at nunc dura dedit uobis discrimina Pallas.
nam tibi, Thymbre, caput Evandrius abstulit ensis;
te decisa suum, Laride, dextera quaerit
semianimesque micant digiti ferrumque retractant.

You also, twin brothers, fell in the Rutulian fields,
Larides and Thymber, offspring of Daucus, most alike,
indistinguishable to your own, a delightful source of confusion to your parents.
But now Pallas gave you harsh marks of difference:
your head, Thymber, Evander’s sword took off,
while you, Larides, your severed hand seeks for as its own,
its dying fingers twitching  and clutching at its sword.

The closing image is especially unsettling, if for us slightly suggestive of Hammer House of Horror. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about it here, though. The war that Virgil is describing is a legendary counterpart of the Roman civil wars that had finally ended just a decade before Virgil’s writing, and this epic war in Italy has all the brutality and moral incomprehensibility of civil conflict. For me, there’s no book of the Aeneid more extraordinary than Book 10, a profoundly challenging account of conflict between two peoples, Trojans and Italians, who were both the ancestors of the first Roman readers of the poem.  Those readers were forced to question the validity of their national hero Aeneas’ claim to settlement in Italy, and to view events as much through the eyes of Aeneas’ implacable enemies as those of Aeneas himself. That ambivalent treatment of the war extends to Pallas, Aeneas’ closest ally, whose character we are encouraged to admire and whose violent death at Turnus’ hands (not long after this passage) we are guided to deplore, but who has a disturbing capacity for shocking bloodshed himself.

Homer had described warrior twins dying simultaneously in battle, in Iliad 5 and 6: in Iliad 5 Aeneas is the killer, so here one effect is to style Pallas a potential Aeneas, if only he might have managed to live long enough. But in neither Homeric passage are the characteristics of twinhood exploited to the extent that they are in the Aeneid.

What are these “characteristics of twinhood”? From the inside, I have no experience. From the outside, identical twins pose problems to us of distinguishability, essentially: they are different people, but the normal means of establishing their different identity are not available to us. This is how Virgil represents Larides and Thymber, two distinct men indistinguishable to their own– in a poignantly contradictory expression, gratusque parentibus error (392), a sweet source of confusion to their parents: confusion should not be a positive experience, of course. But the previous line (391) is a fine piece of composition, too, Daucia, Laride Thymberque, simillima proles, “Larides and Thymber, offspring of Daucus, most alike.” The names of the two brothers are so different, yet pressed so closely together, and surrounded by words describing what they have in common, their fatherhood by Daucus, their preternatural similarity. This impression of their inseparability is achieved as much by the structure of the line, deploying all the resources of an inflected language (allowing words to be placed where their impact is greatest), as by its content.

If that line expresses the strange togetherness of twins, the following (393) is jarringly corrective. “But now Pallas gave you harsh marks of difference”: Pallas brings violent definition to these indistinguishable men, killing them individually, and with Pallas’ intervention the poet is able to distinguish them, too: there’s a sharp contrast between lines 390 and 391, all about the twins’ interchangeability, and the lines that recount their deaths, which carefully separate Thymber (394) and Larides (395-6), and which Virgil renders as distinct as he can, in rhythm, organisation, length. Death has untwinned them.

But if in terms of composition line 391 expressed the unity of twins, 395 is its antithesis. In the deaths of both twins the theme of severance and dislocation is developed beyond their separation from each other: words of rupture, abstulit (“took off”), decisa (“severed”), describe a horrific partitioning of Thymber and Larides themselves. Thymber is decapitated, and Larides’ sword hand is chopped off. The culminating lines, quite as gruesome as any that Virgil penned, describe the efforts of Larides’ severed hand to be reunited with the rest of him. In 395 Virgil once again uses the shape of the line, as well as its sense, to convey disintegration. In English we have to translate it, “while you, Larides, your severed hand seeks for as its own”, but a word-for-word version of te decisa suum, Laride, dextera quaerit would be “you )( severed )( as its own, Larides, your right hand seeks”, the word for severed, decisa, separating te, you, and suum, (as) its own, and itself separated from its noun dextera, hand, mimicking in the word order the distance between hand and owner. The notion of a hand seeking out an entity distinct from itself to which it also belongs is inherently weird, but so here is Virgil’s line composition.

These are just seven lines of Virgilian verse, but within their scope parents’ puzzled joy collapses into the repellent image of a twitching, severed hand, and the harmony of twins into their physical disintegration. The implications of this little episode don’t quite stop there. The salient issue with Larides and Thymber, to my mind at least, is unity and its dissolution, and this is something key to the later books of the Aeneid. Aeneas, it is strongly suggested, will bring unity to Italy, but the problem, or maybe paradox, is that this future unity after Aeneas’ ultimate victory will only be achieved by extreme discord between Trojans and Italians, the warfare that will only end with Aeneas’ impassioned slaughter of Turnus, in revenge for the death of Pallas, in Book 12.

Here Virgil presents us with the ultimate example of togetherness, the bond between twins, then shows it shattered into pieces. The short tale of Thymber and Larides, or is it Larides and Thymber, encapsulates in its own way the loss of peace and coherence that is apparently essential, in Virgil’s mysterious account of the origins of Rome, to Aeneas’ unifying mission in Italy.

Did Alexander wear my hat?

image-2 copy

This is a pakool, پکول, or you might hear it called a Chitrali cap, or even just an Afghan cap. At any rate it’s an article of headwear from the Afghan/Pakistan borderlands with which we’re these days pretty familiar. If you visit that part of the world, it’s an obvious souvenir: I purchased this one, like generations of travellers before me, in Chicken St in Kabul in 2008.

More recently I’ve been surprised to discover the pakool at the centre of quite a heated academic debate, pursued in the pages of some very prestigious classical journals. It began with an article in American Journal of Archaeology in 1981, “The Cap that Survived Alexander”, in which Prof. Bonnie Kingsley made the arresting observation that the pakool closely resembles an ancient item of headwear, the kausia (καυσία):


This is a terracotta figure of a “Macedonian boy” (from Athens, about 300BC) in the British Museum: the kausia seemed to have functioned for Macedonians pretty much as the kilt does for Scots, the defining garment of a Macedonian man.

It’s true, too, that this Macedonian boy does look exactly like he’s wearing a pakool. Kingsley didn’t think the similarity was coincidental, and argued that the kausia, along with other characteristically Macedonian items of clothing, originated in the part of the world where the pakool is now worn. There were no clear references to the Macedonian kausia, in texts or artistic representations, before Alexander the Great, she claimed, and so the pakool/kausia must have been adopted by Alexander’s troops as they approached India through what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan in 327-6BC. (There is some reference to the adoption of native dress by the soldiers: Curtius 9.3.10-11, Diodorus 17.94.2).

In 1986 Kingsley’s article received an academic response, and quite a decisive one. In Transactions of the American Philological Association Ernst Fredricksmeyer, an Alexander specialist, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the kausia was just too established a staple of the Macedonian wardrobe for it to have been imported from Central Asia toward the end of Alexander’s campaigns. A nice illustration of the “Macedonianness” of the kausia is an epigram by Antipater of Thessalonica (in Macedonia), addressed to the Roman aristocrat L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus in around 11BC (Anth. Pal. 6.335):

Καυσίη, ἡ τὸ πάροιθε Μακηδόσιν εὔκολον ὅπλον,

καὶ σκέπας ἐν νιφετῷ, καὶ κόρυς ἐν πολέμῳ,

ἱδρῶ διψήσασα πιεῖν τεόν, ἄλκιμε Πείσων,

Ἡμαθὶς Αὐσονίους ἦλθον ἐπὶ κροτάφους.

ἀλλὰ φίλος δέξαι με· τάχα κρόκες, αἵ ποτε Πέρσας

τρεψάμεναι, καὶ σοὶ Θρῇκας ὑπαξόμεθα.


I, the kausia, once the Macedonians’ comfortable gear,

both shelter in a snow-storm and a helmet in war,

thirsting to drink your sweat, stout Piso,

have come, a Macedonian, to your Italian brows.

But receive me generously; maybe the wool that once routed

the Persians will help you too to subdue the Thracians.


So Fredricksmeyer scotched the idea that the pakool inspired the kausia pretty effectively, but he wasn’t ready to ditch the whole idea of a connection. He agreed that the hats were uncannily similar, and I think as a Classicist and Alexander expert he wanted the similarity to be significant. Kingsley had recorded an encounter in Afghanistan between a Californian and an Afghan (it’s not clear to me whether the Californian is Kingsley herself or someone else): “A Pashto-speaking Afghan living near the Khyber Pass, in giving a rust-colored cap to a young American from California, informed her that his tribal ancestors had received the cap from Alexander!” Kingsley had argued that the opposite was the truth: Alexander and the Macedonians had got their hat from the Afghans. But Fredricksmeyer was happy on this basis simply to reverse the direction of transmission. It was the Macedonians who had introduced the pakool to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In other words, in the pakool-wearing Mujahedin on our TV screens we were looking at a surviving relic of Alexander’s campaigns in the East.

That’s an intoxicating idea for a Classicist. Like a lot of intoxicating ideas, though, not very plausible. The debate between Kingsley and Fredricksmeyer rumbled on for a while (see the bibliography below; Kingsley’s last intervention was published posthumously), with Fredricksmeyer latterly slightly less confident about any connection between the pakool and Alexander the Great. The coup de grâce was administered by Willem Vogelsang of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (under the not-so-catchy title of “The Pakol, a distinctive but apparently not so very old headgear from the Indo-Iranian borderlands”), who showed that the pakool is actually a simple adaptation of caps with rolled rims worn all over the borderlands of China, India and Central Asia.

It took a sober ethnologist to puncture the romantic ideas of the Classicists. To put that another way, it took a scholar who understood this part of the world on its own terms to correct a perception driven by obviously Western priorities. But this is what for me makes this academic tussle is the 1980’s quite timeless. Classicists, or at least the classically educated, have been indulging similar fantasies about Afghanistan and Pakistan ever since the first Europeans arrived there. When the French mercenary Claude-Auguste Court first set eyes on the valley of Peshawar, he “wondered how the necessity to make a livelihood had given me, a mere French officer, the possibility to go so far away and behold the most beautiful scene of Alexander’s exploits.”** When the British beheld this surviving fragment of a Buddhist monastery, it was again as a sign that Alexander had been there before them:

Minar-e Chakari

In this case the British were encouraged by the Afghans, in whose folklore Alexander figured large. The local name for the Pillar of Alexander was the Minar-e Sikandar, but neither that nor the man near the Khyber Pass was the result of folk memories of Alexander’s campaigns, but rather the continuing popularity in Afghanistan of the cluster of tales known for convenience as the Alexander Romance (an astonishingly widespread storytelling phenomenon you can, if you’re so inclined, read more about here). I’m pretty sure that another product of the encounter between Alexander-obsessed Europeans and Afghan folklore is the persistent idea, thoroughly debunked, that the non-Islamic people who survive in Chitral are descendants of Alexander’s soldiers.

Well, at this remove it’s obvious enough, I think, that the Kingsley/Fredricksmeyer exchange says more about the 1980s AD than the fourth century BC. When Kingsley wrote her first article, pakools were all over our newspapers and television screens, worn by people that back then we idolised, the Mujahedin fighting the Soviet-backed government in Kabul after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Since then the associations of the cap have been variable. In the fighting between the Taliban and Northern Alliance before 2001, the pakool was the mark of the northern forces  (a black turban identifying the Taliban), but the 1980s had lent the hat a lingering jihadi chic (there are photos of Osama bin Laden wearing one): the Pakistani Taliban favour it, as do some ISIS fighters.

Back in 1981, though, the impulse to link the Mujahedin’s characteristic headwear to Alexander must have been hard to resist. To me that’s as interesting as any other theory, because if Alexander the Great isn’t influencing anyone’s style of hat, he remains the filter through which the West all too often seeks to understand Afghanistan.


B. M. Kingsley, “The cap that survived Alexander”, AJA 85 (1981), 39-46;

— “The ‘Chitrali’, a Macedonian import to the West”, Afghanistan Journal 8 (1981), 90-93;

— “The Kausia Diadematophoros”, AJA 88 (1984), 66-68;

— “Alexander’s ‘kausia’ and Macedonian tradition”, 
Classical Antiquity 10, (1991), 59-76;

E. A. Fredricksmeyer, “Alexander the Great and the Macedonian kausia”, TAPhA 116 (1986), 215-227;

— “The kausia: Macedonian or Indian?” in I. Worthington (ed.), Ventures into Greek History (Oxford, 1994), 135-158;

W. Vogelsang, “The Pakol, a distinctive but apparently not so very old headgear from the Indo-Iranian borderlands”, Khil’a 2 (2006), 149-156.

(**J.-M. Lafont, “Private business and cultural activities of the French officers of Maharajah Ranjit Singh”, Journal of Sikh Studies 10 (1983), 74-104, at 86)

Fons et origo

Well well

My winning blog topic this evening is a hole in the ground.

But not just any old hole in the ground. This hole is smack in the middle of my college and, as the more perceptive among you will already have spotted, a well.

We had no idea it was there. The quad in which it was found, Chapel Quad a.k.a. the Deer Park (our ironic competition with Magdalen College’s Deer Park, which contains real deer), is being re-landscaped, but the well doesn’t appear on any plans, and gets no mention in our records, so it was quite unexpected. There’s no sign of it either on Loggan’s engraving of the college from 1675 (the red line marks the spot), and the college records of works thereafter are pretty comprehensive. That said, there is some writing within the well, the letters H G(?) and 18 (the well is about 5m. deep, so that might be its height/depth in feet, but what do I know), so someone’s been down it at some point. (The lead pipe in the picture is a later addition, presumably dating to whenever it was that the well was capped, and designed to provide pumped water from it.)


So the well is older than the late seventeenth century, and we also have a terminus post quem: in the fill of the well’s construction trench archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology (source also of the photo at the head of this post) found a single sherd of pottery datable to the fifteenth/sixteenth century.

That places us at a very interesting time. Brasenose College was founded in 1508-12, on the cusp of the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. But the well is close to, and likely closely associated with, a building now known as the Medieval Kitchen (just behind it on Loggan’s engraving), which stands at an odd angle to the other college buildings and is presumed to be a survival from before the foundation of the College. Assuming that the well and the Medieval Kitchen are coordinated, it seems likely that the well predates the College, too.

Before Brasenose College was founded, this part of Oxford was a jumble of smaller academic institutions, the halls which preceded the establishment of the larger, endowed colleges. Then, as now, the vicinity of St Mary’s church, the University Church, was the heart of the University: in 1408-9 as many as thirty-two halls lined (the aptly named) School St. This now survives as the west side of Radcliffe Sq, mainly taken up by one side of Brasenose College. It once extended to the northern wall of the city, until blocked by an extension to the Bodleian Library.

These academic halls were places where small numbers of students would live and receive lectures: they typically had the form of medieval town houses, a ground-to-roof hall with rooms attached, the hall for eating and lecturing, the rooms for study and sleep. On the site now occupied by Brasenose, as the map below (from Volume 1 of the Quatercentenary Monographs produced by the College in 1909) indicates, there were at least ten academic halls, Broadgates, Haberdashers’, Little St. Edmund, St. Mary’s Entry, Salesurry, Brasenose, Little University, Ivy, St Thomas’ and Shield. Brasenose Hall, in existence since the thirteenth century, had its entrance where the current College entrance is, and is its most significant precursor. The first Principal of “The King’s Hall and College of Brasenose” (to give us our full name), Matthew Smyth, had been Principal of Brasenose Hall, and of course the new foundation adopted its peculiar name.

Over the centuries Brasenose College expanded to fill the space occupied by these halls, but the bit of college we’re concerned with, the Deer Park, only really joined the College when laid out as a second quad in the seventeenth century, just a few years before Loggan’s image. On this map of the site of Brasenose in 1500, just before the college was founded, it is marked VII, and this was the location of the academic hall known as St Mary’s Entry (I here acknowledge my debt to my polymathic colleague Jonathan Jones).

image-2 copy

St Mary’s Entry, Introitus Sanctae Mariae in Vico Scholarum in contemporary records, seems to have been a comparatively recent establishment, dating to the second half of the fifteenth century. It and Salesurry Hall (VIII) were granted in perpetuity to one of the founders of Brasenose, Sir Richard Sutton, by Oriel College, its owner, on February 20, 1509/10 (at a rent of 13s. 4d). That “Medieval Kitchen”, meanwhile, is a mystery: “It has a fine open-timber roof, apparently of an earlier date than anything else we have, and has every appearance of being an older building, incorporated into the College,” in the words of Quatercentenary Monograph. My entirely uninformed guess is that the Medieval Kitchen and the hall of St Mary’s Entry are one and the same, and that it and its associated well belong to that time just before the foundation of the College by Royal Charter, at which point most, but evidently not quite all, of what preceded it was flattened and replaced.

MK inside

Medieval Kitchen” (St Mary’s Entry?) interior

I like wandering around this city and imagining the very different appearance it had in the past. It’s a paradoxical thing, since Oxford’s cityscape is already so very old. But Oxford is also a place where building has never stopped, and the centre of the University, Radcliffe Sq, is especially transformed from its appearance 500 years ago. Our “Medieval Kitchen” may well be a fragment of that earlier, more ramshackle University of Oxford. I’m also fascinated by the hidden history of its buildings: I speculated on the history of another part of Brasenose College here, and also imagined the suburb of Oxford where I live when it was still open fields, hosting an encounter between James I and dignitaries from the City and University in 1605.

But there’s nothing more evocative than a well for representing the distant, forgotten past, reaching deep down into the ground beneath us.

P.S. For another blog on the subject, and this one written by an archaeologist who knows what she’s talking about, Francesca Anthony, see here.

MK outside

“Medieval Kitchen” exterior (with the well beneath the metal fencing to the right)


Map of the College shortly post-foundation, suggesting that the “Medieval Kitchen” is an element retained from St Mary’s Entry.