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?

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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).

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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.

Lucretius, face to face


Lucretius is the Marmite of Roman literature. For some of my colleagues the De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of the Universe” (DRN), his attempt to express the complex philosophical creed of Epicurus in poetry, mixes incompatibles: even certain Bodley Medal laureates have been known to diss Lucretius in my presence. Others are more sympathetic, and for some of them it’s the very strangeness of this project that holds a lot of its appeal.

I count myself one of the latter group, predictably, and I’m especially intrigued by Lucretius’ skill in exploiting the resources of poetry to advance his key aim, converting the reader to Epicurus’ philosophy and the contented existence that he insists will follow. In the DRN poetry and philosophy are thoroughly interwoven, inseparable, which means that interpreting the poem requires as good a grip of his philosophical position as his poetic technique. David West’s great little book The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius is still for me the best introduction to Lucretius’ intricate poetry, and I’d freely admit that I fall far short of competence on the philosophical side myself. When I was co-writing something on Epicureanism and Lucretius recently, I left as much of the seriously technical stuff as I could to my co-author, Barney Taylor, who’s got a surer footing in Epicureanism and Lucretius’ account of it than I’ll ever have.

All I’m going to do in this blog is develop a thought I had while Barney and I were revising our article over the weekend. The focus is Lucretius as philosopher-poet or poet-philosopher, a poet whose poetry is all about convincing us of his philosophical convictions.

The De Rerum Natura is addressed to “Memmius”, generally believed to be C. Memmius L. f., a senior politician in Rome in the 50’s BC. By “addressed to” I mean that Lucretius presents the detailed account of Epicureanism doctrine that he offers in the DRN as a private communication between himself and Memmius: the stated aim of the poem is the conversion of this one individual. That’s the initial set up, at any rate. In practice, across the whole of the poem, although that intimacy is maintained, Memmius is named only occasionally, and a well-established interpretation of Lucretius’ strategy here is that this allows the place in the conversation originally occupied by Memmius to become the reader’s. When Lucretius addresses “you”, in other words, it’s easy for readers to feel that it is with them, individually, that Lucretius is communicating. Certainly the ancients thought that reading the De Rerum Natura was like “discussing the nature of the Universe with Lucretius as if face to face” (cum Lucretio videbuntur velut coram de rerum naturam disputare, Vitruvius 9 praef. 17).

Well, that was once the established view. But in 1993 a very influential article by Phillip Mitsis upset it. Mitsis argued that Lucretius’ style of argument in the poem was too aggressive for it simply to be a case of Memmius standing in for the reader. Rather, he suggests, the reader is being encouraged to see the “you” addressed in the poem, Memmius, as a bit of an dunce, consistently failing to grasp Lucretius’ arguments; according to Mitsis, the reader does not slip into Memmius’ shoes, then, but instead, in the process of watching Memmius get it wrong over and over again, and wishing to avoid sharing Memmius’ slow-wittedness, imperceptibly absorbs the wisdom of Epicurus.

That would certainly be psychologically astute on Lucretius’ part, and everyone agrees that Lucretius has the psychology of teaching pretty much taped, but on a number of grounds I don’t find Mitsis’ theory very convincing. Barney Taylor is actually working on a comprehensive response to his article, which, as I say, is a very influential one, and I wouldn’t attempt to anticipate Barney’s arguments even if I could.

But I am going to suggest one potentially relevant consideration, which occurred to me last weekend when I came across a remark attributed to Epicurus himself (Epicurus fr. 208 Usener). It is from a letter written by Epicurus to a fellow Epicurean, and it’s preserved for us by the Roman philosopher Seneca (Epist. 7.11). It simply says, “I say this not to many people, but just to you: we are, each for the other, an audience large enough” (haec ego non multis, sed tibi: satis enim magnum alter alteri theatrum sumus). But what struck me about it was that the relationship that Epicurus here describes existing between himself and his correspondent, intimate communication between two individuals, is exactly what Lucretius also establishes between himself and Memmius in the DRN.

What Epicurus is describing is I think a kind of ideal for Epicureans, perhaps even the quintessence of an Epicurean life of pleasure and ἀταραξία, freedom from anxiety. The intimate colloquy with a friend answers to a cluster of things that Epicurus believed contributed to the good life. Epicurus’ school was located in the Garden (Κῆπος), a small property belonging to him just outside Athens, a place of retreat from public life which Epicurus shared with friends, and in which their friendship was expressed through communal living, eating, and conversation. Cicero caricatures Epicureans as “carrying on discussions in their own little gardens” (in hortulis suis … dicere, Leg. 1.39), while Epicurus himself, in a letter he wrote as he lay dying to a friend named Idomeneus, describes the intense pain he was in, but insists his suffering is offset by “the joy in my soul at the recollection of our past conversations” (τὸ κατὰ ψυχὴν χαῖρον ἐπὶ τῇ τῶν γεγονότων ἡμῖν διαλογισμῶν μνήμῃ, Diog. Laert. 10.22). As for friendship itself, there was no aspect of social life more highly valued by Epicurus or his followers. In Epicurus’ own words (Sententiae Vaticanae 78), “The man of noble character is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship. Of these the former is a mortal good, but the latter is immortal” (ὁ γενναῖος περὶ σοφίαν καὶ φιλίαν μάλιστα γίγνεται, ὧν τὸ μέν ἐστι θνητὸν ἀγαθόν, τὸ δὲ ἀθάνατον).

Epicurus and Lucretius are both replicating this ideal of the intimate conversation as approximately as they can in written form, by a letter (generally understood in Antiquity as conversation by other means), and by a poem that dramatises a similar discussion. And insofar as the De Rerum Natura styles itself a conversation with Memmius, it is a token of friendship, too. Lucretius says so explicitly early in Book 1, explaining his motivation for undertaking the writing of the poem, despite its difficulties (140-41), “your excellence and the pleasure of delightful friendship that I anticipate” (tua … uirtus … et sperata uoluptas/ suauis amicitiae). Friendship is here presented as an abundant source of pleasure, pleasure being the primary good in Epicurean philosophy. I might add, though, that this is a moment when Memmius goes unnamed. Is it in fact friendship with me, the reader, that Lucretius has in mind here? The possibility of an intimacy extending across two millennia, achieved by a poetic text, is one of those things that makes Roman literature kind of thrilling.

But enough of that. The basic dramatic setup of the De Rerum Natura seems designed to express this especially valued Epicurean social practice of friendship. It’s important in this connection that friendship, amicitia, was something highly valued by Romans in general. Lucretius’ task in the DRN is to convert ordinary Romans to a philosophy that promoted a radically different understanding of the world, not an easy task. He tries very hard not to alienate his reader, and to insist on the common ground between Rome and Epicureanism. Amicitia is one such: to Romans there would be little less threatening than a friendly conversation.

Nevertheless, what may seem perfectly Roman is also thoroughly Epicurean. Spend any time “discussing the nature of the Universe with Lucretius as if face to face” and you start to see the world as you should, you start to become an Epicurean; but as part of that process you start to adopt the social practices of Epicureans, the friendly discussions in a space (the De Rerum Natura, a kind of poetic Garden) free of the distractions and anxieties of everyday life. That’s as cunning a piece of psychological manipulation as Mitsis proposes, I think: by the very act of reading the De Rerum Natura, your behaviour is being moulded into an Epicurean shape.

I don’t think any of that represents an unprecedented insight. But I suggested earlier that thinking about one-to-one conversation might also give us a counterargument to Mitsis. What I have in mind is the paramount value that Epicureans attached to friendship, amicitia, φιλία. If Lucretius’ colloquy with Memmius, and with each of us, does indeed embody friendship, Epicurus’ immortal good, could an Epicurean, in a poem dedicated to conveying the life-transforming doctrines of Epicurus, contemplate betraying such a sacred thing? For a betrayal of friendship is surely what Mitsis’ theory amounts to: Lucretius is pretending to be Memmius’ friend, with his deepest interests at heart, but in fact is showing him up as an idiot for the benefit of the rest of us.

I can’t see that for an Epicurean that could be anything but unthinkable.

(P.S. 13.4.2016. In a text I’ve been encouraged to read by James Warren [see the discussion below], Philodemus’ Peri Parrhesias or On Frank Criticism, there is a lot of very interesting material on parrhesia, candid (and typically corrective) speech, as a mark of friendship and an essential component of the relationship between philosopher and pupil, itself figured as an encounter between friends, and on the candid speech that played a key role in Epicurean communities, a kind of group therapy maintaining the psychic and philosophical health of their members. As a corollary, we are informed (fr. 41) that “to act in secret is necessarily most unfriendly, no doubt.”)

When the spade you call a spade’s no spade


My least snappy title by a distance. Apologies, and apologies also for a blog inspired by a pun so obscure that I’ve seen it attributed to two Oxford Classicists separately. Actually it was really inspired by Claire Webster, to whom thanks.

“To call a spado a spado” is a joke that Claire heard Tom Braun, a Classicist at Merton College, make, but I can claim an earlier outing. A former student of my college, Brasenose, recalls attending lectures in the 1950’s on the Roman satirist Juvenal, delivered by J.G. Griffith of Jesus College. Juvenal does not pull his punches, and Griffith, clearly a don of the old school, “felt inhibited” discussing his poetry “when lady students were present.” When the last of the women undergraduates eventually left the group, he remarked with relief, “At last: now I can call a spado a spado.”

Not a very edifying scene to contemplate, and I’ve got a feeling this joke has been told for as long as Juvenal has been taught through the medium of English. Allow me to explain it. A spado in Latin is a eunuch, and though Juvenal in actual fact used the term sparingly (only three times in total), eunuchs were very much the kind of affront to Roman manhood that Juvenal’s spectacularly jaundiced style of satire specialised in attacking. In Satire XIV, for example, he lays into the spado Posides, a freedman of the emperor Claudius, for his extravagant building projects (see here for what might have been one of his villas on the Amalfi Coast), but it’s probably more relevant that when Juvenal launches his satirical project in his scene-setting first poem, explaining that he’s been driven to abusive poetry by the moral corruption he sees all around him in the city of Rome, it is with a “soft spado” taking a wife (cum tener uxorem ducat spado) that he begins (1.22).

The expression “to call a spade a spade” of course means to speak frankly and directly, to tell it like it is. A spade’s spadiness is the perfect analogy because it’s an utterly unexotic piece of equipment, with entirely practical and unglamorous uses. In fact humour can be got from the perceived distance between spades and specialness (“to call a spade a geomorphological modification implement”) or from intensifying the spade’s mundane associations (“to call a spade a bloody shovel”). Calling a spade a spade is a quality or disquality we could easily associate with Juvenal, and J.G. Griffith could apply it to the less roundabout style of discussing Juvenal’s satire he felt able to adopt once all the women had left the room. Hence “to call a spado a spado“.

Ho ho.

Now, I’m not going to devote an entire blog, composed in the precious hours I’ve snatched from my new life as an administrative drone, to explaining a donnish pun. Luckily the original expression “to call a spade a spade” has its own rather interesting history.

Like a lot of colloquial expressions that we assume are just traditional, or maybe biblical, this is anything but. We owe it to the great humanist Erasmus, and the collection of aphorisms, the Adages, which he first published in 1500 but added to for the rest of his life, so that in its final form, in 1536, the Adages reached a total of 4,151 entries, a Herculean achievement as he himself described it. These proverbs were then translated from Erasmus’ Latin into the vernacular languages of Europe, and the result is that our everyday language is peppered with Erasmian maxims: if you ever talk about “a necessary evil”, “rare bird”, “squeezing water from a stone”, “looking a gift horse in the mouth”, “putting the cart before the horse”, you owe that turn of phrase, and heaps of others, to Erasmus.

These proverbs weren’t Erasmus’ own invention. He found most of them in the Greek and Roman literature that, as a Renaissance humanist, he saw as the key to building a civilized society. It helped that he achieved an encyclopedic knowledge of that literature. There really wasn’t much that Erasmus hadn’t read at some time or another. I once traced the common turn of phrase “to lose a battle, but not the war” back to Erasmus’ Adages, but he’d found it in the late-antique dictionary of Nonius Marcellus, which he read and exploited for the penultimate 1533 edition of the Adages.  I confess it tickles me that people, in the normal course of conversation, unwittingly repeat the words of classical writers: “a necessary evil” comes from the Greek geographer Strabo, “in the same boat” from a letter of Cicero, “one swallow does not make a summer” from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “a friend in need is a friend indeed” (a jingle in Latin, too: amicus certus in re incerta cernitur) from a tragedy of Ennius via Cicero, “to lose a battle but not the war” from Juvenal’s great predecessor in Roman satire, Lucilius (for whom Nonius’ De compendiosa doctrina is an important source). It tickles me especially that the expression “to call a spade a spade”, which is all about using simple language, is actually the result of the most learned man of his day’s unparalleled familiarity with the literature of classical antiquity.

We’re all Classicists really, it’s just that some of us don’t know it yet.

“To call a spade a spade” is just one of these 4,151 aphorisms, no. 1205, in fact. But it has an especially interesting history. Erasmus introduced it, in the 1515 edition, as Ficus ficus, ligonem ligonem vocat, “He calls figs figs, and a hoe a hoe.” “It is applied,” he explains, “to the man who explains something as it is, with simple, rustic truthfulness, and does not wrap it up in complex or elaborate expression.” He traces his Latin version of the saying to a Greek original, ta suka suka, ten skaphen skaphen legon (τὰ σῦκα σῦκα, τὴν σκάφην σκάφην λέγων), a line of verse which he attributes to Aristophanes, the most famous writer of Attic Comedy, apparently on the basis of reading John Tzetzes, a twelfth-century Byzantine scholar. The saying itself he found in one of his favourite ancient writers, the Greek satirist Lucian: in Jupiter Rants (Zeus Tragoidos 32), Heracles excuses himself as a “country bumpkin” who, “in the words of the comic poet” calls “the skaphe skaphe” (for reasons that will become clearer, I’ll hold off translating skaphe for the moment); while in How To Write History (41) Lucian lists the qualities of a good historian, “fearless, incorruptible, independent, a lover of frankness and truth, prepared, as the comic poet says, to call ‘figs figs, and the skaphe skaphe‘.” The full expression in How To Write History, figs and all, probably comes from another comic poet (though in a very different style of Comedy), Menander (fr. 717 Koerte). But the source of the version in Jupiter Rants (Aristophanes fr. 927 Kassel-Austin) may indeed be Aristophanes, depending how much faith we place in Tzetzes (traditionally, not awfully much).


This Roman hoe, from the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, is a Roman hoe.

For its impact on our everyday speech, Erasmus’ Adages is one of the most influential books ever written. In relation to no. 1205, the English versions of the Adages that rapidly appeared, for example by Richard Taverner and Nicholas Udall, rendered Erasmus’ ligo as “spade”–hence the aphorism we still use today. But there’s one odd thing we haven’t mentioned about Erasmus’ 1,205th adage: it’s all wrong. The Greek word that Erasmus translated as ligo, “hoe,” and Udall as “spade”, skaphe (σκάφη), means no such thing. A skaphe is not a tool for excavating but something excavated, a dug-out canoe or, in this case, probably a kneading trough or dough bin. Now, “to call a kneading trough a kneading trough” references an appropriately mundane item of kitchen equipment, it is true, but it lacks the snappiness of “calling a spade a spade”. “Spade”, “hoe” or “mattock” σκάφη simply does not mean, and it reminds us that Erasmus’ learning of Greek was always a work in progress, but his blooper was serendipitous if, as I suspect, it ensured the popularity and endurance of the English expression.

There we have it, anyway, the history of a turn of phrase which we may not have imagined had much of a history. On the contrary, when you bluntly call a spade a spade, you are echoing the language of Athenian dramatists from 2,500 years ago, with a twist added quite unwittingly by the leading light of the northern Renaissance.


Royal flush

A post for the British School at Rome is here: thoughts on the weird fixation with the emperor Domitian’s complexion one finds in Statius, Martial, Tacitus and Pliny.


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