This, as I probably don’t need to tell you, is a banknote.
To be specific, it’s a 10-afghani banknote printed in 2004 (my thanks to Dr Amelia Dowler of the BM for that astonishingly precise piece of identification), and it’s been hanging about in my wallet since my last trip to Afghanistan in 2011.
What I hadn’t noticed in all that time, and only did notice when Roh Yakobi drew my attention to it last week, was the emblem in the top right corner, above the picture of the building (the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani, considered the founder of Afghanistan, in Kandahar). Here’s a close-up:
This is the seal of Da Afghanistan Bank, the central bank of Afghanistan established in 1939 (1318 in the Iranian/Afghan solar calendar). But alongside the name of the bank in Pashto, in Arabic script at the top and Latin script at the bottom, there’s a text in Ancient Greek, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΔΟΥ, “Of the great king Eucratides.”
Eucratides was a Greek king of Bactria (roughly northern Afghanistan) in the second century BC (rough dates 170-145BC). What’s represented in the centre of the seal is in fact one of his coins. Here’s a silver tetradrachm of Eucratides with the same design:
This blog is essentially my best attempt to answer a question that Roh Yakobi put to me, a very good question: what on earth is a two-millennia-old coin image of a Greek king doing on a modern Afghan banknote?
To start with the coin design, and Eucratides. The image on the bank note is the “reverse” of the coin. On the “obverse” is an image of the king himself, in a cavalry helmet and cloak, but on this side, surrounded by Eucratides’ name and titles, we see two galloping horsemen in conical hats, holding palms and long stabbing spears. Their equipment associates them with Macedonian military tactics (the Greek kings of Bactria were all inheritors directly or indirectly of Alexander conquests in the region) and the cavalry for which Bactria was famous. But the star over each of their heads identifies them as Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri or divine sons of Zeus by Leda. The pair are saviour gods, helpers of humanity in crisis.
Eucratides, like all the Greek rulers in the borderlands of India, is a shadowy figure. He may have seized power in Bactria; certainly his reign seems to have been a very violent one, his campaigns potentially extending as far as N.-W. India, and his death may have come at the hands of his own son. Apollodorus of Artemita (at Strabo 15.1.3) calls him “ruler of a thousand cities”; one in particular we know was called Eucratidia, and it may be the same as the remarkable archaeological site of Ai Khanum in N.-E. Afghanistan. Then again, and this is the story with almost all the information we have about Eucratides, it may not.
In between fighting and founding/retitling cities, Eucratides minted some very innovative coins (which are the most tangible evidence we have about him): the description of himself as “Great” on this one is one such innovation, and almost certainly indicates that his grip on power was in reality highly vulnerable. “The coins of Eucratides I or Great, are very numerous, and of very spirited execution,” wrote Charles Masson, the nineteenth-century deserter-cum-antiquarian, as he fossicked around Begram, north of Kabul, the site of the great city of Kapisa/Alexandria ad Caucasum before it hosted an airbase. But the most famous example of Eucratides’ coinage is the so-called Eucratidion, at 169.2g. the largest gold coin surviving from Antiquity. This was bought in London by a French dealer in 1867 from a man who had carried it from Bukhara in a pouch secreted in his armpit. It is now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
A celebrated design, then, and quite a common archaeological find in Afghanistan. We still need to explain its presence on the note, but the first step is to establish why Da Afghanistan Bank, when it was founded in 1939, adopted this design. The answer offers a fascinating insight into Afghanistan’s perception of itself at that moment.
The establishment of an Afghan central bank was part of a bigger project to modernize Afghanistan under the Musahibun regime of Zahir Shah (king of Afghanistan from 1933 to 1973). Taking as its models European nations and “advanced” Islamic countries like Iran and Turkey, Afghanistan was giving itself the institutions of a developed state. Responding to the wave of nationalism in the world of the 1930s, in the words of Robert D. Crews in his excellent book Afghan Modern, “Afghans faced the test of demonstrating their right to belong in this world of nation states by articulating a national language, culture and past” (p.156). This could take the form of national financial institutions, and also of discriminatory policies against non-Muslims, especially Jews (dangerous notions of Aryan ancestry were also in the air). But a 2,000-year-old coin image, too, contradictory as it may seem, could symbolize progress in thirties Afghanistan.
The explanation of this lies in the archaeological work undertaken in Afghanistan in the previous two decades. Archaeology had properly begun in Afghanistan with the agreement between King Amanullah (another modernizer) and the French government in 1922 to establish the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA). By the late thirties, as Nile Green explains (“The Afghan discovery of Buddha: civilizational history and the nationalizing of Afghan antiquity,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 49 (2017), 47-70), the discoveries of French archaeologists at such sites as Begram and Hadda (of which the publications began to appear in numbers in the mid-thirties) were starting to secure the interest of the Afghan leadership. The National Museum of Afghanistan, which moved into its new premises in the administrative district of Darulaman in Kabul in 1931, was being turned, mainly by these French discoveries, into one of the richest collections in the world. In 1937, according to the French chargé d’affaires, “The excavations at Begram have been visited by several ministers … the king himself visited the exhibition mounted at the Kabul museum.”
We need to appreciate what a dramatic change this represented in Afghan attitudes to their past, an emphasis on pre-Islamic cultures, Buddhist as well as Greek, which superseded and sidelined Afghanistan’s Islamic heritage, hitherto the focus of Afghan historiography and national identity. This new emphasis was facilitated by the activities of DAFA, but it also represented Afghanistan’s attempt to align its own historical identity with what Green calls the “civilizational norms” of the developed world that it aspired to join. By highlighting its Greek heritage, Afghanistan could claim a share of the classical origins of Europe and the West. A state-owned bank represented civilization and modernity in the 1930s, but so did a coin with Greek writing on it.
Green’s article focuses on a key personality in these cultural developments, Ahmad Ali Kuhzad, an Afghan archaeologist who had worked with DAFA and subsequently in a series of Persian publications communicated the insights gained by the French into ancient Afghan history to the Afghan elite and beyond. I suspect Kuhzad was more directly involved in this design than I can now establish. There’s a Kuhzad publication from 1938/1317, Maskukat-i Qadim-i Afghanistan, Ancient Coins of Afghanistan, which I’m trying to get my hands on, but which I’m fairly confident will contain lots of images of Eucratides coins when I do.
So that’s how Eucratides made it onto the seal of the State Bank, and it tells us a lot about Afghan aspirations in the 1930s. But we still have to explain how he made it onto the notes.
That happened in 1979, but in this instance I suspect the Bactrian Greeks had less to do with the development. Take a look at these four Afghan bank notes (images all from Banknote World), the first of Zahir Shah in 1967:
The second is of Daoud Khan (1977), Zahir Shah’s cousin, who deposed him in 1973 and established a republic:
The third is from 1978, and was printed by the communist government of Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, which had overthrown and killed Daoud:
Finally from 1979/80, and this is the first note to have Eucratides on it (although he has stayed there ever since), a note issued by the communist government of Babrak Karmal, installed by the Soviets after they had intervened and overthrown Amin:
Each of these notes has a “national” emblem on it. On Zahir Shah’s it’s a long-established symbol of Afghanistan, a mosque containing minbar (pulpit) and mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca). Daoud replaces that with an symbol for the Republic of Afghanistan, an eagle. But the image of Taraki’s regime is a big departure, retaining the corn sheaves that surround Zahir Shah’s and Daoud’s emblem, but containing within just the name of their faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, خلق (Khalq), meaning “People”. It is this image that is superseded by the seal of Da Afghanistan Bank when Karmal’s alternative faction of the Communist Party, پرچم(Parcham, “Banner”), is installed by the Soviets.
The Taraki/Amin regime was exceptionally brutal (there is a moving article about its crimes by Nushin Arbabzadah here), and the radical and precipitate reforms it attempted to impose on Afghanistan provoked the uprising that turned into the ten-year resistance to the Soviet occupation. It was with the immediate aim of deposing Amin (who had in the meantime got rid of Taraki) that the Soviets stepped in at the end of 1979. All this meant that Karmal’s regime had every reason to distance itself from its fellow communists and from their uncompromisingly partisan approach, and I think this best explains their adoption of the seal of the Afghan central bank in place of the Khalq emblem, a gesture implying at the same time economic prudence (though all of these notes have the name of the bank prominently somewhere) and a national project more broadly-based than narrow factional interests.
But Eucratides also offered Parcham a non-Islamic motif. Zahir Shah’s mosque was of course overtly Islamic; Daoud’s republican eagle still had a minbar and mihrab represented on its chest. In the 1930s an Ancient Greek king had represented civilization and development. Here he represents secularism, I suspect, as well as the Afghan nation. It’s odd that a king’s name and a pair of saviour gods could do any such thing, of course, but what the Greco-Roman world can be used to endorse is endlessly surprising.
Very useful to me when writing this was a deleted BBC Persian article on Afghan banknotes that Roh Yakobi found: there’s a scan of it here. Most of the information I’ve discovered about Eucratides and his coinage I owe to Frank L. Holt’s book on Afghan numismatics, Lost World of the Golden King, another excellent read. He somewhat unsportingly points out toward the end of the book (p.209) that the Greek lettering on the banknote is slightly misspelt, replacing the delta in Eucratides’ name with a lamda: ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΛΟΥ, not ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΔΟΥ.
I am nevertheless even more attached to the Afghan banknote in my wallet after Roh’s revelation than I was before.
[There is now a Persian version of this blog on the Ettela’at Ruz site here, translated by Hamid Mahdavi.]
So I’ve been reading Graeme Wood on supporters of ISIS, and after that Penelope Wilson on hieroglyphs, rather different kinds of book but I recommend both. What caught my attention in each of them was a linguistic phenomenon I find intriguing, the impulse people can feel to take language, this practical tool we use to navigate around our world, and transmute it into something more exalted: a medium for addressing the divine.
I didn’t know until I read Wood’s book that Salafi Muslims cultivate an archaic style of spoken Arabic, a form of the language reflecting their desire to emulate the very earliest generations of Islam, al salaf al salih, the pious forefathers. Rejecting contemporary forms of Arabic brings them closer to the Prophet and the Quran, closer to God’s revelation. Wood describes having his colloquial Arabic corrected by an Egyptian Salafist (p.33):
Ahmad took me to lunch at a chicken restaurant where we ate well and he, over my objection, paid the bill out of his student stipend. He corrected my Arabic over and over, studiously transposing the street dialect that came most easily to me with the high register favored by Salafis. Chicken was not firakh, but dajaj. Any time I pronounced the letter jim with a hard g, in the Egyptian way, he corrected it to the more classical j as in “Juliet”: “Jamal,” not “Gamal,” was the name of the dead Egyptian strongman Nasser. The letter qaf, instead of vanishing without a trace as in normal Egyptian speech, had to be pronounced deep in the throat, where the soft palate meets the tongue: qalam [pen], not alam. My language was getting purer, word by word and bite by bite.
Qalam is the Greek word kalamos in fact, but never mind.
Still in Egypt, albeit a few centuries earlier, another thing I didn’t appreciate was how significant the “hiero-” (“sacred”) bit of “hieroglyphs” was. From Wilson (p.18) I learned that the Ancient Egyptian word for this pictorial writing was medu-netjer, meaning “words of god,” and that the primary function of hieroglyphic script was to enable communication between Egyptians and their gods. This wasn’t a different form of language, of course, so much as an esoteric way of representing that language (though if I understand rightly, hieroglyphs were also associated with an archaic and ossified form of the Egyptian language).
By way of illustration, Wilson memorably describes the different audiences targeted by the three texts on the Rosetta Stone (p.31):
Greek (for the ruling administration of the day), hieroglyphs (for the gods), and Demotic (for everyone else).
She also rather beautifully encourages us to imagine that the hieroglyphs accompanying images of human activity and speech covering tombs might become audible: “the tombs would be full of noise, and the chatter of hundreds of people” (p.46). Again, if I understand correctly, the things depicted are summoned into existence by being named in hieroglyphic form. The hieroglyphs secure from the gods an Afterlife for the dead person as rich as the life they have departed. For the dead, I suppose, the tomb with its images and hieroglyphs in effect is that wonderful new life.
I hope I’ve got that right, because a) I find it frankly and gloriously mind-blowing, and b) it’s the main motivation for this blog. And while the whole idea was to be reading stuff at bedtime that was unrelated to work, I couldn’t help thinking about Greco-Roman things, too.
If the Greeks and Romans had anything like hieroglyphics or Quranic Arabic, linguistic ways of communing with God, it might be the dactylic hexameter. This is a verse form, and as Paul Fussell wrote in his classic book on the matter, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, one of the essential effects of couching language in verse, making prose poetry, is to raise its register (p.12):
meter, by distinguishing rhythmic from ordinary statement, objectifies that statement and impels it toward a significant formality and even ritualism.
But if all metre is a “ritual frame”, as Fussell calls it, for the language it encloses, there are more and less elevated kinds of metre, and in antiquity the highest form of communication was that done in dactylic hexameters. That included conveying the utterances of the gods. In fact it was believed that the hexameter was invented by the Pythian priestess at Delphi (Pausanias 10.5.7), to be the vehicle for the oracles that the god Apollo shared with humanity.
A more familiar function of the hexameter, though, is as the medium for another kind of divine narrative, epic poetry. This is poetry describing, typically, a heroic world of superior humans, but represents divine speech in at least two ways. First, part of the greatness of the heroes of epic was the ease with which they communed with gods, who aided them and appeared and spoke to them. The epic world is one governed by the gods, and in Homer and Virgil and other epic poets we often see the gods discussing among themselves how events on earth should unfold. Secondly, though, this made the task of the epic poet a daunting one, since they needed inspiration sufficient to be able to relate the deeds and words of the very highest beings. Conventionally epic poets would claim that their poem was itself divine speech. “Tell me of the man of many wiles, Muse,” is how Homer’s Odyssey begins, and “Sing of the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, goddess,” the Iliad.
“Speeches of the gods” could even be shorthand for epic poetry. In Odes 3.3 Horace closely imitated the epic poet Quintus Ennius, Virgil’s great predecessor at Rome, and a speech that Ennius gave to Juno in a Council of the Gods in the first book of his epic poem Annales. At the end of his poem Horace admits that in formal terms he’s seriously broken the rules, putting this epic material in one of his own lyric poems:
Non hoc iocosae conveniet lyrae;
quo, Musa, tendis? Desine pervicax
referre sermones deorum et
magna modis tenuare parvis.
This will not suit the light-hearted lyre!
Where are you heading, Muse? Cease in your wilfulness
to report the speeches of gods and
diminish great matters in small measures!
Why? Because the only proper habitat for gods and their awe-inspiring utterances is the heroic measure, the hexameter.
More to my godless taste, I have to admit, is Juvenal’s take on this whole issue. In his fourth satire Juvenal lays into the emperor Domitian, describing the measures taken by the tyrant to get a huge turbot cooked. The poem is a parody of an epic (which doesn’t survive) by Statius on Domitian’s military exploits in Germany; like almost all Roman satire it is written, like epic, in hexameters, an outrageous act of misappropriation by satire which established it once and for all as epic’s disreputable twin.
At 34-6 Juvenal parodies the conventional epic evocation of the Muse, the plea for access to divine knowledge.
incipe, Calliope. licet et considere: non est
cantandum, res uera agitur. narrate, puellae
Pierides, prosit mihi uos dixisse puellas.
Begin, Calliope! And do please sit down: there’s no call
for singing, these are real events were dealing with. Tell the story, maidens
of Pieria, and may I profit from having called you maidens.
Brutal stuff, but that’s satire. He summons the Muse Calliope (the Muse of epic, the grandest of them all), then makes a nasty joke about the Muses’ sexual morality. I’m more interested in the first line and a half, because in them Juvenal carries out an expert demolition of this divine medium. Incipe, Calliope is authentically epic, but as he tells Calliope to stop taking it so seriously the verse form collapses, too. Some brilliantly shabby versification follows: non est is a useless, unemphatic cadence to the line, and res uera agitur deliberately obscures by elision another important structural element of the heroic hexameter, its central caesura.
A less technical way of putting it is that Juvenal starts line 34 in epic mode, as he should when a god is being addressed, but then collapses into all-too-human prose. I find the aspiration that we feel to speak the language of the gods fascinating, but I find Juvenal’s utter refusal to respect it most refreshing, too.
A curse is a spooky enough topic for Christmas, I reckon. But this blog about curses (exsecrationes in Latin) is really for me to get some thoughts straight in my head. I am still investigating a Roman priest known as the flamen dialis, a priest of Jupiter (as I touched on here, a strange figure who could be considered a kind of animate statue of the god), and one thing I want to understand better is how this priesthood was regarded during Augustus’ reign. (All ultimately with a view to deciding on a possible role for it in Virgil’s Aeneid, but that’s another matter.)
The most important thing to appreciate about this priesthood and Augustan Rome is that for the first half of Augustus’ reign there was actually no flamen dialis in post. This office, a crucial intermediary between Rome and its most powerful patron, the chief god Jupiter, had remained unoccupied since the death by his own hand of the flamen L. Cornelius Merula in 87BC. My assumption is that the absence of the flamen dialis from Rome was a cause of significant anxiety: the Romans were deeply superstitious people, setting great store by the pax deorum, the harmonious relations between them and their gods which could only be maintained by meticulous observation of their religious obligations.
If maintaining this special relationship with the divine realm was a priority, it was because the favour shown their city by the gods was for Romans the best explanation of their rapid rise to power in Italy and the wider Mediterranean. Equally, however, when their fortunes turned sour, and Rome shifted from seemingly unlimited expansion to a traumatic century of internal conflict (only finally brought to an end by Augustus), the Romans could only conclude that they had somehow offended the gods, and this was their punishment. A key element of Augustus’ project to restore Rome after this crisis was mending this all-important relationship, renovating temples, restoring neglected religious practices, in general returning Rome to what he could claim to be the lifestyle that drew the gods’ approval in the first place.
In the event, a new flamen dialis, Ser. Cornelius Lentulus Maluginensis, was at length appointed in (probably) 11BC, shortly after Augustus had finally secured the role of pontifex maximus for himself. The pontifex maximus or chief priest was responsible for selecting the flamen dialis (though he was also subordinate to the flamen in status, interestingly enough), but Augustus had had to wait to assume the role of pontifex until the death of the previous incumbent, the humiliated and sidelined former triumvir M. Aemilius Lepidus. A natural reading of this sequence of events would be that one of Augustus’ very first acts on becoming pontifex maximus in 12BC was to fill the yawning gap in Rome’s religious fabric, the office of flamen dialis. But there is some debate about the date of Maluginensis’ appointment, and the order of events is not so certain.
My hunch, as I’ve suggested, is that Rome could not bear the absence of such an essential religious figure with equanimity; and that when Augustus did select a new priest of Jupiter, a lifetime after the last flamen dialis had died, it would have been a very impressive gesture, a powerful contribution to the climate that Augustus sought, a perception that Rome, after all the trauma of the Civil Wars, was back on its feet; a profound crisis on the divine plane had been resolved.
Merula, the last flamen dialis, had been a particularly prominent victim of those wars, and that’s really all I need to have to argue for the research I’m doing. But an article by Bernadette Liou-Gille (“César, ‘Flamen Dialis destinatus’,” Revue des études anciennes 101 , 433-459, to which I was alerted by Professor Roberta Stewart) opened up a new and weirder dimension to this story.
Liou-Gille is interested in the circumstances and immediate aftermath of Merula’s death in 87BC. The context is the furious rivalry for control of Rome between L. Cornelius Sulla and L. Cornelius Cinna, the latter supported by the great general C. Marius. In simple terms, Cinna, who was consul, had been driven out of Rome, and Merula, the flamen dialis, had been appointed consul in his place (Professor Stewart suggested to me, because no one would dare to harm a hair on the head of the priest of Jupiter). When Cinna and Marius proceeded to recapture the city, Merula resigned the consulship, and then, faced with efforts by Cinna to bring him to trial (Appian, BC 1.74), took his own life.
The most detailed account of his death is by Velleius (2.22.2):
Merula autem, qui se sub aduentum Cinnae consulatu abdicauerat, incisis uenis superfusoque altaribus sanguine, quos saepe pro salute rei publicae flamen dialis precatus erat deos, eos in exsecrationem Cinnae partiumque eius tum precatus optime de re publica meritum spiritum reddidit.
Meanwhile Merula, who had resigned his consulship in anticipation of the arrival of Cinna, slit his veins and drenched the altars with his blood, praying to the gods, to whom he had often as flamen dialis prayed for the wellbeing of Rome, to curse Cinna and his party. In this way he yielded up the life that had served Rome so well.
After that (and this is the main focus of Liou-Gille’s article) a teenage Julius Caesar (who was close to Cinna, married to his daughter, and a nephew of Cinna’s ally Marius) was designated flamen dialis in Merula’s place, but never actually assumed the priesthood, no doubt mainly because both Cinna and Marius were dead within a short time, and when Sulla recaptured Rome at the end of 82BC he promptly rescinded all the measures they had taken.
Liou-Gille takes Velleius’ account of Merula’s death literally, not as a historian’s rhetorical flourish: as Merula died, he drew down a curse upon his enemies, offering his own life to the gods in return for divine punishment of “Cinna and his party”. The way Velleius puts it suggests a polar reversal of the flamen‘s power, from promoting the good fortune of the Roman res publica to becoming an agent of vengeance. The effort to make Caesar flamen dialis in Merula’s place, Liou-Gille argues, was actually an attempt to neutralize the malign influence of this exsecratio, to mend relations with the hostile gods by making a close confederate of Cinna the priest who devoted himself to serving Jupiter.
I think what I like most about Liou-Gille’s reading of these events is her assumption that Romans, including the notoriously cerebral Julius Caesar, were motivated by superstition, by a genuine terror of the gods. It’s easy to misjudge the Romans, by some of the things put on paper by Cicero or Ovid, as rational types whose religion was lightly worn. But in fact it was their scepticism that was only skin-deep.
Caesar never did become flamen dialis, and perhaps Sulla had particular reason to block his appointment: Sulla was undoubtedly a superstitious man, and he had no interest in diverting the wrath of the gods away from his enemies. But my particular interest, as I say, is how all this might have looked from the standpoint of Augustus’ principate, sixty or seventy years after Merula’s death. In other words, what are the implications of a hiatus in the office of the priest of Jupiter that lasted for a human lifetime, and might entail a curse still unpropitiated twenty years into the Pax Augusta? Certainly the lack of a flamen dialis cannot have increased Romans’ sense of security. But if we do suspect that Merula’s curse still exerted an influence, at whom would that divine wrath at “Cinna and his party” be directed in the Augustan age? The least we can say is that, if Julius Caesar had felt himself a target, it was in important respects Caesar’s legacy that was embodied by Augustus. Augustan Rome not only lacked that hotline to its greatest benefactor, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, then; it could also not be confident that Merula’s ancient curse was not still targeted at them.
Well, I’m very sure that Augustus’ appointment of a flamen dialis in 11BC was more than just a piece of political theatre. In the absence of a flamen dialis for over half a century (and what a dreadful half-century it had been), Rome had lacked a fundamental means of maintaining relations with the gods, the bedrock of its success as a nation. Until that rupture was healed, Rome’s recovery under Augustus’ direction could never be complete.
As for the rest of it, I can’t be so sure, but it would seem to me very true to the Roman mindset if something altogether more primitive was in play, the raw dread provoked by a ghastly death and priestly imprecation generations before, a suspicion that the gods’ wrath at their appalling crimes, the bloodletting of the Civil Wars encapsulated by the death of Merula, persisted, unappeased. For as long as the role of Jupiter’s “animate statue” remained unoccupied, Rome was still cursed.
Photo courtesy of Sophie Hay
Two thoughts on Roman city dwelling here, first shared a couple of years ago, retooled for the world of COVID-19. They originate in a weekly graduate seminar I was helping to coordinate on Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto 4, the very last poems composed by Rome’s second- or possibly third-greatest and most influential poet, and some research I was doing on Aeneas and Roman priesthoods, forthcoming later this year in Classical Quarterly (a publication on Ovid is on its way, too, feel free to pre-order). So what follows concerns a passage that particularly struck me from Ex Ponto 4.9 and a piece of priestly equipment I had hitherto not been aware of. The common factor is something like personal space and keeping one’s distance.
The city of Rome was loud, smelly and crowded: Horace talks of the beatae/ fumum et opes strepitumque Romae, “the smoke and riches and hubbub of prosperous Rome” (Odes 3.29.11-12). One’s capacity to enjoy a comfortable existence within it essentially depended on one’s wealth and class. The satirist Juvenal gives a splendidly exaggerated account of what it was like for the little guy (3.243-8):
nobis properantibus obstat
unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos
qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito, ferit assere duro
alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.
pinguia crura luto, planta mox undique magna
calcor, et in digito clauus mihi militis haeret.
“As I hurry along, the wave ahead impedes me/ and the people that follow me in a massed rank crush my kidneys./ One smacks me with his elbow, another with a hard pole./ This guy bashes my head with a beam, that guy with a wine cask./ My legs are caked with mud, and now I’m trampled by huge feet on every side,/ and a soldier’s hobnail boot is planted on my toe.”
The rich man, according to Juvenal, avoids all this hassle by riding in a litter the size of a ship, and reads or writes or even sleeps as he’s effortlessly conveyed over the crowd.
Another way of keeping your distance from other people was the commoetaculum, an item that might be of some considerable use in our current circumstances. You can see a commoetaculum, a kind of wand, in the hand of the figure in the middle of the image at the top: the man holding it is a flamen, a variety of Roman priest, and may well be the most important flamen, the flamen Dialis who was the priest of the chief god Jupiter.
The flamen Dialis and his wife the flaminica (the priesthood really consisted in the family group as a whole) were obliged to live a life that segregated them from the rest of humanity. Their lives were dedicated to the gods they served, to the extent that they came to be regarded as offerings to the god or as their embodiments on earth: the flamen Dialis was “a sacred and animate statue” of their deity, as Plutarch memorably puts it (Roman Questions 111). Other taboos laid on the flamen (we typically hear more about him than the flaminica), a prohibition on oaths, on knots in his clothes, on seeing humans at work, all served to distance the priest from the domain of profani, ordinary people, and to make him sacer, sacred, the possession of the gods.
The commoetaculum was a practical aide to this end: people were kept at a physical remove from the priest with a judicious prod of his wand. There might not seem an obvious class dimension to all this, except that the character of this priesthood was felt to reflect in important ways the behaviour and lifestyle of the ancient elite of Rome, a kind of ideal original family. You could only be flamen or flaminica Dialis if you were a patrician, a member of the ancient Roman aristocratic class, and if you and your parents and your spouse’s parents had all been married by an arcane ritual called confarreatio, a ceremony that was again restricted to the patrician class. So there is in fact a very aristocratic quality to this implement designed to maintain a proper distance between a Roman of high status and the general populace.
Ovid was posh, too, perhaps the most socially elevated of all the Roman poets. But by the time he was writing Ex Ponto 4, he couldn’t afford such scruples. Ovid has been banished, partly for obscure reasons seemingly related to conspiracies against Augustus, and partly for his risqué poem The Art of Love, to the edge of the Empire, Tomi on the Black Sea in modern Romania. A consistent theme of the poems he writes back to men who might help him overturn or mitigate his exile (superbly crafted and moving poems, as I’ve also suggested before) is how desperately he misses his home city. In general Roman authors could always conjure up a bit of ambivalence about Rome, as we’ve seen. Ovid had no such qualms, delighting unapologetically in the vibrant society and culture of Augustan Rome.
To send such a man away from Rome was unusually vindictive, and that’s no doubt partly why Augustus did it. In exile Ovid dwells obsessively on the city from which he is banned, to the extent that, as a colleague put it during the seminar, we get a lot more detailed information about the city of Rome from Ovid far away on the Black Sea than we do from authors actually domiciled there.
In Ex Ponto 4.9 he celebrates the consulship won by Pomponius Graecinus, another old associate he hopes will be able to make his case with the Emperor (Tiberius by now, as Augustus had recently died; but Tiberius proved no more sympathetic). Ovid imagines being on the spot as Graecinus goes through the elaborate ritual of inauguration, and it could not be more different from that fastidious priest with his pointy stick (4.9.21-8):
nec querulus, turba quamuis eliderer, essem,
sed foret a populo tum mihi dulce premi.
prospicerem gaudens quantus foret agminis ordo
densaque quam longum turba teneret iter,
quoque magis noris quam me uulgaria tangant,
spectarem qualis purpura te tegeret.
signa quoque in sella nossem formata curuli
et totum Numidi sculptile dentis opus.
Nor would I complain, though bruised by the crowd;/ at such a time it would be pleasant to feel the crush of the people./ I would behold with joy how long was the line of the procession/ and how dense the throng all along its route./ And that you may know how trivial things appeal to me,/ I would examine the texture of the purple you wear./ I would even inspect the figures carved on your curule chair,/ all the sculpted work of Numidian ivory.”
What “touch” (tangant) Ovid are uulgaria, a wonderfully suggestive word: trivial things, ordinary things, popular things. Ovid the toff rejoices here in exactly what Juvenal would later complain so bitterly about, getting manhandled by crowds, emerging physically battered from a walk through the city. But it is the touch, the sensation of Rome that Ovid yearns for: Graecinus’ consular robes with their purple border, and the ivory carvings on his official consular chair–in his imagination Ovid seems almost to be running his fingers over them. He cannot get enough of the city of Rome, cannot get too close to it.
But the poem to Graecinus may be the very last poem that Ovid ever wrote. This Roman never did emerge from his confinement.
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 very 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 this 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 were setting themselves up in 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 in fact make that journey back to Carmarthenshire. There are plenty of parallels, both cats and dogs. But aside from the truth of the case, it seems to me that this is a clear-cut piece of mythologising. That’s 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: just a good story, or a proxy for our deepest human feelings about home and family? Pity the jackhuahua owned by an academic.
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.
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:
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)
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).
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.
“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.
“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.
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“.
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.
Courtesy of Armand D’Angour (who knows his Attic Comedy much better than I do, as well as having a much dirtier mind), a further possible dimension of the original Greek expression, if σῦκον and σκάφη carry obscene further meanings (σῦκον): a superbly ironic joke by the comedian, calling figs figs, when “figs” mean something entirely different…
In the archives of Rhodes House, the home of the Rhodes Trust in Oxford, I came across a nondescript handwritten note.
It was in the student file of Justus Carl von Ruperti, a German World War II fatality (and Rhodes Scholar) who has an arrestingly unexpected memorial in Brasenose College chapel. I blogged about him a couple of months ago, but hadn’t at that stage seen his record at Rhodes House.
When I did, I found what I’d found in his Brasenose record, details of his admission, the wonderfully brief comments that counted as termly reports in the 1930s, and nothing very illuminating until the note that someone, sometime had thought to slip into his file.
It is written by “R.” to “M.P.”, and carries no indication of a year, but it describes a visit by Juscar von Ruperti’s mother Irma to Rhodes House:
The mother of J. C. von Ruperti called 9 September. She was sorry that you were on holiday, as she would have liked to meet someone here who’d known him. She went round R. Hse, saw War Memorial, and departed with a grey booklet, which was the best I could offer after you.
At the bottom is scribbled an answer from “M.P.”: “I can’t remember him as well as some of the nice German Rhodes R[hodes] S[cholar]s.”
I can never resist inadequately dated, initialled notes, and with the brilliant help of Melissa Downing, the archivist at Rhodes House, I now know that “M.P.” was Marjory Payne. Whenever it was that Irma von Ruperti visited, she wanted to meet someone who’d been there in 1933-35, when Juscar was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Marjory had been Assistant Secretary at Rhodes House from 1928 to 1936, and then the Warden’s Secretary from 1936 to 1957.
Actually, that also helps to date the note. If there was no one at Rhodes House who’d known Juscar when Irma visited, we must be after the retirement of Sir Carleton Allen, Warden 1931-52. Marjory Payne retired in 1957, and September 9 in 1956 was a Sunday. We must be between 1952 and 1955, or maybe in 1957, and since the memorial in Brasenose chapel was installed in 1954, my hunch is that Irma was in Oxford to see it, possibly even to attend its inauguration, if there ever was an inauguration. There is precious little reference to Von Ruperti’s plaque in the Brasenose record.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the last two years researching and writing about Brasenose war dead. The most poignant thing, I suppose predictably, is also the least visible thing, the impact of war on the surviving family: what will always stay with me about Bob Brandt, for example, are the In Memoriam notices his mother placed in The Times every year without fail until shortly before her death.
Here again in the Rhodes House archives I was contemplating a grieving mother, and I find impossibly moving this record of Irma von Ruperti’s unrealised hope of speaking to someone who remembered her son. She had lost both her sons in the war, and had been a widow since 1945; she herself lived until 1980. She wasn’t just the mother of a war casualty, of course, but the mother of a man who had died fighting on the other side. I do wonder what it was like for such a person to visit Britain in the 1950s.
“R.” (whom I also hope to identify in time)** tells Marjory that s/he sent Irma off with a “grey booklet”. This was Cecil Rhodes and Rhodes House, a guidebook that explained the development of the Rhodes Trust as well as describing Rhodes House. In that booklet, if Irma read it, she would have learned that ‘the German Scholarships were created because “the German Emperor [Kaiser Wilhelm II] had made instruction in English compulsory in German schools”, and in the hope “that an understanding between the three strongest Powers [Britain, Germany and the United States] will render war impossible and educational relations make the strongest tie’,”‘ both quotations from a codicil to Cecil Rhodes’ sixth and final will in 1901, by which he established Rhodes Scholarships for Germany.
If Irma did see the Brasenose memorial on this visit, she will have seen her son’s name both in Brasenose and at Rhodes House: the war memorial there, containing the names of all Rhodes Scholars regardless of nationality killed in the First and Second World Wars, is inscribed below the dome of the Rotunda at the entrance from South Parks Road. (There’s a virtual tour of Rhodes House here, with the Rotunda at the top.)
**Thanks again to Melissa Downing, who has now discovered that Rosalind Wellstood worked as Assistant Secretary at Rhodes House from 1951 to 1953, and is probably the author of the note. It follows that Irma von Ruperti made her visit to Rhodes House on Wednesday 9th September, 1953. Just three weeks previously she will have marked the tenth anniversary of her son’s death in Russia.