Friday, June 22, 2018

Ancient History Deserves More Respect

In the following essay, I have used the terms "historian" and "Classicist" as if they were somewhat interchangeable. This may distress some historians and Classicists, to whom the distinctions between their disciplines are extremely important. To them, I apologize. Those distinctions are quite simply not as important to me.

Along with countless smaller shocks, three major ones have brought me to the conclusion that the study of ancient history is in a dire state of neglect:

First, a few years ago, I became aware of the New Atheists. One of the first things I learned about them was that their most prominent and well-respected member -- indeed, their widely-acknowledged leader -- is Richard Dawkins. I had read read two books about biology by Dawkins, The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor's Tale. I had heard about his more recent book The God Delusion but hadn't read it. However, I assumed, on the basis of the other two books, that it must be brilliant, and that any atheist movement with him at its head must be out there actively making a lot of good sense.

An atheist since childhood myself, I eagerlyjoined New Atheist communities online, but soon became very impatient with people repeating, ad nauseum, ridiculous memes such as calling the authors of the Bible "Bronze Age goat herders," or: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." I wondered when I was finally going to get to some well-educated New Atheists, when some of them besides me was going to try to correct some of the more dopey memes.

Then came the first of those above-mentioned three major jolts: I learned that those two memes and a lot of other oft-repeated New Atheist slogans were direct quotes of, or paraphrases from, Dawkins himself. I heard or read about Dawkins saying shockingly racist things in the guise of an enlightened critique of Islam. Dawkins, who'd called the Old Testament God "jealous and proud of it," but reserved most of his most poisonous comments for Islam, has never read the Koran, and never will, and is proud of that.

Despite the good advice of Alcoholics Anonymous, that when we assume we make an ass of you and me, I had assumed, on the basis of The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor's Tale, that Dawkins was incapable of writing a bad book or saying a horrid thing, although, in order to make this assumption, I had had to ignore a jarring clue right there on the first page of the first chapter of The Selfish Gene, "Why are People?" where Dawkins approvingly quotes GG Simpson to the effect that all attempts to describe human nature made before 1859 are worthless and should be ignored.

As a matter of fact, all sorts of eminently-sensible things written before 1859 point out the hazards of people telling you to ignore entire eras while simultaneously telling you non-stop about those very eras, about which they are proudly ignorant.


The second major shock came from Stephen Greenblatt's inept book The Swerve, which claims that Poggio was solely responsible for saving the text of Lucretious from oblivion, that Lucretius was solely responsible for rescuing Epicurian philosophy from oblivion, and that Epicurian philosophy, via Lucretius, via Poggio, ushered in the Renaissance and the modern world, three ridiculous assertions. After having heard so much praise of the book that I finally decided I had to read it for myself and see if it was as bad as it descriptions of it sounded, I found that it was actually worse. The shock was not that such a bad book was written, nor that it was a bestseller. There are books far worse on the bestseller lists all the time. The shock was that this book had won so many awards and gotten such high praise from so many people I who, I would have thought, were well-educated.

Or should I say: these people are well-educated, of course they are and the shock was in perceiving how small a role a knowledge of history could play in a good education.

And most recently, the third shock came when I learned that the story of Christian having willfully destroyed the great library at Alexandria had been passed along, and perhaps greatly popularized, by Carl Sagan on his TV series Cosmos.

Thanks to people like Dawkins and Sagan, the general public is now in touch, to some degree, with cutting-edge science. That is an immense and lauable achievement. But very often, cutting-edge scientists, working at the West's greatest universities, are not in touch with the bullet-points of the current study of history. (I don't know whether historical illiteracy is as widespread in the science departments of the great non-Western universities, and I won't pretend as if I know. Dawkins does enough of that sort of pretending for himself and me both.)

I believe that history is every bit as important as science. I can't prove this as directly as a scientist explaining climate change and what can be done about it, but perhaps I can persuade the reader to give it some thought. (Some readers won't need much convincing: for instance, if they're familiar with one of the non-English languages which call history a science.)

Science deals with how things work, and history with what happened. If we don't know what happened, we're in no position to know how things work, or to know much of anything at all. If we're satisfied with any old account of Greek philosophy, or ancient libraries, or the Renaissance, or with a version which matches our political agenda or the axes we wish to grind, then, in effect, we're content not to know what happened. There are specialists working full-time on uncovering these subjects, uncovering them figuratively and also literally in the case of the ancient libraries, and if we don't consult them and see what they've made of the texts and other artifacts of the times they study, before we ourselves make pronouncements on related subjects, then we're acting very much in the spirit of Richard Dawkins and GG Simpson and Stephen Greenblatt and Henry "History is bunk" Ford.

(That seemed much more impressive in my head before I actually wrote it down. But perhaps it's a start.)

What can historians themselves do in order to introduce more of their work into the public consciousness? There's one thing I can think of, which the historians might very much not want to do: they might become a little less polite. How have most Classicists reacted to Stephen Greenblatt's book The Swerve? With one of the most fearful weapons in their arsenal: they mention Greenblatt's name more seldom. If one has become familiar with the community of Classicists and their mores, this shunning is chilling indeed. To the general public, however, it's almost entirely as good as imperceptible, and there's almost no way of learning that Greenblatt's assertions do not conform to the findings of current research. The few who've ventured further outside of the ivory tower in Greenblatt's case, to plainly state the distance between The Swerve and current scholarship, are solitary needles in the haystack of rapturous reviews of The Swerve by laypeople. And then there are those Classicists who've written reviews of The Swerve which are negative, but so polite that to many laypeople they may seem positive.

(We could make a game of this, and see which readers can guess which very famous Classicist I have, in a searing rebuke, deliberately avoided mentioning in this essay. But how would we discuss this? Not publicly, surely not.)

There are non-specialists selling millions of books, scientists reaching television audiences of tens of millions, who sometimes get things entirely wrong when it comes to ancient history or ancient texts. If historians and Classicists want to do anything about this, they might not have to become rude, but they will certainly have to speak up much more emphatically. The historians and Classicists who work on the same campuses as scientists who are wont to spread public misconception on historical topics could, perhaps, be so bold as to speak to those scientists about such things. Perhaps even face-to-face and out loud.

They could ask to be heard. They deserve to be heard.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Destruction of The Library at Alexandria

"The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed; and near twenty years afterwards, the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice. The compositions of ancient genius, so many of which have irretrievably perished, might surely have been excepted from the wreck of idolatry, for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages"

That's Edward Gibbon, in chapter 28 of his great work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, describing how a Christian mob wiped out a great Classical library in the late 4th century AD when Christianity became the official religion of Rome. And Decline and Fall really is a great work. But Gibbon got this one wrong.

Yes, there was a very large library and school in ancient Alexandria, and at some ancient time, the library and school were no longer there. But when and how did they vanish?

Most likely, it was a gradual process of decline caused by neglect and lack of funding, punctuated by acts of destruction in wars. The greatest destruction of the library, after which there was hardly any library left to be destroyed, may well have occurred before there were any Christians, in 47 BC, when Julius Casar


invaded Egypt to help Cleopatra fight her brother, King Ptolemy XIII. There was a great fire in the docks of Alexandria when Caesar invaded, a fire which may or may not have burned down the library. Ancient accounts vary over whether the library was damaged or destroyed during Caesar's invasion. But one thing to keep in mind is the great number of references to the institution in the time before Caesar, from the 3rd to the 1st century BC, when it was the home of a thriving center of literary criticism and the collection, copying and correction of manuscripts, and the lack of such mentions afterward. This quite striking fact may mean that Caesar destroyed the library, perhaps intentionally, perhaps by accident -- or it may simply mean that even before Caesar arrived, there was not much of a library left to be destroyed.

Naturally, there were still books in Alexandria, and various public and private collections of books which would be described as libraries. But those may not have been the same as the great library which had been there before. References to the great Alexandrine library from this point onward can be interpreted as being expressed in the past tense.

In the third century AD three Roman Emperors attacked and sacked Alexandria: Caracella in 215, Aurelian in 272 and Diocletian in 295. The Christian Emperors beginning with Constantine in 313 did some damage to pagan literature, but mostly by neglect and lack of funding. In 391 Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and ordered all pagan temples to be closed. This certainly did the study of Classical literature no good at all, but there are simply no ancient accounts of Christians deliberately destroying Classical books.

Not even in Alexandria, where the pagan Sarapeum was destroyed some time after Theodosius' order. This destruction is the one which is popularly depicted as "the destruction of the great library at Alexandria" -- but in the five contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum, by Rufinius Tyrannius, Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, Theodoret and Eunapius of Antioch, none of whom held back when describing other Christian atrocities, there is no mention of any books being destroyed along with the temple, let alone the greatest library the ancient world had ever seen.

But let us say, for the sake of argument, despite all of the above, that the greatest library the ancient world had ever seen really was in the Serapeum at Alexandria in AD 391, when it really was destroyed by a Christian mob which hated books and knowledge. The destruction of one book is an awful thing, even if it's not a very good book, and the destruction of thousands of books at once is a great horror. But even if such a horror occurred in Alexandria in 391 -- There were many other libraries in the ancient world.

Every major city had one or several collections of books open to the public. Private families often outdid the cities in collecting books and making them available to poets and scholars. The destruction of any one single collection, no matter how large, would not have equaled the wholesale destruction of Classical culture.

Yes, a great portion of ancient Classical literature is missing today, and yes, that is a very terrible thing, and, yes, Christian authorities have had something to do with that disappearance, although mostly by means of neglect, of lack of funding for the preservation and copying of Classical texts. But the rest of that story is that not all Christians leaders have been the least bit unfriendly to Classical studies. Many of them have been great supporters. Big sweeping statements one way or another just don't hold water on this topic.

As for what happened to that great library at Alexandria, which in the last few centuries BC was the greater center of Hellenistic literary criticism, which may or may not have been the largest collection of Greek scrolls in the ancient world: it, like Classical literature in general, probably died mostly by long periods of neglect punctuated by accidental disasters which were the by-products of wars. If there were any known instances of Christian mobs gleefully burning great big piles of scrolls containing Classical literature, I'd be the first to want to show you all of the evidence. I think Christianity has done a lot of really horrible things. Justinian closed the Platonic Academy in Athens in AD 529, a horrible thing to do. But this Christian destruction of Alexandria's great library -- sorry, my fellow atheists: we dreamed that one up.

And while I'm here being so fair to everyone, let's be fair to Gibbon, too. Yes, he got this one wrong. But that shouldn't take too much away from our admiration for the great number of things he got right.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Preservers of Texts and Destroyers of Manuscripts

On p 124 of the second edition (1974) of Scribes & Scholars. A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, LD Reynolds and NG Wilson state what I had begun to strongly suspect after I had begun, roused to indignation by Stephen Greenblatt, to study the career of Poggio Bracciolini: after pages of praise for Poggio and his fellow 15th-century Italian humanists for their many discoveries of ancient Latin texts, Reynolds and Wilson add:

"The humanists also had a capacity for losing manuscripts. Once they had carefully copied a text, they were liable to have little interest in the manuscript which had preserved it."

Would we have more Classical Latin manuscripts written before the 15th century if Poggio had gone into another line of work -- say, painting? It's probably impossible to say. We value manuscripts, especially old manuscripts, much more highly today, and, all other things being equal, we tend to value them more the older they are. It causes us great pain, in case after case, reading about the discoveries of the humanists, to read that familiar description of a manuscript discovered by Poggio or one of his colleagues: "now lost." "deperditus"

Reynolds and Wilson go on, ibid:

"In the sixteenth century the situation was worse; many fine codices went along the one-way road to the printing press."

That is to say: a Classical Latin text was printed, and the manuscript or manuscripts which had been used to make the printed version were lost. In some cases, the printed editions are all that is left of the texts.

Obviously, this unfortunate process wasn't universal, or else we would have no manuscripts of the Latin Classics today. Angelo Poliziano, another 15th-century humanist, sounds much more modern than many of his time in his emphasis upon preserving and consulting old manuscripts, the older the better (Reynolds and Wilson, 127-129. They even say that the way Poliziano valued age in manuscripts was "too sweeping"). Poliziano was neither the first to recognize the value of old manuscripts; nor did his emphatic defense of their value change the practices of Classical scholars all at once. He planted the seed of the idea, as did others before and after him. Gradually it took root.

There are a great many 15th-century manuscripts of the Latin Classics still existing today, probably many more than those produced in any other century. Is this because there was an explosion of interest in these ancient texts, or because the idea was gradually taking hold that it was good to preserve manuscripts, or simply because the 15th century is the most recent one before printed books replaced manuscripts? I'm sure that all three factors played a role; I'm not going to guess how much of a role was played by each.

Like the 15th century, the 9th is represented by far more Classical Latin manuscripts than any previous century. Charlemagne saw to that with his immense program of revival of education. The total number of Latin manuscripts made before the 9th century, not just Classical but also Christian, mostly Christian, all noted in the Codices Latini Antiquiores,


the great work of EA Lowe and his followers after his death, comes to about 2000. In the 9th century alone there are far many more manuscripts than 2000. How many, exactly? We don't know, because there are so many that so far no-one has found it worth the tremendous effort of seeking them all out and listing them all. Suddenly, in the 9th century, Latin manuscripts are no longer nearly as rare. Counting just 9th-century Classical manuscripts, do we currently possess 2000 of them? I don't know. I don't know whether anyone knows for sure. Might well be.

And yet, all of the 9th-century Classical manuscripts are copies of older manuscripts. And, just like in the 15th-century, the processes of discovery and preservation were partly also processes of destruction: once those older manuscripts had been copied in the 9th century, many of them tended to be lost. The difference is that we don't know nearly as many of the details of these 9th-century losses, because we have far fewer letters and other items which would inform us from the 9th century, than from the 15th. We have, however, recovered some of those pre-9th-century manuscripts which were written over or made into book covers.

The 15th and 16th centuries was the great age of re-discovery of the Latin Classics. It was a river, and what has been re-discovered since then has been a trickle. But however many more Classical texts may still be discovered, there remains very much to do in investigating the processes of textual transmission. Between greater historical understanding, continued technological progress and the blessed dogged persistence of humanity, I remain optimistic that great discoveries of Classical Latin are still to come.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Dream Log: Bruce Slipstream

I dreamed I was a video game designer, and I made a character based on Bruce Springsteen,


named Bruce Slipstream. Bruce's face resembled Springsteen's except that it was oversized like a caricature head, and was always facing toward the viewer.

Bruce Slipstream was even more obsessed with cars than Bruce Springsteen is, if that's possible. He spent some of his time playing music, both solo with an acoustic guitar and leading his band in which he was one of twelve guitarists. But he spent most of his time either in his garage working on his cars, or driving his cars at very high speeds on public roads, often with a passenger he'd invited along who had no idea how fast Bruce was going to drive.

In situations like that, Bruce would often say things to the passenger in the folksy, gravelly mumble with which Bruce Springsteen speaks to his audiences. Things like: "You could be part of somethin' important today: the first time a wheel-driven vehicle has ever gone faster than 500 miles per hour on a public street."

I'm not clear about how points were scored in the video game. Maybe I just hadn't gotten to that point yet in the design.

And then I was in the video game, playing the part of one of Bruce Slipstream's friends. Now Bruce and the rest of us looked like ordinary human beings, and the element of the video game with its comical aspects gradually faded away. We took a break from working on his cars, and Bruce said, "C'mon guys, let's go get a hot dog. On me." Two of us joined Bruce, and we walked the half-mile or so from the garage to the Jersey shore. Bruce now looked exactly like Bruce Springsteen, but he was still Bruce Slipstream.

Bruce's other friend said, "It's very generous of you, buying us hot dogs, seeing as how you only have a billion dollars or so." Bruce just squared his jaw and nodded, used to this line of ribbing from this particular guy. The guy continued, "Why don't you just give us a million dollars apiece? Then we could buy ourselves hot dogs whenever we wanted."

"Not gonna happen," Bruce mumbled.

When we got to the hot dog stand on the beach, Bruce started to get into a painfully detailed conversation with the young woman behind the counter about all the different sorts of hot dogs which were for sale there. I interrupted, ordered a polish sausage on a bun and very quickly and efficiently pointed out which toppings I did and didn't want on it. But when I got it, I wished I had taken my time a little bit more. I was afraid that the taste of the final result would lack condiments. But my point had been to show Bruce that he had been wasting time, and if I spent more more time on my order I would be undercutting that point. But then, to my great relief, I saw that ketchup, mustard and mayo were also available on the customer side of the counter.

When we all had our hot dogs, we walked around to the left-hand side of the stand, where many framed pictures of boats were hung onto the shack's white-painted wall. One of the pictures was somehow not just a picture of a boat, but also an announcement of the upcoming filming of a TV pilot about the fictional owner and operator of the boat in that picture. Suddenly, the producer of the pilot was there, offering me and Bruce's other friend parts in the pilot. Bruce's other friend quickly agreed.

The producer said to me, "I want you to play the lead. The captain of this tour boat. There's one thing, though. I picture the captain of the boat wearing a toupee. A really awful toupee with the hair coming down almost to the bridge of his nose. This wouldn't be a vanity part, if you took it."

I replied that I wasn't vain, but that I was concerned about my physical comfort, and wearing a toupee that covered more than half of my forehead sounded extremely uncomfortable to me. The producer told me that it wouldn't be uncomfortable. I asked him to please not talk nonsense to me. I asked whether I could play the part without the toupee. The producer didn't answer that. By the pained expression on his face, it was clear that, whoever was going to be cast as the captain, the toupee was non-negotiable.

I turned that down flat, and asked whether he had any other parts he could offer me. We started to talk about a smaller part in the pilot, and also about an "art house" (ie low budget) movie starting filming as soon as the pilot wrapped. Then I woke up.

PS: I googled bruce slipstream and for a moment I thought that there was an author who was actually named Bruce Sterling Sliptream, but the man's name is actually Bruce Sterling, and he wrote something whose title began with "Slipstream."

Friday, June 8, 2018

Dream Log: Publicizing Translations of a Book

I dreamed I had been hired for a job for which I was spectacularly unqualified: overseeing the recording of the audio portions of the advertisements of translations of a book written in a language with which I was unfamiliar, into other languages with which I was unfamiliar.

The book had been written by a politician from Georgia, the Eurasian country, not the southern US state, in Georgian. The Georgian politician bore a physical resemblance to the actor Brian Cox:


The book had been translated into several other languages of the Caucasus region:


Linguists from other parts of the world had once thought that all of the languages of this region belonged to the same language family, but now they realize that they belong to several different language families which have little or no discernible relation to each other.

That's literally almost all I know about these languages.

For each recording, the video for the commercial played. It consisted of various shots of the book, with the same photo of the author's face on the cover regardless of whether it was the original Georgian version or one of the translations, with the title and authors name and other information written on the cover in the language in which the audio was to be recorded, and shots of stacks of the book, and superimposed graphics in the same language. The audio artist reading the text in each language referred to the video as he or she read.

First, we recorded the audio for the Georgian commercial -- or, more precisely, someone, who absurdly was working under me, told me that the writing on the book in the video, and the graphics in the video, and the language the audio artist was speaking, were all Georgian.

We played the video, the audio artist spoke while it ran, and when that was done everybody looked at me. I asked the audio engineer to play back the recording. I asked the audio engineer whether she was satisfied with the recording quality. She said yes. I asked the audio artist how he felt about his reading. He nodded to indicate he was satisfied. So I said, okay, we're done, let's do the next language.

I was told that the next language was Avar, and the process was repeated with a new video and a new audio artist. At this point I was feeling that I should just quit, and say that I was unqualified, because that would be the honest thing to do. Then I woke up.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

How I Began Reading Latin


From the time I was a small child I'd see a volume here and there of Classical literature in English translation, mostly Homer. Then I became aware of Loeb's Classical Library, Latin in red covers and Greek in Green. I believe the first Latin volume I owned -- or half-Latin, the other half being the facing-page English translation -- was one of the Loeb volumes of Augustine's Confessions. I would've gotten this at a yard sale or a thrift shop. The content bored me. The fact that half of it was in Latin interested me. I can't remember a time before I was fascinated by languages, and by books which promised to open up new vistas for me.

Besides the Augustine, I may have gotten one or two more red Latin Loeb volumes, before I obtained the first volume of Latin I would read all the way through: the OCT (Oxford Classical Texts) Lucretius.

I may have gotten it at a yard sale or thrift shop, or maybe at Karen Wickliff Books in Columbus, Ohio, a great place back then and probably still is, although I see by Google Maps they've moved a mile or so north up High Street from where they were. I'm imagining bright lights and broad clean aisles in their new location and already missing the crowded, dim stacks in the old place.

Wherever I got it, I had it by 1990 at the latest. I was quite struck and intimidated -- that is: intimidated, and thoroughly thrilled at the same time, and committed to mighty labours of scholarship -- by the fact that there was no English anywhere in this book except for the fine printing listing the editions and printings on what would now be the copyright page, and an OCT catalog in the back. Even "OXFORD/AT THE CLARENDON PRESS/LONDON AND NEW YORK" on the title page had been changed to "OXONII/E TYPOGRAPHEO CLARENDONIANO/LONDINI ET NOVI EBORACI." "EBORACI" was my first hint to look out for place-names that might be quite different in Latin than in English.

Also probably before 1990, and definitely before I had been able to read Lucretius all the way through, I got a second OCT volume: Horace.

It's difficult to remember how little I knew about Latin and Latin literature back then. Getting the OCT volume of Lucretius was the first that I had heard of Lucretius. (I had heard of Horace, but not much. I mistakenly thought back then that Horace had authored the line "ars longa vita brevis," an error which persisted with me for a very long time.) It took me a while to figure out that "LVCRETI" was the genitive of "LUCRETIUS." I was starting near zero.

I still have both of those volumes: Bailey's 1900 edition of Lucretius, revised in 1922, my copy from the 1957 printing; Wichham's 1901 Horace, revised by Garrod, the 1957 printing. Sometime before 1957, OCT changed from the orange covers they'd originally had, which from across a room can sometimes be mistaken for the orange of old Teubner editions of Greek Classics, to the dark blue they have now. However, page numbers were added neither to my copy of Lucretius nor to my copy of Horace.

Speaking of Teubner (the world's most prominent publisher of the Greek and Latin Classics, OCT coming in second), the first news I got of their existence was during the 1991-1992 academic year, when I was a graduate assistant in the German Department at Ohio State in Columbus. Outside of the department's office doors was a table where old books were left for anyone who wanted them. Someone left the first volume of the Teubner Dindorf-Hentze Iliad and the Teubner Ludwich Odyssey on that table, with orange covers; and the Teubner Tacitus Historia, the Tacitus minor works, and the Tuebner Cicero De officiis with their light blue covers, and I wanted them all, and a Latin textbook left there.

By the time that I had finished my last year as a grad student in 1992, I still had not finished Lucretius, and some might be asking themselves why I was obtaining all of these books which I couldn't read. It's an unconventional approach, but even then, 15 years before I was diagnosed as autistic, I already suspected that my brain was not typical, and that I could succeed with unusual methods of language acquisition, including the confrontation of texts written for native speakers at an unconventionally early stage. I studied several different Latin textbooks at the same time, reasoning that they might tend to round out each others' shortcomings; I consulted several different Latin dictionaries; and I spent a lot of time staring at pages of incomprehensible type. I would recite passages in Latin without knowing what I was saying. And every now and then I would have one of those wonderful breakthroughs which only those who study foreign languages have, and quite suddenly one of those incomprehensible passages was comprehensible.

But I was doing all of this in my spare time, and it took many years' worth of spare time before I achieved a level of fluency comparable to someone with a Bachelor of Arts and a major in Latin. At some point I had read Lucretious all the way through, and I turned right back to the first page and began again, knowing that I would be able to understand much more the second time through. I haven't kept count; right now, I think I'm on my fifth or sixth time through the volume. The Epicurean philosophy, although appealing, is not entirely convincing to me. But Lucretius' language just keeps getting more and more beautiful, the more fluent I become.

Horace, who also followed Epicurean philosophy for a while before rejecting it, is no slouch, either. It was a great stroke of dumb luck for me that the two first Latin books I read were Lucretius and Horace. I started right up at the top. I can also recommend, with a clear conscience, Sallust, Ovid, and Livy.

It must have been around 2003 when I read Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades, and started to read Orderic Vitalis and William of Tyre because of Runciman's enthusiasm for those authors. This was my introduction to Medieval Latin, which I believe is still somewhat underrated by some Classicists who have read little or none of it. Yes, there is a lot of Medieval Latin prose and verse in print which is mediocre or worse. No doubt, a very great amount of bad Latin was written in ancient times as well. The difference is that less of the bad ancient stuff has survived.

Medieval Latin led me to Renaissance Latin and Latin more recent than that.

The first Latin publication which I awaited with great excitement, and pre-ordered before it was published, is RJ Tarrant OCT edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

The Latin prefaces to the Latin and Greek texts from OCT, Teubner and the various 19th-century publishers I've learned about, are much easier to read than the main texts themselves, as least for me. And so, very early on in this entire autodidactic process, I became fascinated by the transmission of ancient texts. In my very first OCT volume, right at the start of the preface, Cyril Bailey, states something quite fascinating indeed: "Lvcretiani carminis qui exstant codices ab uno exemplari deducti sut omnes, quod demonstravit Carolus Lachmann quarto aut quinto saeculo scriptum fuisse et in regno Francico servatum." ("All of the existing manuscripts of Lucretius' poem derive from one copy, which, as Karl Lachmann has demonstrated, was made in the Frankish kingdom in the fourth or fifth century.")

I wondered: how exactly did Lachmann demonstrate such a thing? This is possibly the single most famous demonstration in the history of textual criticism, and I've read much more about it since then, and how Jacob Bernays deserves much of the credit which Lachmann has received, and how some of the details of their model have been corrected. Don't ask me to explain it to you. In a couple of years, maybe. I'm still learning.

Monday, June 4, 2018

"Succession" on HBO is Simply Awful

Has a premium-cable series ever been cancelled after just one episode? If not, HBO's "Succession" would be a fine place to start.

"Succession" stars Brian Cox


as Logan Roy, the CEO of a media conglomerate. In the first episode, it is Logan's birthday, and his children from various marriages, some greedy, some idiotic, some both, are gathering at his apartment to wish him a happy birthday, and, far more important in some or all of their cases, to hear him announce his retirement and his plans for who will succeed him in running the company.

It's not always possible for every single character in a show to be both interesting and sympathetic, but it's good if at least one character is at least interesting or sympathetic. In the case of "Succession," I can't see any evidence that anyone tried to make any of the characters one or the other.

I don't know what exactly went wrong here, but it went thoroughly wrong. Brian Cox has done great work in many movies and TV shoes. In fact, this is the only time I've seen him where he wasn't the slightest bit interesting. I don't see any reason to mention anyone else in the cast, except for Alan Ruck, who play's Cox's character's oldest son. You may recall Ruck as the annoying hick on the bus in Speed who keeps chattering away about how he's brand-new in LA. If that character was meant to be something other than annoying, then *buzzer sound*, fail. Why do people keep hiring Ruck? What has he got on them? I'm pretty sure that Ruck's character in "Succession" is meant to be hideous: we see him bragging at the birthday party about how much water is under his land out west, and telling a little girl that soon people will be killing each other for water, but he will have plenty of it. The thing is, though: it's Alan Ruck, so no matter how the character is written, the result will be hideous. Having Ruck play a hideous character is hideous overkill. Please, Mr Ruck, for the good of drama and comedy, and in the name of all that is holy, retire.

I'm not sure whether "Succession" is intended to be drama or comedy or both, but it's neither dramatic nor funny, just dreary and yucky, far worse than Alan Ruck, alone, could make any show be. I didn't laugh. I didn't cry. I just winced.