Loxias' Web Log

Harry Potter

30 April 2011

Seven years after publication of my ancient Greek version of J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, there appeared a very fine article in the Greek newspaper "To Vima" on Saturday by Marnie Papamatheou, entitled Ο Χάρι Πότερ διδάσκει Αρχαία Ελληνικά [Harry Potter teaches ancient Greek]. Details on the Harry Potter page. (It's in Greek, of course!) This is good news - back in 2004, I asked the charming young Greek who interviewed me for the paper "Eleutherotypia" whether he would be reading the book. "No", was his reply. "For us ancient Greek is like Chinese."

Sophocles Electra

18 April 2011

To the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, London W11 (above the Prince Albert) with my friends Stuart and Nika to see a "version" of Sophocles' play. Full review here.

Afghanistan - crossroads of the ancient world

12 April 2011

The Afghanistan exhibition at the British Museum has been running for a while, and has just been extended to the 17th July 2011. This evening not only did we (lucky Friends of the BM!) get a (comparatively) peaceful tour of the exhibits, but also were there for a most stimulating discussion on "What makes a nation", with a team of experts chaired by Jon Snow [It can be heard on the Guardian website]

Face from Ai Khanum, Afghanistan 2nd cent BCHow many classicists knew that there was a Greek city in the far north-west of Afghanistan, where the river Oxus (Amu Darya) joins the Kokcha, on the border with Tajikistan? We don't know what the Greeks called it - it's referred to as Aï Khanum after a nearby Uzbek village. In Barrington's Atlas it appears as Alexandria Oxiana with a question mark (just makes it on to the last page!). It was founded in 300BC by Seleucus, and had all the trappings of any Greek polis thousands of miles to the west: an acropolis, a theatre seating several thousand ,a gymnasium, temples dedicated to Greek gods, a library with a collection of manuscripts from the "west", coinage showing Greek divinities - Hestia, Cybele, fragments of statues (mostly made of clay as suitable stone was not available locally), sundials, walls, houses for rich and poor - and a palace. No democracy here then! They spoke Greek - numerous inscriptions have been found, all in Greek.

Most interesting is a stele commemorating the founder Kineas, erected by Clearchus, a visitor from Greece c.290BC - almost certainly the pupil of Aristotle, Clearchus of Soli. On the stele above the grave were inscribed the "150 maxims" - attributed to the Seven Sages, also to be found in Delphi. These are the core values of Greekness - and demonstrate the commitment of the citizens of Aï Khanum to Hellenism. Easiest to read was this:

παῖς ὢν κόσμιος γίνου,
ἡβῶν ἐγκρατής,
μέσος δίκαιος,
πρεσβύτης εὔβουλος,
τελευτῶν ἀλύγιος.

And then, after only 150 years of existence, as a crucial link along the Silk Road connecting China and India (in fact it was very close to the northern frontier of the Mauryan Empire for much of its existence) with Persia and the Mediterranean, it was destroyed by Nomads, probably the Sacae from the north-east. They set fire to the palace and robbed the treasury. Locals squatted among the ruins for a few years. There followed a second destruction by the Yuezhi from Chinese Turkestan.

And from then it remained unknown until French archaeologists uncovered it - in time for a third destruction by the Taliban in 2001. In the exhibition is a wonderful small statue of a youth - vandalised in antiquity, and painstakingly restored - only to be smashed again. The site has also been systematically looted by various armies since the Russian invasion of 1979.

Plutarch wrote that people in the east "are still reading Homer and reciting the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles"; and perhaps performing them in the theatre. But the Greeks were probably only the upper class - not everything is Greek: artefacts found there reveal the extent of trade and influence from India and the east.

The treasures from Aï Khanum are only a fraction of what's on display - wonderful things hidden by brave Afghan museum staff when the Russians came.

Peregrines and pheasants

10 April 2011

Just been re-reading Iliad 22 (line 139ff), where Achilles' attack on Hector is described as "like a falcon in the hills, the fastest thing on wings ..." By a wonderful coincidence, I saw a peregrine falcon (falco peregrinus) in our Gloucestershire valley early yesterday morning, perched high in a tall poplar. Homer was right about its speed; the American subspecies has been clocked apparently at over 200 mph in a dive. But why peregrine? It's obviously the Latin peregrinus, an adjective derived from pereger (from per + ager) - "one who's crossed the ager" (the territory belonging to a community - not really "field"). In classical Latin, only the adverbial form is found -to the questions quo, ubi or unde it returns the same answer: "abroad"; whether in Plautus or Cicero. So our peregrine falcon should be a migratory species, "coming from abroad, foreign". Only it isn't! Another derivative of peregrinus is "pilgrim" - originally one who'd made the journey to some place of religious significance (Rome, maybe, or Jerusalem, Canterbury or Walsingham). And this is apparently the clue - some say in the middle ages wild birds for falconry were not taken from the nest, but as more mature birds when "travelling abroad" - the pilgrim falcon. Others argue that it was "peregrinus" because peregrines move large distances from their birth sites to find territories. Interestingly peregine was originally (c 1386) used for the larger female, the male being known as tercelet, tercel or tiercel (c 1381) - from tertius either because it weas believed that only one in three eggs produced a male, or more likely because the male is much smaller (by a third perhaps, but not a third the size!). It's more used in falconry than the female - hence, I guess, the Toyota Tercel (not quite a candidate for my Classic Cars page!).

Some great pictures here.

The other bird I'm much obsessed with at the moment is the pheasant. We're surrounded by shoots, which means that pheasannts in large numbers take refuge in our wood and garden. There they fell free to peck at out prized plants, and to keep us awake with their garting calls. There's a melanistic cock who is particularly arrogant. But the scientific name is - phasianus colchicus - takes us far far away from South Gloucestershire. In fact to the south-eastern corner of the Black Sea. Not only are our unwelcome guests from Colchis - like Medea, but the name "pheasant" takes us to the river Phasis (phasianus - he from the river Phasis). And the river Phasis was, for Plato, the furthest limit of the inhabited world (Phaedo 109b):

"I believe that it [the earth] is vast in size, and that we who dwell between the river Phasis and the Pillars of Heracles inhabit only a small part of it; we live round the sea like ants or frogs round a pond..."

And the river Phasis (now Rioni) - in Georgia, rising in the Caucasus, is indeed where our pheasants originated, or at any rate where their ancestors were imported from - possibly even by the Romans. Statius refers to a Phasidis ales.


5 April 2011

Libya gets a first ever mention in the Odyssey (Book 4.85) where Menelaus is telling Telemachus about his seven-year journey home after the fall of Troy. Its wealth impressed him mightily- the sheep produced three broods a year, and there's plenty of meat, cheese and milk for all, whether king or herdsman.

Where was it, though? Herodotus clearly locates it west of Egypt, more or less where it is today, but stretching as far as Tunisia. Other Greeks lazily used Libya as a name for the whole continent.

In the 7th century BC, the area centred today on Benghazi and Tobruk, currently controlled by "rebels" was colonised by Greeks from the island of Thera (now Santorini). Their main city was Cyrene, and gave its name to Cyrenaica, the modern state which was an independent entity until 1951, when it became part of the unified kingdom of Libya under Idris I.

At much the same time, the western part came under Phoenician influence - as traders to begin with, and later as colonists. The most successful colony became Carthage, in modern Tunisia, but other settlements formed the hub of the area later known as Tripolis - the "three cities".

The division between east and west goes back a very long way!

Both parts of Libya eventually became provinces of the Roman empire - Cyrene in 74 BC through bequest from its Greek ruler, and Tripolitania (part of Africa Nova) under Augustus. Both provinces became immensely prosperous - obvious today from the ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. But, cosmopolitan though they were, each province maintained its original character - Phoenician in the west and Greek in the east.

Prosperity largely continued after the Arab conquest (from 642 AD) but, from the time of the Norman kingdom in Sicily, interest from northern Europe in tapping into the wealth of North Africa increasingly began to be felt. But it was the Ottoman Turks who took over (1551 AD). Their ever-loosening grip continued until 1911, when Italy made its belated grab for colonial territory. But still there were the two provinces - Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, as in Roman times. There was fierce resistance to Italian rule, savagely repressed. After World War II, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were administered by the British - until finally the independent kingom of Libya came into being in 1951 - under Idris I, who had led the independence movement from his base in Cyrenaica since the 20s.

Under the Ottomans Libya had become a poor backwater - but the discovery of oil in 1959 reveived its prosperity, although the wealth mostly ended up in royal hands. The rise of Arab national movements had led to the overthrow of monarchies in Iraq and Egypt - and Libya was soon caught up in the new revolutionary drive to bring power to the people: the leader was Muammar al-Gaddafi, a 27-year old junior officer in the army. Idris was dethroned in 1969, and Gaddafi has been in power ever since.

So what hope for a successful outcome in the latest "humanitarian intervention"? To me the situation looks more like civil war between ancient rivals than a national revolution. It took 30 years for Idris' fight for freedom to get a result: maybe we shouldn't expect anything too soon. Possibly there will be a military stalemate, leading to a reversion to the status quo ante bellum (and that bellum could be the bellum punicum!) Will we see a western-looking Cyrene, proud of its Greek past, and a Tripoli remembering its Semitic heritage - founded by Phoenicians, with its golden age under Arab rule?


I found this on an old web page of mine:

Invitation to Paradise?
Classics lovers are invited to visit a country with superbly preserved Roman monuments, guaranteed sunshine, no crowds, no package tours, no noisy nightclubs (no nightlife of any kind), no British lager louts (alcohol is banned) - yes, a firm has been hired to promote tourism in - Libya. Form an orderly queue. If you've always wanted to know how many kisses were enough and more than enough for poor Catullus now's your chance to count the grains of sand between Cyrene and the ancient tomb of Battus.[Guardian 25 August 1997]