A haiku for each tragedy by Sophocles:

Bitten by a snake.
Odysseus will come here,
Before the winter.

Women of Trachis
Poor Deianeira:
Heracles is coming home.
It gets hot for him.

Oedipus the King
Summer plague in Thebes.
Who killed the king, Oedipus?
Your mother will know.

Brothers are buried,
But Creon is furious.
All have to suffer.

Oedipus at Colonus
Oedipus abroad…
But the whole thing is a mess,
And Oedipus dies.

He’s killed some cattle,
Thinking they are Greek heroes.
Ajax kills himself.

She mourns her father…
In Spring, her brother appears.
And they kill them both.

Philosopher Kings

Is the idea that all leaders should also be philosophers an idealistic and unattainable goal? Or something we should be striving for? Or an elitist and offensive suggestion?

Cameron and Obama – philosopher kings?

A quotation from Plato, Republic Book 5, section 473, c-e:

ἑνὸς μὲν τοίνυν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, μεταβαλόντος δοκοῦμέν μοι ἔχειν δεῖξαι ὅτι μεταπέσοι ἄν, οὐ μέντοι σμικροῦ γε οὐδὲ ῥᾳδίου, δυνατοῦ δέ.
τίνος; ἔφη.
ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ δή, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, εἰμὶ ὃ τῷ μεγίστῳ προσῃκάζομεν κύματι. εἰρήσεται δ᾽ οὖν, εἰ καὶ μέλλει γέλωτί τε ἀτεχνῶς ὥσπερ κῦμα ἐκγελῶν καὶ ἀδοξίᾳ κατακλύσειν. σκόπει δὲ ὃ μέλλω λέγειν.
λέγε, ἔφη.
ἐὰν μή, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, ἢ οἱ φιλόσοφοι βασιλεύσωσιν ἐν [473δ] ταῖς πόλεσιν ἢ οἱ βασιλῆς τε νῦν λεγόμενοι καὶ δυνάσται φιλοσοφήσωσι γνησίως τε καὶ ἱκανῶς, καὶ τοῦτο εἰς ταὐτὸν συμπέσῃ, δύναμίς τε πολιτικὴ καὶ φιλοσοφία, τῶν δὲ νῦν πορευομένων χωρὶς ἐφ᾽ ἑκάτερον αἱ πολλαὶ φύσεις ἐξ ἀνάγκης ἀποκλεισθῶσιν, οὐκ ἔστι κακῶν παῦλα, ὦ φίλε Γλαύκων, ταῖς πόλεσι, δοκῶ δ᾽ οὐδὲ τῷ ἀνθρωπίνῳ γένει, [473ε] οὐδὲ αὕτη ἡ πολιτεία μή ποτε πρότερον φυῇ τε εἰς τὸ δυνατὸν καὶ φῶς ἡλίου ἴδῃ, ἣν νῦν λόγῳ διεληλύθαμεν. ἀλλὰ τοῦτό ἐστιν ὃ ἐμοὶ πάλαι ὄκνον ἐντίθησι λέγειν, ὁρῶντι ὡς πολὺ παρὰ δόξαν ῥηθήσεται: χαλεπὸν γὰρ ἰδεῖν ὅτι οὐκ ἂν ἄλλη τις εὐδαιμονήσειεν οὔτε ἰδίᾳ οὔτε δημοσίᾳ.

Tony Blair and George Bush engaging in some philosophy

A translation, from Perseus

“There is one change, then,” said I, “which I think that we can show would bring about the desired transformation. It is not a slight or an easy thing but it is possible.”

“What is that?” said he.

“I am on the very verge,” said I, “of what we likened to the greatest wave of paradox. But say it I will, even if, to keep the figure, it is likely to wash us away on billows of laughter and scorn. Listen.”

“I am all attention,” he said.

“Unless,” said I, “either philosophers become kings [473d] in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence, while the motley horde of the natures who at present pursue either apart from the other are compulsorily excluded, there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either. Nor, until this happens, will this constitution which we have been expounding in theory [473e] ever be put into practice within the limits of possibility and see the light of the sun. But this is the thing that has made me so long shrink from speaking out, because I saw that it would be a very paradoxical saying. For it is not easy to see that there is no other way of happiness either for private or public life.”

Feeding cake to the dung-beetle: Aristophanes’s first liners

Inspired by preparing to teach Lower 6th Classical Civilisation (Aristophanes and Athens) in September, and also starting to read Mary Beard’s book ‘Laughter in Ancient Rome’, I have put together the following, simply the first few lines of each surviving Aristophanes comedy, along with my translation. I think the opening of a play can tell you quite a bit about the impact the playwright is trying to make on the audience, and although he may later on in the play take an entirely different tack, it is nonetheless vital as a hook to try to get the audience smiling along with the poet.

I have used the texts from Perseus, and plumped for the first 3 lines, unless ending at the 3rd line would harm the sense, in which case I’ve gone for 4 or 5. I have put them in what I think is chronological order, in case this tells us anything about the development of Aristophanic comedy and its structures and/or expectations…
I have put my own first thoughts, ill-formed and raw as they are, below each opening.

Acharnians, 1-3: Dikaiopolis
ὅσα δὴ δέδηγμαι τὴν ἐμαυτοῦ καρδίαν,
ἥσθην δὲ βαιά, πάνυ δὲ βαιά, τέτταρα:
ἃ δ᾽ ὠδυνήθην, ψαμμακοσιογάργαρα.

I have been bitten so often on my heart,
and I’ve had few pleasurable moments, very few… four:
but the things that have caused me pain are hundredsofgrainsofsandy.

[I do love the descending tricolon in line 2. Also a great Aristophanic bundlelotsofwordsintooneword at the end of line 3!]

Knights, 1-3: Demosthenes
ἰατταταιὰξ τῶν κακῶν, ἰατταταῖ.
κακῶς Παφλαγόνα τὸν νεώνητον κακὸν
αὐταῖσι βουλαῖς ἀπολέσειαν οἱ θεοί.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaagh the miseries, aaaaaaaaah!
In misery may the gods destroy the Paphlagonian,
that miserable new slave I bought, and his advice too!

[What a great opening it must have been – a hush goes over the audience, and the silence is pierced with this melodramatic tragedy-like scream! Over-the-top repetition of κακὸν words as well!]

Clouds, 1-3: Strepsiades
ἰοὺ ἰού:
ὦ Ζεῦ βασιλεῦ τὸ χρῆμα τῶν νυκτῶν ὅσον:
ἀπέραντον. οὐδέποθ᾽ ἡμέρα γενήσεται;

Oh woe, oh woe:
O Zeus, king, such is the misfortune of my nights:
Infinite! Will day-time never come?

[Great first line, really makes you think you’re in a tragedy, which will then, of course, with typical Aristophanic bathos, be punctured. Also the enjambment on line 3.]

Wasps, 1-3: Sosias and Xanthias
Σωσίας: Οὗτος τί πάσχεις ὦ κακόδαιμον Ξανθία;
Ξανθίας: φυλακὴν καταλύειν νυκτερινὴν διδάσκομαι.
Σωσίας: κακὸν ἆρα ταῖς πλευραῖς τι προὐφείλεις μέγα.

S: Oh, it’s you! What’s wrong, wretched Xanthias?
X: I’m teaching myself to cast off my night-shift.
S: So you’re setting yourself up for some sort of great misery for your ribs!

[Rather more low-key, working more on character of these great Aristophanic slaves]

Peace, 1-3: Slave 1 and Slave 2
Οἰκέτης Α: αἶρ᾽ αἶρε μᾶζαν ὡς τάχιστα κανθάρῳ.
Οἰκέτης Β: ἰδού. δὸς αὐτῷ, τῷ κάκιστ᾽ ἀπολουμένῳ
καὶ μήποτ᾽ αὐτῆς μᾶζαν ἡδίω φάγοι.

S1: Bring it! Quick as you can, bring the cake for the dung-beetle!
S2: There! Give it to him – I hope he dies in the most horrible way,
and never eats a better cake than that one.

[A genius opening – ‘wtf?’! Why on earth are they feeding cake to a dung beetle?! Really feel like we’re dropped into the middle of a bizarre situation!]

Birds, 1-3: Euelpides and Pisthetairos
Ἐυελπίδης: ὀρθὴν κελεύεις, ᾗ τὸ δένδρον φαίνεται;
Πισθέταιρος: διαρραγείης: ἥδε δ᾽ αὖ κρώζει πάλιν.
Ἐυελπίδης: τί ὦ πόνηρ᾽ ἄνω κάτω πλανύττομεν;

E: What do you think? Straight on, to get to the tree?
P: Oh sod off! This one’s cawing me back!
E: Why are we wandering up and down, you idiot?

[Similarly surreal – why, indeed, are we wandering up and down? What on earth is Aristophanes making us do now, prancing about the stage talking to birds?!]

Lysistrata, 1-3: Lysistrata
ἀλλ᾽ εἴ τις ἐς Βακχεῖον αὐτὰς ἐκάλεσεν,
ἢ ‘ς Πανὸς ἢ ‘πὶ Κωλιάδ᾽ ἢ ‘ς Γενετυλλίδος,
οὐδ᾽ ἂν διελθεῖν ἦν ἂν ὑπὸ τῶν τυμπάνων.

Well, if you’d called the women for a Bacchic revelry,
or a feast of Pan, or Colias, or Genetyllis,
you wouldn’t be able to move for drums!

[Opening with a woman! And the eponymous hero of course. The sarcasm is laid on thick right from the beginning. Also some suspense – if it’s not one of these festivals, then what exactly is going on?]

Thesmophoriazusae, 1-4: Mnesilochus
ὦ Ζεῦ χελιδὼν ἆρά ποτε φανήσεται;
ἀπολεῖ μ᾽ ἀλοῶν ἅνθρωπος ἐξ ἑωθινοῦ.
οἷόν τε, πρὶν τὸν σπλῆνα κομιδῇ μ᾽ ἐκβαλεῖν,
παρὰ σοῦ πυφέσθαι ποῖ μ᾽ ἄγεις ωὖριπίδη;

O Zeus, the swallow – when will it appear?
He’s going to destroy me, this fellow, driving me round since dawn.
What is it, before my spleen completely explodes?
Will you tell me where you’re taking me, Euripides?

[Fantastic – starts with an invocation to Zeus, but… Zeus the Swallow?! Didn’t know that was one of his incarnations. Oh, hang on, he means something different. He’s tired and has a painful spleen. And it’s… Euripides who is causing the problems! Amazing postponement!]

Frogs, 1-4: Xanthias and Dionysus
Ξανθίας: Εἴπω τι τῶν εἰωθότων ὦ δέσποτα,
ἐφ᾽ οἷς ἀεὶ γελῶσιν οἱ θεώμενοι;
Διόνυσος: νὴ τὸν Δί᾽ ὅ τι Βούλει γε, πλὴν ‘πιέζομαι,’
τοῦτο δὲ φύλαξαι: πάνυ γάρ ἐστ᾽ ἤδη χολή.

X: Shall I tell one of the usual ones, master,
the ones that always make the audience laugh?
D: By Zeus, whatever you want, except “I’m straining”…
Leave off that one: it’s already got annoying.

[I suppose this is what you would call meta-comedy. Ok, so what are you going to laugh at? I bet you’re thinking, don’t do one of your usual lines about pooing, PLEASE! And hang on, is that really Dionysus? :-O]

Ecclesiazusae, 1-3: Praxagora
Ὦ λαμπρὸν ὄμμα τοῦ τροχηλάτου λύχνου
κάλλιστ᾽ ἐν εὐστόχοισιν ἐζητημένον:
γονάς τε γὰρ σὰς καὶ τύχας δηλώσομεν:

O shining light of my potter’s-wheel-fashioned lantern,
most wonderfully positioned to help me seek:
I shall reveal both your birth and your fate:

[Great tragic opening, but to a lantern made by swivelling! I may be looking too closely into it, but is line 3 a reference to Tiresias’s words to Oedipus in the OT?!]

Wealth, 1-5: Kariōn
ὡς ἀργαλέον πρᾶγμ᾽ ἐστὶν ὦ Ζεῦ καὶ θεοὶ
δοῦλον γενέσθαι παραφρονοῦντος δεσπότου.
ἢν γὰρ τὰ βέλτισθ᾽ ὁ θεράπων λέξας τύχῃ,
δόξῃ δὲ μὴ δρᾶν ταῦτα τῷ κεκτημένῳ,
μετέχειν ἀνάγκη τὸν θεράποντα τῶν κακῶν.

What a painful thing it is, o Zeus and the other gods,
to be the slave of a stupid master.
For if a servant happens to give excellent advice,
the one who receives it may decide not to act on it,
and then the servant has to share the bad consequences.

[Sacrilege! Slaves being cleverer than their masters, and complaining about it?! But then it’s ok to see them doing this in the theatre. Just as long as your slaves at home are not doing the same!]


Today I spent the day in Florence, or should I say Firenze? Although the Romans used to call it Florentia, and the French call it Florence. But it’s in Italy, so surely I should call it by its Italian name. Or maybe I feel such a connection to it that I should give it my own special pet-name…

It started me thinking, anyway, of the sheer number of ‘exonyms’ as they are apparently called – that is, names for places (and, by extension, people) which are not what they are called by those living in them (or indeed, in the case of people, their mums).

I have to confess that I have mined the Wikipedia pages for exonyms and also Anglicisations of personal names, for some of this, largely as an aide-memoire, but I have picked and chosen which examples to use based on ones I come across most, or I think are interesting.

First the names…

Of course, Thomas Aquinas, Christopher Columbus and John Cabot were really Tommaso D’Aquino, Cristoforo Colombo and Zuan Chabotto. Indeed, I am sure that there are many English speakers who are not aware that those historical figures were Italian! (or, in Cabot Chabotto’s case, Venetian).

Then there are the poets and historians who wrote in Greek and Latin, and whom we somehow want to Anglicise… Homer, Horace, Livy, Ovid, Pliny, Terence and Virgil were really Homēros, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Titus Livius Patavinus, Publius Ovidius Naso, Gaius Plinius Secundus, Publius Terentius Afer and Publius Vergilius Maro (yes, three Publii!)

As for the place names…

Some countries themselves are quite different in the languages they speak. Albania, Austria, Central African Republic, China, Croatia, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, New Zealand and Scotland (amongst others) are really, in the languages of at least some of the populations, Shqipëria, Österreich, Ködörösêse tî Bêafrîka, Zhongguo, Hrvatska, Mişr, Suomi, Deutschland, Hellas, Magyarország, Bhārat, Nihon, Chosŏn, Hanguk, Aotearoa and Alba.

Notable cities and towns which have had, or still have now, alternative Anglicised names, include…

Ayers Rock (Uluru)
The River Danube (Donau, Dunav, Duna, Dunărea, Dunaj)
Vienna (Wien)
Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
Peking (interestingly this apparently reflects the change in pronunciation of the local populace, and when the English first chose this name, the sound which is now represented by the j of Beijing was more like k)
Prague (Praha)
Copenhagen (København)
Cairo (Al-Qāhira)
Cologne (Köln)
Athens (Athina)
Corfu (Kerkyra)
Vatican City (Civitas Vaticana)
Bangalore, Madras, Calcutta and Bombay are now usually referred to as Bengaluru (its name in the Kannada language), Chennai (Tamil) Kolkata (Bengali) and Mumbai (Marathi) although many of my wife’s family, whose roots are firmly in Maharashtra and the area around Mumbai and Pune, still call it Bombay!

There are many in Italy:
– Florence (Firenze)
– Genoa (Genova)
– Mantua (Mantova)
– Milan (Milano)
– Naples (Napoli)
– Padua (Padova)
– Rome (Roma)
– Sardinia (Sardegna)
– Sicily (Sicilia)
– Syracuse (Siracusa)
– the river Tiber (Tevere)
– Turin (Torino)
– Venice (Venezia)

Tripoli (Ṭarābulus)
Casablanca (Ad-Dār Al-Beiḍāʼ)
The Hague (Den Haag)
Jerusalem (Yerushalayim or al-Quds)
Warsaw (Warszawa)
Lisbon (Lisboa)
Bucharest (București)
Moscow (Moskva)
Saint Petersburg (Sankt Pyetyerburg)
Belgrade (Beograd)
Gothenburg (Göteborg)
Geneva (Genève or Genf)
Damascus (Dimašq)
Bangkok (Krung Thep Maha Nakon)
Kiev (Kyiv)

Thanks for making it right to the end of that list. There are many more I haven’t mentioned – do let me know if I have got any wrong (entirely probable).

So the ultimate question, with some easy answers and some less easy to get at, is why the alternative names? Well, of course, it’s a mixture, I suspect. Some of them are attempts at making Empire-building Brits feel at home. Others are ham-fisted attempts at transliterating or otherwise denoting the name when told to the officials, and the incorrect spelling just stuck. Others are political – the official English version is an attempt to take sides with the ethnic group favoured in that region at the time (or even now). I do think that some of it, however, is a way of showing love for the place, giving it a name which shows how much it means to the ones making the change. Just as the Italians and French have Londra and Londres, we need Brittany, Tuscany and Sicily so that we can feel at home. Same with the people’s names, I guess. But it’s good to know that we’re doing it, and healthy to be aware of the ‘real’ version.

Etruscans and Romans in Tuscany

20140803-164247-60167684.jpgI have been on holiday in Tuscany this summer for two weeks. I had not expected anything except cities full of tourists and impressive museums, wonderful rolling countryside and lazy days by the pool.
But it turns out the Etruscans, and then the Romans, built some things in Tuscany, and they’re still there, despite the guide books’ apparent desire to bury them between campsite descriptions and shopping trips.
20140803-162936-59376842.jpgSo first, in going for a little walk after a lunch of ovolo mushroom salad and wild boar, I found myself looking down on the Roman theatre in Volterra (above) where they had clearly been presenting some sort of spectacle including enormous characters, one of whom you can see to the right in the picture, from the back.
Then we decided to go to Fiesole, just north of Florence, on a Sunday when the weather forecast had predicted thunder and torrential rain. They lie. And so do the writers of the Lonely Planet, who say “avoid Sunday when half of Florence invades”. We were pretty much on our own as we wandered around the Parco Archeologico. It was a real treat, as I have spent many a day traipsing around sites in blazing hot sun (or driving rain) shuffling along behind large crowds, to be in really well-preserved theatre (I tutted quietly at my car’s Sat Nav, which insisted it was an amphitheatre (it’s not).
20140803-164156-60116031.jpgAn aroma of mint pervaded the theatre, and I sat and watched my two daughters playing in the orchestra, listening to the church bells.20140803-170402-61442639.jpgI wandered down to the bath complex (above), complete with hypocaust (see below)
20140803-164537-60337853.jpgWe then sauntered down, past a Roman temple built on top of an Etruscan one (and then collapsed, unfortunately, as you can see below) seeing some nice fluted (but horizontal) column drums, had lunch at the very good Caffè Teatro overlooking the ruins (with columns in its garden) and up to a spectacular view of Florence and then the archeological museum. Photos of all of those can be seen below. A wonderful day, and a nice surprise to see so much and be so undisturbed!
20140803-165105-60665257.jpgAbove: a Roman temple built on top of an Etruscan one (and then collapsed…)
20140803-165212-60732944.jpgAbove: a (horizontal) fluted column drum amongst wild flowers…
20140803-165314-60794099.jpgAbove: the caffè, with columns in the garden…
20140803-165404-60844596.jpgAbove: the spectacular view of Florence, and (below) some pieces from the Museo Archeologico.
20140803-165454-60894174.jpgWow, what a hair-do!
20140803-165455-60895633.jpgIs that a pipe in your pocket, or… hang on, you haven’t got any pockets…