Classicists in Interesting Times
December 15, 2016 2:33 PM   Subscribe

Eidolon is a general-audience webzine about the Greco-Roman classics. Subjects covered include a comparison by modern American and ancient Roman foodie cultures by Ben Thomas, Alexander Hamilton's self-identification with Catiline by Joanna Kenty, re-queering Sappho by Ella Haselswerdt, classical references in rap by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, and the contemporary popularity of ancient stoicism by Chiara Sulprizio. But by far the biggest splash was made by editor Donna Zuckerberg's How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor, about resisting the alt-right interpretation of Greco-Roman culture and society.
posted by Kattullus (29 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
Epony... never mind.
posted by acb at 2:48 PM on December 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


Quod ad rem pertinet.
posted by Hypatia at 3:01 PM on December 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


Quomodo sedet sola civitas.
posted by Captain l'escalier at 3:03 PM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Strange how the alt-right (and Right in general) worship the Roman Empire, a culture that prospered most when it was open-handed and accepted a huge range of cultures under its broad umbrella, but which faltered and collapsed under parochial and regional prejudices, narrow interests, and out-of-control inequality. The Succession of the Plebs was a warning, people!

But, you know, tell that to the "bright young men."
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:11 PM on December 15, 2016 [13 favorites]


Ego sum non hic vobis, Alexander.
posted by rokusan at 3:12 PM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks so much for this FPP. I've already sent links for it to two separate people, and am saving the classics in rap for my commute home. Hurray!
posted by joyceanmachine at 3:14 PM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


But in addition to those incisive criticisms, I received a great deal of abuse.

Sadly, the internet (and possibly the modern world) in a nutshell.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:15 PM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, I am kind of weary of the love that people give the Stoics. As far as I can tell, Stoicism is just Cynicism with the demands for social change removed. "What would Seneca do?" Make mealy-mouthed and debased defenses of Nero while still pretending he had influence and a moral leg to stand on. Give me an honest Skeptic, at least; I'll ignore the Swerve for the sake of someone not in the pocket of Power.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:28 PM on December 15, 2016 [11 favorites]


Modern-day neo-stoicism can turn into a bro-philosophy for those too far out of their teens for Nietzsche. It's a way of humblebragging about one's masculine toughness, and also not a long way removed from Mencius Moldbug's neoreactionary “passivism”.
posted by acb at 3:31 PM on December 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


That's an interesting take. I always understood stoicism's main purpose being to provide psychological comfort to soldiers who had little control over their own lives--sort of a grab bag of heuristics for coping with the powerlessness of life under an oppressive system that forces people to suffer with no real autonomy. A lot of the stoicism focused on the leveling power of death seems to have been designed to give aggrieved people a way to feel good about not seeking revenge, for example--as in the bits comforting people who've been wronged that they don't need to get revenge because time will take care of that for them, if they're patient enough and just manage to survive long enough to see it.

But I guess I could see if that's not the subtext you bring to reading the Stoics, it's a philosophy of inaction and accommodation to injustice and oppression, from a certain POV.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:42 PM on December 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


...accepted a huge range of cultures under its broad umbrella...

...subjugated a huge range of cultures by conquest...
posted by Leon at 3:52 PM on December 15, 2016 [12 favorites]


But I guess I could see if that's not the subtext you bring to reading the Stoics, it's a philosophy of inaction and accommodation to injustice and oppression, from a certain POV.

I think this is exactly what Stoicism became, under the Empire. I mean, I think there are kernels of good philosophy in Stoicism, but it has some real traps, maybe like the way that the Cynics were, all too often, useless pot-stirrers rather than real agents of change, and the Skeptics basically existed to piss off the Stoics, and the Epicureans could make peace with Power just as easily as the Stoics. It's hard to create a philosophy that won't cuddle up to power when given half a chance.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:52 PM on December 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


...subjugated a huge range of cultures by conquest...
I've been reading SPQR by Mary Beard, and she tells a nicely complicated story about the thin line between integration & conquest, and the changing mean of "Roman" during the Republic and Empire. I'd highly recommend it.
posted by JoeBlubaugh at 4:00 PM on December 15, 2016 [11 favorites]


Modern-day neo-stoicism can turn into a bro-philosophy for those too far out of their teens for Nietzsche.

Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type? That was an American.
posted by rokusan at 4:08 PM on December 15, 2016


...accepted a huge range of cultures under its broad umbrella...
...subjugated a huge range of cultures by conquest...


Tomato, tomato; melting pot, genocide.
posted by rokusan at 4:10 PM on December 15, 2016


I enjoyed reading the "Meditations" by Stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius not too many years ago. It didn't seem very complacent or pandering to me. Neither the work of Epictetus or Seneca, although neither has the same appeal to me (and I find Seneca gets pedantic and repetitive).

What particularly surprised me is the deep spirituality in Aurelius. He views the world as infused with order and purpose. But this order and purpose exist quite apart from our emotions or considerations. He uses the image of hurling a rock: it will rise for a while and at some point it will come down again. Neither the rising or the coming down are good or bad: the rock simply acts in accordance with Nature.

And for man to act in accordance with Nature, according to Aurelius, is not to strive for riches or fame or power, but to exercise our rational faculties as social beings by performing social acts and deliberating in a rational manner. He quotes Antisthenes approvingly: "It is royal to do good and be abused". That's really not the creed of the red-pill philo-bros.
posted by dmh at 4:29 PM on December 15, 2016 [8 favorites]


...subjugated a huge range of cultures by conquest...

It's true. "The Romans make a desert and call it Peace" is hardly a new criticism of Rome, Republic or Empire. And yet, Rome (and Persia, to name another ancient empire that had a hefty element of assimilation in its recipe for conquest) was also a place of inclusion (to one degree or another), as opposed to, say, the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which seems to have been a catalog of constant horror (to be fair, nearly a millennium earlier).
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:30 PM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I don't know that you can look at what Romans did as subjugating cultures. What they did was to conquer territory and make the people in that territory pay them taxes. The Roman Empire was a machine dedicated to the continued and regular extraction of taxes from its provinces; in its wake it brought about trade and cultural exchange and incredible infrastructure, and slavery and a total lack of political freedom, and onerous tax burdens and relative peace throughout much of the Mediterranean. The Empire was tolerant of local religions and slowly made millions "Roman" in its own image. It enslaved millions and worked many to death in mines and on fields when there were gluts of slaves.

When you read ancient history you have to remember that 90% of people were subsistence farmers who don't ever appear on the page of the historical writings we study. For most of them, the grand historical dramas were a question of which elite was going to tax them and how much. Roman civilization had incredible things – road networks, irrigation systems, trade, common language, religious tolerance, cities, literature, arts – that barbarian Europe took a thousand years to even imitate convincingly.

I love ancient history. But we have to be sanguine about it. One thing I think we have to reject is this notion that it belongs to "the West" or that people were "white" – both subsequent categories that had no meaning at the time.
posted by graymouser at 4:31 PM on December 15, 2016 [22 favorites]


...accepted a huge range of cultures under its broad umbrella...
...subjugated a huge range of cultures by conquest...


I am very far from an expert, but when I finished all of the History of Rome podcast, my main thought was, Christ, what a bunch of vapid assholes. Probably not what Mike Duncan was intending.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:32 PM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


I don't know that you can look at what Romans did as subjugating cultures.

I'd be more inclined to buy that argument if you could show continuity between pre-Roman archaeology and post-Roman archaeology. In Britain the tribes were washed away, the pottery, the building styles, the coins... all show a clean break. You mention subsistence farming, but farms in Roman Britain were patterned on villas, not roundhouses.

I'm not an expert, and I'm happy to be corrected, but this is my impression.
posted by Leon at 5:12 PM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


That Sappho essay was really good. I have to admit to being a skeptic when it comes to applying modern identity lenses to historical figures — I don't doubt that Sappho was a woman who was sexually attracted to women and wrote about it, but calling her a "lesbian" has seemed reductive and misleading. But Haselswerdt makes solid arguments, and while I still might be reluctant on "lesbian," locating her inside of "queer" makes intuitive sense.

"I'd be more inclined to buy that argument if you could show continuity between pre-Roman archaeology and post-Roman archaeology. In Britain the tribes were washed away, the pottery, the building styles, the coins... all show a clean break. You mention subsistence farming, but farms in Roman Britain were patterned on villas, not roundhouses."

That's not my understanding at all, but maybe you have a better sense. A lot of jewelry and architecture seems to have continued on, and early Christians coming to the isles noted the continuity of belief with pre-Roman paganism. I mean, it's hard to tell because it was a bunch of Celts and Gauls that had idiosyncratic practices and as far as I know, we still don't have that great a handle on a lot of their culture anyway. There were a ton of Roman improvements, like roads and walls, but pre-Roman coinage had been largely based on Greek coinage, and both Latin and Greek inscriptions lasted through the Roman rule. Likewise, many place names persisted and outside of explicitly Roman settlements, local kings had a lot of autonomy.
posted by klangklangston at 6:15 PM on December 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


In Britain the tribes were washed away, the pottery, the building styles, the coins... all show a clean break. You mention subsistence farming, but farms in Roman Britain were patterned on villas, not roundhouses.

I'm not an expert either but it's always complicated. I'd make two points:

- Remember the best preserved and most noteworthy finds once the Romans arise will always be the elite villas, not subsistence farms. That archaeological study focuses on them (esp. in popular accounts) wouldn't mean villas predominated.

- People that were not subjugated by Rome also adopted Roman customs in many cases after contact through trade. Changing conditions, skills and access to materials will change how people do things. The roundhouse wouldn't have necessarily been the preferred living arrangement once other options opened up.

FWIW wiki has roundhouses continuing in areas until the sub-Roman period, so even after Romans left.

Also FWIW I'm anti-Roman, at least in the context here (ie, I'm pissed off when someone views them as some historical model by selectively remembering some things.)
posted by mark k at 6:50 PM on December 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


Christ, what a bunch of vapid assholes.

Rome is like a good TV series that got renewed a few too many times.

You make it through season one when they kick out the kings and become a republic and you're hooked.
By the Punic wars it has some critical buzz and you've got a clique of people at work that you can talk to about it.
Julius and Augustus arrive in the next two seasons, and the show is everywhere. Everyone knows the catchphrases, "the die is cast" and "this is violence!". You buy into Caligula and Nero as big bads, even if there's some scenery chewing.
Then there's a season where not much happens and you're not so sure about the Christians subplot. Marcus Aurelius is kind of a Marty Jane, and Commodus seems like fan service supervillain. People are tuning out. You try to stick it through.
An incoherent season goes by and you're having trouble keeping track. Most of the action is in Constantinople. You start to miss episodes here and there.
By the end you're like, who are all these people? And why are we in Ravenna?
posted by condour75 at 6:53 PM on December 15, 2016 [58 favorites]


I wish I had thousands of more faves for you, condour. That is about the size of it. (Ironic since Rome the actual tv show was cancelled way too soon.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:09 PM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


all cultures whose ideas are spread by their own or subsequent empires' military might are going to have fun parables and archetypes that reflect the basic tenets of human nature. as do the greek classics. i think any such literature, from any culture, could be used to justify tribal hate and war and racism and death. which, seemingly always, is the ultimate objective in human affairs.
posted by wibari at 12:02 AM on December 16, 2016


Later you find out that Rome: Special Greek-speaking Unit has been playing over on TBS for like 15 more seasons.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:34 AM on December 16, 2016 [17 favorites]


You try to stick it through.
An incoherent season goes by and you're having trouble keeping track. Most of the action is in Constantinople. You start to miss episodes here and there.
By the end you're like, who are all these people? And why are we in Ravenna?


Don't give up hope during the third season (a.k.a. the crisis of the third century)!

Then you'd miss out on Aurelian, Diocletian, Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian. The origins of defense-in-depth, and the reasons for the emergence of walled cities that give rise to the middle ages.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:12 AM on December 16, 2016 [6 favorites]


I read the Sapphic article, and was first surprised, then rolling-eyed depressed that so many male academics can't stand for anything to not be about their maleness. I know, patriarchy in action, learned doesn't mean self-aware... it's like encountering educated racism, all I can think is "goddamit, you should KNOW better!"

(And yes, I'm aware of the recursive irony of this post being all about me and my feelings. I can hear my partner rolling her eyes at me from across town ;))

Anyway, I felt that article really begged for a subtitle: "Sorry guys, she's just not into you!"
posted by Kelrichen at 8:56 AM on December 16, 2016 [4 favorites]


That rap article is incredibly rich -- not to be missed!
posted by gusandrews at 7:02 PM on December 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


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