A classicist in Berlin


For me, the soundtrack for my first visit to Berlin will always be Seven Nation Army. This track was blaring from the speakers on the late night taxi ride from Alexanderplatz to Friedrichshain and in so many ways it proved to be an appropriate choice. Just like the song, Berlin is edgy, energetic, youthful and defiant, well worn but still irresistible. It is not exactly the city that you would expect to appeal to a quiet classical scholar but for me, Berlin turned out to be full of riches. I embraced the vibe, hired a bike and pedalled from one end of the city to the other (well, from Friedrichshain to Charlottenburg at least). I discovered a city that simultaneously tracks man’s potential for great tragedy and great beauty. For the classicist in particular, Berlin is a treasure trove.

At the Pergamonmuseum, I couldn’t help but feel Greek and Roman civilization put in its proper place by the monumental and stunning Ishtar gate. The strutting lions against a turquoise backdrop leave a deep impression of Babylonian civilization, refusing to be intimidated or forgotten.

At the Neues Museum, Nefertiti gazes out from her designated chamber room surveying everyone that passes with the cool gaze of timeless and unmatcheable Egyptian beauty. The architecture of the Neues is itself a marvelous take on Greco-Roman influences, with carefully illuminated niches, palace-sized doorways and catacomb-like passages.

For anyone else who has visited Miletus in Turkey, Berlin holds the rest of the story. The Market Gate is splendid, a fusion of Greek and Roman features and it testifies to the long-ago importance of this trading town. The model is also exceedingly helpful, clearly showing the ancient harbour and the layout of the original town.

Amidst all of this sits Orpheus, calmly plucking at his lyre as animals of all types frolic around him. I have seen pictures of this floor mosaic many times, but there is nothing like seeing it in person and imagining it as the talking piece at a wealthy Roman’s dinner party.

Outside the museums, the busy city abounds with neo-Classical features. There are the obvious references: the Brandenburg gate (with a helmeted Athena tucked inside, grasping her shield and spear), the temple facades of the Reichstag and the magnificent Konzerthaus, and the gleaming golden Nike atop the Victory Column.

There are also unexpected (but no less delightful) references, such as Atlas holding up the world on the roof of the Museum für Kommunikation; a gilded Fortune dancing in the wind on the dome of Schloss Charlottenburg; and statues of naked male youths peeping out from wooded groves in the grounds of the baroque palace gardens.

Berlin is a delight and a must see for the classicist. As I settle in with a coffee and a slice of Kirschenmichel, I know I’ll be back for a longer stay. Only next time, I will remember to pack tattoo stickers, leather pants and a vape!


Image: Athena inside the Brandenburger Tor (S. Pertsinidis, 2018)


A lost dialogue with Socrates


Socrates: Greetings Metaphrastos! What good timing.

Metaphrastos: Greetings Socrates! Where are you going?

Socrates: I’m on my way to the agora. Let us walk together and converse along the way for I have something to ask you. I was strolling by the river this morning, as is my daily practice, when I stopped for a moment under the birch trees and heard the most marvellous birdsong. Try as I might, I could not imitate it and it made me think, my dear Metaphrastos, about the practice of translation.

Metaphrastos: How so, Socrates?

Socrates: I hesitate to ask the question, lest you think me a fool.

Metaphrastos: That I could never do, Socrates.

Socrates: Well, let me ask you, Metaphrastos, in simple terms: do you think that the practice of translation is a skill or an art?

Metaphrastos: I would say that it is a skill, Socrates. For as long as one knows the source language reasonably well, one can find equivalent words in another language.

Socrates: So it is a skill then, just like boat-building, or pottery, or baking bread?

Metaphrastos: Yes, I would say it is much the same Socrates.

Socrates: So just as a boat-builder, or a potter, or a baker needs the right instructions, materials, tools or ingredients, a translator simply needs a good knowledge of the source language and a good dictionary, and one can achieve a reasonable translation?

Metaphrastos: I would say so, Socrates.

Socrates: But surely a boat-builder can be given clear instructions and clear plans and sufficient money and the right tools, and there will still be times when he must make a decision for himself, perhaps about certain modifications that need to be made because of difficulty with the materials, or decisions about certain aesthetic features, or he must interpret the intention of the instructions as best he can without bothering the man who has tasked him with the job?

Metaphrastos: It is as you say, Socrates.

Socrates: And in the same way, wouldn’t you say that the potter, though he may be paid in advance and given clear instructions to prepare a beautiful pot with a scene of Herakles wrestling a lion, will still have to make a decision about how precisely to draw the figure of Herakles, in what stance, and with what expression and so on?

Metaphrastos: You are surely right, Socrates.

Socrates: And even a baker, no matter how well he has been taught, and how long he might have been a baker for, and how well he knows the recipe, knows that a great deal depends on the care and attention and love that he devotes to his task in that moment and this is a much more difficult thing to teach. Yet the baker knows from experience that it is this care and attention and love that makes the best tasting bread so he will strive nevertheless?

Metaphrastos: I could not argue otherwise, Socrates.

Socrates: Then wouldn’t you say that just as boat-building, and pottery, and baking involve a great deal of skill but also a measure of art, that translation is just the same?

Metaphrastos: That seems to be the logical conclusion Socrates.

Socrates: So then, it does not seem right for people to speak of translation solely as a ‘skill’ for this misses an important component, wouldn’t you say?

Metaphrastos: I think so Socrates.

Socrates: And this important component is about understanding things at a deeper level, and getting to the very soul of a thing, and understanding human nature, and emotion, and all of man’s complexities, and striving to do the very best with all of one’s love, care and attention?

Metaphrastos: Just as you have said, Socrates.

Socrates: Then it is thanks to you, my dear friend, for curing my ignorance and putting my mind at ease. Now let us venture into the market and talk to Aristoboulos, for I want to ask him whether a man must be ‘good’ in order to make a ‘good’ translation…

[This imaginary dialogue is dedicated to the staff and students of ‘LANG3001: Translation across Languages’, which is currently being taught at the Australian National University. It is a pleasure to be teaching into the course and reflecting on the ‘philosophy of translation’.]


Some (less conventional) tips for organising a book launch


“It’s a bit awkward”, someone pointed out to me, “it’s like organising your own birthday party!” Sure it is but let’s face it, organising your own book launch has a number of advantages. Here are some tips I learned along the way:

1. Never assume

Don’t assume that your colleagues have the time or inclination to organise a book launch for you. No doubt they are happy for your publishing success but that doesn’t mean they have time to get quotes from caterers! Take control of your own book launch, organise it yourself, and invite your colleagues so they feel really guilty.

2. Check the post

There is nothing worse than being left high and dry at you own book launch without a copy of your book to wave around. So contact your publisher, pester your publisher, ask for your book to be sent by courier not ordinary mail, tell them that you have scheduled your book launch for a specific date, and get them to swear on their first-born child that your book will arrive in time.

3. Flyering, what’s flyering?

Your publisher will usually send you a flyer for your book or can do so on request. This is a great way to advertise the imminent arrival of your book and to advertise the promotional discount! Post the flyer on your door and on noticeboards, send it around by email and paste it on people’s heads (no, not the last one).

4. Location, location, location

As far as venues are concerned, classrooms and staffrooms are a turn-off (there is something about that stale sandwich smell) and it’s just weird to use your own office as a venue (even if it is unusually large). Try to pick a venue for a smallish-sized crowd. One hundred empty seats really isn’t a great look. Library spaces, gallery spaces, museums and of course bookshops are usually the best choices.

5. The food=love equation

Ask your Department about funding support for catering. There is often a small budget set aside for such things. This can help cover the cost of the hot canapés, leaving the cheaper items (the vege sticks, bread and dip) to you. Food = love. Simple.

6. Drinks

Champagne for everyone! And no plastic glasses please. Bad for the environment, and bad for style!

7. Invite your family (yes, the whole family)

Gone are the days when academics went to great lengths to pretend that they had no spouse, partner or children and that they are a robotic race of self-generated individuals without any family connections. And frankly, if you have managed to publish a book at the same time as having a spouse, partner and children, it’s damn well time you got some credit for it. So bring them along, bring all of them along, aged zero to one hundred, and show the world that you wrote a book with one foot rocking a bassinet, one hand on a cup of coffee made by your dearly beloved, and one ear on the phone to grandma.

8. Manage your excitement

There is something really liberating about a book launch – the culmination of years of effort, sweat and tears. There is something about the word ‘launch’ that might make you want to wear pink sequins and a feather headdress, or maybe belt out a karaoke version of ‘Eye of the Tiger’, or actually to launch something (or someone) in the air, but please, contain yourself. Save all of this for going out afterwards!

9. Short and sweet

Find someone really nice to give you a smashing introduction. Keep your own blurb nice and short. Tell the audience about yourself. Convey your passion. Thank people meaningfully. Tell them enough but don’t tell them everything – you want them to read your book, don’t you?

10. Don’t stop

Keep promoting your book even after the event – on social media, on radio, through lectures and events. Just because the launch is over doesn’t mean you should stop talking about yourself (and your book).


The olive branch


Have you been following the Swift/Perry beef? Were you as bemused as I was to read about the gift of the olive branch? Were you as horrified as I was at the quality of Perry’s handwriting? Were you stunned by the fact that Swift appears to have needed help from fans in order to be sure about the precise meaning and symbolism of the olive branch? Then read on…

It’s an interesting world when an olive branch and a hand-written note sent from one pop music star to another makes world headlines but that’s exactly what happened this month when Katy Perry sent an olive branch as a gift to Taylor Swift, with a hand-written note that appears to say:

“Hey old friend, I’ve been doing some reflecting on past miscommunications and the hurt feelings between us, I really want to clear the air – I’m deeply sorry for…”

Swift shared a short video of the gift and the note on Instagram. She also ‘liked’ a post from a fan that explained the meaning of the ‘olive branch’.

Sigh. Oh dear. If only Swift and Perry were students of Classics at the ANU.

Here are 8 good reasons why:

  1. Perry would have taken greater care with her handwriting. Any student of Classics knows that in order to be properly understood, and assessed, handwriting must be legible!
  2. Perry would have written her message in carefully handwritten ancient Greek or Latin. That way she could have found more appropriately idiomatic expressions for ‘old friend’ and ‘clearing the air’ and educated her fan base as they desperately scrambled to translate the handwritten note.
  3. Perry would not have chosen such an ambiguous gift. In ancient times, the olive branch was a symbol of victory, not peace. [When Athena and Poseidon were making competing claims over the region of Attica, they each gave a gift to the region: Poseidon struck a rock on the Acropolis with his trident and sea water came pouring out but Athena planted an olive tree. The twelve gods judged that Athena’s gift was superior and more useful so Athens was named after Athena, and the olive tree became synonymous with Athena and her victory.]
  4. Instead of using Google and Tumblr to decipher the meaning of the olive branch, Swift would have turned to her handy reference guide to classical mythology.
  5. Swift would never be so reckless as to cite an incomplete source. For all we know, the rest of the note says: “I’m deeply sorry for finally winning this long-running feud between us – I realise it must make things very awkward for you. See ya laterrrrr.”
  6. Swift would never be so reckless as to fail to double-check that the text actually did come from the attributed source and not from someone else.
  7. Swift would have correctly interpreted the sticker of the ‘puppy’ as a symbol of purification in early Greek religion (Parker, p.230). Perhaps Perry symbolically ‘washing her hands clean’ of any responsibility for the package?
  8. Swift would have taken a video of herself wearing the olive wreath and preferably a toga as well. Clearly that is what the olive branch was intended for.

Oh well, so many lost opportunities. If only both were enrolled as students in Classics at ANU. Then we could really shake this thing off, once and for all.

Header image:





Hansen, W. Classical Mythology (Oxford 2004).

Parker, R. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford 1983).


The royal wedding speech: uncovered!


Bishop Curry’s speech was not just a great moment during the royal wedding but a fascinating example of the art of persuasion. It revived a mode of persuasion that has largely been lost from formal public discourse: the emotional appeal, which was not, on this occasion, an appeal to negative emotions (for once) but positive ones. So what exactly is the ‘positive’ emotional appeal and how does it work? Happily, the ancient orators have all the answers…

According to the ancient art of rhetoric, there are three ways to persuade an audience: an appeal to reason, an appeal to ethics, and an appeal to emotion. The appeal to emotion is based on the premise that our will prompts us to take action and that emotions influence our will, and that therefore emotions can prompt us to take action. But we can’t will ourselves into feeling love for someone, or feeling anger, or any other emotion for that matter, and this is where the character and appeal of the speaker plays such a crucial role.

There are two fundamental rules for a speaker seeking to appeal to the emotions of an audience. First, the speaker must never reveal his intention to influence the emotions of his audience because if he does, the audience will become immediately suspicious and resistant to the speaker’s efforts. Generally speaking, we don’t like people playing on our emotions but if a speaker initially presents his arguments as reasoned and reasonable, then we are willing to listen. Notice that Bishop Curry did not immediately announce that he was going to try and persuade people to love one another: he began by quoting other authorities on the subject of love generally!

Secondly, the speaker needs to reach the emotions of the audience, by either describing the sorts of things that generally arouse that emotion, or by feeling the emotion himself, or by being deliberately dispassionate so that the audience is provoked to feel the emotion more intensely by themselves. Bishop Curry opted for the first and second methods – by talking about the nature of love and its origin and the wedding and by being an impassioned speaker himself in talking about love.

The use of emotion-laden words can be an effective way to incite emotion in an audience. Bishop Curry used the word ‘love’ fifty-eight times in his address! Another phrase that featured strongly, at least in the first half, was ‘power in love’.

A heavy dose of anaphora (the repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive clause) with increasing volume each time brought the speech to a heady crescendo:

everything that Moses wrote, everything in the holy prophets, everything in the scriptures, everything that God has been trying to tell the world…”

This emotional crescendo was the point at which Prince Harry looked rather red-faced and embarrassed. But the last words of Bishop Curry’s statement (“love God, love your neighbour, and while you’re at it, love yourself”) were delivered in an unexpectedly casual and quieter tone to give them special emphasis but also to bring the emotional level down again – again a carefully studied rhetorical technique.

Next came an appeal to the imagination – to paint a picture of a ‘new world’ in which people love one another as family and in which love takes priority. The appeal to the imagination relies on visualisation and drama for emotional impact:

“think and imagine a world where love is the way, imagine our homes and families where love is the way, imagine neighbourhoods and communities where love is the way, imagine governments and nations where love is the way, imagine business and commerce when love is the way, imagine this tired old world [voice breaking] when, when love is the way”.

The repetition of ‘where love is the way’ at the end of successive clauses is another highly effective stylistic device: epistrophe. The effect of emotion on the quality of Bishop Curry’s voice was very evident here too and quite deliberate.

To release some of the emotional intensity, some humour was needed at this point, and this came with Bishop Curry’s impeccably timed and appropriately self-conscious remark that “with this I’ll sit down, we gotta get y’all married”. Everybody laughed with relief. Humour renews the attention of the audience and helps to warm people’s attitude toward the speaker. But the speaker had already said a great deal and this is where, from a rhetorical standpoint, Bishop Curry should have quit while he was ahead. A good speaker knows precisely when enough is enough. Unfortunately, Bishop Curry made a classic mistake: he went on to talk about a new topic (the discovery of fire), to ask questions of the audience, to introduce more humour and yet more material unrelated to the first part of his speech.

The conclusion to the speech couldn’t have been more welcome or more overdue:

“Dr King was right, we must discover love, the redemptive power of love, and when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.”

With these lines, Bishop Curry saved his speech and brought it back full circle, with more than a respectful nod to the king of oratory, Martin Luther King.

The audience reaction to this emotional appeal makes for an interesting study. Some were visibly moved, some were in deep agreement with the speaker, others were dispassionate and even amused. Why is it that the emotional appeal works on some and not others? Some of us (me included) don’t have a problem admitting that our opinions can be affected by our emotions, and we are quite willing to listen to an emotional appeal. This does not mean that reason is entirely displaced, or that we are completely beholden to our emotional reactions, but that we recognise that emotion has a place in our evaluation of arguments.


For others, being stirred to action by the emotions is undignified and embarrassing. This can manifest in a feeling of confusion, awkward side glances, face scratching, reddened cheeks, visible discomfort or bemused superiority. But, if we are honest, who among us has not been driven chiefly by our emotions at some point in life, often at the cost of our rational mind, and frankly, I can’t think of a better example of a more overwhelmingly beautiful emotion than falling in love. Ah love. Where would we be without it? Maybe Dr King was right, and rhetorical devices aside, there is great power in his idea, not just the words.

Images and recording of the speech sourced from:



‘Struggle to the light’: some thoughts on Book 11 of the Odyssey



For those of us who take the Odyssey literally, as a story full of wondrous adventures and traveller’s tales, Odysseus’ visit to the kingdom of the dead is yet another example of Odysseus’ heroism, not in the face of mighty storms or seductresses with evil intent or a race of one-eyed giants but this time in the face of death itself.

For those of us who prefer to read the Odyssey as a psychological drama about the journey of life and learning and psychological development as a person, there is a great deal that is of interest and much that is applicable to our lives today.

In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus journeys to the farthest Western edge of the earth, to the kingdom of the dead, in order to consult the blind prophet Tiresias about how he might return home. The land of the dead is a dark and gloomy place and there is no one and nothing there until Odysseus has made preparations, performed libations, sacrificed animals and promised to reward the dead for providing him with certain information. Then the ghosts come. Not just one, or ten or twenty but whole nations of the dead, brides, youths, old men, and wounded soldiers, flocking toward Odysseus, eager to drink the sacrificial blood so that they can converse with him. Odysseus is gripped by terror.

This is interesting in itself – since, for the Greeks of Homer’s time, there are critical features that distinguish the living from the dead – firstly, a corporeal form, secondly, living flowing blood, and thirdly, the ability to speak. In order to control this throng of ghosts, Odysseus must crouch beside the sacrificial pit, with his sword drawn, in order to prevent ghosts from drinking the sacrifice which allows them to speak with their human voice and to once again recognise the living.

The first shade to approach Odysseus is one of his companions named Elpenor. In a sense, Elpenor is in limbo. He is not ‘truly’ dead, since he has not received proper burial rites, and he is clearly suffering, because he makes Odysseus promise to bury him when Odysseus again passes Circe’s island. Elpenor is a reminder to Odysseus that he has responsibilities and things to properly attend to before he can return home. Odysseus promises to remember to give Elpenor a proper burial.

Then Odysseus sees an extraordinary sight. It is the ghost of his own mother, Antikleia, who was alive and well when he left Ithaca, but is now residing here, among the dead.

“I broke into tears to see her here, but filled with pity,

even throbbing with grief, I would not let her ghost

approach the blood till I had questioned Tiresias himself”.

Initially, I was irritated by this scene. Surely Odysseus should prioritise speaking to the ghost of his own mother over and above Tiresias, especially when he is so shocked to see her in the kingdom of the dead! But it occurred to me that if Odysseus has learnt anything in his journey up to this point, it is that he must not be diverted from his aim, no matter how tantalising, or alluring, or upsetting that diversion may be. At this point in the narrative, Odysseus has spent many years in ‘diversions’, with Calypso and Circe in particular, and he has come tantalisingly close to home only to be swept out to sea again, so he cannot afford to let any emotion, especially grief, cloud his judgement. The rational mind triumphs – Odysseus holds it together, and before he speaks to his own mother, he obtains the necessary advice from Tiresias. Tiresias foretells that Odysseus will return home but it will not be the easy, sweet or glorious homecoming that he expects or wants. And even after returning home and dealing with the suitors, Odysseus will have to propitiate the gods, and not just one or two of them but all of the gods, in order. Then Tiresias prophesies how Odysseus himself will die:

“And at last your death will steal upon you…a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with all your people there in blessed peace around you.”

This is a privileged insight indeed, for who among the living knows the time, place, or manner of his own death?

Having obtained this advice and knowledge, Odysseus allows his mother, Antikleia, to drink the sacrificial blood and she immediately recognises her son:

“Oh my son – what brings you down to the world of death and darkness? You are still alive!”

If ever there was a moment of great pathos in literature, this is it. Antikleia cannot believe that Odysseus has not yet made it home. What is he doing there, a living man in the land of the dead? Odysseus explains that he has come to consult Tiresias, but he is equally perplexed, and asks Antikleia about her death and about the state of things at home. There is a logical order to his questions, first about Antikleia’s death, then the wellbeing of his father and his son, and then the loyalty of his wife. One can read these questions as having a descending or ascending order of importance but, either way, Odysseus’ concern is clearly his status at home and whether he still has a place there.

Antikleia’s responses are similarly logical, but presented in reverse order. She describes Penelope’s faithfulness first, then Telemachus’ maturity and status, his father’s old age and grief, and her own death which was caused by a deep and painful longing for Odysseus. Antikleia’s responses work their way into Odysseus’ heart by degrees. In effect, she says, ‘your wife misses you terribly, your son is now a man and still guards your property, your father is aged and dying from grief, and I myself died from grief’. Odysseus’ concerns about his status at home are assuaged, but what will Odysseus do to repair the grief and longing he has caused?

At this point, all of Odysseus’ hard-earned heroic status and pride falls away. Odysseus is stripped bare to the core – as a child standing before his mother – there is no room for pretence, for emotional restraint or hesitation. With a child-like compulsion, and the most natural of instincts, Odysseus tries to physically embrace his mother not once but three times before he must accept the fact that she is now a ghost that has no physical form. With typically Odyssean suspicion, he accuses Persephone (the queen of the dead) of devising another trick to add to his burden of grief. Antikleia explains: it is no trick, this is just the way things are with the dead. The dead have no form and their spirits flutter away from the body after the body is burnt.

Antikleia’s parting words to Odysseus are magnificent because they re-orient Odysseus back to his aim and urge him on:

“But struggle to the light, quickly. Remember all these things so one day you can tell them to your wife”.

There is also a beautiful selflessness in Antikleia’s words, as she urges Odysseus to go, urgently, and get on with his life, and she shows empathy for Penelope in the injunction to Odysseus to get back to the land of the living and to share what he has learned with his wife.

Surely, this episode is a major turning-point in Odysseus’ emotional and psychological development. To ‘die’ to the foolishness of one’s past, to become aware of the reality of one’s inevitable death, and to reorient oneself toward the present and to the light and to living every day with one’s precious loved ones in the fullest and realest of embraces, seems to me to be at least one of the psychological lessons of this wonderful epic poem.

*Quotes are from the translation of the Odyssey by Robert Fagles, 1996. The last one is adapted slightly to better capture the sense of the original Greek text.

*Image: Sunset on Ithaca.

Aristotle on cricket

“I had no prior knowledge of the [ball-tampering] incident and do not condone what happened, but good people can make mistakes.”

For some, the recent turmoil in Australian cricket bears all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy playing out before their disbelieving eyes. Australian fans watched last week as some of the ‘gods’ of this deified Australian sport were revealed to have engaged in ‘ball-tampering’, instantly falling out of favour with fans worldwide, the public and sponsors. Shame-faced, the fallen appeared at a press conference to tear at their eyes (Oedipus-like) and to deliver their apologies and resignations in between sobs. Australian fans buried their heads in their hands at yet another sporting scandal, this time involving beloved cricket. A week later, the press has moved on and the perpetrators have been left to their soul-searching. Will the whole incident be remembered as ‘cheating’, or just a ‘mistake’, or ‘going over the line’ and does it matter?

Well, I think it does, because there is a big difference between a ‘mistake’ and a ‘conscious decision to cheat’ and this makes all the difference in Greek tragedy, and so it happens, in cricket too. Aristotle says that at the heart of every Greek tragedy is an exemplary and larger-than-life character who suffers from an ‘error’ or ‘a missing of the mark’ (hamartia). Funnily enough, the origin of this word hamartia comes from a sporting context – not cricket, but archery. It means a failure to hit one’s target.

This ‘missing of the mark’ is not the same thing as an in-built, pre-existing character flaw, nor is it a completely involuntary ‘mistake’. It is therefore not correct to call ‘ball tampering’ a ‘mistake’ as if one just happened to carry sandpaper in one’s pocket. ‘Ball tampering’ is a failure by a particular person to judge a particular situation correctly, and it is just the “sort of error that a person of [that] character would be typically prone to make” (Rorty, p. 10). So, in the case of a person who thrives on public admiration, for example, he might devalue the importance of maintaining an honest and ethical character, and under immense pressure to perform and to win, decide to cheat.

Every character type is at risk of ‘missing the mark’ in his/her own particular way. A proud king may fail to see his capacity to do wrong or a queen may become so driven by passion as to forget who she is and to commit a grave crime. Underlying every form of ‘error’ is a fundamental lack of self-awareness. We live in a society that talks a lot about ‘mindfulness’ and ‘attention’ and yet, we have just seen a ‘tragic protagonist’ err and fall because, according to Aristotle at least, he had no real self-awareness. If he had the necessary self-awareness, he would have acted differently: “[t]o know who one is is to know how to act: it involves understanding of one’s obligations and what is important in one’s interactions” (Rorty, p.11). This statement does not come from a modern guide to mindfulness, but a commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics. What Aristotle is saying is that tragedy is an imitation of life and a lack of self-knowledge, played out on stage, before our very eyes.

The really interesting bit is what Aristotle says next. What happens to the protagonist who attains self-knowledge? What happens to the cricketer if he really admits his wrongdoing not only to himself but to others. I emphasise the word ‘really’ because it is not enough to ‘play the role’ of admitting a mistake. The results of one’s conduct have to penetrate deeply in order to effect a change in the tragic protagonist. If this happens, there is a painful but very beneficial growth in self-awareness. Not in some warm, fuzzy, rosy sort of way but in a very practical way. The tragic protagonist becomes more real, more honest and more noble as a result of his/her admission, in “recognizing who they are and what they have done”.

For those who are watching this ‘tragedy’ unfurl, there are potential benefits too. According to Aristotle, tragic incidents provoke pity and fear so that these two emotions may be purged and cleansed away. But why these emotions in particular? Aristotle explains: we feel fear because we fear the same events happening to us, and pity, because we are watching life acting upon a character and bringing about the painful process of self-awareness. Importantly, in order to feel pity for the tragic protagonist, he/she cannot be too close to us (this evokes horror rather than pity) nor too far away (lest his/her fate has no effect on us). If you are an avid cricket fan, in other words, you are more likely to have experienced pity watching the players at the press conference last week, whereas in my case (as a non-devotee of cricket), I felt no pity for the players at all.

Once pity and fear are aroused, a good tragedy should achieve a ‘catharsis’ or ‘purging’ of those emotions. There will be a sense of closure, balance, harmony restored. The audience is “able to experience, however briefly, the kind of psychological functioning, the balance and harmony that self-knowledge can bring to action” (Rorty, p.15). This is the point we are at now.

If these events can be viewed as a ‘tragedy’, then ironically, according to Aristotle’s analysis, the results should be beneficial not only for the protagonists involved, but for the Australian public as well. So, the question is, will Australian cricket fans be able to view the events of the past week with sufficient objectivity, as if they were watching a tragic play on a stage? Will they gain a new appreciation of the importance of self-knowledge in life? Will Aristotle’s Poetics become the new guide to Australian cricket? Probably not, but hopefully someone out there can see the relevance of Aristotle’s insightful analysis.


I. Bywater, Aristotle On the Art of Poetry, New York & London, Garland Publishing, 1980.

A. O. Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.




The lonely nymph


Living alone for what seems an eternity, she knows the quiet ebb of solitude only too well: the long walks along empty beaches, the vast sky above with its endless ripples and patterns, the quiet lap of waves eating away at time. Night brings deep yearnings for companionship, for connection with someone real. Dawn is a restless time. Plagued by flitting dreams and visions she arises and paces around her home, waiting for the sun to climb high enough to justify her rising. It is a tiresome, tasteless and tedious life. She sends a message out upon the waves:

Immortal and ageless nymph seeks companion for romance. Must be strong, handsome and loving. No kids. No pets. Non-smoker. Only serious applicants need apply.  

In a moment, everything changes. A human is washed up on the shores of her home – exhausted, hungry and clinging to a thread of life. She busies herself. She takes him in, bathes him, feeds him, clothes him, and nurses him back to full health. From her tenderness, a passion develops, burns brightly and is all-consuming. Time accelerates. Days, weeks, and months are lost in sweet love-making, bathing, eating, resting and loving again.

She comes to know this man. He tells her stories of what he has seen. His words transport her to far off lands, to great cities and battles and heroic men and women. She is  transfixed by him. This man has become her connection to what is Real. In turn, he comes to know aspects of her. He delights in her graceful ways, her beauty, sex and tenderness.

Over time, the man grows restless. He starts to seek longer and longer periods apart. He talks less, he looks always to the east, he pays less attention. His delight in her company has lessened. His delight in her body has waned. This gradual detachment pains her but in her heart she knows the cause. That Woman is pulling his heart homewards.

Before long a message arrives: the man must return. Divine powers that are beyond her control demand it. It will happen in a matter of days. The anger rises up in her like a dark wave. She scowls at the injustice of Fate throwing this male companion her way only to snatch him away again. Her heart hardens as she prepares to convey the message to him. These are her final words:

“So then, royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of exploits,

still eager to leave at once and hurry back

to your own home, your beloved native land?

Good luck to you, even so. Farewell!

But if you only knew, down deep, what pains

are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore,

you’d stay right here, preside in our house with me

and be immortal. Much as you long to see your wife,

the one you pine for all your days … and yet,

I claim to be by no means inferior to her,

neither in face, nor figure. It is unseemly

for a mortal woman to compete with a goddess,

in form and face.” (Homer, Odyssey, 5. 223-235)

In a single brilliant move, she has closed her heart and brought an end to Them, with a bitter-tasting goodbye that foreshadows impending trouble for the man even when he reaches his home shore. The real sting is in the self-confident declaration of her own superiority over That Woman and all mortal women. The divide between mortal and immortal, a difference that they ignored for seven years, now rises like a high stone wall between them. This man will never know another like her and he knows it. She shares her body with him one last time only as a way to mark the end and as a final proof of her power.

As she watches his makeshift raft disappear over the horizon, she casts a new message out upon the waves:

Immortal and ageless nymph seeks companion for romance. Must be strong, handsome and ready to settle down. No kids. No pets. No prior commitments. Non-smoker. Only immortals need apply.  

Calypso – an immortal and ageless nymph yet with such a human and womanly heart. Is it any wonder you draw our admiration and sympathy?

[This blog is dedicated to the hardworking students of Advanced Greek, Semester 1, 2018 reading passages from Homer’s Odyssey, Books 1-12. We recently read a selection of passages from Book 5 and took a vote on who we felt more sympathy for, Odysseus or Calypso. In a class with an equal number of men and women, Calypso won by an overwhelming majority!]

Translation: an adaptation of the translation by Robert Fagles (Penguin, 1996).

Image: Vanessa Williams as Calypso in The Odyssey (1997, dir. Andrei Konchalovsky).



Yesterday, a month’s worth of rain fell in Canberra in just one hour. We watched as the gutters overflowed and the water crept up to our side door. Streets were closed all around us in O’Connor and drains flooded. Little did we know that the nearby university campus was also flooded – and then the news got worse. Water had surged into the basement of Chifley library putting part of its social sciences and humanities collection under half a metre of muddy water. I was in the basement of Chifley library on Friday gathering books on Delphi. I lay in bed last night, listening to another 10mm on rain falling and thinking about all of those important works on classics, ancient history, philosophy and biblical literature, now inundated. My face must have showed what I was thinking because my husband looked at me and said, “are you okay?”

The responses from various colleagues have been illuminating. Everything from deep sadness, shock and horror to criticisms of library and university policies and in some cases, indifference. Not everyone is a Chifley basement regular but for those who do use the collection and know the value of the books that have been kept down there for so many years, this is an absolute catastrophe. At the same time, as historians and classicists, such catastrophes should not necessarily come as a surprise. Furthermore, we must remember that in many cases, the books can be replaced. It is heartening that the University has said that it is “committed to restoring the collection”.

Whether made of papyrus, parchment or paper, books have always been vulnerable to damage. The many works of Aristotle and Theophrastus were kept as part of a private collection at the philosophical school (the Lyceum) which suffered damage during the anti-Macedonian riots in Athens in the fourth century. After Theophrastus died, the books  were bequeathed to one of Theophrastus’ pupils, Neleus of Scepsis. Plutarch tells us that the collection then passed into the hands of ‘unaspiring’ and ‘ordinary’ men. The books were stored underground where they suffered neglect and damage – others were sold, taken to Rome and copied.

The Library of Alexandria in Egypt, one of the most important libraries of the ancient world, was founded by Ptolemy I in the third century BCE. Demetrius of Phaleron, an Athenian politician and former student of Theophrastus’, had an important role to play in acquiring books for the collection. The library is said to have contained half a million book-rolls until it was destroyed, probably in the first century BCE, in a great fire that engulfed the city. The Alexandrian collection may have included 200,000 volumes from another famous library, the Library at Pergamum.

Chifley library is not the only humanities library in the modern world. Hopefully, many of the books on the upper shelves of the stacks have survived. Maybe some of those on the lower shelves can be recovered. I, for one, would be happy to roll up my sleeves and lend a hand to the clean up. We owe it to the great writers and thinkers of antiquity. Maybe next time, we can think about making this storehouse of ancient wisdom and knowledge a higher priority, both literally and metaphorically?







The hot topic at a recent dinner party was the excellent French political drama series entitled Spin that had us all well and truly hooked for three seasons. Why did it impress us so much? Because it lays bare the extraordinary behind-the-scenes efforts that are involved in crafting a positive political image to sell to the public in the face of a wave of personal and political scandals – a timely subject given the events of the last few weeks in Australian politics.

Today, as I rifled through my books, I found myself wondering about ‘negative image management’ in the ancient world. There is, of course, plenty of evidence of ancient leaders doing their utmost to craft a positive image of themselves for posterity: from the massive carved reliefs and monuments depicting military victories, to the vastly exaggerated numbers of enemy dead described in historical accounts, to the erasure of the names of opponents from official records and the propagandized images on coins deliberately circulated throughout empires.

But there is one story that strikes me as a curious example of the age-old need for  ‘spin’ and it involves a rather curious encounter between the god Apollo and the satyr Marsyas. When we think of Apollo, we think of him as a strikingly handsome youth, with a perfect male form, god of archery, prophecy, music and healing. He has, one could say, a pretty good public image. But there is a lesser known and less attractive side to his character – a fair amount of vanity and pride, a youthful arrogance and sense of presumption, bad luck in love and an inclination toward violence.


[Belvedere Apollo – Vatican Museums]

Marsyas, the other character in this story, was a satyr, one of those curious composite beings, with both human and animal features, half divine, half beast, he is said to have been the son of Olympos or Oiagros. Marsyas is said to have been born in Phrygia and to have been a follower of the goddess Cybele, the Phrygian mother of the gods.

The short version of the story is that Marsyas engaged in a musical contest with Apollo and lost. Apollo then killed Marsyas. Fair enough, we might think. No-one in their right mind would dare to take on a Greek god in a contest of any sort and, if one does, there is bound to be an unhappy result. But the manner of Marsyas’ death at the hands of Apollo is so cruel and so shocking – Apollo hung Marsyas from a tree and flayed him alive – that it seems pretty hard to put a positive ‘spin’ on it. Still, I have to hand it to the ancient writers and mythographers for doing their best with this story.

The earliest reference to the myth dates from the fifth century and it adopts a no-nonsense approach. Herodotus, describing the march of Xerxes’ army through Phrygia, tells us about a place named Celaenae, where Herodotus matter-of-factly says, “the skin of Marsyas the Silenus also hangs there; the Phrygian story tells that it was flayed off him and hung up by Apollo.” Herodotus gives no motive or explanation for the flaying. This is one approach to a difficult and unpleasant topic  – simply relate the ‘facts’ in a nonchalant way without blinking an eye and your audience might just accept them, or not notice them very much.

It is Xenophon who gives us the reason for the flaying of Marsyas but he does so for a very specific purpose. Xenophon describes the great palace complex of King Cyrus at Celaenae where the river Marsyas flows through the city and empties into the Maeander. Xenophon explains: “It was here, according to the story, that Apollo flayed Marsyas, after having defeated him in a contest of musical skill; he hung up his skin in the cave from which the sources issue, and it is for this reason that the river is called Marsyas.” Xenophon demonstrates another approach to ‘spin’ – diverting the reader from dwelling on the gruesome facts by giving an entirely reasonable and practical explanation for a loosely related phenomenon (in this case, the origin of a river).

Another technique employed in ‘spin’ is to conveniently focus people’s attention on the earlier, better or more sanitized aspects of the story, and only hint at the later events. Thus, the group of statues that once inhabited a prominent position on the Acropolis only depict Athena cursing and throwing down the double flute which Marsyas later uses in his contest with Apollo.


[Athena and Marsyas statue group, Vatican Museums]

We have to fit the various pieces of the story together for ourselves. Athena is said to have invented the double flute but later discarded it because she didn’t like how she looked when she played the instrument. It gave her swollen cheeks and a bluish face and she was offended that Hera and Aphrodite laughed at her when she played it. So she cursed the instrument, only for it to be adopted by the unlucky Marsyas. In some versions, Marsyas is unaware of the curse, while in others, he simply picks up the flute and begins to play.

Clearly, Marsyas became a little too accomplished with his flute-playing. In some versions, the local people are said to have boasted that Apollo could not make better music with his lyre, while in other versions, Marsyas boasts about his own abilities. Either way, Apollo becomes angry and he challenges Marsyas to a contest. The winner, Apollo says, will be allowed to inflict whatever punishment he likes on the loser. Marsyas agrees and the Muses sit as judges of the contest.


[Relief from the Mantinea base depicting a seated and robed Apollo with lyre (on the left), Marsyas playing the double flute (right) and a rather nonplussed looking Sythian executioner waiting with knife in hand (centre)].

The contest begins. Marsyas plays the flute and proves to be equal in skill to Apollo who sings and plays on the lyre.  The Muses simply cannot choose a winner. It looks like Apollo has finally met his match but in a brilliantly deceitful manoeuvre to regain his reputation, Apollo suddenly changes the rules of the game and challenges Marsyas to play his instrument upside down and play and sing at the same time. Obviously Marsyas cannot meet this impossible challenge. Apollo meanwhile, turns his lyre upside down and begins to sing beautiful hymns. The Muses judge Apollo to be the winner. Marsyas must admit defeat and accept whatever punishment Apollo decides. The punishment that Apollo chooses is for Marsyas to be flayed alive and his skin nailed to a tree.

The matter-of-factness of the Greek accounts of the myth up to this point make sense in light of the rivalry between the Greek Apollo and the Phrygian Marsyas. As Wyss puts it, “[a] story that pits the Athenian city goddess against an uncouth, arrogant Phrygian satyr and then tells of his execution by a major Greek deity is indeed well suited to boost Athenian pride.”

As the decades roll on however, and the political imperative shifts, the myth evolves too. Over time, greater sympathy is shown towards Marsyas, especially in the versions of the myth from Hellenistic and Roman times. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, adds new details to the story, including a description of Marsyas winning the first contest, but not the second (The Library 3.59.2–3). He also describes a heated debate between Marsyas and Apollo about the fairness of the contest and its result (3.59.3–5). Diodorus also adds a description of Apollo’s regret after he has flayed Marsyas:  “quickly repenting and being distressed at what he had done, he broke the strings of the lyre and destroyed the harmony of sounds which he had discovered” (3.59.5–6).

By the time we get to Ovid’s account in the Metamorphoses (6.382–400) written some time in the early years of the first century CE, there isn’t much sympathy for Apollo at all. Ovid gives such a vivid description of the cruelty of Marysas’ punishment as to render it unforgettable:

Apollo stripped his skin; the whole of him

Was one huge wound, blood streaming everywhere,

Sinews laid bare, veins naked, quivering

And pulsing. You could count his twitching guts,

And the tissues as the light shone through his ribs.

The sympathy from the people who witness this horrific scene reflects our own sympathy for Marsyas as we read Ovid’s account, and Marsyas, the new hero of the tale, experiences a sort of rebirth and metamorphosis:

The countryfolk, the sylvan deities,

The fauns and brother satyrs and the nymphs,

All were in tears, Olympus too, still loved,

And every swain who fed his fleecy flocks

And long-horned cattle on those mountainsides.

The fertile earth grew moist and, moistened, held

Their falling tears and drank them deep into

Her veins and, changing them to water there,

Issued them forth into the open air;

And thence a river hurries to the sea

Through falling banks, the river Marsyas,

The freshest, clearest stream of Phrygia.

Ovid washes the slate clean with his marvellous poetry, transforming a straightforward and unrepentant story of Apollo’s divine vengeance into a story of Marsyas reborn as a clear-watered stream. Still, one can’t help feeling that the uncomfortable account of Marsyas’ contest with Apollo began as a very old story that could never be entirely erased or ‘spun out’ of people’s collective memory. It could be given new slants, new interpretations, new meanings, but the fact remains that Marsyas was a great musician who appears to have risen to great heights owing to a form of divine inspiration and musical ability that did not come as a gift from Apollo. Furthermore, Marsyas may be an emblem of a foreign musical tradition that easily rivalled that of the Greeks. It was this slight on Apollo as the Greek god of music, as well as the slight on his authority and power and his precious self-image and his vanity that necessitated ‘spin’, and in that wider sense, the circumstances that give rise to the need for ‘spin’ really haven’t changed a jot.

Primary sources:

Herodotus, Histories, 7.26 (available on Perseus online)

Xenophon, Anabasis, 1.2.6 (available on Persesus online)

Diodorus Siculus, The Library, 3.59.1-6 (available through University of Chicago online texts)

Ovid, Metamorphoses (transl. A.D. Melville), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Secondary sources:

E. Wyss, The Myth of Apollo and Marsyas in the Art of the Italian Renaissance, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

Images: Vatican Museum and Internet commons

Spin / Les hommes de l’ombre: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2181219/