Monday, May 27, 2013

Some Thoughts on/about Memorial Day

'Mourning Victory,' relief sculpture in marble by the Piccirilli Brothers; copy of a bronze original by Daniel Chester French (1850–1931), creator (inter alia) of the Pulitzer Prize medal and of the famous seated statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. French's bronze memorial was commissioned by James C. Melvin of Boston to commemorate his three brothers who had died in the Civil War. [Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; special thanks to Liz Richey Beck for drawing it to my attention.]

i am old enough to remember this day being called, by my grandparents if not my parents, 'decoration day.' they had probably learnt the term from survivors of the american civil war; wikipedia notes that the celebration of decoration day was 'a tradition initiated by former slaves to celebrate emancipation and commemorate those who died to end slavery in the United States,' and this article [and this one] give additional interesting information about that.
i think i also recall, from my long-ago salad days, having heard someone refer to it as 'flag day,' probably in reference to the once-ubiquitous display of american flags that we would see on this day. as nomenclature errors go, this is a bit complex, because Flag Day [capital letters] is 14 june, and commemorates the adoption of the stars & stripes as the american flag in 1777 [again it is wikipedia that advises us that the 'flag resolution' by the continental congress of that year 'was most probably meant to define a naval ensign,' not yet a national flag per se; see also this interesting page]; but there is also the little-known term 'flag day' [lower-case letters] which refers to any official holiday on which the flag is to be flown [such as independence day, 4 july].
i was getting ready to post, on facebook, a commemoration of my father, who served in WW2 in the US armed forces. but then i saw -- on the FB thread of a friend's friend -- this comment:

Not to be picky, but Memorial Day is about remembering those who DIDN'T come home.

it is undeniably true that we have a different day set aside to honor all those who have served, living or dead -- namely veterans' day [11 november]. in my 'tidy mind' mode i appreciate that, and the distinction between memorial day and veterans' day. we also have an honor, if not a national holiday, specifically for those wounded in combat who nonetheless survived: namely, the purple heart. my uncle george, who i believe was at the battle of the bulge, won one or two of those in WW2. but my first thought, on reading that 'picky' comment, was of a rather larger scope: 'why are we so stingy in thanking those who serve in our armed forces?'
now my father's own case lies somewhere in between the honoring of those fallen in combat and the honoring of all veterans: he was a veteran of WW2 who did survive the war, but he is now deceased. so a 'memorial day' seemed at first to be a supremely appropriate time to commemorate him. but by the strictest criterion, memorial day is not a holiday dedicated to him. [of course i remember and commemorate him, and my mother, not just today but every day, and for many other things besides service to their country; but that is rather a different matter.]
in any case, it is fitting to remember [as such] those fallen in combat, and not to diminish their moment in the spotlight. but when you see a comic like this one -- linked-to by another friend on FB, from MUTTS!, one of my favorite comic strips -- how can you help but feel a sense of propriety? for one thing, commemoration one day a year seems little recompense for such total sacrifice. and for another, there is a communion of veterans that is like nothing else: those [wounded or not] who have served in the armed forces understand more intimately than anyone else can what it meant for those who did fall in combat to do so. in thanking and honoring warriors who are still living, we give them the chance to serve in a sense as metonyms for those who did not survive combat. they are in a very intimate way our living link to the dead.
abraham lincoln signaled some awareness of this when he said of the soldiers' national cemetery in gettysburg,

But, in a larger sense, we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

obviously he, and his audience, were engaged in the commemoration of the dead. the speech was delivered in a very cemetery. but he saw the link that joined the quick and the dead in this case, and he did not forbear to emphasize it. my dear friend nina barclay also posted [on facebook today] a comment that, i think, explains beautifully and eloquently why it is appropriate to honor on this day, not just those who died for us in battle, but all those who serve or have served [and i quote gratefully with the permission of the author]:

In memory of those who feared and served under fire, with gratitude for those who enlisted full of hope and were discharged with confidence broken, for those who participated in military service and emerged damaged in body or soul, may our country not belittle your service, for our country is richer when we show compassion to you.

certainly the word 'memorial' can imply commemoration of the dead. but its first definition is 'of or relating to memory,' or [as merriam-webster has it] 'serving to preserve remembrance.' something to make you remember, to help you not forget. i loved and honored my father, as i still do, but i don't think i ever thought to thank him explicitly for having served in the armed forces while he was alive. what would i give for the chance to do so now?
so yes. remember. do not forget. and say thank you, to the living and the dead. to the living particularly, because you can still do so while you look into their living eyes.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Most Important Books

In class today [CLA 310] Omar mentioned two books as being 'the most important' he had read before beginning his study of the Greek and Roman classics. These were: Aldous Huxley, BRAVE NEW WORLD George Orwell, 1984 In that spirit, I mentioned that I would create a blog post where each of you could contribute your own reading suggestions under this heading. To keep it manageable, and not too much of a project, let's limit everyone's contributions to two or at most three titles. (Omar, this means you can suggest one more if you like!) Bear in mind, as we said earlier, that this is not necessarily the same as your 'desert island' books -- the ones you would most want to have with you to read and re-read for the rest of your life. (Not necessarily; they might of course be the same. But we will save that question for a separate post.) I'm very much looking forward to your contributions!

Thursday, March 15, 2012


on this day i like to revere the memory of my father, who every year at this time took an impish delight in quoting the famous shakespeare line, 'beware the ides of march.' in general he was at pains to conceal his essential bookishness, but on such occasions he could not help himself. and this citation from JULIUS CAESAR highlights a literary element that particularly appealed to my father -- moments of portent, moments of the *unheimlich*, moments where the supernatural impinged [or appeared to impinge] upon the quotidian world.

though i did not realize it at the time, from the childlike gleam that appeared in his eye every 15 march i learnt several things, including
--- that it was OK, and more than OK, to like shakespeare [and thus both literature and drama]
--- that the world of the ancient greeks and romans was one of massive interest [and ongoing relevance] to us today
--- that you actually had to *know something* in order even to understand the sentence the soothsayer was uttering here.

a' propos of the latter: precisely because it is a somewhat technical [and for most people, extremely recondite] detail of roman history, it is worth noting that the 'ides' is not invariably the 15th of the month. the ancient roman calendar had several days in each month that were semiotically marked by special names, and that themselves served as what i call 'marker days' to indicate the progress of the month. these were the 'kalends,' the 'nones,' and the 'ides.' the kalends are always the first of the month. the other two are more variable, but are always eight days apart. the nones usually occur on the 5th of the month, and in those months, the ides will then occur on the 13th. but, as the old rhyme has it,

in march, july, october, may
the nones fall on the seventh day

and in *those* months -- which are also, by virtue of this anomaly, semiotically marked -- the ides will then fall on the 15th. march, as the rhyme indicates, is one of these semiotically-marked months, indeed the first of them in the calendar year.

the other days in each month were named according to their relationship to the 'marker day' following it. thus, for example, 14 march was the 'day before the ides of march,' and 13 march was 'three days from the ides of march' [*three* because, not having the concept of zero, the romans began counting with the ides itself].

much more could be said about this complex issue, but on this fateful day it is enough to bear in mind that julius caesar, among the many many other massive effects he had on roman [and thus world] history, himself ordered a substantial overhaul of the calendar that had been used in rome up to that point. his reformed version is in fact known as the 'julian calendar,' and remained the most widely-used calendar in western europe until the subsequent reforms of pope gregory xii in 1582 [the so-called 'gregorian calendar,' which is still in use today].

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Guy Fawkes Tradition


GUY FAWKES DAY is a curious and fascinating custom that dates back to the early seventeenth century of England. Fawkes, a convert to Roman Catholicism from the Anglican faith of his infancy, had been born (1570) in the reign of Elizabeth I. This means that he grew up in a milieu that still remembered the ghastly pendulum-swings in England from Catholic to Protestant and back, with each side brutally burning their opponents at the stake, hanging them, beheading them, drawing and quartering them, and so on, as they revolved in and out of power.

By 1605 the sitting monarch was James VI and I, son of Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) and immediate successor to Elizabeth I. Mary had herself been particularly brutalized by the revolutions of power mentioned above, though Elizabeth seems to have regretted her own direct part in Mary's beheading, and was overall rather less brutal to her religious adversaries than her sister Mary Tudor ('Bloody Mary') or their father Henry VIII had been to theirs. Mary Stuart, interestingly, had been implicated in a gunpowder plot of her own: in 1567 a lodge at Kirk o' Field was blown up, allegedly to kill her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who slept within. But whereas Mary lived and died devoted to the church of Rome, her son by Darnley -- James -- was raised by devout Protestants. It was only as a Protestant that he could inherit Elizabeth's throne, which he did. As King of England, he authorized the famous King James Bible, first published in 1611 -- arguably the single achievement of his life that has had the most far-reaching impact on the world. But it should also be remembered that he published two other works -- The True Law of Free Monarchies (1597) and Basilikon Doron (1598) -- in which he promulgated the Divine Right of Kings, an absolutist approach to monarchy quite distinct from the constitutional theory of monarchy under which England had operated at least since Magna Carta. Indeed these works promote the return of the monarchy to a system of pure feudal overlordship, making the King literal owner (and virtually complete master) of his domain.
Such a politics might seem quite problematic for Catholic and Protestant alike; but coming from a Protestant king, it was likely interpreted in this case as disallowing any Catholic pretenders to the throne.

That there was a Protestant king on the throne of England did not mean that no more Catholics remained in the realm. These, known as 'Recusants' for their 'refusal' of the Anglican rite, continued to be punished in various ways, up to and occasionally including execution.

So we should not be entirely surprised that in 1605 a plot was formed to replace James with a Catholic monarch. A group of thirteen Recusant conspirators resolved to blow up the House of Lords, even as the King sat enthroned in state for the ceremonial opening of Parliament.

To this dramatic end, they stockpiled thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a storage room beneath the House of Lords in Westminster; they left Guy Fawkes, a seasoned military veteran, guarding the stash.

Unbeknownst to these conspirators, the plot had already been revealed almost two weeks earlier to Baron Monteagle and the Earl of Suffolk, who caught Fawkes red-handed and foiled the plot.

Many of the conspirators fled, but Fawkes and seven others were tried and sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering -- ever since 1351 the traditional punishment in England for high treason. This is an especially brutal form of execution in which the convicted is hanged, but not unto death; disembowelled and shown his own entrails; castrated, if a man; and then cut into pieces and beheaded. The head goes on a spike, to warn other locals of the dangers of treason; the chunks of body are sent to the four corners of the kingdom with a proclamation along the lines of: 'So perish all the King's enemies.'

For some inexplicable reason, Fawkes was reluctant to undergo such torture, so as he mounted the scaffold for hanging, he jumped off and broke his own neck. The complete execution was nevertheless performed on his dead body. It is said, perhaps accurately, that on the night the plot was defused, the King's loyal subjects lit bonfires in celebration of his rescue from the Gunpowder Plot.

Fawkes's name, 'Guy' (or 'Guido' as he was known in Spain), came to mean someone in outlandish dress (as in the phrase 'guyed up'), though this usage is now itself antique. Today the word 'guy' is roughly synonymous with 'chap' or 'bloke' and has become current even in the UK to refer to a (usually adult male) person, without further specification.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

This, then, is the historical underpinning to today's Guy Fawkes Day celebrations. Lewes, in East Sussex, is surely the town best-known in England for its 'Bonfire Night,' which includes not only bonfires but also fireworks, processions with burning crosses, costumes, music, and so on. The principal reason for most people to engage in such celebrations is doubtless that of most such events: to have a good time with one's friends, build a bonfire (an elemental, even primordial urge, creating intense light in the darkness), set off fireworks, and carouse in whatever other ways the moment inspires.
(As such, Bonfire Night resembles other ostensibly different ceremonies, such as the parades for the Chinese New Year, the Palio of Siena, and the Mardi Gras festivities of New Orleans.)

But a longstanding part of the English tradition is to use the bonfire to burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. Along the way, since 1605, other effigies have also been tossed into this fire, from Pope Paul V to Margaret Thatcher to Osama Bin Laden.

Now I like a festival as much as the next guy, and I am particularly fond of fireworks, which (born and raised a US citizen) I associate first and foremost with the Fourth of July, next with New Year's Eve, and thirdly with Disneyland. But -- at the risk of being proclaimed a party-pooper -- I think it's also worth taking the Fifth of November as a moment each year to ponder the perversity of killing (murdering, assassinating, executing -- choose your specific verb) another human being because their religious beliefs do not exactly match one's own. If as a species we could unite in our opposition to such an enormity, I would count that as unequivocal progress.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

As a bonus I here append a variorum text of the traditional children's rhyme about Guy Fawkes. Like any folk tradition, this has numerous variants, and it may be utter folly even to try and divine an 'original' version. The poem is sometimes ascribed to W. H. Ainsworth, whose novel Guy Fawkes appeared in the mid-1800s. but in fact versions of the chant appear as early as the 1650s. The poem was parodied in 1888 by J. E. Clarke in a political lampoon of Gladstone; and others have used it similarly parodically.

If there is an 'earliest' stratum to be discerned, it probably involves only the first four lines (and these are all that we find in a version of 1651). It may be that lines 5ff. originated as a completely different chant, and that the two were spliced together at some point; the meter is certainly different than that of the first four lines. Line 13, being of a different meter yet again, probably originated as a ritual cry at some bonfire night. But all these are mere speculations, in the absence of a really secure textual tradition.

The Guy Fawkes Chant

Please to remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and his Parliament.
Threescore barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;

By God's mercy he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and lighted match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

And what should we do with him? Burn him!

1. Please to remember: Remember, remember
5. 'twas his intent: was all intent
6. the King and his Parliament: King and Parliament
7. of powder below: were laid below
9. mercy: providence
10. lighted: burning
11-12. Holloa: holla, holler [or other spellings]
13. [possibly a later addition to the earlier 12-line chant]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sylvia Plath

is [not] awesome: discuss.

Mental Health

We mentioned today that so much, historically, of the efforts of psychology as a discipline have been focused on the understanding of mental illness. By comparison, far far less energy has been spent on trying to define and describe mental health. (I mentioned Abraham Maslow and Karl Menninger as exceptions.)

What, then, are the constituents of mental health?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Music and Concentration

We had the tantalizing beginnings of a conversation today about various forms of distraction from reading -- both visual and auditory. The main forms of *visual* distraction that we identified were films, television, video games, and the internet (recognizing that there is some overlap among those categories, of course).

It was also asserted that *auditory* stimuli -- particularly music on an MP3 player -- can take one's attention and energy away from reading. This is clearly the case for at least some of you.

On the other hand, it was also asserted (and I have heard this said a number of times before today) that having music on, in the background, can actually *help* one focus one's concentration when one is studying. On the surface of things at least, this seems to suggest that music is, or can be, an aid to concentration rather than a distraction from it.


Catullus and Love

In class we have been mapping out a putative chronology of the Lesbia poems of Catullus. We are well aware of the pitfalls of the biographical fallacy, and also -- even assuming total historicity here -- of the inevitable limitations of our knowledge about the relationship.

That said, there does seem to be some trajectory to this relationship as Catullus portrays it in his poems. This does not automatically mean that the relationship 'ends' -- and indeed the serious suggestion was offered (in class) that this sort of love *never* ends.

Discuss -- either with specific relation to Catullus, or in more general/universal terms, or both.

Brain (D)evolution

It was suggested in class today that too much use of the visual cortex of the brain can cause neglect or atrophy of other portions of the brain -- and thus, of other types of brain function.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Interview With(out) A Vampire

The following cyber-interview of Professor Kirby was conducted on 10 March 2010 by Baker Pylorus-Elks, a young scholar working in the Atlanta area, as part of an ongoing year-long project. No vampires were harmed in the course of this dialogue.

(All images Wikimedia Commons; used by permission or under fair use.)

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

BAKER PYLORUS-ELKS: Do you feel that the characteristics of the traditional European vampire have been altered to correspond with American culture? Why?

Absolutely, because the figure of the vampire (I believe) functions as a kind of screen upon which we project some of our deepest fears (and wildest fantasies) about our own selves: in short, about what it means to be human. Such projections are always inevitably situated in a particular time and culture. So the mediaeval European vampire would almost necessarily have to undergo some radical change in order to speak to current American culture.

This was already the case, in several respects, with the single most important vampire in art: Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. Dracula, the novel, was published in London in 1897, and the vast majority of the action is set in the England of that period (Stoker himself never travelled east of Yorkshire, so he was dependent upon book-descriptions of Transylvania and the Carpathians). But the historical Vlad Ţepeş, who in some (not all!) respects was the model for Stoker's Dracula, lived in the 15th century (and was a sovereign prince, not a mere count). Stoker, then, has already had to do a certain amount of altering -- by virtue of the very contours of his plot -- in order to create a character that would be able to make himself at home in fin-de-siècle England.

And indeed, Stoker's own precursors in the genre -- for example, John Polidori, friend and physician of Lord Byron, and author of the first vampire story in English -- 'The Vampyre' -- had already perpetrated a gigantic alteration on the typical profile of the vampire. Prior to Polidori's tale, vampires (in European legend) were typically poor peasant types, perhaps even social outcasts, and their post-mortem existence was seen in one way or another as a continuation of their miserable lifetimes. Polidori's Lord Ruthven, on the other hand, is strangely charismatic -- and, what is more, aristocratic. Some speculate that in this regard Lord Ruthven is himself modeled on Lord Byron; whether or not that is the case, Polidori dramatically changed the socioeconomic parameters of vampire lore by portraying his vampire as a nobleman. This was picked up in turn by Polidori's successor, Sheridan Le Fanu, whose novella Carmilla features a countess; and of course by Stoker himself, whose Dracula owes demonstrable debts both to Polidori and to Le Fanu.

BPE: How big of a role has commercialization played in the evolution of the vampire?

I would say that commercialization is likely always to play a role in art commensurate with the money at stake (no pun intended). In particular, as long as the US economy is a capitalist system, commerce will always remain a major factor in American art.

If the work of art in question is a novel that the publishing house expects (or needs) to become a bestseller, the marketing angle alone will be highly commercialized. Commercialization in publishing reaches every conceivable aspect of the project, from the designing of the cover and the choice of a typeface, to the amount (if any) of the advance given to the author pre-publication, to the marketing program before and after the first printing hits the stands. In some cases, the editing itself may also be tailored to commercial requirements.

If the work of art we're talking about is a film, the parameters will be similar: a large-scale Hollywood blockbuster will require a huge budget and/for the 'right' director, actors, and so on, whereas a small art-house or indie film will likely be less commercial.

One of the interesting questions to be considered under this heading is the relationship of artistic freedom to the demands of commerce. If the artist has backers who feel that the direction the artist is headed in may be detrimental to the bottom line, they are likely to exert some pressure on the artist to conform with guidelines they feel will be the most commercially successful.

Another question, possibly related to the previous, is the issue of audiences: specifically, suitability for young people who might be reading the book or watching the movie. Vampire lore is, after all, potentially highly erotic and/or gruesome, and may be deemed unsuitable for minors. (This was a very conscious guiding principle for Stephenie Meyer, the author of the wildly popular Twilight tetralogy; a practicing Mormon, Meyer did not want teen readers being exposed to 'gratuitous sex' in her fiction. The result is a very particular type of novel, both in terms of what it includes and what it omits. Her vampires, particularly the Cullen family, hew to an austere moral code that Vlad the Impaler, and his avatar Count Dracula, would find laughable -- and that most ordinary humans would find impossibly challenging. At the same time, they are far more erotic (without being overtly sexual) than anything in Stoker or before (with the possible exception of certain demure references in Le Fanu's Carmilla to some undeniably steamy interactions). I will have more to say about sex and eroticism in just a moment.

BPE: Why do you feel that the symbol of the vampire has been romanticized in modern pop culture?

Love and hate, attraction and repulsion, are primal polarities in the human psyche. Indeed this notion has been around at least since the ancient Greeks; the presocratic philosopher Empedocles built an entire cosmological system around the idea.

Early (i.e. pre-Polidori) representations of the vampire were profoundly hateful and repulsive; it was only a matter of time before the polarity was inevitably going to switch. Chances are that it will eventually switch again. But for now -- and here we are harking back to your question about commercialization -- sex (or at least the erotic) is such a powerfully saleable commodity in art, that it is hard to imagine it vanishing from the realm of any art that has a commercial aspect. Things can certainly change radically; if you look at the jaw-droppingly graphic depictions of sexual behavior in the 18th-century Chinese novel 《紅樓夢》Hong Lou Meng, and compare these with the severely puritanical mores of the Maoist regime, you will see just how far the pendulum can swing. So we should not be surprised if the vampire is eventually de-romanticized. The question in that case would be: What would replace the romanticism? How would/could artists re-create the figure of the vampire, deleting all romanticizing elements or even working against them, and still produce art that would attract an audience?

BPE: Is there an American vampire that you feel has stayed true to the traditional European characteristics?

It depends on what you mean by an 'American' vampire. Would you count a vampire created by an American artist, even if the character is not represented as being an American citizen? If so, consider Elizabeth Kostova's Dracula (in The Historian). He is very consciously meant to resonate closely with Stoker's Count Dracula, in some ways, and the historical Vlad Ţepeş, in others. (All the same, he is arguably not as repulsive as either, for reasons specific to her novel.) Ditto the Dracula of Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 movie Bram Stoker's Dracula (on both counts) (again, no pun intended!).

I should also point out that it depends upon what you mean by 'traditional' here. We are dealing with many layers of tradition(s), from a number of different times and places -- on the European Continent, in Great Britain, and in the USA. Polidori, Le Fanu, and Stoker were all breaking with 'tradition' in certain fundamental respects. Anne Rice, perhaps more than any single other author since Stoker, broke with what we might call the Stokerian tradition, in ways that (I would argue) have decisively and massively affected all subsequent artists in fiction and film. The creators of the HBO series True Blood and the Twilight books and films have added new layers to the (principally American) tradition, which is itself rooted in various ways in the European.

BPE: Why is a figure that represents death so appealing to modern society?

That is a particularly wonderful question. Again, I believe it has to do with those polarities we discussed above. Sigmund Freud, late in life, postulated that human existence is motivated by two basic (antithetical) drives: eros and thanatos -- the latter, of course, being death. If he is right about that, and I surmise that in some sense he is, then our attraction to death would be a sort of approach/avoidance mechanism -- a simultaneous fear of, and fascination with, the end that awaits us all.

And, of course, in the figure of the vampire, eros and thanatos are themselves united and given tremendous combined power. In other words, I believe the attraction you are talking about here is not just to thanatos alone: it is to thanatos plus eros, thanatos combined with and compounded by eros. (We are back to your topic of romanticism when we contemplate the famous line of Keats, 'I have been half in love with easeful death.')

BPE: With the current depiction of vampires in movies, television, and literature, do you foresee a return to the traditional portrayal of vampires?

Anything can happen, of course, but frankly I would be rather surprised to see the salient characteristics of today's vampires -- the distinctive traits, for the most part, of the American tradition -- disappearing entirely. Society may simply become weary of all this vampirism (though, again, I doubt it); or, alternatively, we may see an ongoing attempt to expand and embroider our current trove of vampire lore and legend. Indeed we are already seeing a certain amount of this in the current cinema: consider, for example, the Underworld series (2003, 2006, 2009), in which the vampire legendarium is quite extensively braided with that of the werewolf. And that strategy has been adopted in the Twilight projects as well.

Continuing innovation will become increasingly difficult, as we seem already to have hit many (if not most) of the most sensitive topics, the most resonant symbols. But human creativity never ceases to amaze. The vampires being depicted fifty years from now might completely astound you. Perhaps you will remember this conversation when you are examining the distinctive traits of vampire lore in 2060.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

JOHN T. KIRBY is Professor and Chair of Classics at the University of Miami. He has so far published five books, and numerous articles and book chapters, on various aspects of classical literature and culture, and is currently working on a book about vampires. He has taught courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels on 'The Vampire in Folklore, Fiction, and Film,' and has led an academic study tour to Romania, in the course of which students visited the birthplace, palaces and fortresses, and (empty!) tomb of Vlad Ţepeş.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Free Will vs. Destiny

if there is such a thing as fate, why do we feel as though we have authentic free will? discuss.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

What's Next in IT?

Just over a month ago we learned that Microsoft had decided to bring its 'Encarta' encyclopaedia to an end. Like almost all Microsoft products, Encarta was widely popular; but eventually, it seems, it could not keep pace with the popularity (or rapid development) of Wikipedia -- nor indeed with the vast and constantly-developing encyclopaedic resources of Google: as Randall Stross wrote in yesterday's New York Times, 'The Google-indexed Web forms a virtual encyclopedia that Encarta never had a chance of competing against.'

I wonder if you, gentle reader, have ever made any systematic or substantial use of Encarta. If not, you might like to get a taste of the Encarta house style (while you still can) by clicking on their entry on Google itself.

In any case, Google (and Wikipedia) have had sure and steady ascendancies since their inceptions. I can remember a colleague, by about the year 2000, saying 'my home page is Google, and yours should be too.' Already by then, it seemed quite clear that it was leaving other search engines in the dust.

Very few people still remember the encyclopaedia project that was called Nupedia; fewer still will recall that I was on the board of that enterprise when it was active, as one of those responsible for the oversight of the Classics-related entries. Nupedia was founded, about a decade ago, on some of the same premises as Wikipedia, and on some fundamentally different ones; it came to an end not without some sadness and disappointment. But I mention it now because to no one involved in its early days did it occur that Nupedia might founder and fail.

I am guessing that the same could be said of Encarta. To be sure, they are not entirely commensurate examples, as Encarta has been in development since the 1980s, and (as Stross cites) claims to have been 'the No. 1 best-selling encyclopedia software brand for the past eight years.' So in terms of calendar years and of dollars earned, Encarta has had an honorable run -- whereas Nupedia was snuffed a-borning.

We could speculate on the problems entailed -- and the differences between, say, Wikipedia and Encarta. Two salient differences are that Wikipedia is both free and open-source. Free: you can make a donation to Wikipedia, as a discreet link at the top of the page indicates, but this is entirely optional. Open-source: this issue was at the heart of the Nupedia controversy, as some thought that encyclopaedia entries ought to be composed and vetted by experts. (Respect for Wikipedia's accuracy level rose considerably after a 2005 report in the British journal NATURE indicated that Wikipedia's overall accuracy, in matters scientific at least, rivaled that of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Britannica, of course, protested that the study was inaccurate, but NATURE has stood its ground. And indeed, 'accuracy' is a fluid notion when it comes to things like Wikipedia, because the very text of the encyclopaedia itself is continually changing -- probably literally by the minute. This is the peculiar strength of open-source content, particularly when it has such a vast and interested readership. Of course, the constant changing to which Wikipedia is susceptible also means that it runs the danger of constantly also having new error introduced; but if we take a macro-level view of things, over time the material is likely to be refined and refined to a point of extreme accuracy.

I am not privy to the inner workings of the behemoth that is Google, but given its runaway success (and corresponding gigantic monetary worth), it is safe to speculate that those in charge of it are overseeing a more or less constant process of updating and improvement in the technology. While it is not open-source software, it is so phenomenally valuable at this point that it would be absurd for them not to take every precaution to preserve their online supremacy.

The fledgling phenomenon that is the Internet may still be too young for us to pronounce upon long trajectories of development at this point. Still, it has been around long enough for us to observe some trends already, a few of which we have noted above. What I am interested in today is: what is it that makes some kinds of information technology succeed and others fail? I assume it is some combination of luck, shrewd timing, effective marketing, and intrinsic quality (the latter including, inter alia, efficacy and user-friendliness). A possible additional aspect (and Google and Wikipedia might both be cases in point here) is flexibility -- the capacity to change and adapt to the very march of progress.

Another question: is there a way to know, except in hindsight, which items are ultimately bound for success? This may never be possible -- or, again, it may just still be too soon in the overall history of IT to discern such signals reliably. But with the rapid recent proliferation of such items --,,,, and so forth -- I am sure that these are questions that weigh heavily on those with the most at stake in their development.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Susan Boyle Phenomenon: 'She reordered the measure of beauty'

Chances are that by now you are one of the tens of millions of people who have viewed Susan Boyle's jawdropping performance on BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT (probably at, though there is a higher-quality version at This clip went viral with a rapidity astonishing even for the 2009 internet, and even as I write, people continue to email it to their friends, to repost it on the web, to broadcast news stories about it on radio and television, and to write about it in newspapers and ... in blogs like this.[[1]] A quick search on YouTube will reveal that some of them even post videos of the reactions of their friends and families as they watch the Susan Boyle clip.

Two details very commonly remarked upon in reporting on this phenomenon (and it is surely 'phenomenal' in the colloquial sense of that word) are [a] the compulsion to watch it over and over again, and [b] the tears that it provokes in its viewers. I am fascinated by both of these, but especially the latter, and curious about its causes. I am pretty sure that one of them is the heart-tugging sweep of the cinematic, John-Williams-like orchestral music that accompanies the 'Broadway anthem' Susan has chosen to perform: 'I Dreamed A Dream' (from Les Misérables; music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, libretto by Alain Boublil). But I am equally certain that there are other factors at play here.

Watching this unassuming middle-aged woman stand up before an audience of many thousands, open her mouth, and pour this remarkable singing out into the air is astounding, for a variety of reasons, some of which have been commented on numerous times by now: first, one experiences a satisfaction akin to Schadenfreude as this audience's smug, condescending expressions turn to shock, then wonder, then thrill, as a number of realizations dawn on them: they have simply not taken the measure of this person; the sounds filling their ears provoke pure, intense pleasure; and they are in attendance upon a moment of rare and perhaps historic beauty. Second, one watches with the awareness that this is a classic 'underdog' situation: she who was despised and scorned succeeds, against all odds, in carrying the day. And third -- this is not something that has been widely commented on, if at all -- the medium is (at least partly) the message: the lyrics of the song are, precisely, about dreaming that one could achieve a better life.

I find it difficult to believe that Susan Boyle has chosen this song just for its music. In just a few comments before and after her performance, she sketches in the contours of her own life; one can easily fill these in further, by some quick reading on Wikipedia and in the rash of news reports that appears to be multiplying hourly about her.[[2]] And as one ponders these, one begins to surmise that perhaps the lyrics of that song are particularly meaningful to her.

Susan is the youngest of nine children; lives alone with her cat in a small village in Scotland; is currently unemployed. She was the caregiver for her mother, who recently died at the age of 91. As of the evening of her performance on BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT, she had never been married.[[3]] We are told that people in the village 'made fun of her' at school (though not why specifically), and that she had never had the opportunity to see if she could fulfil her dream of becoming a professional singer.

The contrast between all of this everydayness (and sadness) and the glamour of her night on stage could hardly be more dramatic. Maybe we should not be surprised -- and surely it is not coincidental -- that when Susan went before the cameras on BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT, she sang:
I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high, and life worth living;

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hopes apart
As they turn your dreams to shame.
If this woman is just now getting her first shot at success at age 47, it is a safe bet that she knows a thing or two about having one's hopes torn apart, one's dreams turned to shame.

Susan's is not the best possible performance of 'I Dreamed A Dream.' It is arguably not even the best available on YouTube.[[4]] But I think it is better than those one can find online by Patti LuPone, who created the role in 1985, or even by Elaine Paige, the legendary singer/actor whom Susan aims someday to rival. And anyway that is not really the point. The point is that Susan Boyle is at a liminal moment in her lifetime. Against all odds, public success of a kind and degree vouchsafed to very few of us is within her grasp. Will she be this year's winner on BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT? And even if not, will she get the record deal and the world tour prophesied for her? If not, the closing lyrics of the song,
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seems
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
could end up sounding bitterly prophetic.

I am sure that most people, like me, hope that she wins the entire competition. I hope she also gets that record deal and becomes a millionaire. But in a moral sense, Susan Boyle has already won a great victory: as Patricia Williams astutely observes, 'the reason Boyle is a heroine has little to do with her transforming any aspect of herself. Rather, it was she who transformed the audience, it was she who challenged their beliefs.'[[5]] In Lisa Schwarzbaum's words, she has 'reordered the measure of beauty.'[[6]] In a world so hasty, so focused on superficials, and so pervasively cruel, that is no small achievement.


[[1]] See, for just three important examples, Lisa Schwarzbaum, 'Why we watch ... and weep,' Ian Youngs, 'How Susan Boyle won over the world,' and Sarah Lyall, 'Unlikely Singer is YouTube Sensation.'

[[2]] Indeed Susan already has her own Wikipedia page, at the bottom of which are links to many, many online references to her.

[[3] She also claimed that she had 'never been kissed,' though this may have been a joke.

[[4]] For some strong (professional) competition, see Ruthie Henshall's performance at

[[5]] Patricia Williams, 'I know those sneers. I've heard them too.'

[[6]] Schwarzbaum (note 1 supra).

Thursday, March 19, 2009


'did you know?' is a five-minute youtube slide show [with an apposite but forgettable sound track by fat boy slim] that presents a dizzying array of data on the present and future [plus just a dash of the past] of information technology. it appears to have been made in 2008, so some of it may already be dated. we are told that the material was 'researched' by karl fisch, scott mcleod, and jeff bronman, but there are no citations included for any of it. some of the factoids listed here seem to have been mentioned just because the numbers involved are impressive [e.g., the #1 ranked country in 'broadband internet penetration' is bermuda; the 25% of india's population with the highest IQs is greater than the total population of the USA]; perhaps these have some integral connection to the overall message of the piece, but i'm not clear on what that would be. and i'm not sure that fish, mcleod, and bronman were quite clear either: the final screen of the presentation says: 'so what does it all mean?' -- which might be an underlying message, of sorts, in itself.

i'd be interested to know what other viewers make of this piece; my first reaction was one of mild panic. this is doubtless partly because of the frantic pace of the presentation; but after some reflection [and recuperative silence] i'm coming to feel that the deepest source of my disquiet was the video's assertion that progress in technology is moving too fast for anyone -- even today's young people, even those young people who are studying to equip themselves for careers -- to keep up with. we can build, and are hastening to build, faster and faster computer processors; but we have not yet found a way to speed up commensurately the function of the human brain.

the closest i could come to finding a central message in this video was at 1:49: 'we are living in exponential times.' here is where the parade of statistics comes into clearer focus: there were, monthly, 31 billion searches on google in 2008, as opposed to 2.7 billion in 2006; to reach a market audience of 50 million, it takes [took?] television 13 years, as opposed to 3 years via ipod and 2 years via facebook; the number of internet devices in 2008 was one billion, as opposed to one thousand in 1984, and one million in 1992; it is estimated [by whom? when?] that a week's worth of the new york times contains more information than a person [where? of what level of income or education?] was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century; it was estimated that 4 exabytes [4 x 10^19] of unique information would be generated in 2008 -- more than in the preceding 5000 years.

at 3:28 my educator's antennae went up even further: 'the amount of new technical information,' they assert, 'is doubling every 2 years ... for students starting a 4-year technical degree, this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.' i'm not sure that conclusion follows by logical necessity, but at the very least, one can say that the body of knowledge relevant to a technical-degree student's curriculum is expanding dramatically, even whilst s/he is in school.

so: 'what does it all mean' for teachers and learners in the humanities? the issue of speed is paramount here; while the totality of information in [say] classical studies is increasing annually, it is certainly not increasing at this exponential rate. and while some factors are shifting -- the length of an average student's attention span, for example -- some things are not appreciably speeding up: the rate at which one can learn to read ancient greek or latin, or the rate at which one can read, think about, and absorb ancient authors. these things continue at more or less the same marked pace as they have always done; and so do other human experiences, like digestion or orgasm or dreaming. and as in the case of such other human experiences, i'm not at all sure we would be wise in speeding them up, even if it were possible to find a way to do so. the number of good meals one can experience in a whole long lifetime is perhaps sizable, but still finite; and though i'm reading more or less constantly, i recognize that the number of books i will be able to get through, even if i live to a ripe old age, will be but a small fraction of all the books ever written. but those very limitations are an integral part of what makes me prize these experiences so highly.

so in the face of this gigantic mountain of pleasures, physical and intellectual, one becomes more acutely aware than ever of the importance of spending our days wisely [noting in passing that this may, sometimes, involve reclining under a palm tree at the beach]. but i doubt i am alone in feeling that this frantic acceleration of technological culture in the 21st century is not, by its speed, conducive to making wise decisions about such things. if anything, it serves rather to agitate, confuse, and unsettle me.

is the best solution, then, to dig in one's heels and become a luddite? i would not say so. on the contrary, i am constantly looking for ways to harness new technologies for more effective teaching and research in classics. my 1985 essay in vergilius, though it seems almost ptolemaically antique now, used then-novel software to search for and examine vergilian echoes in horace. my website, CORAX [], was founded in 1997, making it one of the very first websites devoted to classics. and so forth. but one of the most important things i've learnt about education in the past two decades is that new technologies, for all the dazzling impression they make, are and remain means for humanists, not ends. another is this very point about time, speed, and acceleration: that what it means to be human is profoundly bound up with the pace at which we experience each hour, each day. and a third thing is that -- a' propos of being human -- the humanities still offer wisdom that no other discipline seems to be able to impart. far from being a mere lagniappe of education, the study of the humanities [and of the greek and roman classics in particular] is still uniquely effective at preparing young people [and the not-so-young] to live more richly, more beautifully, and more thoughtfully each day. without such wisdom, we are not much more than droids -- regardless of how many trillion calculations per second our brains might someday achieve.

if an education of this sort has to be absorbed at a certain pace, and no faster, then so be it: chances are that that fact is itself connected to the pace of our inner [sensory and intellective] experience of the world around us too. but to the extent that fisch, mcleod, and bronman are correct about the extent of I.T. acceleration in this new millennium -- to the extent that these external, logistical aspects of human existence are speeding up -- to just such an extent will it be vital that we not lose sight of those aspects of our lives that cannot and should not be hurried.

to sum up: i'm as enamored of speed as the next guy. i'm as capable as anyone of being exhilarated by a speedier car or train, a quicker microwave, or a faster CPU. but if it turns out that there are some crucially human traits or functions that seem to proceed best at a certain rate, and no faster, then i think we should not only not apologize for that, but should also celebrate and cherish them for what they are. because, in the long run, we might just discover that they come very close to telling us what and who we are.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

On Knowledge

Here, as promised in class [CLA/ENG 310], are two questions for your further consideration and discussion. They may look quite similar, and doubtless share much common ground, but I maintain that they are [philosophically speaking] not identical.

1. Is knowledge unequivocally good/worthwhile?
2. Are there limits to the value of knowledge?

As we discussed in class, these questions have far-reaching implications for all of our lives. For one thing, the 'yes' response to no. 1 is taken as more or less an axiom for the academy: though you might actually want to investigate that 'more or less' bit. [are there types or fields of knowledge that are not unequivocally good/worthwhile?]

There are plenty of other things to consider here as well, and I invite you to put on your thinking caps and ponder these questions some more. Some possible topics:

--- are there things that it's just better for us not to know?
--- does knowledge [as Socrates sometimes says in the dialogues of Plato] invariably conduce to virtuous behavior?
--- pushing the previous question further: is it even possible for knowledge to make you a better person?
--- are there realms of study that are not worth devoting a college course [much less a career] to? i.e. a field of study that you would effectively prohibit a person from investigating, even if s/he wanted to?
--- is practical knowledge [such as the ability to distinguish a bacterium from a virus] philosophically more important than theoretical knowledge [such as the ability to distinguish and categorize types of love-song]? If so, should every human devote h/erself only to the study of practical knowledge?

These questions should at least get you started, but please do not feel you should limit your comments only to the topics raised here.

Monday, June 02, 2008

what does it mean to be human? [080602]

because classics as a discipline is classified in the 'humanities' -- indeed it might be said to epitomize and indeed to have originated the humanities as an academic field -- i often find myself asking my students [and colleagues!] to consider the question, 'what does it mean to be human?' it's a topic that affords endless reflection and conversation, almost always very fruitful.

and now i see that WIRED magazine is reporting that a 'star-studded panel of scientists' at the world science festival in NYC have been asked the same question. some of their answers -- thought-provoking, fascinating, sometimes profound -- are summarized in the WIRED article, which can be read by clicking here.

i'd love to know your reaction to those responses.

Monday, April 21, 2008

some notes on gallus

our principal source of information about cornelius gallus is suetonius [see his life of augustus -- section 66 -- on pp 80-81 of your penguin edition of suetonius], but vergil [a contemporary and friend] also mentions him in his tenth eclogue [lines 72-73] in very fond terms.

quintilian also refers to him several times, one of these as a reference to that vergil some ways the most interesting reference in quintilian is in book ten [10.1.93] where he says elegia quoque graecos prouocamus, cuius mihi tersus atque elegans maxime uidetur auctor tibullus. sunt qui propertium malint. ouidius utroque lasciuior, sicut durior gallus. this means something like: 'in the field of elegy as well we challenge the greeks [for supremacy]. in my opinion the most refined and elegant elegist by far is tibullus. there are those who prefer propertius. ovid is more lasciuus than either, just as gallus is more durus.'

the problem in translation is: what does lasciuior mean? it is the origin, obviously, of our word 'lascivious,' and that might influence us unduly. the latin word can have a positive sense -- 'playful, sportive, frolicsome, frisky' -- but it can also have that negative sense of 'wanton' or 'lewd.' quintilian was a fairly proper old-fashioned guy, so he may have meant that. BUT 'lasciuus' can have yet another meaning -- specifically with reference to literary style: 'luxuriant' or 'overly ornamented.' because the word gets used this way in stylistic contexts, my first reflex would be to go for that third meaning. but then i asked myself: 'is ovid's elegy more luxuriant or heavily ornamented than that of tibullus or propertius?' and i don't really think it is.

let's set that aside for a moment, and think about durior. gallus is said to be durior ['more durus'] than either tibullus or propertius. what might that mean? durus means, first and foremost, 'hard' as opposed to 'soft.' by extension this can mean 'harsh' [in terms of flavor or sound] or, of people, it could mean: rough [i.e. uncultivated]; obstinate; or disagreeable.

this may seem as though it's not much help! but for one thing, it shows you one of the vital differences between latin and modern english: we have a truly gigantic lexicon, and thus can speak with great precision when naming and labeling things. in latin, where the lexicon is smaller, each word may have to do double or triple [or more] duty. hence this problem.

if there's a solution, i think it may lie in the fact that ovid and gallus are set up here in analogy:
ouidius : gallus :: lasciuior : durior
so it's just possible [not necessarily true] that the two ideas are opposites in some way. i.e. ovid is to one extreme [beyond propertius and tibullus]; gallus is to the other extreme.

if that is indeed the case, i'm inclined to read this as saying that ovid is 'more playful' than either tibullus or propertius; and in that case, quintilian might be saying that gallus is 'more severe' than either. [note that this is not the way durior is usually translated here; but i think it makes the most sense, based on the context and the semantic range of each word.] also, quintilian is in an antithetical mood in this paragraph: 'i like tibullus best, though some prefer propertius.' if i'm right, this durior/lasciuior antithesis is just carrying out the motif.

anyway. back to the question that was raised in class today: the main textual references to gallus seem to be in suetonius, vergil, and quintilian. [oh, and ovid, who refers to gallus and his lady 'lycoris' in amores 1.15.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

for those of you who are still eager to see the ipsissima uerba of this gallus fragment [or three fragments -- some think they may be from three distinct poems; either way they may be referred to as i, ii, and iii], here's a text to have a squint at:

the papyrus scrap was found at qasr ibrim, on the banks of the nile in what we now call egypt, but which the ancients thought of as nubia. qasr ibrim has been a great source of ancient papyri, many of which have been published, though i am sure there are plenty more yet unpublished, and probably many many more still undiscovered. our papyrus was not published until 1979 -- the year i began graduate school at chapel hill -- and i can still remember the excitement surrounding its appearance. it does not refer to the oldest extant text written in latin, of course -- we can read quite a few authors who were born before gallus -- but this papyrus is the oldest extant document written in latin. that is saying something.

those of you who read some latin will recognize that the orthography on the papyrus is not what you learnt in latin 101: quom for cum, spolieis for spoliis, deiuitiora for diuitiora. that may just represent the lack of standardized spelling in those days; but it may also reflect the way some of these words were actually pronounced in the place where the document was penned. that could be very valuable information, which our modern editors actually efface by standardizing and homogenizing everything.

you will also note that the meter is clearly elegiac couplets, but [due to physical damage to the papyrus] the middle of part i is missing, as are the beginnings of three of the four lines of part iii. this is where the art [science? alchemy?] of the textual scholar comes in: she must think long and hard about everything she knows about latin literature and culture, about papyrology, about this particular author, about the rules of scansion, etc etc etc, and then propose some conjectural supplements to the papyrus -- i.e., essentially saying, 'there's a hole in the document, but this is my best guess as to what gallus actually wrote there.' a square bracket at one end of the line or the other indicates that the papyrus is missing there. dots are usually used to show missing or illegible letters -- one dot per letter, typically, to help the reader do some more guessing. it helps, that is, to know just how big the gap is.

text i -- a single line -- is obviously the pentameter of an elegiac couplet. so there is at least one full line missing here, before text i begins. the editor has supplied the 'ia' of nequitia, which if correct must be ablative singular. that would make sense, because of the ablative tua at the end of the line.] assuming that supplement as correct, the scansion of the pentameter line tells you that whatever else is missing, in the middle, must be of one long syllable, and be a syllable of a word that ends with a short 'a' [which is the next letter on the papyrus, i.e. just before the vocative Lycori.

there are plenty of other conundrums in our little fragment here, but this is getting pretty technical, so i'll offer you a [very tentative] translation:

note that i have read eris for erit in text ii. it doesn't make grammatical sense otherwise. it's possible that the copyist didn't read latin very well; or [more likely] that he just got distracted while he was writing, and made a slip of the pen here.

text iii is in the worst shape. we can really only guess at what it's about. c[ar]mina sems to have a worm hole in it, but that's pretty easy; there's no other word it could really be. where we are most at sea is in the third and fourth lines of text iii. what is going on here? there were two famous men in roman history named cato -- cato the elder, from the time of the punic wars, and cato the younger, a contemporary of cicero and julius caesar. gallus would have been about 24 when cato died in 46 BCE, so they may well have known each other before gallus went off to become governor [praefectus] of egypt [this was not until much later -- 28 BCE]. both were noted for their stern moral standards, though gallus may well be speaking here of literary standards. at a guess, i would posit that this cato is the younger. but please be aware that 'cato' is [probably] nominative, and thus not likely to refer to the direct object of 'i do not fear.' something very substantial is missing at the beginnings of those lines.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

ASK CORAX: pronouncing ancient greek [ii]

EDITOR'S NOTE: over a year and a half ago i was asked [by ian harbor, my student at purdue] about the details of pronouncing ancient greek -- or trying to do so in 21st-century america. i posted a response to ian on this blog. my thoughtful student daphne kalomiris recently appended a comment to that post; but because it is so far back in the archives at this point, and because her question, i thought, deserved a detailed answer, i thought it worth creating a whole new post on the topic. i will begin here by citing her query, and then attempt an answer.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

So, I took a course of Ancient Greek a couple of semesters ago, and was very surprised to hear how foreign the language sounded to me, even though I speak modern Greek. As you obviously know, Ancient Greek is much more complex than modern Greek, but it uses the same alphabet, and there are many similarities in the vocabulary. I know you already covered the complexities of tonal emphasis and accents in the blog, but I'm just bringing up the topic of mere pronunciation. The Greek pronunciations I had to learn in that class made me cringe (by the way, the Greek version of the adage 'It's Greek to me' is 'It's Chinese to me', and that's just like what it sounded when we had to read passages aloud in class).

In Greece, they teach Ancient Greek with modern Greek pronunciation. So why is it that, at least in the United States, the pronunciation of certain vowels and diphthongs are so different? An example to make my point: I was taught in my Ancient Greek class that the letter upsilon was pronounced "oo", while all my life I've known it as a long "ee" sound. Also, the diphthong "oi" (omicron iota) should be pronounced as a long "ee", not "oi" as in "coin".

I asked my other professor the same question, but he retorted with something along the lines of, "They teach it wrong in Greece. We are teaching it the right way." What do you think of this discrepancy?

hi daphne,

thanks for your very perceptive observations here. because you speak modern greek at a native level of fluency, you're better equipped than most of us, actually, to think deeply about the implications of any reconstruction of ancient greek pronunciation: you have, hard-wired into you, the sounds of how modern greek is pronounced as a living language. and, btw, the first thing to be said is that that word reconstruction is [alas] carefully chosen: we cannot do more than try to reconstruct what [we think] the language sounded like.

it's not that we are working with no evidence at all. on the contrary, as i indicated in that earlier post, even the ancient authors comment sometimes on details of pronunciation. and the grammarians of later antiquity give us quite a bit of information, though, it has to be used with care. and sometimes even inscriptions on stone can offer some important evidence.

but all languages shift and change over time, in several respects: they change with respect to [1] their vocabulary; [2] their grammatical 'rules' [if that's not too prescriptive a word to label something that happens imperceptibly, day after day, year after year, like the waves lapping at the shoreline, and by very gradual cultural developments rather than by some sort of conscious decision on the part of the people speaking the language]; [3] their orthograpy; and [4] their pronunciation.

take a similar and, i think, analogous case to that of greek: italian. it's clear that modern-day italian is the direct descendant of classical latin, and not only because it is spoken by the direct lineal descendants of the ancient romans. and yet, italian has also demonstrably changed in the first three ways listed above, and i think also the fourth [though i also surmise that classical latin, if we could hop into a time machine and go back to cicero's day, probably sounded a lot more like modern italian that most people think].

now. back to your questions about greek. one important transformation that has demonstrably occurred in the greek language, between [say] plato's day and our own, is a shift of pronunciation, known as IOTACISM: the tendency to pronunce a whole group of [related] vowels and diphthongs the way you would pronounce iota [english 'ee' as in 'feet']. this group includes eta, upsilon, alpha/iota, epsilon/iota, eta/iota, omicron/iota, and of course iota itself. in other words, the development of iotacism was a process of simplification -- of co-opting one single vowel-sound to do the work of several others.

if i'm not mistaken, this shift toward 'iotacism' was already beginning in the byzantine period. certainly before what we think of as 'modern greek' was in place. [my daughter, who's about to finish her PhD in linguistics, writes:

Linguist's note: this is called a "merger" in historical lingo. That is, several previously distinct phonemes "merge" into one sound, such that you lose what was a previous distinction in pronunciation (i.e. you have a net loss of distinct phonemes in the language's phonological inventory).]

so you can see why classicists, who work very hard to recuperate tiny tidbits of precious long-lost information, might get frustrated when they perceive those tidbits as vanishing once again. with all the mass of learning that classics has gathered over the centuries, in many ways we still know very very little about the ancient world.

languages change over time. they also change according to place: consider how differently the word 'half' is pronounced in boston and in memphis and in chicago. it appears that some ancient greek-speakers pronounced zeta as /sd/, whereas others pronounced it as /dz/. so which of those should we teach our students? moreover, which gets to be designated 'most authentic'?

language can be an index of class or of caste. george bernard shaw's brilliant play PYGMALION is essentially about this [and, thus, so also is lerner and loewe's MY FAIR LADY, which was based on that play]. people often tend to judge you based on the way you speak -- not just your grammar and vocabulary, but also your very pronunciation. i think this is why jimmy carter, who had always had a thick georgia accent, began elocution lessons as soon as he became president. by the end of his tenure the accent was almost gone.

literary authors don't always demonstrate an awareness of this; a notable exception is mark twain, who actually tried to represent the various dialects of his characters in the way the words are spelt. ancient writers seem to have paid very little attention to this, though an important early exception can be found in the ANTIGONE of sophocles: early in the play, the guard who comes to tell creon about the violation of his law speaks in greek that is clearly different [and evidently less aristocratic] than creon's. but if you asked a modern linguistics scholar, which of them is more 'genuine' or 'correct' ancient greek?, she would likely say: they're equally authentic, equally idiomatic, and thus equally genuine and correct. a century ago, one might choose to label creon's greek as more 'standard' than the guard's, but to do so today is a sociopolitical gesture laden with implications that can no longer be ignored.

language is also, in some important respects, an index of hegemony. as with matters of class and caste, this is an issue of power. consider the case of today's people's republic of china, which has decreed that the mandarin dialect -- putonghua or 'common speech' as they call it -- shall be the 'official' national language for all the people. this despite [and because of] the many many dialects spoken across china that are mutually unintelligible. [the people of taiwan, who can speak a language virtually identical to putonghua, nonetheless refer to it as guoyu -- 'national language.' this in itself is clearly a political gesture -- an implicit rejection of the hegemony, linguistic or otherwise, that the PRC would love to exert over taiwan.

these issues of standardization [and perhaps of hegemony] are relevant to the teaching of ancient greek as well: much of the literature that people want to read in ancient greek is composed in the attic dialect, the version spoken in and around athens. plato, aristotle, thucydides, demosthenes, the playwrights, all wrote in attic greek. but to read pindar, or the choral odes in the plays, one must understand the doric dialect [the version spoken around sparta]. which of these is, or could be considered, the more 'standard' dialect of greek? or, to put the question more pragmatically for an educator: which dialogue should we teach the student first? one has to start somewhere.

many [not all] classicists would reply 'attic greek,' partly because they want to begin the student on prose rather than on verse, and there is so much important greek prose composed in the attic dialect. but the notion of attic greek as 'standard' is also, inevitably, tied up with the fact that many [not least the athenians themselves] saw fifth-century athens as the zenith of hellenic culture. indeed thucydides's pericles refers to athens as the 'school of hellas': he admonishes the athenians to think of themselves explicitly as cultural examples for the rest of the greek-speaking world.

so: do we follow that example and begin by teaching our students attic greek? my professors did. i first learnt to spell the word for 'sea' thalatta, like a good athenian, despite the fact that everywhere else, greek speakers said thalassa. and so on. i was taught all the vowel contractions that are idiomatic to attic greek; this made for a major wake-up call when it came time for me to try and read herodotus, who wrote not in attic but in ionic greek. [not to mention homer, whose greek text contains elements not only of ionic, but also of mycenaean, corinthian, aeolic, arcado-cypriot, and, yes, attic!] but attic was taught us as the 'default' dialect, and still is in most classics departments. as i have said, one has to start somewhere: but would we be closer to the fact of the matter if we made it clear from the beginning that attic greek is only one of a whole palette of dialects used across the greek-speaking world? as soon as we do that, of course, the task of discovering the 'correct' ancient pronunciation for anything becomes that much more complex.

as pronunciation varied across the ancient world, and as modern languages are pronounced variously across the modern world, so it should probably not surprise us that ancient languages are pronounced variously in different cultures today. listen to an italian choir singing in mediaeval latin, and you will hear distinct differences between their pronunciation and that of a german choir singing the same text. should we be terribly surprised that the pronunciation of ancient greek is taught differently in the US, in germany [where e.g. they pronounce the greek word 'europa' as if it had a german diphthong in the first syllable], and in greece itself?

with each passing year i become more and more reluctant to speak dogmatically on such matters. there is clearly so much that we do not know or understand, even apart from the issues mentioned above. but to say 'in greece they teach it wrong' is, i fear, a very simplistic assessment: on the contrary, greeks in greece today have some very cogent reasons for teaching the pronunciation of classical greek the way they do. they have a historical reason, i.e. the heritage of a very long linguistic phenomenon [see above on IOTACISM] that links modern demotike directly to ancient greek, via the byzantine tradition. they have geographical and genetic reasons: they are themselves the lineal descendants of the ancient greeks, and live on the very soil that was cherished by the ancients. and they have, because of all this, what we might call an emotional reason: to invoke again the analogy i drew above, modern greeks are to ancient hellas as modern italians are to ancient rome. how can anyone discount the combined weight of these factors?

i do not know who your other teachers were, and i do not mean to contradict or impugn them. but i would emphasize again that the best we can do is attempt to reconstruct a model of ancient pronunciation. [and i would note too that nobody who is not also at least attempting to speak ancient greek tonally can claim to be even possibly 'right' about it. classical greek, like modern putonghua in china, was spoken tonally, and those 'accent marks' we see on the page are meant to convey not stress-accent, but tone -- i.e. they are more akin in music to a melodic score than to a percussion score. unless we are demanding that our students learn this as well -- and the vast majority of classics department in the US do not -- we would do well not claim that we have cornered the market on correctness.

another detail, as a side note: whoever said that upsilon was pronounced 'oo' in ancient greece, was very likely mistaken. in fact it was probably something closer to the french sound of 'u,' or the german 'ü' with umlaut. one way to try and make this sound is to position your mouth as if you were going to say 'oo,' but then try to say 'ee.'

this is, i fear, rather a complicated answer to what you probably thought was a straightforward question; i am sorry the response could not be more simple. someday, maybe, we will be able to offer a more substantive solution to what remains a very mysterious conundrum in the study of the ancient world. but at the moment, we remain very considerably in the realm of speculation on these matters.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

women with/out agency [ancient and modern]

wow. what a discussion we had in class today. and, of course, we barely scraped the surface.

as several of you asked for a forum on this blog in which to discuss the matter further, i am hereby opening a thread on the topic. in the interest of speed, i won't recapitulate in detail today's discussion; just bear in mind that some of the questions raised were:

[1] semantics vs substance? i.e. the problematic of

male/masculine ~~~~~ female/feminine
first-class ~~~~~ second-class
logical ~~~~~ emotional
powerful ~~~~~ weak

[2] 'feminism' vs believing in equality of the sexes

[3] women with or without agency in ancient greece and rome [and today]

[4] catullus -- 'emotional' and 'mediterranean male with agency'

but don't limit your comments to these topics! please let us know what is on your mind, whatever that may be. you may be as forceful as you like, but always let courtesy and mutual respect prevail.

OK, go.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

modern slavery?

it seems i often end up in conversations about the state of the world: about whether the human condition is, overall, getting better -- or worse -- or just staying the same.

a surprising number of my colleagues seem to agree with hesiod who, in his WORKS AND DAYS -- a poem in epic meter, approximately as old as the ILIAD and ODYSSEY of homer -- opines that our lot is steadily going to hell in a handbasket: from the originary golden race, he laments, we have steadily declined to the race of his own day -- the 'race of iron' that he wishes he had not been born into. [see the famous legend of the five races, lines 109-201.]

other folks, of course, take a much brighter view: every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.

there's plenty of leeway between these two extremes. and it also need not be simple or linear, of course. some things could be deteriorating even as others improve.

ever the optimist, i've looked hard for evidence of actual progress on the part of the human race. one thing that i thought -- thought -- i could point to as incontrovertible evidence of progress was our virtually global rejection of slavery. over the centuries from ancient rome to now, we have come to the point where, by the middle of the 20th century, we could conceive of and produce a so-called universal declaration of human rights. whatever its strengths or weaknesses as a document, the sheer fact of its existence ought to be cause for some satisfaction. and its very first article affirms that 'all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.'

in any case, when i made the observation to a [witty, sardonic] friend that at least we have dispensed with slavery in the modern world, he smirked at me and said: 'you want fries with that?'

and sarah baird just wrote in with this link to a story reporting that liz hurley and her tycoon husband 'paid their maid as little as £1.20 an hour' -- expecting her moreover to work interminable hours at a stretch.

are these examples, as some serious thinkers would assert, tantamount to modern slavery? and, to take an even more wide-angle view of the problem, have we indeed made any moral progress [as opposed to purely technological progress] since ancient times?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

decoding the 'antikythera mechanism'

well, we ['we' meaning 'the human race' -- specifically, a team of astrophysicists, astronomers, mathematicians, and classical scholars -- not a group including me specifically] have finally done it: we have figured out the basic functions of the so-called ANTIKYTHERA MECHANISM, or AM as i'll call it here. the newswires are abuzz just now with information about the AM -- there are articles in the new york times and nature, among others -- so i'll offer just a few of my own observations here.

[1] this is a prime example of how hi-tech modern science can shed light on ancient cultures -- AND if we [and *here* by 'we' i mean 'the classicists'] can make a convincing case, deep-pockets organizations like the national science foundation [NSF] will put out [what feels to us like] big bucks to fund the research. my esteemed colleague and longtime friend nick rauh has already taken this theory to the bank several times, winning a jaw-dropping THREE 6-figure grants from the NSF for his 'rough cilicia archaeological survey' project.

[2] how interesting that the AM was found, not in rome or athens, not even on kythera, but off the coast of *anti*kythera -- a tiny little island, population approximately 44. who knows what other treasures remain as yet undiscovered in such out-of-the-way locales. keep your eyes peeled.

[3] interesting too that it took 'us' over a century to decipher. when we did, it turned out that this gizmo was designed -- suprise, surprise -- to measure the movement of the sun and moon, and to calculate eclipses. once again we see the absolute primacy of these heavenly bodies in ancient thought. we ourselves tend both to take them for granted, much of the time, and to be completely captivated by them, at others. this function of a complicated mechanical device over 2000 years old, by the way, tends to confirm my surmise that the theory of gerald s. hawkins, about STONEHENGE, is also correct. it just stands to reason.

[special thanks to my pal CHAD BUSK ESQ for sending me this link to an excellent article on the AM. it's the best i've seen.]

Saturday, September 09, 2006

ASK CORAX: pronouncing ancient greek


In reading and discussing the Iliad, I'm picking up an actual aversion to using character names because I don't know how to say them correctly, and neither (it seems) does anyone else. For example,

Patroclus - Pátroklos - which I would instinctively pronounce something like PA-truh-kluss, I have heard in forms such as PE-truh-kluss, puh-TRAW-kluss, and even with a textually invisible extra schwa, puh-TRAW-kuh-luss.

I realize that none of these is probably analogous to the original Ancient Greek (if we can even say for sure how that language sounded), but I'd really like to be able to mumble something passable when I'm talking about Diomedes, Idomeneus, Andromache, etc. Any suggestions? Many thanks in advance,



ah my good ian, what a can of worms you've opened up here. nonetheless, i am glad you did so -- i want you to pursue your classical education up hill and down dale, and into every nook and cranny of knowledge that you can find. just so you know, though: this is the hard-core stuff you're peering into now.

the reason i call this 'a can of worms' is that you have touched on a couple of issues that cannot be disambiguated without getting pretty technical, nor without also addressing several other issues equally esoteric and difficult. that said, i'll try and keep this as streamlined -- and as lucid -- as i can. you know me well enough to know not to hesitate to ask for clarification if i have not been clear on this or that topic.

first, time out for some nomenclature.

[1] ACCENT in greek does not mean what it means in latin. rather it means something more like what is meant in modern chinese: classical greek accent was TONAL. thus [despite whatever you may hear, even out of the mouths of classics professors] those diacritical marks on a page of greek are NOT there to mark stressed syllables: they are to mark what was originally a quasi-musical tone [intervals of perhaps a musical third to a fifth].

[2] STRESS: when we say 'accent' in speaking of modern western-european languages, and even of classical latin, we are talking about the stress that falls on one or more syllable in a word. physiologically i assume this has to do with greater breath coming through the larynx and out the lips. as you can see, though, this is an accident waiting to happen, because of the confusion between classical and modern notions of 'accent.' so it's good to keep the notion of 'stress' separate from 'accent' in ancient greek.

when speaking of the stressed syllables in greek [or even latin] verse, some scholars, at least, still call this the 'ictus.' it's useful to have another word than 'accent' to talk about this, so i support the use of 'ictus' in this context. it is roughly synonymous in such a sense with 'rhythm,' but that's a mine-field of its own, in classical metrics, so best for the moment just to set the word 'rhythm' aside.

[3] QUANTITY: modern verse is ictus-based: that is to say, modern metrics depends on recognizing patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. tennyson's

to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield

[from his poem 'ulysses,' in fact] is a perfect iambic pentameter -- in the modern sense: five unstressed syllables alternating with five stressed. [note, just FWIW, that they are all ten of them monosyllables, and that 'not' is one of the stressed. masterful.] classical greek meter, on the other hand, was NOT ictus- or stress-based, but rather what we call quantative -- i.e. based on the QUANTITY [long or short] of each syllable. thus the first line of the iliad

andra moi ennepe, mousa, polutropon, hos mala polla

is scanned as a perfect dactylic hexameter -- in the ancient sense: six dactyls, i.e. six feet, each composed of one dactyl: one long syllable followed by two short ones. NOTE, however, that 'long' does not necessarily mean 'accented' [in either the modern or the ancient sense of that word]: i.e. it is possible for a LONG syllable to have a tonal marking or not. *** since both VOWELS and SYLLABLES can be termed 'long,' some scholars use the terms LIGHT and HEAVY to distinguish the short or long syllable when speaking of ancient greek [quantitative] verse.

[4] MELODY. as if this were not complicated enough already, add to all the above that homer's iliad and odyssey were originally SUNG to the lyre. that is, in addition to knowing where the stressed and unstressed syllables [if any] came, and where the tones rose and fell in ordinary conversation, there was also a melody mapped on to the text. i have always surmised that the melody [probably fairly primitive -- and n.b., the lyre in the 8th century BCE only had four strings] roughly followed the ups and downs of the spoken tones of greek. but there's no absolute proof of that; we don't have any reliable evidence of what homeric music was like; but i was gratified some years ago when martin west, one of the greatest living homeric scholars, published an essay in the JOURNAL OF HELLENIC STUDIES positing this theory himself. [for some inexplicable reason he does not, however, acknowledge me as the fons et origo of the idea ...]

so you see, to answer your question we are conjuring with a number of different elements here. you ask, innocently enough, how to pronounce 'patroklos'; i assume that at one level you are asking how the name was spoken in conversation. but i do want you to realize that that is [or might be] different from how it is spoken [or sung!] in homeric verse. also, that the way homer pronounced it [in conversation] might have differed from how a byzantine [or later] scholar pronounced it.

the accent marks, incidentally, were not yet written on greek words in plato's day, and certainly not in homer's [if anyone was even writing greek in homer's day -- yet another can of worms]. plato is of course aware of the differences in tonal accent, and in fact refers to the phenomenon in his CRATYLVS [399], but he is talking about the sound, not any written indication of accent. it appears that accent marks began to be added in about 200 BCE -- probably at alexandria, and very likely by the scholar aristophanes of byzantium.

by the time of socrates and plato, the living tradition of improvised oral [pre-literate] epic, i.e. what homer produced as a creative artist, was long gone; what you had instead was a professional class of re-creative artists known as RHAPSODES, who RECITED [rather than SANG] the portions of the epics that they had MEMORIZED. so already the performative tradition had morphed drastically by the fifth century BCE, the glory days of athens.

i have made a couple of recordings of classical greek verse. these are online in streaming audio at

if you play the one of stesichorus's 'palinode,' you will hear my attempt at rendering classical greek tonally. the other excerpt, which is a bit longer, is a passage from homer [iliad 3.395-412], and in this one i despaired of trying to keep a regular hexameter rhythm going while also pronouncing the tonal accents correctly. but if homer had been induced to speak rather than to sing his verses, that is precisely what i expect he would have done. did the rhapsodes also recite tonally? i bet they still did, for the simple reason that [on the evidence of plato's cratylus] they were still speaking conversationally with tonal accents.

here are some other recordings of homer read aloud with attention to the tonal accents: [despite the inelegant URL he has some smart things to say here, as well as some well-produced sound-recordings]

several hundred years after plato -- certainly by the late fourth century CE, and likely a couple hundred years before that -- the shift had probably reached the point where the tonal accent was being lost in greek. what was happening at that point was that the syllables marked with [originally tonal] accent-marks were beginning to be pronounced as if they received the stress. and, moreover, new verse being composed in that era was stress-based, rather than quantitative.

i still have not answered your question, i see. here is what w. sidney allen, in his authoritative book VOX GRAECA, has to say about stress in classical greek [i assume he was not talking about its effect on the student studying it]:

the classical greek accent was, as we have seen, tonal. it is, however, improbable that greek words and sentences had no variations of stress. this has often been recognized, but there has been a tendency to assume that any such element of stress must have been connected with the high tone, since pitch is frequently an important factor in the complex phenomenon of stress-accentuation. but, for one thing, it is not necessarily high pitch that is involved in such cases -- in different languages it may be high, low, or changing pitch; and for another, stress is not conversely a necessary feature of tonal accentuation; so that it is possible for a language having a tonal accent to have also a stress-patterning that is quite unconnected with this accent.

moreover, any connection of stress with high tone seems to be ruled out by the fact that in classical greek there is no correlation of the accent with the metrical stress or 'ictus' .... we therefore assume that greek verse was recited with a stressed rhythm .... it should ... be possible, from a statistical study of various types of greek metre, to discover whether there are any strong tendencies for particular syllables in words of various quantitative patterns to coincide with the presumed ictus of the verse; if so, it may be reasonably deduced that such syllables were normally stressed in speech. from such a study the following rules seem to emerge [for words of more than one syllable]: [a] words were primarily stressed on their last heavy syllable; [b] a secondary stress fell on preceding heavy syllables if separated from the primary stress by at least one mora of quantity ... this hypothesis produces 90-95% agreement between verse-ictus and natural [prose] speech-rhythm in both the tragic trimeter and the epic hexameter
.... [[pp 120-121]]

and how, you may well ask, does one distinguish a heavy syllable from a light? here's allen again:

if a syllable contains a long vowel, it is always 'heavy' .... but if it contains a short vowel, its quantity depends upon the nature of the syllable-ending. if it ends with a vowel ['open' syllable], the syllable is 'light' ... but if it ends with a consonant ['closed' syllable], the syllable is heavy. [[p 97]]

that book was first published in 1968 [third edition 1987; my citations are from the second edition of 1974]. allen went on to advance a more fully-enunciated version of his stress-accent theory of spoken ancient greek in a book called ACCENT AND RHYTHM [1973, so my 2nd edition of VOX GRAECA would reflect that]. the whole thing boiled up a firestorm of controversy: based on what we can find in ancient grammarians who sort-of-discuss this stuff, the received wisdom was that there was no stress accent in classical greek, whether spoken or recited [i.e. prose/conversation nor verse]. but allen was one of the 'big guns' of historical linguistics at that time, so his theories could not be dismissed lightly. on the whole, i would say that most linguists have felt the need to reject allen's thesis -- very respectfully, to be sure, but reject it nonetheless. a good example would be the article by a. m. devine and l. d. stephens in the transactions of the american philological society 115 (1985) 125-152, 'stress in greek?' in this long and technical essay, they weigh allen's thesis on its merits, but decide when all is said and done that classical greek was probably a non-stress-accented language like japanese. here is the clearest passage in that essay [this from pp 146-147]:

if we believe that in ancient greek the accented vowel was not only higher pitched but also significantly louder and/or longer ceteris paribus than unaccented vowels, then the greek accent was a pitch differentiated stress like that of serbo-croat or lithuanian. in that case, the innovation of the modern greek accent is limited to the elimination of the rising/falling distinction between acute and circumflex and the sharpening of the durational distinction between accented and unaccented vowels (note in particular the elimination of long vowels in unaccented syllables). if, on the other hand, we believe that in ancient greek accented vowels were not significantly louder or longer ceteris paribus than unaccented vowels, then the ancient greek accent was a pure pitch accent comparable mutatis mutandis to that of japanese. this latter view has the better chance of being correct.

i suppose one of the most important, perhaps THE most important, lesson to be taken away from this is that not even the experts can agree. allen is a god in that subfield of classics, and devine & stephens are among the very most respected classical linguists working today; but they are diametrically at odds here -- and yet the most emphatic demurrer devine & stephens can offer is 'this latter view has the BETTER CHANCE of being correct.' nobody truly knows.

now the best argument that can be rallied [apart from allen's own] against what devine & stephens assert here is that greek is, like latin [and serbian and croatian and lithuanian] an indo-european language, whereas japanese is not. it would be very helpful if one could cite uncontroversially an indo-european language in which there is no stress accent. FRENCH is sometimes adduced as an example -- i.e. one is often taught that each syllable in a french sentence should receive an identical amount of stress -- but all you have to do is turn on any french TV or radio to see that this is science fiction. [in practice, it's better to teach one's french student that the default syllable for a stress-accent is the ultima. but that's for someone else's blog to hash out, i guess.]

a second argument might be the very difficulty of imagining a pre-literate poet improvising, on the spot, hundreds of lines of hexameter verse [in a meter, by the way, that was not native to greek -- it seems to have been imported into the greek-speaking world from the indus valley] in which he is expected sometimes to balance syllables that are long but unstressed, on one hand, against syllables that are short but stressed, on the other. [this is precisely what vergil does, incidentally, in the AENEID -- but remember that vergil is [a] composing in LATIN, where there has been a long prior tradition of stress-based verse; [b] composing in WRITING, which gives him the opportunity to linger as long as he wants [we calculate from his comments about the GEORGICS that he composed these at the rate of one hexameter line per day], and [c] experimenting [as it's been shown by scholars] with a particular technique in which the first half or so of the hexameter line deals with conscious tension between long syllables and stressed syllables, whereas the second half of the line has much greater coincidence of long and stressed. in other words, the vergilian hexameter is quite a different animal from the oral improvised verse of homer and hesiod.

we've come a very long way, i fear, for you just to be told 'there's no clear answer to your query.' if you are fuming by now, you have every right to be. let me say, though, that this also gives YOU a certain license: it means that you can pronounce 'patroklos' in whatever way pleases you best.

one way that has appealed to many who come [like you] from latin to greek, is to use the rules of latin accent: if the vowel of the penult is long, the penult is stressed; otherwise the antepenult. [remember now that we are talking just about VOWELS, not about SYLLABLES, in which a short vowel + 2 consonants = a long syllable.] as long as you remind yourself every day that that is NOT a rule in greek, you could do worse than that. moreover, it accords somewhat with what allen so gingerly advances in the theory cited above.

if you were to approach it this way, you would have the following the [tonal] accent is on the first syllable, but the stress is on the penult'. saying 'putt-ROK-loss,' with a trilled R, ought to get you somewhere in the right ball park. if you want to get fancy, pronounce the first syllable higher than the other two -- that should be the most 'accurate' for the greek of homer's day.

as for the other names you mention -- diomedes, idomeneus, andromache -- the situation is further complicated by [a] the way the ROMANS pronounced greek words, which may well have been something like what we've discussed above, and [b] the way MODERNS [in english, german, french, etc] pronounced greek [and, for that matter, latin] before the twentieth century. if you read the wonderful novella GOODBYE, MR CHIPS, or c. s. lewis's autobiography SURPRISED BY JOY, you will see references to the 'new' pronunciation of greek and latin.

why are you hearing such disparity of pronunciation amongst your colleagues? well, the pronouncing of the language overall is a difficult problem, but the whole NAME issue is particularly hopelessly mucked up. we refer to vergil's poet friend as HORACE, for example, but that's because the french call him that; we borrowed their name for him. his actual full name, in latin, was 'publius horatius flaccus' -- except in the vocative case, which was 'publi horati flacce.' his mother probably called the young horace to dinner with 'publiiiii!' -- but in adulthood, friends and acquaintances probably referred to him as horatius [the family name] or flaccus or horatius flaccus. so what should we do? insist on 'horatius'? nobody will know whom we are talking about, at least not till we explain. [and, to be consistent, it would mean calling catullus 'valerius' from now on ... etc etc etc]

so too with APOLLO: this is what the romans called this [greco-roman] god. but in greek he was called APOLLON, with the final O being an omega. so what should we do? insist on the 'correct' greek name? we will sound hopelessly pedantic. [even more than most classical scholars do.]

this is the problem we are facing with 'diomedes.' in greek, those vowels come out, more or less, 'dee-oh-MEH-dess.' that will work fine in germany. but -- if you are speaking english, to someone in the USA or UK, it will seem quite esoteric. most americans say 'dye-oh-MEE-deez.'

'idomeneus' entails a particular problem: that final diphthong, which is odd to american ears. if you can imagine the duchess of devonshire wrinkling her nose in disdain, and exclaiming 'oh!' -- that is more or less the sound of the diphthong EU in classical greek. [my first greek professor told us to say it the way choate boys say 'choate.' as an old choate boy myself, i took umbrage, but i said nothing. the next day i did come to class wearing my choate tee shirt, though.] 'idomeneus' is an unusual enough name that you can probably get away pronouncing it 'accurately' in that way -- but if you are going to strive for absolute consistency, you will have to pronounce 'zeus' that way too -- and nobody i know says anything, in english, other than 'zooss' for that.

andromache: again, the ancients would have trilled that R at least lightly. you will sound precious if you do that in english. i suggest 'ann-DROM-ma-khee,' bearing in mind that in greek, the final E was an eta, and thus more or less a longish open 'ehh.'

this should at least get you started. i should close by stressing once again that these are deep and troubled waters: not entirely uncharted, but full of sea-serpents. i've probably given you a lot more philology here than you bargained for; but you deserve nothing less. that's what i say.

some more relevant and useful URLs, if you haven't yet quenched your linguistic thirst:

greek phonology

phonation in different cultures


erasmian pronunciation

an impassioned plea, by william harris, for reading greek tonally