Greece and Mesopotamia

What does Athens have to do with Africa?

Dear Colleagues: Greetings. This is my first post—ever—but I thought my project was perhaps unusual enough to warrant blogging about (something I’ve never done in my life, so apologies in advance for any breaches of etiquette; it was Lanah’s idea, so you can blame her!). This photo was taken in August, but neither the subject nor the door has changed much since then. I am a non-resident Fellow at the… Read more

Why to mine (but leave the pickax at home)

Everyone is into data mining these days. Retailers find patterns in what you buy so that they can better market to you, governments search for patterns that identify terrorist threats, and data mining is at the core of privacy debates about the quarry of information collected by Facebook, Google and other websites. But the news isn’t all potentially nefarious or the subject of impending litigation. Data mining is simply a… Read more

Plutarch on dance

Simonides’ dictum “Painting is silent poetry, poetry is speaking painting” is very well known and appears over and over again in modern studies of ancient art and ecphrastic literature; Plutarch himself, who quotes it in The fame of the Athenians 3 (mor. 346F), refers to it elsewhere as “that often repeated saying” (mor. 17F-18A ). By contrast, the variation of this dictum Plutarch puts in the mouth of his teacher… Read more

Aristotelian 'eugenetics' and the inheritance of bodily features

In his History of Animals, Aristotle makes the following comment (HA VII 6, 585b28-586a4): “And from deformed [parents] deformed [offspring] comes to be, just as lame come to be from lame and blind from blind, and in general they resemble often the features that are against nature, and have inborn signs (καὶ ὅλως τὰ παρὰ φύσιν ἐοικότες πολλάκις, καὶ σημεῖα ἔχοντες συγγενῆ), such as growths and scars. Some of such… Read more

Ekphrasis and bodily performance

Life-likeness is an old aesthetic ideal foregrounded time and again in ancient descriptions of works of art. The pertaining problems were addressed frequently: Perfect life-likeness in a way means perfect deception, while excessive authenticity can sometimes ruin the art work, as the epigram by Lucillius I quoted in my last blog claims… In descriptions of pantomime – the silent depiction of a myth by a dancer – the attribution of… Read more

Authenticating a Pythagorean Political Text

I am working on the problem of the authenticity of a series of fragments in the Doric dialect attributed to the mathematical Pythagorean Archytas of Tarentum, preserved by Stobaeus and called On Law and Justice (Περὶ νόμου καὶ δικαιοσύνης).  A provisional version of the Greek texts and translation can be found here.  This is not the place to go into the details of the problems offered by these texts (and… Read more

More signs of physiognomy in Aristotle: human heads in HA I 8-11

As I mentioned in my previous post, the best evidence about Aristotle’s theoretical views about physiognomical inferences (if the passage is indeed by Aristotle) can be found at the very end of the Prior Analytics (in II 27, 70b7-38). For the application of these views, we have to turn to his History of Animals[1] – a treatise in which Aristotle collects and organizes his data about the differences of animals… Read more

Who killed the Kritios Boy

The Kritios Boy, an underlifesize marble sculpture of the early fifth century B.C., has long been considered a touchstone of Greek art.  It features prominently in textbooks, travels to major international exhibitions, and currently appears, elegantly spotlit, in the lavish new Acropolis Museum in Athens.  Much scholarly ink has been spilled on questions such as its iconography, dating, and attribution (most frequently to the Early Classical sculptor Kritios, hence the… Read more


Why did the Athenians call the dramatic actor hypokritês? This question has drawn significant attention for more than one hundred years, but it has not yet received a satisfactory answer. Scholars on all sides agree that, whatever its meaning, the label hypokritês must refer to the defining nature of the actor’s doings on stage at least during the beginning phases of Attic drama. Views that explained it with reference to… Read more

Orphic Authorship

There are at least two ways to inquire about a possible specificity of the Orphic poetic tradition in Greece. The first way consists in analyzing the structure of the Orphic authorship : what does to be composed by Orpheus mean for the ancient Greeks and for us ? Is the re-enacting process lead by the rhapsode the same as in the Homeric tradition ? Is there the same attitude towards… Read more

Regarding priestly language preference

My last post should have been sufficient to neutralize arguments that the Tebtunis priests’ engagement with Greek was driven by administrative requirements, by the demands of the State. (This has been argued by, e.g., Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, Cambridge 1986, p. 16). The question of language preference, however, is another, more complicated, matter, in part because the response of the priests was no doubt individualized. Still, there was no other… Read more

The (lacking) skill of a dancer and the truth of myth (♯ 2)

In my last entry I quoted Lucian’s character Lycinus who claims that Proteus was really just a skilled dancer. If his transformations seem miraculous, it is because the myth neglects to tell this little detail… By contrast, the representation of the myth in dance is uniquely faithful to the myth’s true meaning. Such faithfulness, or lack thereof, is the subject of an epigram by Lucillius on a nameless pantomime-dancer (Anth.… Read more

Signs of Physiognomy in Aristotle

In his recommendations to lawgivers about the material conditions of the ideal city in the Politics, Aristotle suggests that the question of what should be the natural qualities of its citizens can be answered fairly easily by reference to existing ethnographical opinions (Pol VII 7, 1327b20-23): “One could almost grasp this by looking at the cities that are held in high esteem among the Greeks and, with respect to the… Read more

Why the History of Philosophy?

OK, I’ll strike a more sober note today.  Recently, the upheaval of higher education funding and student fees in the UK (where I am employed) has caused a great deal of discomfort (even the potential for sore egos, although misery always loves company).  The arts and humanities are being forced to defend themselves once again. Some academic critics have taken a hard stance against the “usefulness” or “impact” of the… Read more

Couch styles . . . and meanings?

This week I have been looking at representations of klinai (couches) on Greek vases . . . lots of klinai on lots of Greek vases, thanks to the miraculous Beazley Archive Pottery Database. I am intrigued by the variety of ways Greek vase-painters depicted the couches on which their symposiasts recline, couples embrace, heroes brood, or dead lie in state. Some of this variety is surely due to changes in… Read more

Greek literature in the crocodile temple

Since I spent part of the past week working on a new (Greek) literary fragment from the dossier of the priests of Soknebtunis, I thought that I would devote this post to some brief remarks concerning the Greek reading interests of the Tebtunis clerics. Even a cursory examination of the evidence indicates that John Tait’s assessment—“not cut off from Greek culture, but their concern with it was curiously limited” (in… Read more

Ants with a sweet tooth

Philip of Thessalonike not only collected the epigrams of other authors, but, like Meleager, he also wrote poems of his own. One that never fails to make me laugh tells the story of ants searching for honey: Βωλοτόμοι μύρμηκες, ὁ γῆς στρατός, ἡνίκ’ ἔτενδε γειομόρου μελιχρὴν σμηνοδόκου χάριτα, μηνίσας ὁ πρέσβυς ἐς ὕδατα κρωσσὸν ἔβαψεν, ἐνθάδε τοὺς ἀπὸ γῆς οὐ δοκέων πελάσειν· οἱ δὲ νέας <κάρφας> ἀχυρίτιδας ἀντιφέροντες αὐτοκυβερνῆται πρὸς… Read more

Proteus’ skill and the fictionality of myth

In Lucian’s dialogue On pantomime one of the characters, Lycinus, explains that Proteus, the mythical master of metamorphoses, was really just a very skilled dancer, a proto-typical pantomime-performer. This reinterpretation of Proteus’ metamorphoses as a form of artistic skill is quite remarkable and invites some further reflection on the relationship between pantomime and its primary subject-matter, myth. By differentiating carefully between what the myth means (legein) and its narrative form… Read more

On Platonic Loving, or, The Peanut Butter Lover

Like Socrates, I’m absolutely passionate about pursuing friendship. Friendship (philia) is difficult to define in Plato’s writings, in part because the Lysis, the only dialogue that attempts a comprehensive understanding of it, is really not about friendship per se; rather, as has been noted by critics such as David Sedley, the Lysis concerns itself with the object of friendship, that is, the thing to or of which someone is a… Read more

‘Crafting Natures’

For Aristotle, living beings are complex composites of matter and form, where form is to be understood functionally, and not merely as shape, as a specific combination of soul-capacities that characterizes the kind of living being in question. It is a commonplace in Aristotelian scholarship that both these forms of living beings and the enmattered animal species to which they give rise are ‘fixed’. Forms are ‘fixed’ in the sense… Read more

The Greek Epic Cycle – An e-publication of the CHS

In 9-10 of July 2010 a Conference on the Greek Epic Cycle was held in ancient Ol ympia, co-organized by the Center for Hellenic Studies (Harvard University) and the Centre for the Study of Myth and Religion in Greek and Roman Antiquity (University of Patras). As the Greek Epic Cycle is so often overshadowed by the more illustrious Homeric epics, the organizers of the Conference thought that the epic fragments… Read more


The ancient Greek notion of theôría (θεωρία) is of unquestionable cultural importance. Not only does it speak immediately to the ancient Greek festival as a cultural institution; philosophers  seized on it as their preeminent metaphor for philosophical reflection. Most agree that it has to do with ‘looking’—but what sort of ‘looking’? Paradoxically perhaps, the later and derivative ‘intellectual contemplation’ of the philosopher seems easier to grasp (even if the ease… Read more

Remembering Traianos Gagos

On 24 April 2010, Traianos Gagos, Professor of Greek and Papyrology at the University of Michigan and Archivist of Papyrology in the University of Michigan Library, passed away as a result of an accident at his home. He was only 49. The loss of this beautiful man, this incredibly vibrant and generous human being—a dear friend—remains rather difficult for me to accept. But my own grief pales in comparison to… Read more

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