Sunday, 7 July 2019

The epigrams of Bones

Many of you will know Bones, the comfortingly formulaic TV drama in which forensic osteologist Dr Temperance Brennan (a calque of Kathy Reichs) teams up with FBI agent Seeley Booth to solve grisly murders. My SO and I have been merrily ploughing through its oh-so-big back catalogue on Amazon Prime all year.

Recently we came upon an instance of classical reception that's explicitly epigrammatic. It's Season 8, Episode 15, 'The Shot in the Dark' (2013), and the team are questioning colleagues at Brennan's research institute (the crime of the week is an inside job). One researcher gives the following alibi for her whereabouts during the latest bizarre murder:

I had to catalogue some papyrus Hellenistic epigrams; we're having an exhibit on the Posidippus scroll.
This is of course the Milan Posidippus papyrus, first published to great excitement in 2001. Harvard has lots of information about it along with a link to the most up-to-date translation, all for free. I'm not the first classical-reception enthusiast to note the arrival of the papyrus at Bones's 'Jeffersonian'. Kristina Killgrove on her blog Powered by Osteons sharply disses the scene, and she's not wrong:
-some random woman who can't pronounce Posidippus or talk about epigraphy properly.
However, this may not be the end of the episode's engagement with epigram. The titular 'Shot in the Dark' is the mystery the team must solve -- two people have been shot, one fatally, but their wounds contain no trace of a bullet. The answer turns out to be that the assailant used a bullet made of blood that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen, and fired from a tube using compressed air. Once in the body, it simply melted away.

Whether or not the writers knew it, the 'ice bullet' gambit is out of Martial. I've blogged about this poem before -- it's 4.18:

Where the gate drips with rain next to Agrippa's portico and the stone is slippery-wet from the constant runoff, a water-flow heavy with winter ice fell upon the neck of a boy who was passing under the dripping roofs; and when it had performed its brutal execution on the poor child, the fragile dagger melted away in the still-warm wound. Does Fortune place no limit on her own cruelty? What place is safe from Death, when waters turn cutthroat?
Practical experimentation is necessary to establish whether a falling icicle can really impale a child, but it is now known that a bullet made of frozen water is not a viable murder weapon: an early episode of the TV show Mythbusters (2003) debunked it through practical experimentation. Accordingly, the writers of Bones replace ice with blood and have their fictional science squad run experiments to establish its feasibility.

Mythbusters only bothered to blow up the 'ice bullet' because the myth had such traction in popular culture, as a staple of locked-room mysteries. My SO and her childhood friends loved to rack their brains over death-themed riddles along just these lines. In film it goes back at least as far as Double Exposure (1933, originally titled Corruption), written by Charles Edward Roberts. I wonder if he had read Martial; and I wonder how many 'ice bullets' are out there, in stories of this kind? I'd love to hear from readers who recognise the trope and can suggest examples.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Two by Simonides, from Book 16

'Book 16' of the Anthology is not like the other books of the Anthology. It is a comparatively recent compilation, derived mechanically by scholars going through the inferior thirteenth-century redaction of the Anthology and finding all the poems there that (for whatever reason) are not included in the earlier and better Palatine manuscript.

Here is a pair of Simonidean epigrams on victorious athletes, with the usual caveat that not everything headed 'SIMONIDES' is necessarily by Simonides. The second is on Milo of Croton, the most famous athlete of classical antiquity.


Who are you, of what father and what land?
In what event were you victorious?
Casmylus I, son of Euagoras,
Of Rhodes, in boxing, at the Pythians.


Milo’s this statue, handsome as is he,
Who outside Pisa seven times was crowned,

And never once was wrestled to his knees.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Guest post: Duncan Wu (2 of 2)

'Nisbet’s unbuttoned translation is the inspiration for my Punk adaptation of Martial', writes Professor Wu. That adaptation follows, below.

Up to a certain point, it's recognisably our ancient original - that same Issa poem as last time. The rest, I reckon Martial would have secretly liked. I bet he hated that dog, deep down.


Who scraps harder than Catullus’s badass
Sparrow? Who’s purer than Milton’s impreg-
nating dove, hotter than the Flying 
Scorpion, pole-riding Empress of Lap-
land, swankier than a faceful of 
The wildest beluga caviar? Yes,
Issa, that darling lapdog of Publius.
She yelps with the acid tongue of silver-
Palated Demosthenes on the 
Humiliations and ecstasies of 
The canine condition. And when she needs
A piss, lovely Issa, the sheets remain spotless; 
She raises her snout from her pillow, gazes
Deep in his eyes, scrapes his cheek with her
Crusty pawpads, and croons. What a bitch!
What a lady! What a gal! As modest, 
Becoming, and virtuous as a nun, 
The demure canine debutante tucks her tail 
Round her privates, snarls at the sausage-hounds
And growls from the depths of her guts—faithful 
Only to Publius.
He yearns never to lose her, so creates
Her hologram, her mnemonic, her specter,  
Closer to Issa than Issa herself.
It wolfs down its supper, then passes gas, 
It pants and it drools, it eats its own ass
And consumes his soul. Eyes only for it,
He casts off the real thing, locks her out of
The house, surrendering instead to her 
Icon. It compels, it enchants, it leads
Him a dance, it fills him with bright shining 
Light; it feasts on his liver, sucks his brains 
From his nose, drains his white blood cells right out of 
His toes. 
              Next day comes Carmen, his 
Filippino factotum, who finds his corpse
Crumpled in on itself, a crispy husk 
Of dried-out, brittle, inert human crackling, 
While the mechanic image of Issa 
Squats over him, snuffles, squitters and snorts.
It wolfs down its supper, then passes gas, 
It pants and it drools, it eats its own ass.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Guest post: Duncan Wu (1 of 2)

This one is from Duncan Wu, Professor of Literary Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC, a formidable expert on Wordsworth and Romanticism. He was for a while at the University of Glasgow, where I spent three highly enjoyable years. And he is collecting poems about dogs.🐶 💖

"Thanks in very large part to Shackleton Bailey and Gideon Nisbet I offer my rendering of Martial Epigrams i.109":

Issa is a bigger scamp than Catullus’s 
 Sparrow—purer than the peck of a dove; 
More seductive than any louche slave-girl;  
More precious than strings of Indian pearls: 
Issa, darling lapdog of Publius.  
He hears her speak in her croons; she knows when 
He’s happy or sad; she slumbers, her snout 
On his neck, so soundly he can’t hear her  
Breathing. When her bladder’s full to bursting,   
She won’t let a drop touch the sheets, instead  
Nudging him with her pawpad so that, when 
Roused, he sets her on the floor, and lifts her 
Back on the bed when she’s done. Innately  
Chaste and modest, she’s a stranger to love,  
No mate being equal to the tender  
Young bitch. Lest the Grim Reaper remove all  
Trace of her, Publius paints her portrait  
Which is more lifelike than the dog herself: 
Place them side by side, and you would suppose 
Both the real thing or both works of art.

Professor Wu also proposes a looser version that takes Issa's story further, here.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Saint Gregory mourns Saint Basil

Gregory 'the Theologian', son of Gregory of Nazianzus 'the Elder', wrote a sequence of twelve epigrams mourning the death of his great friend Basil, who became Saint Basil 'the Great'. 

These are two of them, from early in the Anthology's eighth book, which I take to be his book, arranged by him. He writes his signature into the first poem to declare his authorship for all time.

On the great Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia
I sooner thought body could outlive soul 
Than I could live without you, Basil, friend, 
Christ’s workman. Yet I bore it, and remained. 
So must we wait? Will you not take me up, 
And place me in the chorus of the Blessed, 
Where you are stationed? Do not leave me here; 
Do not, I beg: I swear upon your tomb, 
Never will I forget you and move on; 
I could not, if I wanted. Gregory.
On the same
Fond greeting, Basil, though you went away. 
This little epitaph is Gregory’s; 
Mine was the talk you liked to listen to. 
My Basil, please accept from your friend’s hand 
The gift I prayed never to have to give. 
My godly Basil, to your mortal dust 
I dedicate these dozen epigrams.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Three charioteers

These three poems are from the Planudean Appendix of the Greek Anthology. It is often called 'Book Sixteen', but is a modern scholarly compilation. The Byzantine Greeks of Constantinople were as mad on charioteers as the Romans had been before them, and they leave us many epigrams about them.


On Porphyrius

The Emperor and populace erect 
The son of Calchas, our Porphyrius, 
Laden with garlands for his noble toil, 
The youngest of the drivers and the best 
By measure of his many victories. 
He should have had a statue made of gold, 
And not this brass, like all the rest here placed.
On Faustinus, of the Green faction

Behold Faustinus, charioteer of old, 
Who, once he found the faction of the Greens, 
Knew nothing of defeat upon the track. 
You see him as he was, an older man, 
But in his strength he was a stripling still, 
And never once was beaten in a race.
On Julianus, charioteer of the Reds

The hand has skill to birth the ancient dead 
A second time: for here is Julian 
In all the strength he showed in former age, 
And hauling to and fro the reins of Red. 
He stands now imaged high upon his car; 
His hand awaits the signal to begin: 
He only needs to see the turning-post.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Dating Strato of Sardis

Strato of Sardis is the main poet of what is now Book 12 of the Greek Anthology. He was the author of a book of pederastic epigrams, the Boyish Muse (Mousa Paidikē), which in time became Book 12's armature. In a poem clearly written to close the Boyish Muse, he declares that the poems are not autobiographical but were written to please others, presumably patrons:
One day, perhaps, a reader will look back 
At these my playthings, reckoning these toils 
Of love were all my own. It is not so: 
Incessantly I jot assorted lines 
For every sort of man in love with boys, 
Since some god gave me this capacity. (AP12.258)
Look in most dictionaries of classical literature and civilisation and, if you find him at all, you will find Strato of Sardis dated to the reign of Hadrian (120s-130s AD). The reason given is that public knowledge of the Emperor's taste for beautiful young men encouraged Strato to court his patronage. An address to a doctor called Capito in a Stratonian poem found elsewhere in the Anthology (11.117) was also thought to pin the poem to Hadrian's reign, but Alan Cameron in The Greek Anthology from Meleager to Planudes shot this down.

Sometimes a Neronian date is suggested instead, on the same basis (poets write about liking boys when the Emperor likes boys), which I've always thought is (a) slender and (b) potentially just a bit homophobic (I don't think this is a question on which I get to make a call).

Kathleen Coleman calls out these attempts in the introduction (xxxiii-iv) to her excellent commentary on De Spectaculis. She is inclined to place Strato before Martial, drawing attention to two parallels that she thinks indicate Martial had read the Boyish Muse: AP 12.175 is very like Martial 9.25, and AP 12.191 is similar to Martial 4.7.

But of course the influence could run either way -- or perhaps even both ways. One poem in particular encourages me to believe that Strato and Martial were contemporaries, both writing under Domitian, another emperor who liked young men. Indeed, he collected them.

Here is Martial, praising the Emperor's taste. The scene is set on Olympus. Ganymede implores that he may cut his long hair and assume the station of an adult man, as Domitian's 'Ausonian cupbearer' (Earinus) has just now done on earth below. Jupiter replies:
"My sweetest boy, it's not me but the facts that turn you down. Our Caesar has a thousand cupbearers who look like you. His whole vast palace teems with gorgeous hunks. But if your haircut makes you look grown-up, who else will mix my nectar?"
Compare now Strato:
Are they emerging from some holy shrine? 
What is their source, this army of Desires 
That shed bright beams on everything around?
Their brightness clouds my vision, gentlemen: 
Which one is slave, which free? I cannot say. 
A mortal man, their lord? It cannot be; 
Or if a mortal, greater man by far 
Than Zeus, who owned a single Ganymede, 
Though mighty god. How many such has he? (AP 12.258)
Strato declares the unnamed mortal owner 'greater by far than Zeus'; in similar vein, Martial often also flatters his Emperor as a living god. I am confident that Strato too is courting Domitian’s patronage.