Friday, 25 November 2022

Agathias on what endures, with a dubious pencil and some peculiar creeping

Though Cephalas presents it as a preface (pröoimion, 'proem'), I think Agathias must instead have written the closing poem of Book 4 of the Anthology as his sphragis -- the poetic signet-seal that came at the end of his completed book to warrant its quality and assert his authorship. It's much shorter than his actual proem, thank heavens, and I present the whole of it here in my own translation. The two emboldened bits identify translation choices that I'd like to talk about afterwards.

The slabs of stone, the tools to carve the line,
The tablets with inscriptions — all are cause
Of hearty cheer to those who call them ‘mine’;
But only while they live. The empty vaunts
Of men in life yield little benefit
To souls in that which follows. Nonetheless
Excellent character and wisdom’s grace
Can percolate to there and still remain
In this our world, here to perpetuate
Remembrance. So did Plato never brag
In pigments and in graven monuments,
Nor Homer, but in wisdom all alone.
Happy are they whose memory endures
In libraries of volumes subtly wrought,
And not in emblems destitute of thought.
Line 1's 'tools to carve the line' is my best stab at the Greek graphis. It is close kin to the Greek verb graphō, meaning to write or mark, and the noun gramma, a thing written or marked. Very many words in English derive from these -- telegraph and telegram, autograph, seismograph, graphic, graphite (and thereby graphene), and so on, down to Instagram. Here is the entry for graphis in the great Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott, revised by Jones, LSJ for short.

A. [select] = γραφεῖον 1, AP6.63 (Damoch.), 65 (Paul. Sil.), 67 (Jul.): esp. stilus for writing on waxen tablets, Pl.Prt.326d; paint-brush, APl.4.178 (Antip.); graving tool, LXX Ex.32.4; “σύμβολα . . γραφίδεσσι κατέξυσαHymn.Is.11, cf. AP4.3b.72 (Agath.); needle for embroidering, APl.4.324.
II. [select] embroidery, AP5.275 (Agath.): but in pl., = paintings, Nonn.D.25.433.

The citation I've highlighted is annoying if you're working from the old Loeb, as I generally am, since it's (a) in the public domain and (b) lovely. The reference is to Agathias' proem, 4.3, parts of which we've considered in previous blog posts. At some point an editor decided to divide this block of verse into a pair of poems: 4.3a (lines 1-46), and 4.3b (everything that follows). There is obvious sense in this. Not only does the topic change, but the metre as well, from iambics to epic hexameter, apt for extolling the heroic conquests of Agathias' emperor. But it means you have to do sums if you are using an older edition and want to make sense of the citation, which in this case refers to the dative plural graphidessi in what used to be line 118.

I think LSJ is actually wrong about this instance. As I understand that line, Agathias is contrasting the use of a graphis to compose inscriptional or quasi-inscriptional epigrams, with the physical carving of such poems onto actual monuments. As my translation had it,

... Part the Second, though,
Collects the antique votive offering:
All that we graved with pens or had inscribed
Out in the world, on well-wrought statue’s base
Or on the many far-flung monuments
That witness to the breadth of human art.

'Percolate' in my line 8 is my playful best guess at what to do with the compound verb sunerpei in line 5 of the Greek. Herpō by itself means to move by slow gradations, as might the very young or very old. If I had to settle for a single English rendering, it would have to be 'creep'. Its close cousin in Latin is serpo, from which we get 'serpent', and our 'herpetology' is the study of creeping things (reptiles). But what is sun-erpō? It has no dictionary entry of its own, and a TLG search turns up just one other instance in the whole of Greek literature, in the philosopher Epictetus. There, it just means to 'herp' in another's company.

On the one hand, that's not terribly helpful; on the other, it frees me up to go for something quirky, as surely was Agathias' original word choice in the poet's own eyes.

Friday, 11 November 2022

Agathias concludes his proem.

This is the final part of the long poem with which Agathias introduces his Cycle, freshly translated for this blog. It follows the praise of his patron, Theodore, of which I gave you a version last time. He closes by telling his readers what to expect by way of structure and content.

Agathias divided his anthology into seven sections, each containing a particular kind of epigram; this was a familiar type of organisation, carried over from the epigram-books of individual classical authors such as Posidippus (as confirmed by the Milan papyrus). Agathias could deploy it on a larger scale within a single volume because parchment codices were much more capacious than the papyrus book-rolls of old.

I would begin by setting out for you,
In rivalry with men of olden time,
All that progenitors of modern song
Have written in the way of offerings
As though for former gods; for it seemed wise
Yet to conserve an expert mimicry
Of ancient letters. Part the Second, though,
Collects the antique votive offering:
All that we graved with pens or had inscribed
Out in the world, on well-wrought statue’s base
Or on the many far-flung monuments
That witness to the breadth of human art.
As for the third part of this book new-made,
It takes as motive, insofar is right,
Whatever mottoes God permitted us
To write for tombs, in verse, while still intent
On truth unswerving. As for what we wrote
Of all the varied paths of human life
And of the teetering scales of fickle fate,
Look for it by the fourth foundation-stone
Of this my book. In quick succession too
The charms of our Part Five may win you round,
In which we wax satirical and write
In the invective mode. The Queen of Love
Steals the sixth chapter, and may well divert
Our path to discourse out of elegy,
And sweet Desires. Within our seventh hive
Of poets’ honey you will ascertain
Pleasures of Bacchus, dancing choruses
That like their drink unwatered, bowls of wine,
And dinner-parties that bring happiness.

The joyful banquets of the proem's conclusion recall its opening lines, in which Agathias introduced his Cycle as a literary smorgasbord of choice morsels from contemporary poets.

In the Anthology, the proem (4.3) is followed by a shorter poem (4.4), also by Agathias, which I think must have concluded his Cycle. In technical terms it is his sphragis, his seal and sign-off, and it's lovely -- but that will be for another day.

Friday, 28 October 2022

Agathias invokes his patron

A very large chunk of Agathias' proem to his Cycle is taken up with praise of his all-conquering Emperor. It used to be taken for granted that he meant Justinian (ruled 527-565), who did indeed get a lot done, but Alan and Averil Cameron challenged this consensus in a 1966 JHS article and suggested we instead consider his son, Justin II.
That's not a debate into which I propose right now to wade. Anyway, encomium delivered, Agathias returns to consideration of his own literary conquests. The Camerons also challenge the identification of Agathias' patron with the Theodorus who was magister officiorum under Justinian and Justin. Again, I'm feeling too tired to consider going there, so I'll just give you my translation of the bit that immedaitely follows all the world-conquering stuff.

Maybe one day I'll translate the whole thing, but there's at least one book I really ought to finish first.
And so, since all the lands of men are filled
With lovely peace, and since all anxious fears
Of foreign and domestic martial strife
Are blown to pieces by our Emperor,
Then let us call a contest of the wise,
My blessed Theodore, and set in train
The entertainments of the bardic dance.
You see, it was for you I toiled to shape
This prize, and wrought this wordy artefact,
Gathering tight within my monograph
All the promiscuous commerce of the bee,
And gathering a universal bloom
From reams of elegy; I hung for you
A wreath of Calliope eloquent,
As one might offer beech to Kronos’ son,
Hulls to the Earthshaker, a warrior’s belt
To Ares, or a quiver full of darts
To lord Apollo; Hermes, tortoises;
Dionysus, the cultivated vine.
I know that Theodorus’ eponym
Will drizzle endless critical acclaim
Upon my marathon of diligence.

 I'm trivially pleased with how 'marathon of diligence' reshuffles the Greek, though I doubt many readers will want to know about that. Perhaps to be followed up in some future blog post.

In the immediate sequel to this section, and as the conclusion to his proem, Agathias lays out the kinds of poem he will offer us -- and that's something I definitely want to translate.


Friday, 14 October 2022

Agathias in the toilet

Agathias 'Scholasticus' ('the Advocate') was the sixth-century anthologist of a Cycle of contemporary epigrammatists, including much work of his own. Some of these are inscriptional in form and I would like to think the following two were inscribed for real, in a public toilet in Byzantium. According to the second poem, Agathias himself had paid to have it renovated. The first poem is newly translated; the second is in the book.

How justly blessed are you that work the soil,
Stout-hearted labourer, who all your life
Must brace against the agonies of toil
And poverty: the meals you eat are small,
And in the thickets you lay down your head,
Awash with water as your beverage.
Fit as a fiddle, here you sit a while
Unburdening your belly in a flash;
You do not knuckle at your lower spine,
Or thump your thighs in anguish as you shed
Your wholesome cargo. Pitiful are they,
Those who possess or flock about great wealth,
Who set more store by feasting than by health.

I was a place detestable to see,
A mud-brick warren. Here the strangers came,
And native folk and boorish countrymen,
To noisily excrete their bowel waste,
Until our city’s father intervened.
Agathias transformed me: now I shine,
Who was so ignominious before.


Friday, 30 September 2022

Agathias gets his Cycle rolling

I'm becoming very fond of the proem (authorial preamble) to the Cycle of Agathias 'Scholasticus'. This sixth-century historian, our main source for the reign of Justinian, was also a keen and fine poet. His Cycle anthologised a circle of contemporary epigrammatists, including plenty of erotic and satirical ('skoptic') verse. He wove the works of his fellow authors in with his own, just as had Meleager when he compiled the first Garland seven centuries before.

Sixth-century Byzantium had a busy literary scene and was clearly a hotbed of epigram-writing. Four centuries later, Constantine Cephalas drew heavily on Agathias when compiling the prototype of our Greek Anthology.

In this blog post I offer a translation of the opening part of the proem (or rather, of the first and much the longer of the two proems). After this, Agathias moves to a long encomium celebrating the military victories of his emperor, before returning at the end of the proem to a list of the kinds of poems he has chosen to include.

I think his proem is very charming and I hope you will enjoy the version I have made. The short prose preamble I take to be by Constanine Cephalas, the 10th-century compiler of the prototype of our Greek Anthology; he loves adding little explanatory notes of this kind.


A collation of epigrams published in Constantinople and dedicated to Theodore the Decurion, son of Cosmas. The proems were delivered after the frequent recitations held at the time.
You gentlemen, I think, have had your fill
From this great smorgasbord of poetry,
So much that all your appetite is fled
And all the dainties sticking in your craw.
You sit there bloated: many before me
Have set before you gourmandising feasts
That sample many genres and persuade
Contempt for common fare. What now to do?
This buffet I have laid: just let it lie,
Until it rots? Or set it on a stall
At wholesale market, hawk at discount there
To barrow-men? Then who could stand a share
Of this my produce, who would buy my words
For thruppence, if not deaf? Yet hope remains —
That you may taste a sample of my wares
And like it, and be raised from apathy:
I know your custom is to judge a meal
Solely by the devotion and good will
Of those who have invited you to dine.

Agathias next spells out why his generous listeners will find their time well spent:

Further than this, the banquet I propose
Comes to you seasoned, and its condiments
Are all brand-new. It was not in my power
To single-handed lay a bill of fare
That did you fellows justice, so instead
I have persuaded many fellow-chefs
To share my toil, donate ingredients,
And amplify your menu. And indeed
These wealthy men provided generously
Of delicacies that they most enjoy;
And I, who borrowed them, take honest pride
In these exquisite dishes of their own.
And any one of them will aptly say,
Pointing to me, and speaking to his peer,
‘This new-made Muses’ dough just recently
I kneaded out myself; the batch he serves
Is one of mine.’ Just so, but such a man
Is not among the wisest of the cooks
Thanks to whose labours I alone am seen
As orchestrator of so great a feast.
For I have nerved myself to sprinkle in
A little share from my own larder store,
So I may not entirely seem to be
A stranger to the company I call.
Instead I offer tidbits from each bard,
Enough to get the taste: if you want more,
To get a bigger plate and eat your fill,
Know you must find them in the market-place.

Agathias' contemporary 'fellow-chefs' included Macedonius the Consul and Paul the Silentiary, whose many epigrams come into the Anthology through their friend's Cycle. He then continues:

To add some dignity to these my toils,
I shall begin my prologue with our king:
For then, I think, the rest will turn out well;
And since I sing of deeds that are so great,
I hope to find such words as fit the theme.

This proem-within-a-proem leads us into praise of Justinian, his all-conquering Emperor (ruled 527-565).

Edit: everyone always used to assume it was Justinian, so I did too, but (who else) Alan Cameron disputed this and now the question is open. Nowhere in the proem is he named. Sixth-century Byzantium knew many emperors, and many Theodores.

Friday, 16 September 2022

Birds and Beasts, by a Beast

 One of my favourite books about the Greek Anthology is Norman Douglas' Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology (1928), which does what it says on the tin in a not terribly systematic way. I like it not least for the self-deprecating charm of the author's introduction, from which I quoted in my last big book, Greek Epigram in Reception:

Three years, I finally concluded, might suffice for the venture. Three years, under some vine-wreathed arbour, with the necessary books at one's elbow, and one's soul at ease... Such a thing, it is obvious, should be a holiday performance; written con amore and not otherwise; in reverential, playfully-erudite fashion. Three years or even more; for I soon realized that the enterprise might well blossom -- why not? -- into a general treatise on ancient Natural History... Three years, I kept on saying to myself -- where shall they be found?

I shall not find them.

Remembered as a novelist and travel writer, Douglas was an aficionado of vine-wreathed arbours; he spent a great deal of time in Posillipo, Capri, Florence, and the French Riviera, moving on whenever scandal blossomed and the law threatened to catch up. Unfortunately it turns out he was a dreadful sex criminal in modern terms. He never got those three straight years because he kept being run out of town.You should never Google your heroes.

But to continue, just the once. This is Douglas on what he managed to come up with, his chaotic lifestyle  notwithstanding. His 'my Anthology' was surely Paton's Loeb:

The pencillings then scrawled in my Anthology are fast fading; I amplified them later with references to such authorities as were accessible, but a good many others would have to be consulted... which I have not been able to procure.

An undertaking, for the rest, of the gentlemanly kind; quite useless. No doubt an interesting little paper might be written, were we to investigate nothing but the Natural History of a single period or of a single poet, such as Meleager... or if we devoted ourselves to one particular beast, say, the lion or the bee... A monograph of this kind would be brief indeed but not without a certain value from a scientific point of view. 

To compile, on the other hand, a long list of creatures mentioned only at hazard (some of the most conspicuous animals are not so much as named in this collection); a list of creatures mentioned by poets good and bad, poets of divers nationalities, poets scattered over a large geographical area and over a period of fifteen hundred years of time -- to compile such a list: what more exquisitely unprofitable?

 'What more exquisitely unprofitable?': it's as if he had foreseen REF.

Friday, 2 September 2022

Simonides' saviour ghost, with Cicero and Woodward

AP 7.77


οὗτος ὁ τοῦ Κείοιο Σιμωνίδεω ἐστὶ σαωτήρ,
ὃς καὶ τεθνηὼς ζῶντ᾽ ἀπέδωκε χάριν. 

My favourite carolling anthologist translates it like this in Tales of Sea-Sorrow (1931):

The sailor this, whose ghost did save
His benefactor from the grave.

Simonides is the most famous of classical epitaphists. Woodward's version loses the original's embedded sign-off or sphragis ('Simonides of Ceos'), but handles the returned-favour aspect of the second line really nicely ('his benefactor'). He appends the following charming note:

The story, to which this distich alludes, is told by Cicero (De Divinatione, j, 27): -- After Simonides had seen the corpse of some unknown shipwrecked mariner, and had buried it, he intended to sail on board a certain vessel, but was warned by the ghost of the aforesaid person not to do so; else he should be shipwrecked. Whereupon Simonides remained safe ashore, while the rest, who sailed, were lost.

I love little explainers of this kind. Very few can ever have seen it; like all his little books of epigram, Sea-Sorrow was hand-made in a small print-run of 136 copies, of which the one open on my lap is hand-numbered as No.132. In combination, the translation-and-note clarify an underlying story that the Greek original had left opaque. And Woodward keeps his version to a distich, which I hardly ever can, try as I might.

My own least bad attempt, on a dozy, post-COVID July afternoon, and choosing not to feed in that Ciceronian tidbit:

Here lies the man that saved Simonides,
And he himself already dead and gone;
Repaid the living for a kindness shown.