Saturday, July 28, 2007

BOOK: Grund (ed.), "Humanist Comedies"

Humanist Comedies. Edited and translated by Gary R. Grund. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 19. Harvard University Press, 2005. 0674017447. xxx + 460 pp.

This book contains five 15th-century comedies (well, actually one is from the late 14th century).

Pier Paolo Vergerio: Paulus

I don't see why this one is even called a comedy. There's certainly nothing funny about it. Paulus is a university student from a reasonably rich family, and apparently he isn't untalented either, but he cannot bring himself to sit down and study instead of squandering his time and money on partying. Finally an inspiration comes to him in a dream and he decides to mend his ways, but his wily slave Herotes does his best to turn him back to the path of vice. (As long as Paulus remains on that path, there are many opportunities for Herotes to take a cut for himself here and there, ll. 341–55.) Paulus, although he is starting to feel that he is being led by his own servant rather than vice versa (ll. 167–72, 227–8), and although his other slave, Stichus, is trying to get him to become more serious about studying (scene 3), nevertheless cannot resist the temptation and goes along with Herotes' suggestions. Herotes hires a prostitute for Paulus, but tries to have sex with her first. This leads to one of the few funny scenes in the whole play (p. 55): Paulus, annoyed at being kept waiting for so long, hears the noise from the next room and thinks that “Herotes has gotten into a fight” (l. 681). This gives the playwright an opportunity to employ a series of double entendres based on the fact that, in Latin, “the words for ‘to be ruined,’ ‘to die’ and ‘to pine away from love’ (perire) are the same as the word for ‘to have an orgasm’ ” (translator's note, p. 442). Fortunately these puns also translate quite well (“ ‘I'm coming!’ ”). The play ends with Herotes bragging about this and his various other unethical exploits to another man's servant, Papis.

As I said, there aren't many funny things in this comedy; but the thing that annoys me the most is its general tenor. My understanding of comedies is that at the end, the good side is supposed to win, and the bad guys get exposed for what they are, laughed at, and possibly shamed and/or punished. This is e.g. how Moliere's comedies work. See also the wikipedia page on comedy, and also this web page. But here in Paulus, the bad side, with Herotes as its chief representative, is in fact triumphant and ends up openly flaunting its shameless, amoral cynicism. There's nothing sympathetic about Herotes, so he shouldn't end up winning. Nor can you say that the end of this play is in any way a happy end in the usual sense of the word (but a happy end is another basic requirement of a comedy).

So this is really hardly a comedy. But of course, it isn't a tragedy either; it fits those specifications even less. What is it then? A sordid little piece of reality with few or no redeeming features, that's what.

Incidentally, Vergerio was born in Koper (p. 3).

Leon Battista Alberti: Philodoxus

This play is somewhat better than the previous one. It still isn't very funny, but at least it has a happy end, and it's mostly the right characters that win. Interestingly, practically all the characters have names that mean something in Greek, and the author explains them all in a preface (pp. 73–75). Thus, Doxia is ‘glory’, Philodoxus is the ‘lover of glory’ (or of Doxa), Doxia's sister Phemia is ‘fame’; another character is Fortunius, who has a slave Dynastes (“for, indeed, power is especially subject to fortune”), etc. So the whole play has a nice and refreshingly obvious allegorical meaning. Fortunius, the “insolent young man” (p. 83), tries to win glory but ends up achieving mere fame instead (and even her he has to abduct), while Philodoxus, a much better character, with the help of his wise and prudent friend Phroneus, ends up getting married to Doxia.

Overall, it was a reasonably pleasant play. The one thing that really annoyed me is everyone's response to Fortunius' rape of Phemia. Actually I'm not sure if this is just rape in the old sense, i.e. abduction, or also in the modern sense. Only an abduction is described on p. 137, but on p. 163 it is referred to as a rape. Anyway, even just a kidnapping is bad enough. What annoys me is everybody else's response, which is to suggest that the pair should get married: “the ill fame of a rape may be blotted out by proper nuptials” (the voice of authority — old Chronos, captain of the city watch, on p. 163); Phemia's sister, Doxia, also approves: “Seeing that the matter has come to this pass, and since there's no reason to expect any better results, I think it's prudent to choose the lesser of two evils” (p. 165). Doxia's old maid-servant Mnimia (‘Memory’) also approves (on the same page). Phemis herself doesn't seem to have been consulted. I mean, ick. Marriage as the reward of rape — isn't that a bit much? I guess this is what you get in a patriarchal society where it's unimaginable that a young woman could stay single for a while and choose her own husband (if she wants one)...

There's a curious episode regarding the authorship of the play: “I fooled the people who were asking from what source I'd compiled it into believing it was excerpted from a very ancient manuscript. Everyone was easily convinced, for it smacked of the comic genre and of antiquity, nor was it hard to believe that I, a youth occupied with canon law, was quite incapable of acquiring any merit for eloquence. Moreover, comic wit was held not to be flourishing in these times.” (Pp. 77–9.) Only some ten years later did he publicly acknowledge his authorship.

Ugolino of Parma: Philogenia and Epiphebus

This was one of the two most enjoyable of the five plays in this volume, but once again it doesn't strike me as very much of a comedy. In fact, the main theme is rather sad. Philogenia is a girl whom Epiphebus, a young man, seduces and persuades her to elope with him. After a while it becomes clear that they won't be able to live together indefinitely without being discovered, and Epiphebus finds a peasant named Gobius, lies to him about the girl being a virgin and thus persuades him to marry her. At the same time he makes arrangements that Philogenia will still be able to see him and cheat on her husband.

Maybe the problem is just that social mores have changed so much since that time; anyway, the end of the play doesn't seem particularly happy to me. It's rather sad and sordid. I cannot help feeling sorry for Philogenia. As far as I can tell, she's from a reasonably good family from the city, and now she ends up being married to a dimwitted peasant, and all this because the unscrupulous Epiphebus wanted to have a bit of fun with her. She's really mostly a victim here, partly of Epiphebus' advances and partly of the restrictions that society has placed on the behaviour of women. In fact it's only from the point of view of this kind of restrictive patriarchal society that the play can be considered to have a happy end: from that point of view, she can probably count herself lucky that she ended up married to a reasonably decent (if dull) husband, rather than being locked up in a convent, burned at the stake or left on the streets to fend for herself in a life of prostitution and beggary. But from a present-day point of view, it's all rather sad and hardly a suitable theme for a comedy.

Epiphebus is a bit of a misogynist, at least by present-day standards. He seems to believe that if he loves a woman, she is obliged to reciprocate these feelings (¶1, p. 173), and has a generally antagonistic view of relationships (“no one, or very few at most, can have their way with a woman without being importunate or an incessant plotter”, ¶5, p. 177). Incidentally, he also lies to Gobius about Philogenia's age (“she's just sixteen”, ¶55, p. 237; but “I'm already twenty”, she says in ¶8, p. 181).

In ¶34 (p. 211) a friend of his, Emphonius, he has a very curious proposal: “Whenever you meet a woman, avert your eyes, show that you don't want to look at her, and scorn her. Every man should to the same to every woman he meets. Surely it will then follow that women, desperate and furious, consumed with anger and lust, will beyond doubt go insane with love; they'll turn somersaults to ingratiate themselves with men again and restore themselves to our good graces. [. . .] they'll follow us wherever we go [. . .] And when they meet up with us they'll snatch us up like manna from on high.” To which all that needs be said is on this picture. Maybe I should take back my complaints that this is not a good comedy. This paragraph alone must have had people falling off their chairs with laughter.

Another somewhat bizarre statement from Emphonius, commenting on Epiphebus' idea to marry Philogenia off to Gobius (¶44, p. 223): “But if you bring it off happily, as we hope, afterwards other girls will let us have our way with them, too, as they'll know we can find husbands for our girlfriends once we've satisfied ourselves with them. Everyone will think your plan is pious and holy, too, and praise it to the skies.” I guess this is supposed to be hilariously funny, right? Because it sure as hell doesn't make any sense any other way. I guess something must be wrong with my sense of humour these days.

There are some curious inconsistencies in the play. The argument (i.e. the summary of the story at the beginning of the play) says that Epiphebus is “desperately in love with Philogenia”, and in ¶1 he says that he has “always sincerely loved this girl”, but then in ¶29 Emphonius says of him that “our friend Epiphebus has once again ravished a virgin”. Once again, mind you!!! OK, so he's lying in ¶1; I can understand that; but why is the author supporting his lie in the argument?

Lest I be accused of painting Philogenia as entirely a victim, I must admit that she is not completely without agency in this whole matter. In ¶8 (p. 181) she has a few eloquent sentences in acknowledgement of female sexuality: “Really, how long is it right to keep cloistered in the home a virgin who is ready for a man? Until she is sixteen, I hear it said; I'm already twenty, and it's killing me. I was born with flesh and blood like any other girl; my body is shaped for love, so I can't help being excited by sexual desire. And the more nature has made us inclined to this sin, the more it must be forgiven”. And in ¶42 (pp. 219–21) we see that there are other options, better than elopement, to work around the societal constraints: “What an ignorant thing to do, to leave home in the middle of the night, abandoning my parents without even a goodbye. Certainly I could have taken my pleasures at home, as I know other girls my age have done.” And there's a fairly funny scene when she goes to confession before getting married (¶71, pp. 257–9): “ ‘My father, many men have had sex with me.’ ‘And this happened of your own free will?’ ‘Oh, no, not at all! I was seduced by clever flattery [. . .] I was naïve, as all of us young girls are. That's why I had to service the lust of so many men.’ ‘This, then, is no sin. [. . .] if it wasn't your own will but necessity that forced on you this shameful act, I say that you are innocent.’ ‘[Aside.] Well, thank God I was always able to satisfy my passion without doing anything wrong!’ ”

Interestingly, Philogenia mentions in ¶41 (p. 219) a hypothetical man who “thinks he's a conquering hero, as they say, if he keeps a list of his many girlfriends in his little black book”. I'm intrigued by this — did they have little black books back in the 15th century? I thought this was a relatively recent invention, used just to write down people's phone numbers. My first thought was that this was a translator's effort to modernise something from the original, to make things more familiar to the modern reader; but then I looked at the original text, and although I don't understand Latin, I can't help feeling that the original also speaks about something written down in a book: “et pro munere palmario sibi ducit si plures, ut aiunt, in codice descripsit”.

Epiphebus in ¶5 (p. 177) mentions that “fortune always favors the brave”. I always thought of this as a quote from Virgil (see e.g. here; but my first encounter with the phrase was many years ago in Jules Verne's A Captain at Fifteen). But, to my surprise, the translator's note (p. 445) identifies this as a quote from Terence's Phormio, 1.4.26. I was surprised by this — why not quote Virgil, who is widely thought of as the source of this phrase? But then it occurred to me that Terence pre-dates Virgil by more than a hundred years. Interestingly, the Latin form of the phrase seems to vary slightly all the time. In the Perseus e-text of Phormio, the form is “fortes Fortuna adiuvat”, which they translate as “fortune helps the brave”. Ugolino here in Philogenia and Epiphebus says “fortibus fortuna semper favit” (p. 176). And Virgil's text (Aeneid, 10.284) on Perseus has “audentis Fortuna iuvat”.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "Lyric Poetry"

Pietro Bembo: Lyric Poetry. Etna. Edited and translated by Mary P. Chatfield. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 18. Harvard University Press, 2005. 0674017129. xxi + 278 pp.

Bembo was a writer, scholar and later a prelate, in the late 15th and early 16th century. I doubt I would have heard of him before noticing this ITRL book of his if it wasn't for the fact that a well-known typeface is named after him. It's also one of the easiest to recognize, namely by the unusually long leg of the uppercase ‘R’. It's a nice font, except for this ‘R’ thing — it makes the character following the ‘R’ appear too far to the right of the main body of the ‘R’, almost as if a small space had been inserted after the ‘R’.

Well, anyway, this book doesn't really have anything to do with the Bembo typeface (it certainly isn't set in it :)), except that it includes Bembo's short dialogue Etna, the first edition of which (in 1495) was the first book set in Bembo. Etna is a description of Bembo's visit to Mount Etna on Sicily, set in the form of a dialogue between Bembo and his father. This was not an uninteresting read, but I wish he hadn't wasted so much time on things that haven't got anything to do with the subject: lots of space is taken up by pointless politenesses between the two Bembos, with Bembo jr. sometimes verging on obsequiousness, all of which certainly doesn't do anything to increase the reader's knowledge of Etna. Perhaps he was simply a bit in love with his own style; the front flap of the dust jacket says that he “was one of the most admired Latinists of his day”. Anyway, once he actually gets around to describing Etna and his ascent of it (¶41ff.), it's fairly interesting. There are also a few paragraphs of speculation about how and why volcanoes function the way they do (¶37–40).

But most of this book is taken up by Bembo's lyrical poetry. Many of these poems were pleasant enough to read, but I can't say that many of them were terribly touching or noteworthy for some other reason. There's a fair number of pastoral poems; lots and lots of short epitaphs; and a minor epic titled Sarca, some 600 lines long, which pretends to explain the origin of Lake Garda, and the course of certain rivers flowing into it, with a myth involving the tutelary deities of these various bodies of water. At the same time it is an all-round praise of the area, its towns and history, with particular emphasis on one of its most famous sons, Virgil. This is in a way not a bad read, but on the other hand it's again one of those things that make me wonder why anybody thought it worth his while to put pen to paper and write such a poem down, except perhaps as an exercise in style and literary technicalities. Nowadays this kind of thing would perhaps find its place in the ‘Local Interest’ shelf of a couple of local bookstores, but apart from that I don't see who would care to read such a ‘praise of such-and-such geographical area’ type of thing. But I've complained about this before, and there's no point in repeating myself.

I liked some of the shorter poems better. Some are quite openly erotic, e.g. #2, “Faunus Speaks to the River Nympeus”: “Hither come girls and boys [. . .] to swim in your water [. . .] And when they please, they couple everywhere [. . .] Boy rubs against boy, and bound each to each/ They perform their obscene thrustings before my very eyes” — although what really bothers Faunus is that “Although by long wickedness they are hardened to depravity,/ By some deceit or other they continue to flee my embraces” :-).

And #9, “Priapus”, is a lighthearted ode to the joys of sexuality: “Before all the others which my garden here brings forth,/ One plant entices the hands of girls [. . .] first it rises from a twofold foot; Tightened into a smooth stalk [. . .] its spacious head spread with a red like cinnabar [. . .] Some conceal it in the soft shade, but I have it always in the open” :-).

And I'm not quite sure what to make of #16, “About Galesus and Maximus”, which, although in a way modest and affectionate, is quite openly paederastic. Not that I object, but I'm surprised — after all, Bembo didn't live in ancient Rome, but in AD 1500 — weren't such things frowned upon then? And the poem's subtitle is “Modest verses written by the order of a great man: since all the other poets in Rome had also written by order of the same man”. Too bad that the translator's notes don't include any explanation of the background of this poem (if it is known).

Of the epitaphs, some are fairly conventional but some were quite touching. I particularly liked #36 (“If anything in all of nature was by chance hidden from you,/ You are reading it now, Leonico, in God's greatness”), #37 (“Why, harsh death, have you snatched away a maiden so lovely?/ Could it happen, woe is me! that love touches you also?”) and #38 (which is for his puppy: “Your master gave you everything, little dog Bembino,/ From whom you have a name, a tomb, and tears”). Although I must admit that when it comes to canine epitaphs, my favourite remains Byron's misanthropic masterpiece (and his other one is not bad either).

Another touching poem was #39, “A Fiction in the Ancient Manner”, about a woman who, after the death of her children and husband, commits suicide in order to be reunited with them. Another thing that strikes me as interesting in this poem is the pagan premiss underlying it; surely in christianity suicide would be unacceptable, and she would go to hell which presumably her husband or at least the children would be likely to avoid? All of which shows, I guess, that even if Bembo became a cardinal later in life, he was never any sort of tight-hearted zealot.

Another pleasant little poem was #2 in the Appendix B (i.e. one of the poems that are probably by Bembo, but we can't be quite sure), in which Love and Death accidentally mix their weapons (bows and arrows), leading of course to confusing results; in the end they almost attack each other with the other's weapon, but are stopped in the last moment — unfortunately, as otherwise “I would not now groan, wounded by Love's blow,/ And would be safe from the pitiless terms of death”.

In ll. 357–9 of the Sarca he mentions an etymology of the word ‘pheasant’: “the bird that takes its name from Phasis,/ Which, done away with in cruel slaughter, a treacherous mother/ Placed to be eaten upon his father's table”. But I'm not sure what this myth has got to do with pheasants (apart from the similarity of the name). The wikipedia describes Phasis as a river and says that ‘pheasant’ is “derived from this river, as it was in this region that the ancients first encountered the birds”.

One considerable plus for this book is that at least this time poems have been translated into verse, unlike in all the other ITRL poetry translations I've read so far, which were all completely ordinary prose. Who knows, maybe after some twenty more volumes or so, we'll get something with metre as well :-) But even without metre, it looks a fair bit more poetic this way already. So kudos to the translator!

Conclusion: compared to the other ITRL poetry volumes I've read so far (Poliziano and Vegio, both of which contain only longer poems), I liked this one better than either of them. Maybe it's a problem of genre: I like big, long, proper epic poems, and I also like nice little lyrical poems. But I don't particular care about short epics like those of Vegio, or Bembo's Sarca in this book; nor about longish didactical poems like those in the Poliziano ITRL volume. So I hope that we'll eventually get some more translations of lyrical poetry in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series.

P.S. I do have one small complaint about this book: it contains unusually many typos. I noticed three; perhaps there are more: “troube” (p. 127), “trtodden” (p. 169), “promontary” (p. 245).


  • One of the translator's notes on p. 262 mentions Isotta Nogarola, who “was considered one of the most learned women of her day and was an ardent feminist, engaging the Venetian Francesco Foscarini in a long epistolary debate on the relative guilt of Adam and Eve”. At first I thought what an impressively obscure author this must be, but then I noticed that her complete writings, in English, are readily available on amazon. Possibly this might be interesting to read. The same amazon page also links to some other rather more kooky-sounding Renaissance feminist texts, e.g. The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men. :-)

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

BOOK: Polydore Vergil, "On Discovery" (cont.)

Polydore Vergil: On Discovery. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 6. Harvard University Press, 2002. 0674007891. xxx + 721 pp.

[Continued from last week.]


As you can expect in a book that cites a lot of Herodotus, Pliny and the like, it's full of bizarre anthropological curiosities. See e.g. 1.4.6 on marriage-customs (“The Babylonians and Assyrians bought their wives at public auction [. . .] Others had sex with blood relatives, particularly their mothers and sisters, and even married them [. . .] Among the Nasamones and Augylans, [. . .] it was the custom that when one of them took a wife, the bride should spend the first night with each of the wedding guests as a tribute to Venus, and afterward she preserved her chastity forever.”). In 1.4.7 he mentions the ius primae noctis, saying that it used to be practiced by the Scots but “[b]ecause this practice was obviously the most disgraceful thing in Christian memory, King Malcolm III, their greatest leader, did away with it around the year 1090”.

Apparently the word ‘orgy’ has more respectable origins than I would have thought: among the Greeks, “orgia were esctatic mysteries or initiations [. . .] or worship and sacrifice in general, or even non-religious mysteries” (translator's note to 1.5.6).

In 1.6.8 Polydore mentions an Israeli king named Zorobabel — now I see where Crowley picked up his hilarious self-proclaimed title, ‘the Grand Zerubbabel’ (see my post about de Camp's Ragged Edge of Science).

On the development of the alphabet (1.6.12): “Q was added because it seemed to produce a sound fatter than C.” Yeah, what do those lardassed phonemes think they are? It's high time they got into the clutches of the dirty, money-grubbing, body-image-anxiety-inducing fingers of the dieting industry :-))

What happens when you allow pedants to wax lyrical on their masturbatory efforts: “To the young it is a necessity, to the old a delight; it is a sweet sharer of secrets, and alone of all studies more deed than show. This is what Quintilian says.” (1.7.4. “It” being the study of grammar.)

The mathematical symbol nabla (∇, for the gradient vector) is derived from the name of a lyre-like instrument, which was triangular in shape. The instrument is mentioned here in 1.15.7.

Astrological absurdities of one Julius Firmicus (1.17.1): “Whoever has a horoscope in the fourth part of Mercury will be an accountant; a horoscope in the Horse makes a charioteer”; fortunately Polydore laughs at him.

Shame: chapter 1.18, which is about geometry, doesn't mention Euclid.

On the first (Greek) physician in Rome (Archagathus, AUC 535): “He was at first a wound-specialist and eventually came to be called ‘torturer’ because of his ferocity in cutting and cauterizing.” (1.20.7. Eventually he and other Greek doctors were expelled from Italy.)

Physicians got the idea for bloodletting from, wait for this, hippos (1.21.7): “When its continual gluttony makes it catch cold, it comes out onto shore and looks about for fresh cuts in the reeds, and when it finds the sharpest plant, it presses its body down and wounds a certain vein in its leg. By shedding blood in this way it relieves its unhealthy body”. The same paragraph informs us that from the ibis they got the idea for the enema.

And here's why the day used to have twelve hours (2.5.1): “Hermes Trismegistus in Egypt had once observed that a certaain sacred animal consecrated to Serapis made urine twelve times a day and always at equal intervals; from this he concluded that the day should be divided into twelve hours.” I think I want some of the stuff that these people have been smoking :-)

From 2.9.2: “many people excelled at memory. King Cyrus of Persia produced the names of all the soldiers in his army, for example.” Reminds me of this Russian joke; and of the possibility that maybe the Persian army wasn't as large as we like to think.

The delights of the Lupercalia, when otherwise sane people were running about naked (2.14.2): “It is not much out of the way to note that Mark Antony, naked and oiled for these festivities, put a diadem on Caesar's head, according to Appian in book 2 of the Civil Wars.”

There's a whole chapter (2.17) about wreaths — apparently Greeks and Romans used to wear lots and lots of different kinds of wreaths, sometimes awarded for some particular deed or achievement, sometimes simply as a part of festive attire. “So the profusion of wreaths continued until at last the Greeks used them at banquets and symposia [. . .] serving them in drinking bowls for amusement.” (2.17.7. In the next paragraph he has an interesting anecdote about Cleopatra and Mark Anthony [sic — apparently he sprouted an extra ‘h’ since the previous quote], who “feared the queen's kindness and would take no food unless it had been tasted beforehand”; at some point, Cleopatra invited him to “drink the wreaths with her”, but then stopped him right in time, explaining that she had had his wreath poisoned to demonstrate how easily she could have poisoned him “could I but live without you”.)

From 2.19.1: “Asked why gold is pale, Diogenes gave a clever answer, according to Laertius: Because so many lie in wait for it, he replied.” :) Incidentally, this reminds me of a comment in a review of Lawrence James' Rise and Fall of the British Empire on amazon: “now I know why the British Empire was shown as pink on the map: it was blushing with shame.”

Amusing slanders against beer: “it increases urination, agitates the kidneys and nerves, obstructs the membranes (especially those covering the brain), brings on flatulence, creates a corrupt humor and causes elephantiasis. Whoever bathes in this sort of liquor comes out nibmle and ready for the task at hand. Dioscorides says this. But beer seems to have less of this effect on those who have used it since childhood.” (3.3.11.) But this is perhaps also a good example of Polidore's excessive reliance on classical authorities. He had lived in England for many years — surely he had had the chance to observe many regular beer-drinkers, and surely he knew damned well that none of them had elephantiasis. And yet he repeats these silly claims.

OMG: “In Greek something that cleans is called smēgma.” (3.6.3).

Chapter 3.10 is chock-full of gloriously crazy burial customs. “When parents, relatives or neighbors reached old age, they cut their throats and ate them, thinking it better that they dine on them rather than the worms. The Tibareni hung the old folks whom they loved best on gibbets” (3.10.11). “The Hyrcanians threw people half-dead to the birds and dogs. [. . .] The Assyrians preserved them with honey and covered them with wax. The Nabateans thought of corpses as dung and buried their kings in dung-pits.” (3.10.14. This last one has an eminent 20th-century immitator, namely Mao Zedong: “I'll take the lead. We should all be burnt after we die, turned into ashes and used for fertilizer.”) “The Bactrians cast old people to dogs that they had bred for this work” (3.10.15). “When great crowds of relatives had gathered, they tore the corpses to pieces with their teeth and ate them mixed with the flesh of animals, and then they wreathed their skulls with gold and used them as cups which, according to Pliny in book 4, was the final act of filial duty. [. . .] The Hyperboreans thought that the best kind of burial was this: When people felt themselves tired of life, they should dine and anoint themselves and then go to a particular cliff and throw themselves into the depths of the sea.” (3.10.16).

In 3.10.19 he describes the customs related to the Roman deification of a recently deceased emperor.

A story from Herodotus in 3.11.13: a blind king “heard an oracle from the city of Bucus that his sight would be returned to him if he washed his eyes with the urine of a woman who was happy with her husband alone and had nothing to do with other men”; after unsuccessful attempts with his wife and several other women, he eventually found one whose urine cured him: “He then burned all the women whom he had tested except the one whose urine had restored his sight when he washed with it — and her he married.” Ahem. Wasn't the oracle talking about married women only? If so, then what did he do to her husband? Anyway, Freud would be delighted with the happy end of the story: “Freed of his ailment, he set up a pair of spit-shaped stones called in the Temple of the Sun, each a hundred cubits high and eight on a side.”

Chapter 3.17 has several curious if slightly grisly prostitution-related anecdotes: the Cypriots would send “their unmarried maidens to seek dowry money by plying their trade on the seashore, making offerings to Venus in exchange for what remained of their chastity” (3.17.2). “After they had exhausted their country's wealth, it was also the custom among the Babylonians for any commoner who lacked a livelihood to compel his daughters to make a living with their bodies. Also, once in their lifetimes women were the common property of all the populace. They sat near the temple of Venus with garlands tied about their heads [. . .] she was forbidden to return home until one of the strangers tossed money in her lap and had intercourse with her. [. . .] The prettier women were quickly released, but not so the plain, who often had to wait a year or two. Such was the law whose purpose was to preserve the honor of the goddess Venus, according to Herodotus in book 1.” (3.17.3.)

Some interesting things were discovered later than I imagined: stirrups weren't known in ancient Rome (3.18.5, see also translator's note on p. 683: they were known in central Asia earlier but came to Europe only in the early middle ages). Saddles weren't used “until the early empire”, iron horse-shoes “were not common until the late empire” (translator's note to 2.12.2, p. 634).

I'm not sure what to make of this curious sentence from the translator's notes (p. 586): “About a third of the language of the Hebrew Bible is poetry, but its structure has not yet been explained.”

A great name for a city inhabited by philosophers: “Erastus and Coriscus were Platonic philosophers who lived in Skepsis” (translator's note to 2.6.4, p. 627).

There's an interestng translator's note on triumphs and ovations on p. 640: “The standard for earning a triumph was to have killed five thousand enemies in one battle” etc.

Translator's note to 2.19.8 (p. 645): “Anacharsis, a Scythian prince, is supposed to have visited Athens toward the end of the sixth century BCE. As an ideal type of the wise and noble savage, he was credited with various inventions, but his criticisms of technology — seafaring especially — were also legendary.” Wow, here's something I never thought I would see — a Scythian prince seen as a noble savage?! Weren't they, like, notorious for scalping their enemies, sacrificing servants and concubines at the burials of their kings, and whatever other lurid anecdotes Herodotus managed to pick up about them? But then perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised; after all, when Europeans came into contact with the American Indians, they similarly regarded them sometimes as bloodthirsty monsters and sometimes as noble savages.

On mentions of trade in Homer's works: note to 2.20.2 (p. 645) and to 3.16.1 (p. 680).


So, if you decide to read this book, bear in mind what you'll be getting yourself into, so that you aren't disappointed afterwards. You'll get plenty of interesting (and sometimes curious or even quite bizarre) little factoids about how the origin or discovery of this, that or the other thing was explained and attributed by various ancient authors. What you won't get, though, is: an awareness that the world may be older than 5000+ years; that there may be anything before the time of Abraham except biblical history (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, etc.), and that therefore many things may have been known to other nations long before the biblical Hebrews mention them for the first time; that many ‘discoveries’ weren't really the sort of thing that can be ascribed to any individual person at a specific moment in time, but are rather the result of a long and gradual process; that, for many technologies and social practices, their origin cannot be satisfactorily ascertained just by careful sifting of the writings of ancient authors; etc.

Of course, it would hardly be reasonable to expect all these things from a 15th/16th-century author such as Polydore. In his time the knowledge of ancient history beyond that reported by classical authors and the bible was sketchy or nonexistent; archaeology didn't yet exist, nor did the idea that many things in history proceed by long-term processes rather than by momentous acts of important individuals. So if you want to really learn about the origins of this or that, read some modern book; but as a cabinet of curiosities, On Discovery functions quite pleasantly. Its short chapters make it great for dipping into, you can almost open it at random and read that chapter and you'll be sure to find something interesting in it.


  • I definitely think I should eventually read Herodotus and Pliny — Polydore often mentions curious anecdotes from their works, so why not go straight to the horse's mouth?

  • As I mentioned above, this ITRL edition contains only the first three (of eight) books of On Discovery. There also exists a translation of the whole thing, by Beno Weiss and Lousi C. Pérez, published as Beginnings and Discoveries (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1997). But I'm not sure if I want to read it; if I understand correctly, books 4–8 are mostly about (Christian) religion. Besides, there's just one copy currently on ABE, and it costs €176. (Hardly surprising for these obscure Dutch publishers — I guess I should be glad that it isn't Brill, in which case it would probably cost €276 :))) Well, anyway, it's good that it's so expensive; at least I won't be tempted to buy it.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Spam meseca

OMG, tako bizarnega kosa spama pa že lep čas nisem dobil. Nekaj odlomkov iz te 11 KB dolge mojstrovine:

(Guardians of Light Power and Ability Activation Intensive)

19 dnevna edinstvena multidimenzionalna možnost

Ne pa tako kot naši konkurentje, ki vas najprej sploščijo v premico...

da, globinsko transformirate svojo zavest,

Z našim novim ultra super duper turbomatic globinskim sesalnikom z rdečo črto po sredi! In če pokličete v naslednje pol ure...

podzavest, nadzavest in instinktivni um.

Da o slepiču in hemeroidih niti ne govorimo.

Ali ste dovolj drzni, da se spomnite, kdo v resnici ste?

Ali pa celo toliko drzni, da pošiljate okoli spam, poln new-ageovske megle?

Že sedaj rezervirajte čas, za svoje intenzivne, revolucionarne življenjske spremembe, da postanete to, kar ste si že vedno želeli biti.

OK, si bom rezerviral kakšnih 10–20 let, za kolikor bom najbrž pristal v kehi po ropu banke.

Prebudite se! Nadgradite vse svoje sposobnosti iz preteklosti, sedanjosti in prihodnosti.

Recite »NE!« pritisku, ki vas sili v rutinsko delo, k robotskem odzivanju, ki vam ga nekdo podzavestno vsiljuje, osvobodite se, živite v svoji božanski esenci, ki vam omogoča genialne potenciale.

Sem že mislil, da piše „genitalne“, as in: “hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit”...


Tako kot tisti Gorenjec na smrtni postelji: „Žena, otroci, a ste vsi tukaj? Ja zakaj pa potem v kuhinji luč gori?“

Največ trplenja in negativnih problemov, čeprav so izkustva tako splošna, so tako docela na izbiro.

Ja, jaz sem na primer docela izbral, da hočem prebirati vaše obupne pravopisne napake in vsesplošno zblojeni slog pisanja.

Sedaj je čas, da preusmerimo to ogromno količino energije, katera je bila po nepotrebnem potratena za utečene težave in trpljenja.

Raje jo preusmerimo v popolnoma nove in izvirne težave in trpljenja.

Če želite izkušati svojo prvinsko moč… Če želite, da vaša duša svobodno dilha… Če se želite znebiti suženjstva sedanjega, preteklega in prihodnjega časa na vseh nivojih vašega bitja,

...potem vam mi prav gotovo ne moremo pomagati.

Sklicujem vse Varuhe moči Svetlobe, da se tudi v letu 2007 pridružite delavnicam Rowlanda Antona Barkleya, Mojstru Šamanu globoke TransFormacije

In faliranemu programerju, vsaj sodeč po njegovi obsedenosti z velikimi črkami na sredini besed.

in NLP trenerju

„Leti, sinko, leti!“


Delavnica je izredno uspešna za vse vrste zasvojenosti, kot so cigarete, alkohol, telesna teža, tablete, trde in mehke droge,...

Problem jim predstavlja le še zasvojenost z new-age blodnjami...

ANTOS 1: (Energetic Stability and Healing Activation)
Šamanska iniciacija ter čiščenje telesa, aktivirajte svoje zdravilne sposobnosti

Sliši se tako, kot da se ga bodo najprej na mrtvo zadeli, nato se pošteno skozlali in se na koncu ubadali z zdravljenjem mačka.

( Dinamična Uglasitev Sistemskih Uspehov )

Sponzor dogodka je Snaga d.d. — odvoz kosovnega materiala, coming soon to a place near you! Aja, piše karme, ne krame...

ANTOS 2-3-4 Praktik ANTOS Energetskega Osvobajanja
Naziv po končanih modulih 2,3,4 je; Praktik ANTOS Energetskega Osvobajanja

Tudi vi lahko kradete sosedom elektriko! Vse, kar potrebujete, so klešče, nekaj metrov kabla in noč, ko ne sveti luna!

Modul 2 – Zdravljenje na daljavo – Terapija Višjega Jaza

Glej narcissistic personality disorder.

Modul 3 – Uvod v osebno moč in osvoboditev (eksorcizem)

Bah! Zakaj bi pri eksorcizmu zaupali tem šušmarjem? Obrnite se raje na preverjene strokovnjake z 2000-letnimi izkušnjami :)

ANTOS 5-6-7-8 Mojster Praktik ANTOS Energetskega Osvobajanja

Alias kako nakrasti dovolj elektrike za celo obrtno delavnico ali manjšo tovarno.

Za prihodnje leto pripravljamo ANTOS 9-10-11-12 Mojster MultiPraktik, če se prijavite v naslednje pol ure, pa dobite zraven še knjižico receptov in poseben nož za sekljanje čebule.


Ko imaš enkrat zastonj elektriko, je vse ostalo enostavno.


Ni ga čez dobro staro zdravljenje z elektrošoki.

ANTOS Deep Transformational Trance Training
Naziv po končanem modulu je; Terapevt of Deep Transformational Trance

Prinesite s seboj kramp in lopato za kopanje v globino ter radio s čim močnejšimi zvočniki. Plošče s trance glasbo priskrbimo mi.


Fakulteta za elektrotehniko jih bo v kratkem uvedla kot obvezen pogoj za sprejem na študij, v parlamentu pa je že v obravnavi predlog zakona, da boš potreboval vsaj modul 6 že za to, da boš sploh smel prižgati luč v hiši, modul 3 pa za prižiganje vžigalic. Slednje podpira tudi ministrstvo za zdravje v okviru svojega boja za preprečevanje kajenja.


Natančneje povedano, ljudje širom sveta priznavajo, da če ti zmanjka WC-papirja, so tile certifikati vsekakor boljši kot brisanje s prstom.

SERIJA ZA ANTOS Inicijacijskih Tehnik je sestavljena iz:

  • Holografsko Časovno Črtno Zdravljenje: Integracija duše za terapevte

Osnovni tečaj uporablja Riemanna, za posebej zakrknjene primerke pa sta tu še Lebesgue in Stieltjes.

  • Goloboki TranceFormacijski Trance Trening

Goloboki? Woo hoo! Hips don't lie!

  • Globoka Transformacija Sence: Eksorcizem za Terapevte

Gostujoči predavatelj grof Drakula bo pokazal, kako pacientu najlažje odpravimo senco.

  • ANTOS Neurolongvistična Aktivacija

Seveda — menda niste mislili, da se dá do vseh teh trapastih tipkarskih napak priti kar tako, iz gole šlamparije?!

Pogojno za Tiste, ki so zaključili uspešno Inicijacijske Terapije stopnje 1,2 in 3 in 4 in so si pridobili NLP Master Practitioner Certifikat sedaj poleg njega še specialna nadgradnja : certifikat ANTOS Neurolongvistična Aktivacija.

Poceni ponujamo tudi certifikate NLP Master Baiter, Cunning Neuro Linguist in licenco za neomejeno zlorabo velikih začetnic z lastnoročnim podpisom Njenega Veličanstva in celotnega uredniškega zbora oxfordskega slovarja!

  • Sile Narave Univerzuma uporabne za Inicijacijsko Terapijo
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Pripeljite s sabo še kakšno devico. Sponzor dogodka je K-Y.

P.S. Kakršna koli povezava med kratico ANTOS in nekim Antonom Szandorjem je zgolj naključna.



Seminar bo koordininan z izidom prevoda naslednjega dela Harrya Potterja. Prvih 50 udeležencev dobi zastonj čarobno paličko.


Predavajo prebegli špijoni iz SOVE in drugih propadlih tajnih agencij :)

Garantirano 100% zadovoljstvo! Udeležencu, ki ima ob koncu delavnice občutek, da delavnica ni bila zanj, se povrne celotni znesek plačila delavnice. Pogoji za povrnitev celotnega zneska so: delavnica je bila v celoti plačana pred začetkom delavnice, udeleženec je prisoten na delavnici od začetka do konca delavnice, udeleženec vrne vso prejeto gradivo in podpiše izjavo, da je vse naučeno zanj neuporabno v njegovem življenju. Rowland A. Barkley

OMG :)))) Ne dvomim v to, da se tu skriva nek hakeljc, sem pa zelo radoveden, v čem :))

Sporočilo ste skladno s 45a. členom Zakona o varstvu potrošnikov prejeli na osnovi svoje prijave na spletnih straneh [8< 8< 8<], na osnovi telefonske ali e-prijave, na podlagi priporočila, sodelovanja v nagradni igri, izpolnjenega anketnega lista na prireditvah, seminarjih in drugih podobnih dogodkih v organizaciji ANTOS = ANTOS d.o.o. Črnomelj Če nočeš več prejemati naših emailov klikni tu

Oh, ravno nasprotno! Pravzaprav si jih zelo želim še naprej prejemati, da se jim bom lahko še naprej posmehoval.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

BOOK: Polydore Vergil, "On Discovery"

Polydore Vergil: On Discovery. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 6. Harvard University Press, 2002. 0674007891. xxx + 721 pp.

A lament

This is a clear sign that senility is creeping fast upon me. Generally, I read the I Tatti Renaissance Library volumes in the same order they were published, with some exceptions (e.g. I'm skipping Ficino's Platonic Theology because reading it would require as much effort as reading a mathematical textbook, but his arguments (if I may judge by book I which is the only part of it I've read so far) are so full of holes, unwarranted religious axioms, and all-round wishful thinking that I really can't bring myself to spend so much effort on such a book). Anyway, after I had read Vegio's Minor Epics, I was wondering what comes next, and then I remembered that nice big fat book of Polydore's On Discovery, and I started wondering when I would finally get to read that. After some searching I found that the book was on my stack of already-read ITRL books rather than on the not-yet-read one; which rather surprised me as I was sure that I hadn't yet read it, but its ITRL sequence number is 6 while Vegio's is #15 — why then hadn't I read On Discovery before? Anyway, I figured there's nothing else to do but to start reading On Discovery before moving on to the later ITRL volumes from the not-yet-read stack.

I got nearly halfway through the book before one particular passage finally started to seem a little bit too familiar. It finally struck me that I am, after all, keeping an Excel file with a list of all the books I have, and there I also keep track of which ones I've read so far. And sure enough, when I went to look there, I saw Polydore marked as already-read. So I had read it, but had then forgotten about that so completely that I could read almost half of the book again before realizing that I'm reading it for the second time, not the first. Utterly shameful senility.

But anyway, there's something good even in this. When I had read it for the first time, I wasn't yet keeping this blog, so by re-reading it now I have the opportunity to write a post about it. Besides, it was a pleasant enough read (more interesting than pretty much all the other ITRL volumes I've read so far), so I continued reading even after I realized that I had already read it before.

About this book

In this book, Polydore (a 15th/16th-century humanist) describes the origin of numerous discoveries and practices — from almost all spheres of life, e.g. technology, society, culture, etc. Only religion is not covered so well because this volume contains only books I–III of On Discovery, whereas the origins of various Christian practices and such things are covered in the rest of the work (books IV–VIII, not included in this volume).

The book is divided into a number of fairly short chapters, each about one particular subject, e.g. gods, languages, marriage-related customs, religions, letters, grammar, poetry, meter, tragedy, comedy, satire, history, rhetoric, music, philosophy, astrology, astronomy, geometry, medicine, magic, divination, laws, government, calendar, books, writing, memory, military science, weapons, horsemanship, sports and games, truces and treaties, triumphs, wreaths, perfume, metals, fire, coins, rings and jewelry, glass, statues, incense, painting, ceramics, farming, hunting, cloth and clothes, architecture and building, towns, labyrinths, pyramids, obelisks, theatre, carpentry, sailing, trade, prostitution, etc.

I must say that I also admire the editor/translator for the thorough job he's done; although I'm not interested in textual criticism, I cannot help being impressed by the critical apparatus in this book, which shows that he has collated the text of nine early editions! There are also lots and lots of interesting notes (about a hundred pages) to the text itself, as well as precise references to all the passages from ancient authors to which Polydore often refers just vaguely. There's also a fairly extensive introduction of almost 30 pages. I do have a small complaint about the notes, though: the page headers don't say which book the notes on those pages are to; so when you see that they are e.g. the notes to chapter 13, you don't know if it's chapter 13 of the first, second or third book, so you have to leaf back and forth to find what you are looking for.

Polydore's methodology

Polydore's approach usually consists more or less of summarizing what various ancient authors have to say on the subject. Among the pagan authors, his favourite authority is Pliny, but also other encyclopedic authors, such as Diogenes Laertius and Diodorus Siculus; for Jewish and Christian history, he mostly refers to Josephus and Eusebius. Sometimes the various authorities conflict amongst themselves, which he usually resolves by saying that if various authors attribute a discovery to different persons, this probably means that each of these persons was actually the first one to discover that thing among his own people, while elsewhere somebody else may have discovered the same thing independently, and possibly earlier.

He is very keen to identify each discoverer by name, even in the case of discoveries for which it would be obvious to us nowadays that trying to pin them down to an individual inventor is silly, e.g. agriculture. Sometimes, of course, his authorities let him down and he has to regretfully admit that the name of the discoverer has been lost in the mists of time :)

He is also very keen about priority — he wants to know who was the first to discover something, even if others elsewhere discovered it independently. This pissing-contest mentality is especially regretful considering the fact that he is far from an impartial observer — you can see quite clearly that he is rooting for the Judeo-Christian side as opposed to the Greco-Roman one :) His job is made quite easy by virtue of the chronology established by Eusebius. Eusebius tried to place various events from secular and biblical history on a common time-scale (pp. 493–502), in the course of which he e.g. places Abraham at 2016 BC, Moses at 1592 BC, the Trojan war in 1191–1182 BC, and so on. Polydore follows Eusebius' chronology and for many discoveries, he simply has to look up the earliest mention of that thing in the bible, see where that fits into Eusebius' chronology, and conclude (without taking much trouble to conceal his gloating and glee) that this is so and so many centuries earlier than e.g. the Trojan war / the reign of Saturn / etc., and thus much earlier than any mention of this discovery among the pagan classical authors (see also p. xix).

(Incidentally, Polydore and Eusebius believe that when an ancient author attributes the discovery to some pagan god or demigod, this actually means that the thing was discovered by an ordinary human king or ruler who later came to be worshipped as a god (this is known as Euhemerism, p. xix). Some of these supposed rulers were even assigned places in the Eusebian chronology, e.g. Zeus in the 20th century BC, Apollo in the 14th, etc. Admittedly, history indeed shows many examples of rulers who tried to get themselves worshipped as gods, either during their lifetime and/or posthumously; e.g. pharaohs, Roman emperors, etc.; but to say that nearly all pagan gods originate in deified human rulers (and that even the century of their reign can be determined) is, I think, an unacceptable and silly generalization.)

Almost all of the discoveries he mentions are no later than the late antiquity; the few exceptions are printing (mentioned in 2.7.8–9) and firearms (2.11.5–7, 3.18.3–4). Every now and then he does grudgingly admit that many interesting new things are still being discovered (3.18), but then he usually goes on to talk about ancient things anyway. Sometimes he even seems somewhat disapproving of discoveries in general, suggesting that they cause more trouble than good. For example, he often laments discoveries related to ship-building and navigation, because they cause people to risk long voyages, and sometimes to lose their lives, in the pursuit of maritime trade (3.6.1, 3.15); but he doesn't ever seem to stop and think about how many good things also come from overseas trading. Anyway, I'm not the kind of person who would be uncritically happy about every new discovery, but his conservatism is surely unreasonable and excessive.

Here's one of the rare instances where he admits that progress keeps on going — and even here he has to cite an ancient author in support of this: “no art has stood still, as Quintilian says, remaining as it was when invented” (3.2.9).

Money money money

There's an interesting discussion in 2.3.12–13 about the growth of Roman wealth. “[W]hen Servius Tullius was king, according to Pliny in book 33, the highest census was 110,000 [asses], which makes 1,100 gold pieces. And this, as Pliny says, was in the first class, so scanty were the resources of the Romans at that time; later they became huge when the senatorial census was 1,200 sestertia, according to Suetonius. [. . .] it should be recognized that each sestertium was worth twenty-five gold pieces [. . .] From this calculation we conclude that the senatorial census was at the level of 30,000 gold-pieces and the equestrian at 12,500”. The gold-pieces Polydore refers to are “our ducats or gold crowns” (earlier in the same paragraph); according to the Wikipedia, one ducat is 3.4909 grams of gold, which would make the senatorial census was equivalent to 104.7 kilograms of gold, which as of this writing equals $2.2 million, or €1.7 million.

In 3.5.11 he mentions that Cleopatra's famous banquet that involved the drinking of a pearl cost “ten million sesterces (100 times 100,000 sesterces, which makes 250 of our gold pieces)”. I'm not quite sure how all this fits together; all the dictionaries say that one sestertium equals 1000 sesterces; thus, if, as the previous quote said, one sestertium equals 25 gold pieces, then 1000 sesterces also equal 25 gold pieces, and ten million sesterces equal 250,000 gold pieces, enough money to make eight senators and have almost enough left for a knight :-) This does seem a bit unrealistically extravagant for a dinner, even for Cleopatra. But a mere 250 gold-pieces for the whole banquet seems unrealistically modest; if we multiply this by 3.4909, we get 872 grams of gold, currently around $19000 — from what I've heard, nowadays in the U.S. that kind of money would hardly suffice for a middle-class wedding, much less a royal banquet.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Landovrski baptisti v Mladini

V trenutni številki Mladine na webu je tudi en čisto zanimiv članek Marcela Štefančiča jr. Vendar pa v delu, kjer govori o histeričnih odzivih nekaterih ameriških pobožnjakarjev na knjige o Harryu Potterju, vsebuje tudi tole cvetko:

na spletni strani Landovrske baptistične cerkve, "ki odrešuje že vse tja od leta 1620", pa je pisalo, da je sežiganje Potterja del "duhovnega prebujenja", ki je Ameriko zajelo po 11. septembru - in seveda, da se kristjani sežiganja knjig ne sramujejo, da jih sežigajo že več kot 2000 let, da je Landovrska baptistična cerkev doslej sežgala že več kot 3,4 milijona knjig, da je to promocija njihove vere v Jezusa Kristusa in ena izmed najlepših stvari, ki jih lahko naredi kristjan.

Avtor bodisi (1) ne ve, da je Landover Baptist Church le satira, bodisi (2) to ve, pa je ta podatek raje zanemaril, ker potem teh njihovih bizarnosti ne bi mogel vključiti v svoj članek. V vsakem primeru sem rahlo razočaran — možnost (1) je žalostna, kajti ameriški verski fanatiki sicer res znajo priti na dan z vsakovrstnimi bizarnostmi, ampak web site landovrskih baptistov je pa le toliko čez rob, da človek že skoraj mora podvomiti v njihovo resnost; možnost (2) pa je še bolj žalostna, ker je to neke vrste goljufija in tega od Marcela Štefančiča ne bi pričakoval.