Sensational new Linear B tablet discovery in Athens

Update: please note the ‘discovery’ date of this tablet on April 1st…some helpful explanations (and a few more classical news items from April 1st) here!

Linear B tablet (replica)

Archaeologists working on a rescue excavation in Athens city centre have just announced the discovery of a series of clay tablets inscribed in the Linear B script, the first to be found in the city. The tablets date from the end of the Bronze Age, c.1200 BCE, and provide exciting new evidence for ritual practices in Mycenaean Greece. According to the excavation director, Professor Ilithios Apriliou, the texts refer to a ritual taking place on the first day of the month Apate, tentatively identified as the fourth month of the Mycenaean year. Participants in the ritual are recorded as receiving varying quantities of barley, while other tablets list offerings of wine and olive oil to the god Hermes (Hermahas in Mycenaean Greek). The most enigmatic of the tablets appears to act as an introduction to the whole series; while much of its text is currently obscure, Prof. Apriliou believes it describes a part of the ritual in which participants compete to tell the most outrageous stories in honour of the trickster god Hermes. The tablet is, however, badly damaged, and this interpretation relies heavily on Prof. Apriliou’s suggested restorations; an alternative reading, in which the festival is simply opened by a council of elders, is equally possible, and only close further study – and, it is to be hoped, further discoveries of tablets – will reveal the true nature of this mysterious ancient celebration.


Whither the Rubicon?

Why has no-one else thought of this before? No need to keep having these endless scholarly debates, just hold a trial and have a judge decide once and for all. Think of all the paper we’d save!


… apparently there’s going to be a mock trial do decide which of the potamonial (if that isn’t a word, it should be) claimants’ cases hold water. Excerpts from the Guardian’s hype:


On Saturday, in the usually peaceful town of San Mauro Pascoli, near Rimini, the centuries-old debate will be reopened in a mock trial that aims to deliver a verdict, once and for all, on the identity of the real Rubicon. It is a battle that pitches neighbouring towns against each other and divides impassioned locals into three equally zealous camps – one for each river in question.

Fierce as Caesar’s battle with Pompey was, it may have nothing on this. The judge, however, is expected to draw the line at severed heads.

In 1933, a time when Benito Mussolini was fully versed in the rehabilitation of Rome’s ancient glory for contemporary political purposes, he decided the debate…

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Caecilius est in metro?

I feel I have to share my recent discovery (sadly made via the internet rather than in person) that Wallsend Metro Station in Newcastle has bilingual signage in English and Latin:

Image from Wikipedia

It also has pictures of “Romanised” local shops, of which the one of the Job Centre labelled “Forum Venalicium” – “slave market” – seems to be the most popular.

Weird and Wonderful Classics: Warfare and Weapons

Apologies for getting slightly carried away with the alliteration in the title; it’s to make up for the fact that I wanted to call this ‘Classics and Explosions’ but couldn’t, because frankly there just weren’t much in the way of explosives in the ancient Mediterranean. As already discussed, the closest we really get is ‘Greek Fire’, the mysterious substance invented by the Byzantines: since it couldn’t be extinguished by water, it came in pretty handy in sea-battles. That definitely comes under the W&W heading, but sadly it’s a little bit late for ‘Classics’, and it didn’t really explode as such. However, it turns out on further investigation that there are easily enough other weird and wonderful weapons to make up for this lack.

Continue reading “Weird and Wonderful Classics: Warfare and Weapons”

Weird and Wonderful Classics: Sheep

The great thing about Classics is that even the most boring of animals (which, let’s face it, sheep generally are) can turn out to be quite weird and wonderful after all. As a philologist, I’ve always been rather fond of Greek sheep, for two reasons:

One: they provide important evidence for pronunciation changes in the Greek language. If anyone ever asks you to prove that Ancient Greek was pronounced differently from Modern Greek, by far the easiest way to do it is to point out that Ancient Greek sheep go βῆ βῆ [bē ]:

ὁ δ’ ἠλίθιος ὥσπερ πρόβατον βῆ βῆ λέγων βαδίζει

“The silly man goes around going baa baa like a sheep” (Cratinus, fragment 43)

Unless your interlocutor can find a breed of sheep that makes a noise like vee vee, you can at this point be regarded as having won the argument.

(The wonderfully onomatopoeic but sadly uncommon term βληχητά, “bleaters” [blēkhēta], will also do the trick.)

Continue reading “Weird and Wonderful Classics: Sheep”

Weird and Wonderful Classics: The Octopus

A pale coloured stirrup jar with a swirly brown painted octopus.This is going to be a series in which, basically, I post (hopefully) entertaining stories/quotes about any theme I happen to feel like at the time.  If you’ve got a favourite funny story/quote – or have just always wanted to know what the Greeks and Romans said about, say, volcanoes, or mushrooms, or anything, really – feel free to suggest it for future posts! In the meantime – octopuses:*

The Mycenaeans seem to have been rather fond of octopuses, judging by the number of jars they painted them on – for example this stirrup jar in the Met

In fact, they liked them so much they even decorated furniture with them: one Linear B tablet lists

“a footstool inlaid with a man and a horse and an octopus and a griffin (or palm tree)** in ivory”

Move on a few hundred years, though, and for some reason Homer doesn’t talk about octopuses much; he’s a bit busy going on about stuff like heroism and tragic deaths. Clearly the Mycenaeans had a better sense of priorities. He does manage to get an octopus into a simile in the Odyssey, though, when Odysseus has been shipwrecked and is swimming for shore; he grabs a rock, but the waves tear him away:

ὡς δ᾽ὅτε πουλύποδος θαλάμης ἐξελκομένοιο
πρὸς κοτυληδονόφιν πυκιναὶ λάιγγες ἔχονται,
ὣς τοῦ πρὸς πέτρῃσι θρασειάων ἀπὸ χειρῶν
ῥινοὶ ἀπέδρυφθεν

Just as when an octopus is dragged from its lair, and pebbles cling to its suckers, so pieces of skin were torn from his strong hands on the rocks

The best thing about this simile is that it’s not Odysseus who’s clinging on like an octopus; it’s the bits of skin that are left sticking to the rocks like octopus-suckers. Which is a bizarre/grotesque enough image to make this one of my favourite Homeric similes ever.

The ‘Weird and Wonderful’ prize, however, has to go to Pliny the Elder, who tells the story of an octopus which used to climb out of the sea and into the fish-pickling tubs on the shore, and eat all the fish. To stop it, the fish-picklers built a fence around the tubs – which the octopus promptly climbed over with the aid of a handy tree. Eventually they set a pack of dogs on it, but the fight was pretty much going the octopus’ way until the watchmen finally finished it off with their spears. According to Pliny, it weighed 700 pounds, and its tentacles were 30 feet in length.

A brown octopus sitting in a fir tree.I’m not entirely sure why a 700-pound, 30-foot long octopus needed a tree to get past a fence, but perhaps it felt a more inventive method than simply squashing the fence was needed to ensure its place in the (natural) history books. Another possibility is that this is the first recorded sighting of a Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, in which case this might provide evidence of a Mediterranean origin for this (unfortunately poorly-understood) species.

* The Greek and Latin words πολύπους and polypus can actually refer to squid and cuttlefish as well. I’m sticking with ‘octopus’ since it’s more convenient than ‘unspecified marine animal with tentacles’.

** You get this kind of thing a lot reading Linear B. At least it gives us Mycenologists plenty to argue about.