Saturday 25 April 2015

Dentists Modern and Ancient

I look like the right-hand Scythian (4th century BC, from Crimea)
An arduous week at work was made worse by a nasty bout of toothache. This will be a short blog, written while waiting for the penicillin to kick in and stop whatever revolting things are happening in my upper left jaw. (Those who would enjoy a longer text, about love and transcendent beauty rather than decomposing molars, are invited to stop reading now and instead click on my article about translations of Sappho in this month’s New York Review of Books).

Martinez de Castrillo's Brief Colloquy
I have been mumbling some prayers from the right-hand side of my mouth to Apollonia, patron saint of dentistry, to ask for a speedy recovery. Here is one short enough to utter while suffering only two twinges. It appears in a book by a Spanish doctor called Francisco Martínez de Castrillo, first published in 1557:

Illustrious virgin martyr, Apollonia,
Pray to the Lord for us
Lest for our offences and sins we be punished
By diseases of the teeth.

The Passion of Poor Apollonia
Short but to the point. Apollonia wasn’t herself a dentist, but an elderly spinster who lived in Alexandria. She was also a Christian, apprehended by a mob during the persecutions which took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius (who was actually from Serbia) in 249 AD.

Poor Apollonia was tortured by having her teeth forcibly knocked out before she was burned to death. We know this from a letter from (1) an Alexandrian bishop to (2) a Syrian bishop quoted by (3) the Palestinian/Caesarean bishop Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History 6.41.

Despite her violent demise, parts of St. Apollonia’s skull, jaws and teeth managed to escape from Egypt and are to be found in several ancient churches in Rome, Naples, Volterra, Bologna, Brussels, Antwerp, Cologne and even French-speaking Canada. If any of you are anywhere near one her relics, please put in a word for me.

Friday 17 April 2015

An Encounter with the Greek Letter Tau

Lecturing at Hunter College in New York City has introduced me to a monumental public sculpture called TAU right outside the college’s doors on Lexington Avenue. It is the work of Tony Smith (1912-1980), a famous architect-turned artist from New Jersey who once worked as a welder for Frank Lloyd Wright and later taught at Hunter.

The college is proud of TAU. The Classics Department website points out the ancient Greek connection, but nobody could explain the sculpture’s meaning to me. Cue for several hours of jetlagged wakefulness investigating this ancient symbol, which the Greeks borrowed from the final letter of the Phoenician alphabet, taw. In Phoenician the word 'taw', which gave the letter its name, meant simply a ‘mark’ and looked like our ‘X’. The Greeks rotated it to the perpendicular and knocked its top off.

Tau matters.  In mathematics, it holds the secret of the circle constant. It is the ratio comparing the circumference of a circle with its radius, which is apparently more important than the much-celebrated pi, invented in the 18th century, which compares the circumference with the diameter. There is a movement to get rid of pi altogether in teaching maths and replace it with tau: an Oxford conference in 2013 was entitled "Tau versus Pi: Fixing a 250-Year-Old Mistake."

Tony Smith’s family ran a municipal waterworks factory. He was fascinated by the machinery of heavy industry. TAU has little to do with circles, so I suspect the meaning Tau Smith was interested in was the one it holds in mechanics. Tau means a ‘shear stress’, a force which is parallel to a material cross section. If you squash the top of a rectangular shaped object it becomes deformed into a parallelogram. Smith’s TAU looks like diagrams showing one of these squashed parallelograms.

Zoser's Pyramid
But TAU also sports fancy geometrical shapes on its diverse faces. I was not at all surprised to read that Smith’s greatest hero was the Egyptian Imhotep, who designed the Pyramid of Zoser and is probably the first artist in world history whose name is known. So I’d met not only the ancient Greeks on this Manhattan sidewalk, but the Phoenicians and Egyptians too. 

Saturday 11 April 2015

Water in Yemen then and Now

Yemeni Children's Desperate Quest for Clean Water
Water shortage threatens more than fifteen million people in Yemen, many of them young children, with death by famine and disease. Drought is not the right word: there is actually enough water—more is supplied by nature than in some nearby countries—but it has been hopelessly mismanaged. The water table drops further every day. Few can afford the diesel required to operate the pumps; a disgraceful proportion of the available H2O is used to irrigate crops of qat, the leaves of which, when chewed, offer adult men addictive mood-enhancement.

It is staggering that any population in that oil-rich part of the world can run out of diesel. Can’t the Yemenis’ neighbours in Saudi or Oman spare a few barrels? The (Sunni) Saudis have instead been bombing Yemen in the hopes of wiping out the rebel (Shia) Houthis, while failing, despite pledges, to support international humanitarian efforts to help civilians. The thirsty millions without clean water are, in consequence, terribly vulnerable to disease.

Beyonce costumed as Queen of Sheba
Archaeology reveals that the South Arabians, or Sabaeans,  had effective irrigation systems from as early as 1500 BC. The fecund, prosperous homeland of the Queen of Sheba, a civilisation with advanced literacy and enigmatic sculptures, the Sabaean realm, was known to the Greeks as Arabia Eudaimon and the Romans as Arabia Felix (‘Happy’ or ‘Blessed’); it is the ‘fortunate city’ beside the Indian Ocean, offering exotic opportunities, mentioned in Aristophanes’ comedy about utopias, his Birds of 414 BC.

The ancient alphabet of south Arabia
Complex Sabaean irrigation systems indicate proper human humility and respect towards nature. The mental and physical labour involved in maintaining them always posed problems to would-be invaders of Arabia Felix. Augustus, attracted by its famous wealth, tried to ‘subdue’ it in 26 BC, but the geographer Strabo reports that his general Aelius Gallus lost many soldiers to local diseases ‘caused by the water’.  The Romans had to carry water supplies on camels on long marches. They abandoned sieges on the brink of victory because the water ran out. The entire army died, but only seven of them in combat. It was a humiliating defeat.
Ancient Art of Arabia Felix

The Roman poet Horace wrote his cryptic Ode 1.29 about Iccius, a philosophical friend who had joined Gallus on the doomed imperial quest for south Arabian booty:  ‘Why are you so greedy for the Arabs’ rich treasures? The tough life of the army? Sheba’s kings aren’t even conquered yet.’

The Well-Watered Natural Environment of North Yemen
The difference today is that the people who are about to die from lack of water are not the invaders but the residents. They have been utterly betrayed. Taking ancient archaeology and history more seriously might just have helped prevent this entirely avoidable catastrophe. Arabia is Infelix now.

Saturday 4 April 2015

A Pint of ‘Classics Heavy’ in Scotland

"Is that a plastic cup of Lager, Sir, or are You just pleased to see us?"

A research trip to ask how the Greeks and Romans have featured in Glasgow’s class struggles climaxed with a booking and fine from the Glasgow police. My esteemed colleague Henry Stead was apprehended in possession of an open container of alcohol, locally illegal since 1973. He had simply left the Citizens’ Theatre at the interval, to look for a cash machine, without putting down the small plastic cup containing his half of lager. I will always feel guilty because he was looking for cash with which to buy me a small plastic cup of wine.

Foulis' Demetrius-forst Greek book printed in Glasgow
But before the run-in with the Lanarkshire Law, we uncovered the inspirational role that classical culture has for centuries played in Glasgow, even when—or especially when—it has not been solely in the form of an elite curriculum. 

William Wilkie, the ‘Scottish Homer’ fluent in ancient Greek, composed a nine-book epic about Thebes while personally ploughing his few fields in order to plant potatoes. James Moor, Glasgow Professor of Greek in the mid-18th century, never got over his upbringing and preferred to live in humble quarters with a lower-class ‘wife’.  Robert Foulis, who set up a world-famous publishing house and transformed the quality of Greek printed texts, was the son of a maltman. Robert’s first career was as a barber. He only discovered his passion for classics in adulthood. There have been many such lower-class Glasgow scholars. 

Today, April 5, is the anniversary of the ‘Battle of Bonnymuir’, when in 1820 the West Scottish weavers’ insurrection against pay cuts was brutally put down by the military.  The weavers were well-known for their habit of self-education: take Robert Tannahill, the ‘Weaver Poet’ of Paisley,who
begged the Muse for a National Bard, and received one in the form of Robert Burns. The carpenters were equally well read and self-educated. They included the Paisley-born craftsman John Henning, world-famous for his various reconstructions of the Parthenon frieze.

We expect soon to establish the classical reading of some of the radical weavers’ ringleaders, who were hanged or deported soon after their 1820 revolt.  You will be able to read all about it on the beautiful Classics and Class website (designed by the esteemed colleague now known to the Glasgow police) which is exactly two years old this week.  Onwards and Upwards!